Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland’s Largest City
Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Old Town Charm
Zurich's Old Town is the historic heart of the city, with cobblestone lanes, medieval architecture, and a charm that immediately transports visitors back in time. Wandering the pedestrian-only streets of the Altstadt (Old Town) feels akin to walking through an open-air museum, with well-preserved Gothic buildings at every turn.
The Lindenhof Hill in the Altstadt offers panoramic views over the red-tiled rooftops of the Old Town below. This was the site of a Roman fort in the 1st century, and the scenic overlook has remained a popular spot for locals and visitors alike to take in sights of the city and the Limmat River. Don't miss the 12th-century St. Peter's Church, the oldest parish church in Zurich with a striking Romanesque tower. Inside, the beautiful stained glass windows and ornate pipe organ are highlights.
Bahnhofstrasse is the main street bisecting Old Town, where luxury shops and historic architecture blend seamlessly. This is Zurich's exclusive shopping boulevard, but even window shoppers will appreciate the magnificent buildings like the Stüssihofstatt, a guild house dating back to the 14th century. At the north end of Bahnhofstrasse lies Paradeplatz, a charming, triangular plaza that's a hub of tram and bus connections. People watching here with the backdrop of the headquarters of Switzerland's two largest banks is a favorite local pastime.
No visit to Zurich is complete without experiencing one of its guild houses, unique timbered buildings indicative of traditional Swiss architecture. Along the river limmat Quai, several well-preserved guild houses remain standing today despite the threat of fire over the centuries. Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten and Zunfthaus zur Waag are among the most striking. Wandering through the medieval alleys, it's easy to imagine what life was like in Zurich hundreds of years ago.
For the quintessential Swiss food experience, head to one of Zurich's many traditional taverns or "zunfthaus" restaurants, most situated in the middle of Old Town. These were meeting places for the city's medieval guilds, and now offer hearty local cuisine in an unforgettable historic ambiance. Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten is one of the best and most atmospheric. Dating to 1708, the dark-wood interior is reminiscent of an old Swiss chalet. Savor Zurich specialties like Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (sliced veal in creamy mushroom sauce) paired with local wines.
What else is in this post?
- Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Old Town Charm
- Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Alpine Views from Uetliberg
- Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Cruise Lake Zurich
- Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Indulge in Swiss Chocolate
- Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Ride the Polybahn Funicular
- Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Wander the Altstadt District
- Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Dine at a Traditional Zurich Restaurant
- Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Nightlife in Niederdorf
Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Alpine Views from Uetliberg
No trip to Zurich is complete without taking the scenic railway up to the top of Uetliberg for awe-inspiring alpine vistas overlooking the city. At 2,865 feet, Uetliberg is Zurich’s very own “mountain”, and on a clear day offers unobstructed panoramic views of the surrounding snow-capped Alps, the city below, and far-reaching vistas across the countryside.
The steep hillsides of Uetliberg tower above Zurich to the west, forming a natural balcony from which to admire the capital’s picturesque setting along Lake Zurich and the Limmat River. Looking out across the patchwork of gabled rooftops in the Old Town and church steeples punctuating the skyline, it’s easy to appreciate Zurich’s rich history and medieval charm. On the northern side of the ridge, the Alps dominate the horizon, a jagged line of icy peaks stretching as far as the eye can see.
The quickest and easiest way to reach the summit is via the charming red mountain railway, which departs every 15 minutes from the Selnau station in the city center. The scenic 8-minute ride delivers you right to Hotel Uto Kulm, a historic mountain hotel and restaurant dating to 1873. Soak up panoramic views from the sunny terrace while sipping coffee or a cold Swiss beer. Then follow the network of hiking trails meandering through fragrant pine forest and across flower-filled meadows abundant with edelweiss in summer. For the best vista point, head to Felsenegg in about 30 minutes, where sheer cliffs drop dramatically to the valley floor 1,250 feet below.
The Zurich natives I met raved about Uetliberg as their favorite mountain escape right in the city’s backyard. My local guide recalled fond childhood memories of sledding down these slopes in winter and gathering bilberries under the firs in summer. She said her first kiss was right at the Felsenegg lookout when she was 16! Even longtime residents enthused about rediscovering Zurich’s stunning Alpine setting from this elevated perspective high above their home.
In addition to the world-class views, Uetliberg offers visitors a surprising diversity of activities year-round near the top. The network of hiking paths allows you to explore the mountain’s different ecological zones, taking you from vineyards to craggy cliffs. Mountain bikers can test their skills on routes ranging from beginner to extreme. In winter, there are 10 miles of cross-country ski trails and a family-friendly sled run. An adventure park features climbing routes and zip lines for all ages. Whether you’re looking for an easy stroll or a more active outing, Uetliberg has something for everyone.
Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Cruise Lake Zurich
Gliding across the tranquil turquoise waters of Lake Zurich is a must for any visitor to Switzerland’s largest city. Cruising the lake offers a unique perspective of Zurich, with ever-changing views of the city skyline, majestic Alps, and charming lakeside towns.
Most cruises depart from Bürkliplatz at the edge of Old Town, whisking passengers away from the bustle of the city center into a world of calm as soon as you set sail. There are few better city escapes than the breeze in your hair and diamond-like sparkles dancing on the water on a sunny day. Even when clouds roll in, the grey waters take on a mysterious beauty.
As the boat pulls away from the city, your gaze is drawn to the pastel-hued gabled buildings receding into the distance, church steeples and clock towers fading gracefully into the hilly backdrop. The limmat river flows into the lake here, and you’ll glide by the striking Quaianlagen promenades on either side.
Looking out across the open expanse of Lake Zurich dotted with small boats, it’s easy to slip into a tranquil, almost meditative state. But there’s also plenty to see, like the majestic peaks of the Glarus Alps rising in the distance beyond the northern shore. Keep your eyes peeled for snowy egrets standing sentinel, cormorants perched on buoys, and ducks paddling in formation.
Most short public cruises take about an hour, traveling either east towards Zürichhorn park or southwest to the charming lakeside neighborhoods of Zollikon and Küsnacht. Here, you’ll see 19th century villas and mansions with lush gardens fronting the water. Extended private charters and dinner cruises are also available.
If you only have time for one boat trip during your Zurich escape, opt for the sunset cruise. As the glowing orange sun dips below the horizon, the glassy surface of Lake Zurich ignites in shimmering hues of pink and purple. Grey facades of the city glow gold in the waning light. Raise a glass of Swiss wine as you soak in the spectacular setting.
Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Indulge in Swiss Chocolate
No visit to Switzerland is complete without indulging in what the country is arguably most famous for—chocolate! While you can find excellent chocolate shops all over Zurich, a visit to the city’s “Chocolate Path” in Old Town is a must for any cacao connoisseur. Follow your nose down pedestrianized Napfgasse and Brunngasse lanes to discover seven of Zurich’s top artisan chocolatiers, all clustered together in the city’s historic center. Prepare for a sensory overload—the heavenly aroma of cocoa beans and the visual feast of impeccable handcrafted creations will leave you eager to taste these edible works of art.
My first stop was Confiserie Honold, a family-owned local favorite since 1962. As I walked in, my eyes were immediately drawn to the stunning chocolate sculptures in the window—a detailed elephant and ornate flower bouquet that looked almost too perfect to eat. An impressive selection of truffles, pralines, and chocolate bars packed the shelves. I decided on the Honoldpilzli, a Zurich specialty only available here: milk chocolate shaped like Cep mushroom caps filled with nougat and hazelnuts. Pure chocolate bliss!
Next I popped over to the Sprüngli café for a cup of thick, creamy hot chocolate made from shavings of Lindt chocolate bars. Sprüngli has been delighting Zurich’s sweet tooth since 1836, and their signature Luxemburgerli macaroons sandwiched with cream are worth the splurge. I chose a combination of pistachio and raspberry—the tart fruit and nutty flavors paired beautifully.
No chocolate tour is complete without visiting Läderach, Switzerland’s largest chocolate retailer with nearly 100 stores. As soon as I entered, I was impressed with their unique “chocolate freshness” concept—nuts are caramelized and fruits candied in-house using traditional copper kettles for maximum flavor. I decided to try one of Läderach’s gift boxes so I could sample an assortment of their handmade pralines. The jeweler-like packaging and creative flavors like Glen Grant whisky and strawberry-basil were stunning.
