Your guide to a holiday-season weekend in Zurich, an easy train ride from Lake Geneva
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Zurich, Switzerland (GenevaLunch) – The charm of Zurich is at its brightest in the lead-up to Christmas. Daytime offers plenty of activities for children and adults alike, but the real fun starts in the evening. The entire city appears to spill out of offices and shops to socialize in the snowy streets, tucking into cozy cafes and restaurants when the weather turns too brisk. It’s an easy two hours and 50 minute by train from Geneva, 30 minutes less from Lausanne, making it the perfect mini-vacation for people in the Lake Geneva area who want to leave home without the cost and fatigue of going abroad.
The week before Christmas sees Zurich shoppers filling the stores and boutiques, as they do in any big city. Shops are open Sunday 19 December throughout the city and they are open later than usual in the evenings up to Christmas. The Bahnhof, or main train station, has what is arguably the best Christmas market in Switzerland, with a great selection of gifts, but there are also scores of small Christmas stands sprinkled around the city and small markets that are good fun.
Be sure to go back to the Bahnhof in the evening, when the locals invade it, sipping hot gluwein, the spicy scent of which fills the air. The giant Swarovski Christmas tree is an astonishing site, with over 5,000 crystal decorations. Given that these start at CHF130 in the Swarovski shop on the Bahnhofstrasse, the cost of the tree as well as its beauty are enough to make you pause. The tree itself is a 35-year-old Zurich pine from the forest above the city.
Your best starting point is at the main train station’s tourism office, where you can get excellent maps, brochures and the Zurich City Card (see below). The Bahnhof station can be confusing at the best of times, and renovations don’t make it easier to get your bearings. Do what the locals do and look up: the huge, colourful Guardian Angel (Schutzengel) by artist Niki de St Phalle serves as a good meeting point and reference.
The popular Nana figure weighs 1.2 tons and is 11 metres high. It was offered to the station in 1997 by Securitas to celebrate the 150th birthday of Swiss railways. The tourism office’s “i” is a few metres away.
Three very special treats during the holidays: extraordinary Picasso retrospective, ice skating, the Singing Tree
Picasso is a must
The Kuntshaus, Zurich’s main art museum, is celebrating its centenary with a very special exhibition that alone is worth the trip to Zurich. Picasso has returned to the city for a retrospective: the museum is showing 70 of the 225 works that Pablo Picasso himself selected for a 1932 retrospective of his work when the Spanish painter was 58 years old. The show created a huge stir in the art world at the time because it was the first museum show of a major living artist’s work. It is the only Picasso show where the artist himself chose what he felt best represented his oeuvre, with scant attention paid to his early blue and pink periods, more to Cubism and Surrealism.
Plan to spend an hour, and do take a guided tour or the recorded tour, and you’ll come away feeling that you’ve stepped right into the heart of 20th century art. It’s an easy show for children and older people, on one floor, with the paintings very accessible despite the CHF2 billion insurance policy for the exhibit (tell your children to stand back!).
The exhibition pulled in 100,000 visitors in the first seven weeks after opening 15 October. If you are not buying a Zurich City Ticket (see below) that covers all museums in the city, consider the special CFF rail company offer. From the main station, take the number 11 tram to the Kunsthaus, 10 minutes.
Note: closed Mondays and Christmas day. The museum will stay open later in January. The Picasso shows runs until 30 January.
Ice-skating in a magical setting
Next to the train station is the Swiss National Museum, with 6,000 years of Swiss history. Whether or not you are ready to take in some history, the museum courtyard’s free ice rink, open until 2 January, and coffee shop, with bright Christmas lights, is a nice way to add a bit of exercise and a break from shopping and dining out.
Zurich’s live Christmas outdoor concerts, for free
The Singing Tree is up only until 23 December, but this colourful decorated stands for singers offers two outdoor concerts every evening, usually at 17:00 and 19:00, with hot chestnuts, gluwein, of course, and other snacks: at Werdmuehleplatz, just off the Bahnhofstrasse.
What to do in Zurich
Zurich is a delightful city for walking, starting with the Bahnhofstrasse. Count 20 minutes from the main station to the lakefront if you don’t stop to look at shops. The city replaced its Christmas lights for 2010 and the Bahnhofstrasse twinkles with fairy lights at night. A worthwhile detour is the Jules Vernes panoramic bar on Uraniastrasse, which gives you a wonderful rooftop view of the city, the lake, and the hills and forests around Zurich. Open until 23:00, later on weekends, closed on Sundays.
