When we flew from Paris to Athens recently, I was delighted that we had a five-hour layover in Zurich, one of the best European cities to layover in. The last time I had visited I was twelve and I was very excited to get back and explore this pretty city as an adult.
Zurich is not cheap. We were warned. But, we were also warned that Paris was expensive and hadn’t found the Paris prices too crazy compared to North America.
When we arrived in Zurich we withdraw the equivalent of $150, which would cover our train tickets, a cheap picnic lunch, perhaps a few beers and a couple of stops in the chocolate shops. I was sure that we had pulled out too much and would be left with a heap of francs we’d be forced to spend on chewing gum and bottled water in the airport.
As it was, the $150 barely covered the essentials for our five-hour layover. If you’re creative however, you can easily explore the charms of Zurich without blowing all your money.
Make Use of Public Transport
This probably goes with out saying, but don’t get a taxi. I’ve sometimes given in and gotten a taxi when my time is limited and I want to make the most of my destination. Trains to Zurich’s main railway station (Hauptbahnhof) run approximately every ten minutes during the peak hours. The trip takes just ten minutes.
It’s extremely easy to catch a train from the airport to the city center. We picked up return train tickets and a map from the information booth in the airport arrivals area (FYI there is also a handy ATM located right next to booth). Catch the train straight from airport under check-in zone 3. Rinse and repeat when you return to the airport at the end of your layover.
Skip the Museums and Art Galleries
Skip what!? I know, I know. Museums and art galleries are often quintessential when it comes to exploring a new place. But if you’re exploring during a layover in Zurich, then you’ve probably only got a few hours. Instead of spending them traipsing around a museum or art gallery that probably deserves an entire day, take in the city’s Altstadt (old town) instead.
When you arrive in the city center, exit the train station and cross the Mühlesteg pedestrian bridge into the Alstadt. The guy at the airport had highlighted a suggested route on our map and there are several self-guided walking tours to choose from online. We were so excited to be exploring the city that we simply followed the streets that had
the most chocolate shops looked the most interesting. While we wandered along the old cobbled streets, fervently snapping photos of every overflowing flowerpot and steepled rooftop, we passed windows with fabulous displays of luxury clothes, layers of bright handmade candies and locals enjoying their lunch hour.
When we reached the end of the Alstadt we stood on the ledge of the lake and fed the swans. It was infinitely better than being cooped up in a museum.
Stick to Window Shopping on the Bahnhofstrasse
Bahnhofstrasse is the mile long shopping district. It’s fantastic and definitely worth seeing. It also happens to be the most expensive shopping district in the world. People watching on the Bahnhofstrasse was fascinating. It was very much a case of Prada, Prada, Gucci, Prada while luxury hybrid cars glided silently past us.
We stopped in one impressive chocolate shop and were guilted into buying a few pieces after trying the free samples (suckers). As I carefully counted out the last of my change to pay for chocolate the price of a pair of sandals back home, I remembered some advice a well-travelled friend had once given me. She explained that often the side streets around the heavily touristed areas are just as good as those touted in the guidebooks.
And here I was buying swiss chocolate in the middle of the Bahnofstrasse! It’s Switzerland. The chocolate is going to be amazing wherever you go. Enjoy the window displays along the Bahnofstrasse but save your money for one of the many chocolate shops sprinkled around the less touristy spots in the city.
Buy Your Food From the Farmer’s Markets
Or grocery stores if the markets aren’t on during your visit. After spending a small fortune on a dry pretzel, oily bratwurst and can of coke in the Altstadt, we absolutely kicked ourselves when we came across the Farmer’s Market in the Hauptbanhof on our way back to the airport.
All around us farmers were selling fresh produce and food carts were hawking plates of steaming homemade ravioli, fresh coffee, pastries and even Chinese dumplings. Suddenly the Swiss prices didn’t seem so bad at all. They even had free Wi-Fi!
In retrospect, we should’ve made this our first stop and stocked up a few wheels of cheese, fresh bread, thinly sliced saucisson and fresh fruit to enjoy on the banks of the lake. We did have enough money to buy several pints of surprisingly strong, cheap Swiss beer that had us giggling all the way through security back at the airport.
What about you? How have you spent your time during a layover in Zurich?