There is more to Zurich than meets the eye. Beyond it being one of the world’s most livable cities, lies a realm of ancient architecture and contemporary arts and culture that intertwine beautifully. Both city slickers and outdoor lovers can be catered for in this Swiss metropolis, as the city is set on a lake surrounded by mountains. In this blog we take a look at the best kept secrets of Zurich – from its bustling streets to its natural jewels.
By the end of this piece you will be equipped with the knowledge to explore Zurich on a deeper level, avoiding tourist traps and delving into its ever-evolving character. While the largest city of Switzerland is a hub of business and finance, it’s also one of the most dynamic and cosmopolitan places in Europe if you know where to go. An artistic subculture can be found at the bars, museums, theaters and festivals in town.
The best part about this alternative side to Zurich is that it won’t break the bank because many of these activities are free. We all know that Switzerland is expensive, thanks in large part to the banking industry, but by venturing off the beaten path you will get a more authentic experience as well as save some coin along the way. It’s a win-win. A majority of our suggestions listed below can be done in a budget-friendly manner.
Private Guided Tours with The Zurich Insider
Another option to exploring the hidden gems of Zurich on your own is to join a guided discovery of these city secrets with local experience designer and guide Samantha Aeschbach from The Zurich Insider. She was born in Zurich and enjoyed a multifaceted career working for hotels, cruise ships and the Swiss Government – not to mention traveling the world and volunteering – before moving back to her beloved city of birth in 2017.
Samantha’s broad life experience enables her to connect with people from all over the globe and she can do so in a variety of languages – from fluent English, Italian and Spanish to advanced German to intermediate Portuguese and French. It won’t be long after meeting that you go from strangers to friends. Samantha is a definitively cultured and worldly person but her roots are grounded in Zurich, a city she has never forgotten.
Her inspiration for The Zurich Insider – a range of creative private guided experiences – stemmed from a series of chance encounters where she was given insights into the unknown treasures of Zurich hiding in plain sight. Idiosyncratic moments with architects, archaeologists, historians, scholars, locals and expats alike revealed a different dimension to her city. This sparked a curiosity that led to the beginnings of the company in 2019.
The ingredients were there to create tours that would take travelers to the best kept secrets of Zurich. On her experiences guests see the city from a new angle with many tales and tips shared throughout. It’s not all serious history and sterile info though, as Samantha leads with connection and humor, making the tour fun. Later on we highlight her tours but for now let us continue with the secrets of Zurich that you can see by yourself.
Where to Find the Best Kept Secrets of Zurich
Giacometti Frescoes at a Zurich Police Station (Free)
Who would have thought that a police station could be the site of such beautiful art? But at the entrance hall to a Zurich police station stands these incredible frescoes by Swiss painter Giacometti. A contest was held in 1922 to decorate the ceiling of this former orphanage (now police station) and Giacometti won by utilizing fresco-secco techniques. He adorned the ceiling with red and orange floral and geometric designs.
Jules Verne Panorama Bar for Breathtaking Views
Right in the heart of Zurich is the Jules Verne Panorama Bar. It offers 360 degree views over the city, Lake Zurich and the Alps. The entrance is via the elevator in Brasserie Lipp restaurant (always call ahead to check availability). Tip: head up to the bar, smile, walk around, marvel at the view, take a photo and leave. This way you will get to see the awesome view for free, otherwise you could order a light meal and some cocktails and relax a bit.
Polyterrasse at the ETH (Free)
The terrace located between the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) and Zurich University offers spectacular views of the Niederdorf neighborhood (part of the Old Town). It’s free to reach on foot or by taking the Polybahn – a funicular railway that links the central square with the ETH terrace. After taking photos at the viewing terrace, be sure to venture inside the ETH to find Albert Einstein’s locker. Einstein started his studies here in 1896.
Funicular Rigiblick Ride to the Top of a Mountain
The Funicular Rigiblick takes you on a short but sweet journey up a mountain. Travelers can reach the funicular by bus or on foot. A lovely way to experience this view is to pack a picnic and find greenery close to the station at the top. Relax with your picnic and soak in the vistas. If you are in Zurich during a festival, and there is a planned fireworks display, you could take the cable car to the top for the best viewing platform in town.
Zurich Succulent Plant Collection (Free)
To see one of the most extensive cacti collections in the world head to the Zurich Succulent Plant Collection. Over 4,000 succulent plants can be found including cacti, agaves and aloes. There is an educational program that runs at the gardens where visitors can learn about the diversity of these plants and how they adapt to their surroundings to survive. With some luck you might be able to visit when a temporary exhibition is on.
