Embedded between pre-Alpine hills in Eastern Switzerland, the city of St Gallen has the rare distinction of being on the border of four countries. The marquee attraction in the city is the Abbey of St Gallen, a World Heritage Site revealing more than 1,300 years of history.
The abbey’s astounding library has volumes of medieval manuscripts, and like its neighbouring cathedral features dazzling 18th-century interior decoration. The Old Town is a big pedestrian zone and is packed with more than 100 Renaissance and Baroque bay windows, many showing expert craftsmanship. Around St Gallen you can also investigate the city’s historic textile industry, climb the hills bordering the city and pay a visit to Lake Constance.
Let’s explore the best things to do in St. Gallen:
1. Abbey Cathedral of St Gall
The story of St Gallen’s UNESCO-listed abbey began in the Carolingian period in the 8th century.
For a lot of its history it was either a separate principality or a city state, with a population of 70,000. The present cathedral building is from after the monastery’s heyday and dates to the middle of the 18th century.
It is in the Baroque style, which while understated on the facade is almost overwhelming for its splendour inside.
There’s ornate stuccowork everywhere you look; the ceilings are covered with frescoes, there are sculptures on almost every surface and the colour scheme of turquoise and beige resembles few churches in the world.
2. Abbey Library of St Gall
Constructed around the same time as the abbey cathedral, the library building houses the oldest literature collection in Switzerland, and one of the oldest and richest in the world.
It all dates from the 8th-century Carolingian monastery and includes thousands of manuscripts, incunables and early prints.
There are 160,000 volumes in all, many hugely significant.
Take for instance, a version of the Rule of St Benedict, which set out the rules for medieval monks, or Manuscript B of the epic poem, the Nibelungenlied.
And in addition to all that historical weight, the library building is absolutely magnificent.
It is considered one of the high points of the Rococo style in Switzerland and was decorated by Peter Thumb of the Vorarlberg School.
3. Lapidarium of the Abbey Library
Lots of early medieval stonework came to light when the abbey was excavated in the 1960s.
Now, in the bowels of the abbey you can delve into the site’s Early Medieval origins.
In these vaults you’ll see a forgotten repository of Carolingian art, in the form of carved capitals and the imposts that would have been above them.
The exhibition down here also has a model of the abbey as it would have been in the 9th century.
There’s information on the life of the abbey’s patron, the 7th-century Irish monk St Gallus, as well as details about the culture and history of the monastery.
4. Old Town
St Gallen has a convivial historic core that is easy to navigate as there’s no road traffic.
Something that distinguishes the old town are the ornate oriels (bay windows) on the facades of old houses.
There are 111 oriels in all to look out for on these streets, many of which are expertly carved and painted and belonged to textile merchants in the 16th and 17th centuries.
The best places to find them are on the bustling Marktgasse, Schmiedgasse, Spisergasse and Kugelgasse.
On the eastern end of Marktplatz you’ll happen upon the Waaghaus, a 16th-century hall for weighing, declaring and storing goods.
This is easily spotted for its crow-stepped gable is now a place for exhibitions and concerts.
5. Peter and Paul Wildlife Park
On the hilly northern outskirts of the city is a free animal attraction that stays open all year round and has views to Lake Constance.
The park is somewhere to see Alpine animals species as if they were in the wild.
So red deer, fallow deer, wild boars, marmots, wild cats, lynxes and Alpine ibexes graze, roam and rest in this upland pre-Alpine setting.
A refreshing thing about the park is its reflective, educational tone, so there’s lots of detail about the species and their biology and behaviour.
The park also has a restaurant with a terrace so you can dine in front of those sumptuous views.
6. Kunstmuseum St Gallen
The city’s art museum has masterpieces from the Late Middle Ages to the 20th century.
The museum’s reserve is massive, and the galleries are only able to hang a fragment of it at any one time as the venue in the Stadtpark has limited space.
The good thing about that is that exhibitions are always fresh.
In the collection are paintings by Renaissance masters like Albrecht Dürer and Rembrandt, but the lion’s share is from the 19th and 20th centuries.
There are works by celebrated Swiss and German artists like Ferdinand Hodler, Paul Klee, Max Liebermann, Carl Spitzweg and Franz von Lenbach.
And these are joined by the masters of Impressionism, such as Monet, Sisley and Pissarro, and earlier French painters like Delacroix and Camille Corot.
All the way up to the 20th century Eastern Switzerland was a centre of excellence for embroidery.
This would be stitched by hand until the Industrial revolution brought machine embroidery and St Gallen’s textile industry went into overdrive.
The textile museum examples of local historic embroidery and lacework from the Netherlands, along with ancient textiles from Egyptian tombs.