Niederdorf is sometimes called the Greenwich Village of Zurich for its nightlight, offbeat culture and tiny shops down narrow lanes. It runs from roughly the Limmat River across from the main train station to Place Bellevue, where the lake begins. Walk to the Rathaus or Muenster bridges and cross the Limmat river to the narrow streets that climb up to Muensterstrasse. The city’s many famous church steeples are concentrated in the area around Niederdorf, Oberdorf (towards the lake) and the Bahnhofstrasse. Religion and churches have played a rich role in the city’s history. One favourite, especially on a day with good sunlight, is the elegant Fraumuenster, where the gorgeously coloured stained glass windows by Marc Chagall offer a great break from walking.
The newer face of the city is Zurich-West, easy to spot thanks to the tall Prime Tower, the city’s highest building. It is a continual construction site as the old industrial zone gives way to jazz clubs, trendy restaurants, hot nightlife and more, in what is now one of the liveliest parts of the city. Look for Hardbrueckeplatz, Turbinenplatz and Puls 5. About 30 minutes on foot from the main station, 10-15 by train or tram.
For those who don’t like exploring on their own, or if your time is limited, Zurich Tourism offers a good mix of guided walks.
Walk along the lake shore, with the snowy weather turning the hillsides white and the lake silver, for a special view of the city’s environs.
You can easily fit two and possibly three shopping areas or types of shopping into a two-day visit. To sum up the areas: department stores, and they are good, are close together about one-third of the way along the Bahnhofstrasse from the main station, on your right. An excellent English book store is Orelli Fuessli’s The Bookstore, on your left from the main station, which claims to be the largest English bookstore on the continent. Turn off the Bahnhofstrasse there, heading left, and explore the beautiful boutiques on small streets, with goods for all budgets.
Niederdorf, across the Limmat river, is a favourite for charm and offbeat shopping, but if you turn right off the Bahnhofstrasse at Sihlstrasse and cross over the Sihlbrucke you’ll find yourself in contemporary Zurich, with scores of interesting shops. About a 15- to 20-minute walk from Sihlstrasse at Bahnhofstrasse.
Keeping children happy
Travelling with the family means balancing the shopping with things little people will enjoy, and Zurich has no shortage of good outings. Warm pretzels, the bready variety, bought from stands on the street, are usually popular (a favourite: cheese flavoured). You’ll be spoiled for chocolate stops but two of the best are the Merkur shop on the Bahnhofstrasse (left side, from the station), which has freshly made sheets of various chocolates. It’s worth a stop just to smell the chocolate. You can pick up a great gift here: for under CHF20 and an hour wait you can have freshly made chocolate inscribed with a birthday or Christmas greeting, or whatever you choose.
Spruengli’s main tearoom at the Paradeplatz makes this corner famous for being Zurich’s banking centre and home to some of the best chocolate in the world, but set aside time to sit down and consume a few calories.
A trip that requires a bit more time, but is great fun, is the zoo. Wear warm clothes. The zoo is on a hillside above the city, 20 minutes from the main station on the number 5 or 13 tram. The big cats are a treat to see and they are more willing than some animal to brave the cold. The zoo has a good web site in English that helps you plan a trip, with feeding times, daily programmes, keepers’ talks and more. No dogs or skateboards/inline skates allowed.
If you’re going with children the CHF60 day pass for two adults with their own children, ages 6-16, is a good deal. Show the Zurich City Card for a 10% ticket discount.
Down the lake, a special hidden treat – Weingut Schipf
Zurich’s lakeside was once a large wine production area, but for a number of reasons it has shrunk to a handful of wineries today. Its reputation for producing some excellent wines, notably Pinot Noir, remains intact. One of the best is the winery Schipf, an award-winning small domain for serious wine lovers whose several Pinot Noirs help you better understand this beautiful and difficult wine. A favourite white, good with Asian food, is their varietal Freisamer, a wine you don’t often find. Their wines are sold only at the winery and in a handful of nearby shops, although some top restaurants serve them. If you are looking for slick and modern, this is not the place for you: the 250-year-old dark cellar houses beautiful old wooden vats and a process that is modern but based firmly on tradition.