The Many Water Fountains Located in Zurich (Free)
Zurich is renowned for being a world leader in clean, green living and the over 1,200 free water fountains dotted around the city pay testament to that. Water flows from these fountains 24/7 and so there is no need to pay for bottled water while exploring the city. Just make sure you bring a reusable water bottle to fill it up at every opportunity. This fantastic Zurich Water Map can help you find a fountain when you are out and about.
Raffael’s 1989 Artisan Chocolate & Ice Cream Shop
The most famous Swiss export is chocolate and at Rafael’s 1989 you can find the best chocolate ice cream in the world. Ask for the liquid chocolate in a waffle. You can thank us later. Raffael’s is set in a gorgeous boutique by the Bellevueplatz town square. Their homemade ice creams have a legendary status because they utilize natural ingredients such as fresh milk, seasonal fruits, nuts, Italian coffee and Grand Cru Opus Noir chocolate.
Bicycle Rental with Zuri Rollt (Free)
The only requirement for a rental with Zuri rollt is showing your ID and putting down a CHF 20 deposit, so in effect it’s free. Bikes can be picked up without a booking being made at one of their two locations situated in the city center. Adult bikes, children’s bikes and e-bikes can be used. However, e-bikes are the only ones that need to be booked in advance. What better way to see the sights of Zurich than with a free bicycle rental.
Gardens at Villa Patumbah & Rechberg Park (Free)
Many visitors to Zurich don’t know about Villa Patumbah and Rechberg Park or think they aren’t accessible. But both are open to the public, free of charge and have gardens. Villa Patumbah boasts intricate architecture and is surrounded by an English-style garden. Rechberg Park on the other hand is home to a baroque garden. This baroque garden isn’t visible from the street which is why it has remained one of the best kept secrets of Zurich.
National Museum of Zurich – Landesmuseum
Despite not technically being one of the best kept secrets of Zurich, as it’s a highly frequented place, no trip to the city is complete without wandering around this innovative museum. The National Museum showcases the cultural history of Switzerland from its origins up until the present day. The entry ticket is CHF 10 and the “Simply Zurich” permanent exhibit is free. Travelers could easily spend a day browsing through this modern building.
Kunsthaus Zurich Art Museum
The Kunsthaus Museum houses one of the most important art collections in Switzerland. Displays by artists such as Giacometti, Picasso and Monet can all be found here as well as some up-and-coming contemporary artists. One must-see piece is the Gates to Hell by French sculptor Rodin. It’s situated at the museum’s entrance. The permanent exhibit is free on Wednesdays, so head along then if you don’t want to spend any money.
MoneyMuseum to Learn about the Monetary System
Whether we like it or not, money makes the world go round. The history of currency dates back thousands of years and has evolved from stone, gold, coins and notes to the digital currencies and crypto we see today. Exhibits at the MoneyMuseum showcase this timeline of money in an engaging way. You can come to the museum to relax at the library and enjoy the small-scale exhibitions. It’s definitely one of the best kept secrets of Zurich.
Vohdin Bakery for Delicious Amaretti
Vodhin Bakery is an institution in Zurich. Although you wouldn’t think that by walking past as it’s only 4.3 square meters in size. This tiny shop sells its donuts, pretzels, tarts and more through a small window and they have been doing so since 1626. Get there early in the morning to avoid the queues of people salivating for their next bite. Oftentimes, by the afternoon, everything is sold out. Our suggestion: try the amaretti and butter pretzel.
Tours that Unveil the Best Kept Secrets of Zurich
As you can tell from the list of experiences above, Zurich is a city that offers endless possibilities in terms of things to do and sights to see. To take your trip to the next level, to explore the best kept secrets of Zurich from a local insider’s perspective, we suggest booking a guided tour with Samantha at The Zurich Insider. All of her tours are carefully curated to suit your desires and needs, yet at the same time leaving room for elements of surprise.
Her most popular experience is the Secrets of Zurich Walking Tour which can run from anywhere between one to six hours, depending on your preferences. Up to 15 guests can join. On this tour travelers tag along with Samantha on a casual stroll down enchanting alleys and to secret gems of the Old Town. All sorts of stories and myths will be shared, giving you a glimpse into the city’s rich past and how life has changed over the years.
Landmarks are included such as the Church of St. Peter and Munsterhof town square. There are several photo opportunities at the stop off points and Samantha shares insider tips for you to take advantage of on your further explorations of Zurich. If you have just arrived in the city and would like to be introduced in an unquestionably unique way, then this tour is for you. Samantha welcomes you with open arms to this soulful destination.
Another option to immerse yourself in the culture of Switzerland is to book a Day Trip Beyond Zurich to discover places like Lucerne, Interlaken, Bern, Basel and Thun. You can base yourself at a Zurich hotel and effortlessly visit these incredible Swiss cities and towns (that are surrounded by beautiful nature) on a couple of different day trips. Samantha will travel with you on public transport or in a private car, whatever tickles your fancy.