As the largest city in Switzerland, Zurich is a hub for both fast-paced global finance and laid-back relaxation by the water. Switzerland has a reputation for being extremely expensive–which it is!–but I managed to spend a few days in the city with Nick, my best friend from college, without breaking the bank. Here’s how you can do the same:
Stay in an Airbnb.
Lodging in Zurich is super expensive. One bed in a hostel runs a price tag of roughly 50 euros per night, but if you’re traveling with someone else you can book a private room on Airbnb for the same price and split the cost between you. Ours also had a rooftop deck where we ate dinner and watched the sunset on the last night–you can’t get that in most hostels.
We quickly learned that lots of people living in Zurich take vacations so that they can rent out their rooms on Airbnb–it’s literally cheaper for Swiss people to go away for a weekend than to stay in town. We never met our host, but we met her two roommates, both of whom also habitually rent out their rooms when they leave town.
Take a free walking tour.
Almost all medium/large cities in Europe have a free walking tour, and it’s one of my favorite activities to do when I first arrive in a new place. It’s a great opportunity to orient yourself to the city, learn some history and quirks of the city, and get some tips from a local about how to blend into the culture. Our guide Jonathan from FreeWalk Zurich was funny, personable, and even gave us all Swiss chocolate as a mid-tour pick-me-up. On day 2 we also tried out the Zurich West tour, which has fewer stories to tell because of the area’s industrial nature but got us into a different part of town for a change. Free walking tours are powered by tips, so they technically aren’t “free,” but you can decide what price matches both the tour quality and your budget.
Explore Lindenhof and Niederdorf.
Both of these areas are ones we wandered through on our walking tour, but each has its own charm that you could experience individually if a tour isn’t your thing. Lindenhof is a park-like area that overlooks Limmat River and has gorgeous views. It’s a great place to relax whether at mid-day or evening. Niederdorf, which is across the river from Lindenhof, is a shopping area with cute boutiques and galleries as well as bigger-name brands. If you’re on a budget, you can window shop while feeling like a local.
Stop into a church or two.
“Pay or pray” is the name of the game here, since some churches charge admission fees for tourists–like Fraumünster church, which has Chagall windows that attract a lot of visitors. Nick and I instead opted to go into Grossmünster church, which isn’t wholly impressive but offers the (paid) opportunity to climb up the tower for views of Zurich.
Hit up the supermarket.
Coop and Migros are the two main grocery chains you’ll see here, and given that a decent restaurant entree costs about 30 euros, cooking your own meals is the best way to save some money (look for an Airbnb that has a kitchen!). At lunch Nick and I bought baguettes and split packs of ham and cheese to make sandwiches on the go, and our pasta dinners were large and cheap to make. You can still experience delicious Swiss cheese and chocolate without outrageous restaurant tabs.
See an exhibition.
On day 1, Nick and I visited the Swiss Heritage Museum at the Villa Patumbah to see an exhibit about refugees living in Switzerland. It was fascinating to see how people from a variety of countries, backgrounds, and situations experience their new homes. Many of their struggles–from obtaining a visa and finding work, to integrating into a community, to being away from their families–are similar, but each of them has a unique story to tell. It was really powerful to see, and there was also an interactive component where visitors could express their feelings about elements of the worldwide refugee crisis (and, as it turns out, people would rather give up picnicking and cafes than their corner kebab shop).
On day 2, we went to the Chinese garden, which was a gift from their sister city Kunming. The entry price would’ve already been cheap, but because the main pagoda is under construction all fees were reduced to just 1 Swiss Franc (90 cents in euros!) to apologize for the unattractive scaffolding. That was a nice surprise, especially because you can still walk through the pagoda. It was a beautiful place to walk through and snap some pictures.
People in Zurich are the first to admit that they’re notoriously wimpy about the heat. The good news is that they’re surrounded by water! With easy access to both Limmat River and Lake Zurich, it’s easy to take a dip. You can opt to pay for a locker and towel at a bathhouse of sorts, or take advantage of the high civil trust in Switzerland and stash your stuff nearby while you get in the water. Obere Letten was our favorite place to swim–the river current is so strong that you walk to one end of the dock, get in, and simply float along to the farthest ladder to do it all over again. It’s relaxing and off the beaten path, so you’ll be amongst locals drinking beer and enjoying warm weather on the sidelines as you cool down from your busy days in Zurich.
Looking for more city guides? Try Travel With Me: Aarhus, Denmark and What to Do in Luxembourg (When You Only Have One Day).