Most people associate Zurich as a layover destination that you explore for a couple days before heading off to other Swiss towns like Lucerne or ski resorts in Zermatt. But the city has so much more to offer than just being the country’s banking and finance district.
And what better time of the year to visit than the month of December, when temperatures dip to just below 10 degrees Celsius (sans snow) with Christmas markets scattered across the city that light up the night sky with pretty light installations and festive decor?
Herewith, eight things you absolutely must see and do when you’re in Zurich.
Museums: Landesmuseum and the Kunsthaus
If you want to acquaint yourself with Switzerland’s rich history, head to the Landesmuseum or Swiss National Museum and explore permanent exhibitions that detail the country’s colourful story. At the end of the year, the inner courtyard of the museum is transformed into a winter wonderland of light, illusion, music, and culinary delights.
Highlights include an illuminated cocktail bar, casual food stands and a 30-minute light show projected onto the façades of the buildings in the museum.
Art buffs will love the Kunsthaus, home to the largest collection of Swiss fine art, alongside internationally renowned artists that extends back to the Middle Ages. This is where you’ll be surrounded by the inspiring work of Picasso, Monet and Lipchitz, as well as a myriad of Swiss artists such as Rist, Hodler and Giacometti.
Zurich’s Botanical Garden — situated right on the campus of Zurich’s University in the middle of town— is a little garden oasis filled with 7,000 plant and flower species for all to enjoy. The best part? It’s free. After a recent facelift, there are now three giant glass domes that serve as greenhouses for a large variety of tropical flora and fauna, some with man-made streams or aquariums filled with fish. The perfect place to seek reprieve from the cold.
This cool performance art club founded the Dadaism cultural movement a century ago. Located in a medieval building in Zurich’s old town, Cabaret Voltaire plays to packed crowds with its weird and wonderful skits, poetry readings, music and dance performances, art installations and more. This is one art experience you definitely shouldn’t miss.
There’s just something magical about strolling through a Christmas market, and in Zurich, there are about 10 for you to choose from, each beautifully decorated to emanate a wonderful festive feel. Load up on gifts and confectionaries, warm your bellies with mouth-watering raclette or fondue, and sip on mulled wine. The largest one is at Sechseläutenplatz in front of the Opera House with 100 market stalls and an ice rink, while the oldest and most romantic market is located in the picturesque old town of Altstadt set against intricate historic architecture.
For adventurous travellers who prefer trekking, Zurich’s backyard mountain, Uetliberg offers an impressive panoramic view of the city, lake and Alps. This time of year is especially popular as the summit will sit on a blanket of fog that envelopes the city. If you’re lucky enough to experience winter (as Zurich doesn’t usually get much snow), the hiking trails are converted into sledding runs, which will speed up your descent back to town! Or you can catch a cable car down from the Felsenegg lookout.
Not many people know this, but Zurich’s Zoo is considered one of the best zoos in Europe, and it is home to 380 species of animals with spacious enclosures that replicate their natural habitats. Must-see attractions include the Masoala Rainforest, Australian Enclosure, Mongolian Steppe, Pantanal of South America, and Kaeng Krachan Elephant Park. One of the highlights at the zoo is the Penguin Parade — as soon as temperatures drop to below 10 degrees Celsius, giant penguins get to go on a lunch walk every day at 1.30pm, and everyone is free to join in.
Thermalbad & Spa Zurich
Take a dip at the thermal pool and soak in majestic views of the city while you enjoy a warm 35 degrees Celsius soak. This wellness oasis, built in a former brewery and powered by one of the city’s hot mineral springs, is the perfect spot for those seeking respite from the cold.
Here you have the choice of soaking outdoors, relaxing in huge wooden water-filled tubs in the basement, or indulging in an Irish-Roman spa ritual with its steam baths and shallow pools.
If you’re on a hunt for great Christmas gifts or just need some serious retail therapy, make your way to the shopping holy grail at Bahnhofstrasse – Zurich’s own version of New York’s 5th Avenue – which runs from the main station, Hauptbahnhof towards Lake Zurich. Closer to Paradeplatz banking centre is where heritage department stores like Grieder and Trois Pommes sit alongside luxury brands like Dior and Chanel, while a broad range of high street labels can be found on the lower part of the street.
Where to Stay
Live in the lap of luxury at The Dolder Grand, which sits on elevated ground to give you a stunning view of the city, lake and Alps. Each of its top suites boasts breathtaking views and lavish interiors fit for royalty. The five-star hotel is also home to a chic curation of modern art pieces. More importantly, there is a fleet of hybrid limousines that will shuttle you between the hotel and town, which is only 10 minutes away. There’s more. The hotel also houses a two Michelin-starred restaurant that will blow any epicurean’s mind away.
If you’re looking at more contemporary and accessible digs, then book a stay at Widder Hotel, located in Zurich’s tranquil old town. Situated in a beautifully-renovated building dating back to the 12th century, the 49-room hotel marries its rich medieval heritage with New World design, and five-star amenities. A stay here calls for a casual stroll through the narrow, cobbled streets of Altstadt all the way up to Lindenhof, where you can catch a glimpse of the city from the park’s vantage point.
What to eat
Zurich is a culinary hotspot for foodies, gourmets and epicures. If you only have time for one grand meal, head to two Michelin-starred Ecco Zurich. This restaurant offers its guests a choice of avant garde Thai-inspired menus comprising three to eight courses with a focus on the interplay between temperatures and textures.
For a traditional plate of Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (sliced veal in white gravy served with rösti), make your way to the legendary Kronenhalle, once a meeting place for world-renowned artists. A meal there is best enjoyed admiring the works of Chagall, Picasso, and Miró hanging on the walls.
If you love interior designs and architecture, you have to visit Brasserie Lipp, an Art-Deco bistro that serves quintessential French favourites, plus exciting cocktails and a wide range of wines. Along with its beautiful Belle Époque dining room, the restaurant has a rooftop bar, Jules Verne, where you can enjoy an incredible view of the city.
The trendiest part of Zurich is Zurich West, a former industrial area where the young and hip crowd now work, live and play. This is also home to a myriad of up-and-coming eateries like LaSalle, Markthalle indoor market and restaurant, and beer garden, Frau Gerolds Garten.