As part of our first visit back to Europe in the fall of this year, we spent a week in Switzerland. Why Switzerland? We got a reasonable price for business class seats on Swiss Air to Zurich! Most folks who travel to Europe often know that getting from one city to another, by plane or train, is relatively easy and inexpensive.
So Zurich won the flight! Initially, we were heading to Tuscany for a week, but Air Italia went bankrupt, making the flights more difficult. So we decided to stay put in Zurich and check out the country from there. Here is how we spent our time and an itinerary for a week In Switzerland that you can follow too!
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Zurich – Home Base for 1 Week in Switzerland
The best reason to have Zurich as your home base for 1 week in Switzerland is how easy it is to get from Zurich to almost anywhere else in Switzerland. Interlaken, Basel, Bern, Lucerne … even Geneva is only 2 1/2 hours from Zurich by train.
We found how easy it is to work from a home base city when we went to Munich for Oktoberfest. From Munich, we could easily visit Salzburg and other nearby towns without having to pack up our suitcases and change hotels.
However, be prepared, Switzerland is probably the most expensive country you will visit in Europe. I don’t know why, but it is. Also, since Switzerland is not part of the EU, they have their own currency, the Swiss Franc. This is important to know as they generally don’t accept Euros.
While not part of the European Union, Switzerland is part of the Schengen Area, allowing unrestricted movement throughout the region. This is another reason Zurich makes a good home base when visiting Europe.
Getting To And Around Zurich
Download the Zurich City Guide App (available for iOS and Android) before you get to Switzerland. This app will really help you plan your visit to the City. Then, I highly recommend you get yourself a Zurich Card. The Zurich Card gives the user unlimited 2nd class travel by tram, bus, train, boat, and cableway throughout the City and surrounding regions. This includes the trip from Zurich Airport to Zurich Main Station and back!
In addition to having transportation taken care of, the card gives you discounts on the Zurich Old Town Walking Tour, among others, and free or reduced admission to more than 40 museums. You purchase the card in blocks of time, either 24 or 72 hours.
Note: While called the Zurich Card, this is not a physical object. The “card” resides in Zurich City Guide App on your smartphone. This means you will need to have access to your smartphone and the internet for use. Alternately, you can purchase the card online and print out a pdf of the QR Code. Since you need to show proof of your card on public transportation, and smartphones do run out of batteries, it’s a good idea to have this print-out with you.
Where To Stay In Zurich
If you will be making day trips around Switzerland as we did during our stay, staying near the train station (Hauptbahnhof) makes sense. “Old Town” is an easy walk from the station. This is also the area with easy access to the many churches and museums you will visit in Zurich.
Hotels here, like everywhere, run the gamut. We chose to stay at the Hotel Adler located smack dab in the middle of Old Town. There are more budget-friendly hotels, and there are certainly more expensive hotels in town. But Hotel Adler met our needs. The property dates back to the 16th century. Still, once in your room, you’ll find all the mod-cons you want and need, including free wifi available throughout the property.
The hotel is just a 5-minute walk to the fantastic shopping street Bahnhofstrasse and Zurich Lake. It’s a short tram ride (two stops) from the railway station, so you don’t have to drag your luggage along the cobbled streets, but also an easy walk if you are not burdened. A bonus is Swiss Chuchi, the great fondue restaurant located at the hotel.
Seeing The Sights In Zurich
After an 11 hour flight from San Francisco, we land in Zurich around 4:00 pm local time. Passport control is untypically quick, and we collect our bags. In Zurich, like many European cities, the train station is right at the airport, making this one of the easiest ways to go. We activate our Zurich Card and hop on the train.
Even with everything going smoothly, it’s after 7:00 pm by the time we are finally in our room. We knew this in advance. Travel days are almost always just that, getting from point A to point B. We shower, have a light dinner, and make some plans for the next day. Thus ends day 1.
Since we bought a 72 hour Zurich Card, we spent the first few days right in town seeing the sights. After a hearty breakfast (included at our hotel), we’ve arranged a guided hour-long tour of Zurich by Tuk-Tuk to start Day 2.
The tour starts at the Main station. Yes, it’s back over to the train station. You will be here a lot considering you only spend one week in Switzerland. But the Tuk-Tuk is an unusual and fun way to get oriented to the city, and you get a 10% discount with your Zurich Card.
You zip along through the streets of Zurich, seeing sights like the Landesmuseum, the university and student quarter, over to old town and Niederdorf going past the may squares and alleys. After passing by the Zurich art house, you head over to lake Zurich, then to the business and shopping district around Bahnhofstrasse.
We finish up with a tour of Zurich’s nightlife district, Langstrasse. There are many restaurants, coffee shops, and bars in this area. We take the opportunity for a quick bit of refreshment before heading to our next stop, the Swiss National Museum, an easy 15-minute walk.
Also known as the Landesmuseum Zurich, we chose to go here on our first day as part of our orientation to the city and Switzerland. The museum is open Tuesday – Sunday, and general admission is CHF 10. But with your Zurich Card, admission is free!
With the permanent collections on the History and Ideas of Switzerland, along with Archaeology and Simply Zurich, you get the basics of the country in one afternoon.
The Zoo, Churches, and Chocolate
Day 3 of our week in Switzerland is beautiful, and we decide to spend the morning at the Zoo. We take a short walk from our hotel and hop on the #6 tram. Tickets for the transit system are sold by zone and time. A single-pass valid for 1-hour cost CHF 4.30, and an all-day pass valid for 24 hours cost CHF 8.60. But since we have the Zurich Card, we do not need additional tickets for transit.
