There are cities you expect to be amazing, and cities you just pass through. But my favorite cities are the ones who sneak up on you and catch you by surprise. Zürich has never really been on my travel radar, but we compromised on stopping there first before Italy. We were primarily going to reconnect with an old friend that lived there, but whatever the excuse, I am SO glad we went because I fell head over heels for Switzerland.
We arrived first thing in the morning to clear sunny skies. There I stood with luggage full of coats, and it was 70 degrees. The first of what would be many welcome surprises. As we stepped out of the airport, I drank in a deep breath of the air, which was so fresh. I looked out over patches of grass which were bursting with color from the wildflowers which had just begun to blossom in Spring. “Oh yes,” I thought to myself, “I’m going to like it here.”
Our first days in Zürich, we were too enthralled by the city to be bothered by jet lag. Needing nothing more than a sundress, we walked all around perimeter of Lake Zürich. The city itself was modern and immaculately clean, and was juxtaposed to the banks of Lake Zurich in a half-moon shape. Whatever neighborhood you wandered, you were never far from the water (a quality I love in a city!) The lake itself was crystal clear and beautiful hues of bright blue with swans peacefully floating about and sunbathers in paddle boats enjoying the sun. With the city hugging one half of the lake, on the far side near the horizon, you could see the snowcapped mountains of the Swiss alps. It almost looked like they were painted onto a backdrop. The contrast was almost unbelievable: here I was on the lake’s edge getting sunburned shoulders, while people splashed their feet in the cool water and laid near the wildflower beds worshiping the sun…and right there, in the same scene were…the Alps! We soon discovered that perhaps the best part of this city was not the city itself…but all of the green space. There were parks arranged all around the lake with perfectly kept grass and hundreds of people picnicking, napping, playing yard games and enjoying the outside. I mean with a view like theirs, who would ever want to be inside?
In the old town, the buildings had historic charm and were so impeccably kept, it looked almost like streets lined with doll houses. There were several gorgeous churches, one in particular with two massive spires, which we climbed to the top to get a birdseye view of the city. A river runs through the old town, and we crossed back and forth, meandering through the narrow cobblestone streets lined with every top designer storefront. There were also the most impressive clock towers, including Europe’s largest clock tower, which is perched in the epicenter of the old town and is a great point of reference to find your way around.
While it was charming and quite approachable as a city, Zurich was dripping in wealth. As the financial capital of Europe, I should not have been so shocked at the wealth of the city… but I was. From the streets polluted with Lamborghinis and Ferraris everywhere you looked, to the town, were half of every passerby had arms full of LV shopping bags, it was obvious that the most of the residents of metro Zurich lived quite comfortably. Unlike most wealthy places however, there was no air of pretension whatsoever. In fact, it seemed as is Zurich had used their thriving economy for good, rather than just greed. The city was the cleanest city I’ve ever been to – not so much as a cigarette butt on the ground, and if there was, someone would promptly discard of it. There were free public services everywhere (picture luscious free green spaces and parks everywhere, equipped with self-cleaning bathroom stalls.) And as a New Yorker, perhaps the most impressive to me was the metro system, which was shockingly efficient, clean and comfortable. Zurich was easy to navigate, but when you factored in the trains, trams, and buses all so readily available, any place within hundreds of miles was easily within reach.
The only caveat about a city with such wealth is that everything was well…quite expensive. We had been prepared that this was a pricey city, and having been desensitized by NYC’s ridiculously inflated prices, it wasn’t that bad. But it was undeniably affluent and the prices reflected that. (The currency is Swiss franc, although we found that many places also accepted Euro for convenience.) The Swiss cuisine was also nothing to write home about, so we also saved some money by skipping exorbitant menu prices and opting for street food and picnics from the local grocery stores (the base-level grocers are better than finest of our Whole Foods.) As we ate street pretzels, bratwurst and beer by the lake, I was as content as one could be, while also saving.