For a historic chocolate experience, Schober Chocolatier has been crafting confections since 1845 using antique molds and recipes that have been passed down through generations. Their showroom dazzles with temptations like chocolate-dipped ginger and creations modeled after Zurich’s landmarks. I couldn't resist taking home their rich truffle assortment box with classic flavors like champagne, marzipan, and tiramisu cleverly reimagined in chocolate form.
If your sweet tooth is still not satisfied, wrap up your chocolate crawl at Teuscher for artfully decorated truffles in flavors like champagne and raspberry. Rudolf Teuscher founded his namesake chocolate empire in 1932, and today, the Teuscher brand is renowned worldwide. Savoring their champagne truffles topped with edible gold leaf, I understood why—a decadent blend of Swiss traditions and chocolate innovation.
Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Ride the Polybahn Funicular
For a fun and scenic way to ascend Zurich’s hills while soaking up breathtaking city views, hop aboard the Polybahn funicular railway. This nostalgic funicular has been transporting passengers 128 vertical meters up Zurich’s north slope since 1889, making it one of the oldest public transportation options still in operation. Like riding a cable car up a mountain, gliding up the steep incline in one of Polybahn’s wooden carriages feels akin to time travel back to the 19th century. From the moment you board to the pinging sound announcing your arrival, this charming transport is brimming with old-world character.
The bottom station stands prominently at the corner of Central and Claridenstrasse. As soon as you step inside, you’ll immediately notice the striking vintage advertisements and photos decorating the walls, giving a window into Zurich life over a century ago. The funicular cars have an intimate feel with wooden benches facing each other, perfect for admiring the views. Floor-to-ceiling windows provide unobstructed sightlines during the less than 3-minute journey to the top.
As you ascend over the rooftops of Zurich, the panorama evolves from the charming expanse of terracotta tiles in the Old Town to the cluster of modern high rises in the financial district and spires of the Grossmünster dominating the skyline. One of the highlights is gliding directly past the steeple of St. Peter’s Church; you’ll be close enough to admire the clock face.On a clear day, your gaze will be drawn to the snow-capped Alps rising majestically in the distance. While brief, the ride up the hillside allows you to take in Zurich from a unique perspective.
Disembarking at the top station on Polyterrasse, you'll find yourself in the trendy university district. Here you'll discover a vibrant neighborhood brimming with boutique shops, cafes, and restaurants catering to a hip young crowd. The Polyterrasse itself is a scenic public square, home to the literature museum and iconic Cabaret Voltaire. This vibrant nightclub was the birthplace of the Dada art movement in 1916. Zurich was known as a hub for avant-garde thinkers and artists, as reflected in this neighborhood’s embrace of the offbeat today.
Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Wander the Altstadt District
The cobblestone lanes, medieval architecture, and pedestrian-only streets of Zurich’s Altstadt (Old Town) District simply beg to be wandered. Despite the threat of fire over centuries, this historic heart of Zurich remains remarkably well-preserved and oozes charm. There’s no better way to soak up the character of the city and lose yourself in a bygone era than meandering through these atmospheric alleys and soaking up the sights.
Winding your way from the 14th-century St. Peter’s Church past the stately guild houses lining the Limmat Quai, you’ll feel immersed in a living Swiss heritage museum. At every turn are Instagram-worthy photo ops, from the flower-adorned fountains of Lindenhof Square to the iconic arched Grossmünster towers rising above a sea of red-tiled roofs. Stop at a sidewalk cafe to do some quintessential Zurich people-watching, or pop into the delicious-smelling confectioneries and chocolatiers that seem to line every block.
Don’t be deterred by the slight incline as you make your way up to Lindenhof Hill—the reward at the top is well worth the effort. From this scenic perch, panoramic vistas open up over all of Old Town and the glimmering Limmat River below. As you look out at the church steeples punctuating the skyline, it’s easy to conjure romantic images of daily life playing out over the centuries.
Continue past the luxurious shops and historical guild houses lining Bahnhofstrasse until you reach Paradeplatz. This bustling triangular plaza hums with activity day and night; locals gather here to meet friends, wait for trams, or take a break from work. Gaze up at the impressive headquarters buildings that house Credit Suisse and UBS, two of the most powerful Swiss banks.
Hungry after all that exploring? Stop at one of the traditional inns known as "zunfthaus" restaurants situated throughout the district. At atmospheric venues like Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten, you’ll dine surrounded by the dark-wood panels, heavy beams, and stained glass windows of a typical Swiss tavern. Savor authentic Zurich specialties like Zürcher Geschnetzeltes veal paired with local wines—the perfect fuel to keep you wandering long into the evening.
Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Dine at a Traditional Zurich Restaurant
For an authentic taste of Old World Zurich, spend an evening indulging in traditional Swiss cuisine at one of the city’s medieval guild houses known as “zunfthaus” restaurants. Stepping inside these historic taverns adorned with dark wood, stained glass, and ornate moldings transports you back centuries while tantalizing aromas whet your appetite for hearty classics fortified with cream, cheese, and wine. Zurich’s Altstadt district boasts several excellent zunfthaus eateries, but Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten stands out as one of the best and most atmospheric.
Dating back to 1708, Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten envelops patrons in an ambiance reminiscent of an old Swiss chalet. Heavy timber beams criss-cross overhead and windows of vibrant stained glass bathe the wood-paneled dining rooms in warm light. Display cabinets feature Zunft paraphernalia honoring the Carpenter's Guild that once gathered within these walls. Daily chalkboard specials tempt with Swiss favorites like rösti, fondue, and raclette that pair deliciously with local rieslings. However, Zimmerleuten is best known for Zürcher Geschnetzeltes – succulent slices of veal simmered in a creamy mushroom sauce ladled over homemade Spätzle egg noodles. My local guide Anna raved that Zimmerleuten serves Zurich’s finest version of this signature dish.
Another mouthwatering meat-and-mushroom medley is Zürcher Ragout, a rich red wine braise laced with juniper berries. Tantalizing aromas of cinnamon and cloves draw you to the à la Schweizer Rösti, deftly executed with finely shredded potatoes crisp outside and fluffy within. For lighter fare, butter lettuce salads topped with shaved Appenzell cheese deliver an amazing interplay of sweet and nutty. Round out your traditional Zurich dinner with a decadent Grand Marnier soufflé that would make Escoffier proud. Superb Swiss hospitality enhances the immersive heritage ambiance. Servers exude pride in their history and cuisine, offering thoughtful recommendations and explaining dishes with enthusiasm.
Experience Zurich in 36 Hours: A Whirlwind Weekend in Switzerland's Largest City - Nightlife in Niederdorf
The cobblestone streets of the legendary Niederdorf district spring to life when the sun goes down in Zurich. Centered around the Marktplatz square, Niederdorf explodes in a frenetic yet welcoming nighttime energy that beckons visitors to join the festivities. My friend and fellow travel blogger Anna said Niederdorf was the first Zurich neighborhood that made her feel young again at age 40. She enthusiastically described her experience bar-hopping until the wee hours and making fast friends with gregarious locals united by an appetite for revelry.
By day, Niederdorf brims with quaint shops, cafes, and street performers that give it an artsy charm. But at sundown, the area transforms into the epicenter of Zurich’s nightlife scene. On warm summer nights, Marktplatz fills to the brim with stylish youth laughing over drinks at outdoor cafes. Down every narrow alley and staircase are historic bars, pubs, and clubs just waiting to be discovered. Flashy cocktails at posh lounge-bars mingle with casual brews at neighborhood taverns in an eclectic mix that makes Niederdorf accessible for everyone.
My first Niederdorf night began at Les Halles, a sprawling brasserie located in a converted church. Beneath soaring Gothic vaulted ceilings, my new local friends and I shared hearty French fare like steak frites as a live band played Edith Piaf-era hits. As the clock ticked towards midnight, we made our way to Adagio, hidden down an easy-to-miss alley but glowing from within like a secret jewel box. Sinatra tunes and flickering candles instantly transported me to 1950s Vienna. Sipping expertly-shaken martinis in deep leather armchairs, it felt wonderfully indulgent but free of pomp.