The winery is open the first Saturday of every month in the morning for tastings, or phone for a private tasting session, which will cost you about CHF25 per person. If you buy wines, you will probably not be charged. The winery has been in the von Meyenburg family for 12 generations and today’s owner, Kaspar, speaks fluent English, in part because he was a professor of food microbiology and worked for a multinational in Basel before taking over the family winery some years ago: +41 44 915 34 61 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Note that the Zurich City Card will cover your S6 or S16 train to the Winkel station, 15 minutes, and the winery is another 300-metre walk further down the lakefront.
Zurich practical guide
How to get there: Roadworks make driving around Bern and Zurich a nightmare, so the train is an even better option than usual.
The CFF Intercity trains run every 30 minutes, take 2 hours 50 minutes with no changes. Note that accompanied children under age 6 travel for free and that some of the trains have family cars with play space and changing rooms: check the icons on the CFF reservations page.
Roundtrip full fare costs CHF164, but with a trip this distance it’s worth considering an annual half-fare rail price for CHF150, then paying CHF82 for you Zurich roundtrip fare. The CFF has some very good deals, in limited quantities and for set dates, called Supersaver tickets, for half-price card holders: Geneva-Zurich starting from CHF32.50. Also check to see if your commune sells day-tickets that allow you to travel anywhere in Switzerland for CHF30-40.
Visitors from outside Switzerland should check the CFF pages for fare options. Note that a Swiss half-price card for foreign visitors is valid for a month and costs CHF99, but travel on all trains and city trasnport is then 50% of the full price.
Tip: No reservations are needed. You can buy your ticket in the machines at the station or, easier, buy it online and print it out at home. Allow enough time on your return trip to get to onto the train for Geneva, which usually leaves from track 17, on your right as you face the rails from inside the station.
How to get around: Keep in mind that Zurich has the densest public transport network in the world. The Zurich city card is an excellent option if you’re spending a couple days in the city. You can buy one for 24 or 72 hours. It covers all public transport in the city and area just outside: trams, buses, trains, boats and cablecars as well as admission to all Zurich museums, and it includes several reductions in shops and restaurants.
You can pick up a card at the airport, all train stations and city hotels. Cost: CHF20/40 for 24/72 hours for adults and CHF14/28 for children 6-16.
If you don’t want to do this, be sure to include city transport when you buy your CFF rail ticket. Zurich transport is excellent and the option of getting on the next tram when your feet are worn out, without having to worry about buying a ticket, is worth the very small cost.
Where to stay: the options, in terms of price and location are too numerous to list. Zurich is justly famous for its five-star hotels, but for those with smaller budgets three-star hotels are good value, roomy and comfortable with good service. Expect to pay CHF240 and up for a room for two, breakfast included. GenevaLunch can recommend two city centre hotels where we have recently stayed. Service is good, the hotels are just off the Bahnhofstrasse in the heart of the city, so you benefit from a central location without having main street noise. The Best Western Hotel Glockenhof at Sihlstrasse 31 is currently undergoing renovations, but they aren’t a problem for visitors. Nearby is the Seidenhof Hotel at 9 Sihlstrasse. Both are popular business hotels, which means that during the holidays it may be easier to get a room. Several sites, including ebookers, offer good rates.
Tip: Taxis from the train station to city centre hotels can be a problem, just as they are in Geneva, with drivers refusing short journeys. The two hotels above are three tram stops or a 15-minute walk from the station. Trams run often. Look for any tram going down the Bahnhofstrasse.
Where to eat: GenevaLunch suggests three fun options, in a city that has great dining. These give you a chance to eat the best bratwurst in town, vegetarian food that wins over even the most resistant non-vegetarians, and a traditional Zurich meal in a convivial setting for a good price and prompt service.
For bratwurst, the Vorderer Sternen at Place Bellevue, next to the lake, has a decades-old reputation as the best around.
Zurich boasts the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Europe, more than 100 years old, and some of the most delicious food in town (this from a non-vegetarian): Hiltl, two minutes from the Bahnhofstrasse. You’ll need reservations most evenings, despite the large size of the place. Prices are very reasonable (CHF22-30 for the daily menu) and you can choose from the upstairs white tablecloth area, with slightly higher prices, or the downstairs buffet. Be sure to watch the kitchens, in the basement, through the floor window near the reception.
And if you’re afraid of being disappointed by classic tourist stops you’re in for a good surprise at one of the most famous old restaurants in the city, the Zeughauskeller at Paradeplatz. It’s a charming large old hall with bustling waiters and menus in nine languages, where traditional food is served. The menu is available online, so you can reflect in advance. Delicious, excellent beer, good and prompt service, great fun. Closed Sunday.