We were very lucky to have had a very authentic local experience while in Zurich. One evening, as the sun went down, we headed back into the park (where there were still a surprising amount of people lounging) to attend the tail-end of a birthday party of our lovely Swiss friend. It was an intimate occasion of old friends sitting on blankets, laughing, listening to music, and exchanging stories. For the first few moments, I worried it would be awkward crashing such a small occasion as almost total strangers, but I was so pleasantly surprised that they were the most warm and vibrant group. We ended up staying so late into the night drinking and laughing with them. I ended up having a great time and feeling so much more connected to Zurich after just that night.
One morning after an indulgent sleep, we woke up to the mountains, ate another great street food meal by the lake, and set off on the metro (which proved to be just as easily and timely as we were promised.) We hopped on one line and took it all the way to the top to Uetliberg Mountain, which is the highest point in Zurich. It was far from a tourist attraction, and rather a local spot where the city’s residents took a quite diversion for some fresh air. The hills were filled with dozens of trails and scenic overlooks of the cityscape below, a clearings in the forest where people could picnic and congregate. At the top of the park was a large tower, marked as the highest point in Zurich. It felt a little ironic that we were standing at the most elevated point in the city, and yet were still at the very foothills of the massive mountains of the Alps beyond. We enjoyed a hike and took in many views, and polished the journey off with a few beers from the open-air beer garden enjoying every breath of the incredible mountain air.
After a few days on foot and by tram, we decided we wanted to see even more of the city. We noticed that everyone seemed to be riding bikes. I quick Google search led us to a communal bike rental, where I simply downloaded an app and scanned one of the free bicycles, and within moments I was off on a very sturdy electric bike. On two wheels, and with the well designed bike paths throughout the city, we had a whole world of new options to explore. We nearly circled the massive lake with hardly any effort and drove through lavish neighborhoods and markets outside of the main areas, which I imagine few tourists get to see. It was the most beautiful weather, and the city (even on a holiday weekend) was bustling, but so quiet and tranquil. We must have biked dozens of miles with the wind in my hair before pausing for a nap in one of the grassy parks as an amateur jazz band played nearby. It was so relaxing, it seemed like a scene out of a movie – but this was just a normal Saturday in Zurich.
The next several days, we woke early and took the metro (right outside out apartment) out of town to explore the likes of nearby cities Lucerne, Wiggis, and Mt. Riggi. Our day trips were SO spectacular they will have a blog post of their own. But I will digress by saying that while Zurich has a ton to offer on it’s own, it’s proximity to neighboring cities and mountain towns was a huge benefit. After returning from our rigorous day trips, we enjoyed homemade dinners prepared by our friends, ate brats and drank prosecco on the lake for sunset, frequented beer gardens, and explored the city by night. We fell into such a delightful routine, which was still active, but also incredibly tranquil. The nights was cool and quiet, and just as pleasant in Zurich as the day. Each night I found myself fighting my heavy eyelids avoiding sleep, because I just wanted to spend more time.
Throughout the course of the next few days as we laid in the parks sipping on wine and relaxing, I found myself fantasizing about living in this place. We became regulars at the local grocery stores, made new friends, and had a “favorite” park spot for sunsets. It was quite amazing how quickly we acclimated to this easy going place. The city, the layout, the atmosphere – the people seemed so happy and content. And while it was so temperate and beautiful in the Spring, I could only imagine how lively the lake must be in summer when the lakeside bars and swimming platforms are all open. Our friends confirmed that summer is even more magical, and with that, I set my Skyscanner app to find good flights, already planning a return voyage before we had even left.
I’ve been to many cities I’ve fallen in love with, I’ve even found several cities I could imagine myself living, but I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a place as Utopian as Switzerland. Maybe it’s all the fresh clean air rolling over the alps in that inspired happiness, but the people of Zürich struck me as some of the most content and positive people I’ve ever met. If Switzerland has been under your radar, as it was mine, I beg you to reconsider. There is a little big of magic for everyone in Switzerland, and I can’t get back soon enough.
To see some of the otherworldly beautiful views from the neighboring towns in the alps, check out the photo-centric post on Lucerne, Wiggis & the Swiss Alps