About 15 minutes after we board the tram, we are at the front door of the Zurich Zoo. If you are a fan of Zoos like we are, you will enjoy your time here. Here are some of our favorites
The entrance fee for the Zoo is a bit pricey at CHF 29. Still, we find this in keeping with the cost for Zoos in any major city. We have both the San Francisco Zoo and the Oakland Zoo near where we live in California, and the entrance fees are $25.00 and $24.00, respectively. Again our card gives us a discount of 10% at the Zoo, or around CHF 3.00.
This afternoon we are trying out a new app I downloaded before we left, GPSmycity. This app provides you with recommended walks in thousands of cities around the world. Some walks are already curated with information about the sites you will see along the way. The app works off GPS and does not require you to be connected to the internet after downloading the walk. The fun thing is that you can also create your own walk, which we do this afternoon.
GPSmycity takes you through a new city with no fear of getting lost. You simply tap the screen to start your walk, and a map with the route highlighted on it shows you the way. You can even activate the voice functions and get verbal turn-by-turn directions. The only downside here may be the battery life on your phone. But we always carry a portable power bank, so we don’t get caught short.
I created a walk that will take us from the Zoo back down to the Old Town to see St. Peterskirche, Grossmunster, and Fraumunster. These are the three churches of foremost importance in Zurich. Along the way, we stroll through Burkliplatz Market and Lindenhofplatz.
We end the day at Laderach Chocolaterie, because what is Switzerland without chocolate.
Day Trips We Made Out Of Zurich During Our 1 Week In Switzerland
From the Hauptbahnhof, you can catch a train to nearly everywhere in Switzerland for a reasonable cost. The country is not large, so you can make day trips to many other cities or sites you may want to visit.
We focused on the Swiss Alps in the south of the country. But you can also make day trips to Bern, the capital, and Basel in the north. Both cities are easily accessible from Zurich and offer unique history and points of interest.
To facilitate our train travel around the country, we purchased the Swiss Travel Pass. You can buy this pass in 3, 4, 8, and 15-day increments for either 1st or 2nd Class accommodations. The cost for these passes starts at around CHF 200.00 and goes up from there. The pass we bought requires you to travel on consecutive days. You can buy a “Flex” pass that allows you to choose your days, but they all must be within a month. Your time starts when you first validate your pass.
Engelberg and Mt. Titlus
It’s now the 4th day of our 1 week in Switzerland, and we are heading south to Engelberg, a town about 85 km from Zurich.
Engelberg is a small town surrounded by the tall Alps. In the winter, skiing is the big thing. The rest of the year, you find hikers eager to scale the mountains. But if hiking is not your thing, you can take the cable cars to the top of Mt. Titlis. This is our plan.
There is not a direct train to Engelberg; you have to make one change in Lucern. The trip one way takes just under 2 hours. Everything you want to see in Engelberg is an easy 10 minute or less walk from the train station.
You can make this trip on your own as we did, or you can leave the organization to someone else and take a guided tour from Zurich to Mt. Titlis. Sometimes letting someone else do all the work of getting you to and from frees your mind just to enjoy the ride.
The Mt. Titlis Experience
We are heading over to the Mt. Titlis Cable Car station to head up the mountain. The cost for an Engelberg-TITLIS “return” ticket (this means you have a round trip ticket, up and down the mountain) was CHF 96. But with our Swiss Travel Pass, we are offered a 50% discount. That’s a huge saving!
Three separate cable cars lines accomplish the trip up Mt. Titlis. Please don’t make the mistake we did when you get to Trubsee and exit your car unless you want to see Trubsee. We did this on the way down; it was nice to walk around the lake.
When you reach Stand, you transfer from the usual cable car to the Rotair. This car takes you on the final ascent to the top of Titlis. As the Rotair heads up the mountain, it rotates a full 360⁰ affording you a fantastic view.
At the top of Mr. Titlis, we avail ourselves of the famous cliff walk. This suspension bridge is 3,041 meters (nearly 10,000 feet) above sea level. And at that height is Europes highest suspension bridge. But the scary part of the bridge walk is that you are on a bridge that is 100 meters long and only 1 meter wide, see-through, and crossing over a pretty deep canyon!
Once we get across the bridge, all that’s left to do is play in the snow.
A Carriage Ride Around Engelberg and the Monastery Cheese Shop
We booked a carriage ride around the town for later in the afternoon. The carriage and driver meet us at the Mt. Titlis station, and we begin our old-fashioned tour of the village. The driver does not speak much English, and my German is very sparse, but the afternoon is beautiful, and the ride is a vintage throwback to a simpler time.
We end the carriage ride at the Engelberg Abbey (Kloster Engelberg). Not because we want to see another church; we saw plenty already. But because of the cheese shop at the Kloster that is known worldwide.
Here at Kaserei Engelberg, milk from the Abbey’s cows is transformed into excellent buttery cheese before your very eyes! In addition to watching cheesemaking, the shop is a sort of deli/coffee and souvenir shop all in one. We dig into an excellent cheese tart and then pick up a few rounds to ship home. Fortunately, the post is at the train station, just a five-minute walk away.
We head back to Zurich at the end of Day 4 of our 1 week in Switzerland.
Mt Pilatus Via Cable Car, Train, And Boat
Often called the “Golden Round Trip,” visiting Mt Pilatus via Cable Car, Train, and Boat is a fun way to spend a day. We love to travel using different sorts of transportation. On this the 5th day of our 1 week in Switzerland, we take an aerial cable car, a cogwheel train, and a 1-hour boat cruise on Lake Lucerne. This is a day trip we chose to make on an organized tour.
We head over to Lucerne by train to meet with the tour group just outside the Lucerne station. Here we board a coach that takes us to the small suburb of Lucerne, Keiens, where we board a panoramic gondola to Frakmuntegg. