Switzerland’s largest city is on the shore of its glistening eponymous lake. Zürich is a financial powerhouse with a liveability ranking that outstrips almost anywhere in the world. You can catch trains from the Hauptbahnhof and be on a peak breathing in sparkling air in a matter of minutes, and the city’s rivers and that magnificent lake have supreme water quality for swimming. These outdoor pools, or “badis” have become nightspots in the centre of the city.
Zürich’s sights, eye-wateringly pricey shops and effortlessly cool nightspots are in the Altstadt, a historic centre cut in two by the Limmat river which flows off the lake.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Zürich:
1. Lake Zürich
This long, crescent shaped lake curves past the wooded peaks of Pfannenstiel to the east and the Albis chain to the west.
There are many ways to make the most of the lake, some we’ll go into more detail about later.
But for convenience if you’re just ambling around the city, take the scenic promenade along the east shore in the Seefeld quarter.
There you can look over to Uetliberg and see the hundreds of yachts and other craft breezing across the lake in summer.
The promenade starts at Bellevue and extends for three kilometres down to Tiefenbrunnen.
It’s one of a network of walkways plotted around the lakeshore in the 1880s.
2. Museum of Art
Near the Schauspielhaus on Heimplatz is Zürich’s phenomenal Museum of Art.
There are pieces from the 1200s to the 2000s in a collection that stands out for boasting the largest single cache of works by Swiss artist 20th-century artist Alberto Giacometti in the world.
You can indulge your curiosity in Swiss art, viewing works by symbolists like Ferdinand Hodler, Romantics such as Henry Fuseli or contemporary pieces by the likes of Pipilotti Rist and Peter Fischli.
There’s a great deal of international art as well, like the largest Edvard Munch collection outside Scandinavia, and assorted works by van Gogh, Monet, Marc Chagall, Picasso and Max Beckmann, going back to masters like Rembrandt and Domenichino.
3. Altstadt (Old Town)
Making up the entirety of Kreis 1 (District 1), Zürich’s historic centre is on both banks of the Limmat.
The medieval and early modern streets of the Altstadt are where much of the city’s culture, nightlife and shopping is concentrated.
It’s one of those places you’re happy to get lost in, to chance upon squares, cafes, quirky one-of-a-kind shops and all manner of historic monuments from the four medieval churches to 17th-century Town Hall.
The Limmat waterfront needs to be seen, and on the right bank along the Limmatquai are beautiful medieval guild houses for associations representing carpentry, merchants, spice traders and more.
On the west side of the Altstadt you can sense the colossal scale of the defensive works that took place during the 17th century, when ramparts and the Schanzengraben moat were built.
Over the left bank of the Limmat in the centre of the city is a hill once crested by a Roman fortress.
This elevated spot, shaded by lime trees affords an unbroken view of Zürich’s oldest quarters on the right bank, allowing you to pick out landmarks on the skyline like City Hall, the Grossmünster Church, the university and the waterfront on the Limmat.
The Lindenhof is a serene place now, but has had a busy history: Long after the days of the Roman fort, Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German built his palace here in the 9th century.
And much later, in 1798 the Zürich’s citizens swore the oath to Helvetic Constitution at this very place.
The Old Town is the honeypot for tourists, but if you’d like to tap into Zürich’s creative and stylish side this former industrial zone is the go-to.
District 5 to the northwest of the Hauptbahhof was a hub for heavy manufacturing until the end of the 20th century.
Little more than a decade ago this was an unpleasant place to be, but its rebirth has been fast.
The showpiece in Zürich-West is the Viadukt, literally a repurposed railway viaduct where the brick arches have been filled with stylish bars, restaurants and shops.
Elsewhere, factories have been pulled down and parks and leisure amenities like cinemas have taken their place.
Climbing over Bahnhof Hardbrücke is another symbol of Zürich-West’s renaissance, the Prime Tower, Switzerland’s second tallest skyscraper.
6. Swiss National Museum
Switzerland’s biggest collection of historical artefacts awaits at this museum that explores Swiss culture and guides you on a trip through the country’s past.
You’ll begin with prehistoric weapons tools and pottery and move through the ages to the 20th century.
Certain eras are particularly well represented, like the medieval period and its masterful Gothic art.
Extending into the Renaissance is the extensive collection of wooden images, carved altars and triptychs from chapels and churches around the country.
You can also witness Swiss art movements in the gallery and browse the contents of Zürich’s former armoury.
All of this is housed in a sumptuous Renaissance Revival palace dating to 1898.
The two towers of this Romanesque church could well be Zürich’s most prominent landmark.
The Grossmünster, originally a monastic church, was begun at the start of the 12th century and was finished just over a century later.
Anyone keen on medieval architecture will be taken with the main portal and its sculpted capitals bearing grotesques.
The crypt, the oldest part of the church, is also original and has faded frescoes by Hans Leu the Elder from the 1400s.
In the 16th century Grossmünster was ground zero for the Reformation in Switzerland, initiated by Huldrych Zwingli, and the church broke from the papacy in 1523. There’s a museum about these events at the church.
The stained glass windows are modern, and in the choir these composed by Alberto Giacometti, while there’s also a set by German modern artist Sigmar Polke.
8. Zürich Zoo
If you’re the kind of person who demands that animal attractions should be ethical, Zürich Zoo meets the highest standards.
Close attention has been paid to the design of the habitats, synthesising whole ecosystems and allowing animals as much space to roam as possible.
This is most impressive at the Kaeng Krachan Elephant Park, where part of the habitat for Indian elephants is in modern biome; there are even underwater viewing areas so you can watch them take a dip.
In all the zoo has 4,000 animals representing 340 species, from emperor penguins that you can follow as they walk through the park, to domestic animals at the petting zoo.
Since 1875 it has been possible to catch the train from the centre of the city to the summit of this mountain to the southwest.
Taking the S10 on the SZU from Hauptbahnhof you’ll be near the top in just 25 minutes.
From the station on Uetlibertg you’ll just have brief walk to the peak.
And up there the scenery is out of this world, as you gaze over Zürich, its rivers, the lake and the snow-capped Alps in the background.
There’s a restaurant and hotel at the crest, while most day-trippers come to hike in the woodland.
At the start of winter the peak is above the layer of fog that cloaks the city pierced by only the tallest buildings.
If you’re still fresh you could hike back down the slope to the city, but there’s also a cable-car between Felsenegg and Adliswil.
Under the towers of the Grossmünster is the young and exciting Niederdorf neighbourhood.
Zürich’s locals often call it Dörfli and you’ll know why when you sample the atmosphere in this tight lattice of car-free cobblestone alleys on the right bank of the Limmat.
During the day it’s somewhere to poke around design shops and trendy boutiques, and at night you can paint the town red.
Food-wise, you have to come for zürcher geschnetzeltes, which is veal in a wine and cream sauce.
There are also some spots that warrant special attention, like the Conditorei Péclard, a traditional cafe with century-old decor, and Cabaret Voltaire, one of the birthplaces of the Dada movement.
11. Limmat Cruise
For a voyage down the city’s main river you go to the quay in front of the Landesmuseum (Swiss National Museum). There are cruises from April to October, with boats departing every half an hour.
And in the months of July and August you can make the trip any time between 09:05 and 21:05. It’s a journey well worth doing as you’ll be granted a beautiful perspective of Zürich’s Old Town, which sprawls across both banks of the river.
The boats have been designed to pass under all seven of the city’s bridges on the Limmat and will show you sights like Grossmünster and Fraumünster in a different light.
12. Rietberg Museum
In a group of palatial villas and a modern annexe in the Rieterpark, the Rietberg Museum exhibits art and archaeology from around the world.
This might be liturgical objects from the South Seas, Ancient Egyptian statues, Buddhist art from East Asia, African sculptures, but also delicately fashioned masks close to home in Switzerland.
