Given its reputation for being the center of finance and banking, Zurich is often omitted from many tourists’ itineraries. Most spend several hours here before heading to the surrounding hills or more picturesque towns. But look closely, you will realize there are a few reasons why Switzerland’s wealthiest city deserves attention, including beautiful architecture, spectacular vistas, and amazing museums.
For centuries, Zurich has been globally known as the city of bankers, financiers, and investors. Its fame and prosperity even surpass Bern, making many visitors (including myself) believe that this place is Switzerland’s capital. Yet Zurich is also recognized as one of the world’s most livable cities. The international finance capital often vies with other powerhouse cities such as Vienna or Singapore for the highest quality of life.
This compact Swiss city is set at the northwest end of Lake Zurich, from where the serene Limmat River runs further north, splitting the historic core into two. Much of its old town, with its winding cobblestone lanes, guild houses, and medieval churches, has been kept thoughtfully intact.
1. Zurich Old Town
Stretching on both sides of the Limmat River, Zurich Old Town was established as early as the year 80 BC. It was built around a small natural hill which today has become Lindenhof – a park with a beautiful view of the city. Here, clean cobblestone streets hug hilly terrain, and guild houses from the Renaissance period embrace charming squares. Dotted around the area are medieval churches, with spires reaching heavenward and overlooking the Limmat River. Most notable are the Grossmünster, Fraumünster, and the Church of Saint Peter which boasts Europe’s largest clockfaces, measuring 8.7m in diameter.
Near the train station, Bahnhofstrasse – Zurich’s most prestigious shopping avenue – attracts the well-heeled bankers with glittering timepiece stores, jewelry boutiques, and fancy chocolate houses. There are even museums dedicated to all those precious things which makes the reputation of the Swiss as crafting masters.
Easily recognizable thanks to its turquoise-colored roof, Fraumünster is among Zurich’s most popular attractions. Together with the Grossmünster, they once held immense power in the city. Founded in 853 by King Louis the German, the church with its convent was home to female members who came from the European aristocracy. Hence, it enjoyed royal patronage and could even mint coins until well into the 13th century.
These days, Fraumünster’s attractiveness lies in its architecture, including the Romanesque chancel and the high vaulted transept. Both are adorned with magnificent stained glass windows created by 19th-century artists, Chagall and Augusto Giacometti.
Just across the river is Grossmünster, Zurich’s most prominent church. It is distinguished by twin towers topped with two beautiful cupolas. Legend said that Emperor Charlemagne erected these towers on the location where the graves of the city’s patron saints Felix and Regula were discovered. Throughout the Middle Ages, the church competed with the Fraumünster for precedence.
Basically, Grossmünster follows the Romanesque style, featuring thick stone walls and a row of arches supported by medieval columns. However, parts of the church were destroyed by fire, thus there are some elements from later periods. For example, the stained glass windows – another masterpiece of Augusto Giacometti – were added in 1932. So do the ornated metal door and the neo-Gothic tops.
4. Swiss National Museum
Right outside Zurich Central Station is the most frequently visited museum in the country, the Swiss National Museum. Opened in 1898, the museum houses the most extensive collection of the cultural history of Switzerland. More than 860,000 objects have been gathered from prehistory to the present day. There are handicrafts, sculptures, paintings, to everyday objects. Even if you are not into historicism, the museum’s architecture is definitely worth seeing.
The Swiss National Museum is the meeting place of two completely different architectural styles. Zurich architect Gustav Gull designed the first part (visible from the station). It resembles a French château, with dozen of turrets, arches, and a forecourt. However, anyone passing through these arches will be greeted by a modern bridge-like structure. Completed in 2016, this new wing features solid lines and bullseyes windows.