There’s also a textile library of more than two million originals from the industrial age, as well as a functioning machine dating to 1850. Newer exhibitions discuss the present and future of the clothing industry, and the environmental and social costs of “fast fashion”.
8. Naturmuseum St Gallen
St Gallen’s Natural History Museum has been around since 1846 but opened in a striking new building in November 2016. This is a couple of kilometres east of the centre of the city and has arranged the historic trove of specimens in more family-friendly ways.
Maybe the most famous taxidermy is a Nile crocodile captured in 1623 and you can view the almost-complete skeleton of an edmontosaurus.
Also worthy of mention is the relief map of the St Gallen and Appenzell cantons, the largest map of its kind in Switzerland.
Elsewhere you can learn about the achievements of the influential conservationist Emil Bächler and see a presentation of minerals found in Eastern Switzerland.
In the west of the city is the Bleicheli, a commercial district where a lot of St Gallen’s historic textile manufacturing took place.
The name comes from the German word “bleichen” bleach, as fabrics would be left out in the sun here to bleach.
In 2000 one of the squares in this modern district was chosen for an art installation: The ground was laid with tiny red rubber granules, creating the appearance of a carpet.
The square was furnished with sun loungers, tables and chairs, so now the space resembles a living room in the middle of the city.
The Stadtlounge is the hangout of choice for uni students, and merits a look in the evening when the orbs above the square are illuminated.
10. St Laurenzen Kirche
A Swiss “monument of national importance”, the St Laurenzen Kirche is on Marktgasse in the Old Town.
There has been a church at this location since the 13th century, and the present building is the fifth in 800 years.
It has 15th-century origins and was given a major Neo-Gothic overhaul in the middle of the 19th century.
Unusually, this positioned the church’s organ at the front of the nave instead of the rear.
As most of the architecture is from the 19th century the main reason to come is to scale the tower.
Outside the winter months there are two tours a day taking you to the top, where you look down on the lovely patterned tiles on the church’s roof and the streets of the Old Town.
11. Botanical Garden
You don’t have to be an expert horticulturalist to appreciate St Gallen’s Botanical Garden.
In peaceful, green surroundings close to the Naturmuseum are more than 8,000 plants from across the globe, all methodically labelled.
There are two greenhouses, providing habitats for plants from a host of climate zones, teeming with orchids, palms, cactuses and ponds with giant water lilies.
Outside, the ponds are is very pretty when the lilies bloom in summer, while one of the strangest specimens is a Chilean rhubarb with huge leaves.
On Sankt Jakob-Strasse you’ll come across the Schützengarten brewery.
Schützengarten has been brewing beer since 1779, making it the oldest brewery in Switzerland.
The award-winning brand is widespread across Eastern Switzerland and remains independent, producing a host of beer varieties from an IPA to typical German wheat beer and a schwarzbier.
Schützengarten opens for daily tours in German, guiding you around the facility which was given a modern overhaul in 2012. A year later the beer bottle museum opened at the brewery, presenting more than 3,000 bottles from 140 different Swiss beer-makers, including antique clay vessels that date back 150 years.
13. Drei Weieren
The high ridge forming a boundary against St Gallen’s southern neighbourhoods is a beautiful public recreation area.
This is Freudenberg, where you can amble for captivating views of the city, but also swim if the weather’s right in summer.
There are five artificial ponds at the highest point, and these have historic origins.
The first two were dug in the 17th century to provide the city with a water supply, and more followed over the next 200 years.
People have been swimming in the ponds since the 1700s, and today two are available in summer, one with free access and another that requires admission.
Weather-permitting, you can go ice-skating on the Buebenweiher pond in winter.
14. Lake Constance
Central Europe’s third-largest lake is only 15 minutes by road from St Gallen.
Instead of dramatic and intimidating landscapes, the shores of this lake are quiet, low-key and trimmed with small resort towns and farmland.
The relatively gentle topography is a dream for cyclists, who can go where they please around the perimeter on the Lake Constance Cycle Path.
For something different in summer you could set a course for the Städtische Seebadanstalt in Rorschach.
This public bath is in on a pier projecting into the lake.
You can swim in the lake and head up to the decking to dry off in the sun.
15. Walter Zoo
About the same distance to the west is Switzerland’s largest privately run zoo.
Walter Zoo has around 500 animals from over 100 species.
The centrepiece is the chimpanzee habitat containing a colony of 17, and a new Serengeti enclosure that features lions.
The zoo is internationally certified and takes part in breeding programs.
It’s also much more than a static animal attraction: Children can take camel and pony rides and interact with farm species at the petting zoo, and there are also nocturnal experiences like staying overnight in a tipi tent.