The archives are huge, and there’s lots of material for temporary shows on specific areas of the world or themes.
The museum cafe gives out picnic baskets in summer, if you’d like to take lunch in the Rieterpark.
Zürich’s prime shopping street is one of the priciest in the world per square metre.
And it’s fitting that most of the sleek shop-fronts should bear the logos of international luxury brands.
Think Prada, Chanel, Burberry, Gucci and Louis Vuitton.
Zürich wealth is never more ostentatious than on Bahnhofstrasse, and the street is all the richer in December when the Christmas decorations are out.
There’s no traffic, but the street is used by the tram network and these can catch you by surprise.
The plushest shops tend to be towards the south near Paradeplatz.
On this square you can pop into fabled Sprüngli confectionery shop and cafe, where Zürich’s upper crust has been coming for coffee and pastries since the 19th century.
14. Beyer Clock and Watch Museum
Under the Beyer jeweller and watch shop on Bahnhofstrasse is an engrossing museum revealing the history of timekeeping and the art of watch-making.
From the street you wouldn’t know the museum was here, but don’t worry about the lack of fanfare.
As you enter you’ll be handed an ipad, which has in-depth information about each timepiece, the oldest going back 3,400 years.
Packed into this space are navigation instruments, pendulum clocks, intricate automata from the 16th and 17th centuries , exquisitely crafted pocket watches and a preliminary version of the first ever quartz wristwatch from the 1960s.
This church was founded by Charlemagne’s grandson Louis the German in the 9th century, although most of the architecture is from between the 12th and 15th centuries.
Since 2016 it has been possible to view stonework from the 800s in the crypt after it had been sealed off for more than a hundred years.
As with the Grossmünster, Giacometti also contributed a stained glass window for this church, which you can track down in the north transept.
Then in 1970 Marc Chagall was commissioned to create five windows in the choir, and these are titled Prophets, Jacob, Christ, Zion and Law.
16. FIFA World Football Museum
FIFA’s long-mooted museum is in the Enge quarter and opened in 2016. It occupies three floors of a mixed-use development and has a swish layout.
Whatever your opinion on the sport’s governing body, the museum is obligatory for lovers of the beautiful game: The exhibition takes you back to football’s earliest days and documents every World Cup since the first in 1930. There are exciting artefacts from each one, like original World Cup trophy.
Given its state-of-the-art design there’s a lot of opportunity for interaction.
Multimedia takes centre stage, and there are more than 500 videos to watch, while kids can play a host of football-themed games.
17. St Peter
Like the other churches in the Altstadt , St Peter is extremely old, going back to the 8th century.
A lot of what you see now is from between the 12th and 18th centuries, but parts of the 9th century foundations have been made visible under the chancel.
One of the peculiar things about the church is that the tower is owned by the city, while the nave belongs to the Canton of Zürich church body.
Part of the reason for that is that the tower was used for most of its past as a watch post to spot fires early.
Near or far away you won’t help but notice the size of the tower’s clock, which with a diameter of 86.64 metres is the largest in Europe.
On the outside wall of the tower look for the 14th-century tomb of Rudolf Brun, Zürich’s first independent mayor.
18. Pavillon Le Corbusier
Towards the end of his life, Le Corbusier, a dominant figure in 20th-century architecture, designed a museum for his life’s work on the east shore of Lake Zürich at Seefeld.
The Pavillon is seen as a “Gesamtkunstwerk”, in that it’s a work of art in its totality, like the Dalí Theatre and Museum in Spain.
The Pavillon would be his last major project, completed in 1967 two years after he died.
The design of the museum was a break from his traditional style, with his hallmark concrete substituted for steel and brightly-coloured enamel panels.
Inside are paintings by Le Corbusier, sketches of trailblazing projects, drawings, sculptures, written exhibits and lots of examples of his game-changing furniture.
19. Zürich Opera House
The resplendent Neoclassical Opera House at Sechseläutenplatz dates to the 1890s and was conceived by the prolific Viennese architects Fellner & Helmer.
