Zurich on a Budget

Visit Zurich, Switzerland without blowing your travel budget.
Visit Zurich, Switzerland without blowing your travel budget.Cosmo Condina / Getty Images

Populated by elegant architecture, drowning in old world charm, and set beside the pristine water of River Limmat, Zurich is a beautiful, bucket list destination. And despite its frequent status as the most expensive city in the world, you don't have to empty a bank account to see the sights and find some fun in Zurich.

The first stop should be picking up one of the incredibly useful ZurichCARDs. For a very reasonable price ($24), this card is your ticket to use any of the trams that run throughout the city. Perhaps one of the most impressive transportation systems in the world, you can set your Swiss watch to the arrival and departure times.

For breakfast, chocolatier Sprüngli’s location at the heart of the Paradeplatz train junction is a great kick off to the day. A family-run company since 1836, Sprüngli is a favorite among tourists and locals alike, and also offers a delicious breakfast menu of sweet and savory options in its cafe. Also know that you're among coffee lovers that rival the Italians, so expect any espresso order to be appropriately smooth.

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Take a leisurely walk through Zurich’s Old Town during the morning or early afternoon, when the crowds are lighter. There are beautiful old fountains, charming boutiques, hidden antique shops, and medieval houses to be seen at every turn of the cobblestone streets. The city’s efforts to preserve its historic houses have succeeded in saving some buildings almost a millennium old. Make a special pilgrimage to the riverside Lindenhof, built over the remains of an old Roman fort, where the terrace offers a splendid view of Old Town and the 15th-century Wasserkirche, or "Water Church" as it’s known.

For lunch, fill your plate at the world’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, Haus Hiltl, located on Sihlstrasse. Founded in 1898, the fourth-generation restaurant is an afternoon hotspot featuring an expansive and enticing buffet. Expect mild crowds any time of day, as the flagship location is a popular destination due to its seasonal menu, reasonable prices, and signature dishes like the "Hiltl Tartar."

Take the tram toward the city limits, to Uetliberg, for a stroll to walk off lunch. Take your camera because after some modest climbing up a steep batch of stairs, you'll come to a tower that offers spectacular views of Zurich, Lake Zurich, Limmat Valley, and the Alps. From there take a hike south along the mountain ridge to Felsenegg. The trip ends with a scenic cable car ride down to the tram.

By the time you arrive back downtown it will be time for dinner, and there is nowhere better to go for authentic Swiss cuisine than Alpenrose. This is no tourist-trap restaurant. The ingredients are all locally sourced by the chef from regional markets, and have been since the early 1990s. The menu even specifies the location of the farms used while detailing the dishes. Further evidence of the more subtle approach is a strict "No Polka Dancing" sign. Try one of the local wines offered on their exclusively Swiss wine list.

Now that you have a full belly, take a quick walk to the Landesmuseum for Limmat River Cruises, which are free to take with your ZurichCARD. Boats depart every 30 minutes, and the ride will avail you to a gorgeous, encompassing view of the city, taking you underneath the seven bridges connecting the two sides of town and likely some great photo opps. Keep an eye out for the many swans and ducks that call the river home. The journey takes one hour and drops you right back off at Landesmuseum.

The nightlife in Zurich starts early, so for a proper nightcap, head to Jules Verne Panoramabar, which is a five-minute stroll away and is situated below the Urania Observatory. To get to the bar, pass through the Lipp Brasserie and take the elevator up. Once you’ve purchased one of their well-crafted cocktails, focus your attention on soaking in the 360-degree views. The city is magical when it’s lit up at night and makes for a perfect end to a day.

Where To Stay: The city is most busy during the workweek, the best bet for a cheaper rate is during the weekend. The Four Points by Sheraton Sihlcity Zurich is both modern and convenient, with rates starting around $160 a night. The hotel is home to the elegant Rampe Süd restaurant and, as an added value, even offers a hearty buffet breakfast with free coffee for guests in the morning.

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