On the square you can pass a minute or two pinpointing the busts of famous cultural figures on the facade, where Mozart, Wagner, Schiller, Goethe, Shakespeare and Weber all have pride of place.
The Opera House continues to garner acclaim, and in 2014 picked up the prize for Best Opera Company at the International Opera Awards.
There are German-speaking tours of the interior and its majestic Rococo Revival hall.
But the only way to taste its magic is at one of the 250 performances each year, by international opera stars and conductors.
20. University of Zürich Botanical Garden
Zürich is a notoriously pricey city, so you might be glad to learn that these gardens in Seefeld are totally free.
They contain more than 8,000 plant species at indoor and outdoor displays.
The garden’s main identifier is the group of three dome-shaped greenhouses from the 1970s.
Each of these has different climatic conditions: The largest contains tropical species, while the smaller two house subtropical and savannah plants.
Outside is an arboretum, Mediterranean garden and historically themed gardens growing plants for dyeing and medicine.
The university’s faculty canteen is open to the public if you’d like to cap your trip with a meal or coffee.
21. Outdoor Swimming
In the city’s rivers and Lake Zürich the water quality is impeccable, and there’s a catalogue of places to take a dip in the open air.
One, the Frauenbad am Stadthausquai is for women only, while the male counterpart is the one at Schanzengraben.
The two are centrally located and are ideal if you want to squeeze some exercise into your day.
Both of these spots also open as stylish bars on summer evenings, in a nightlife ritual that you can’t find in other cities.
People holidaying with little ones should look to the Strandbad Tiefenbrunnen, which is like a lsmall resort on the south side of the city, or Strandbad Mythenquai on the opposite shore.
On the west side of the Old Town is the city’s old moat, started during the Thirty Years’ War in 1642 and not completed until 1678. Now there aren’t many signs of Zürich’s old defences, but you’ll be left in no doubt about the enormity of the project as you navigate this long, zigzagging waterway as it passes the former bastions that reshaped the city.
In the 1880s the Schanzengraben was redesigned for leisure as part of the system of promenades: Take a stairway down to the side of the moat, two metres below the rest of the city, for a peaceful walk down to the lake.
Where the Katz bastion used to be there’s a small branch of the Botanical Garden, with two hectares of flowerbeds and labelled trees.
23. Zoological Museum
Also a welcome free attraction operated by the university, the Zoological museum is just a brief walk from the city centre.
Combining exhibits from the university’s palaeontology museum, this attraction has skeletons and taxidermies for thousands of animal species, both alive and extinct.
Recently the museum has been made more family-friendly and immersive: You can hear the songs of 280 birds, and peer into microscopes to see insects’ most outlandish body parts.
Some specimens can also be touched, so you can learn what boar or deer fur feels like and there are quizzes to keep kids on the ball.
At Römerhof, just east of the city centre you can catch a strange single coach train up to a recreation area and hotel.
They are on the lower reaches of Adlisberg, one of the highest peaks around Zürich.
The line has been here since 1895 and started out as a funicular before switching to a rack railway in the 1970s.
A ride on the Dolder is one of those idiosyncratic things to do in Zürich, and can be a little hair-raising at times as the maximum incline is almost 20%. The trip is covered by a ZürichCARD and at the upper terminus you’ll be treated to a glorious panorama of the city framed by its lake.
25. Street Parade
If you’re young and into electronic music there’s no better place to be in the whole world than Zürich on the second Saturday of August.
This is when one of the world’s biggest electronic parties hits the streets.
Street Parade has been going since 1992 and was inspired by the now defunct Love Parade in Berlin.
This event grows by the year, and now more than a million people turn up for a street party that runs around the shore of Lake Zürich, east to west from Hutoquai to Hafen Enge.
In the parade are some 30 “Love Mobiles” with heavy duty sound systems and hundreds of djs play sets at seven different points around the shore.
Whether you’re into house, trap music, drum ‘n’ bass, trance or any other sub-genre you’ll find a party up your street.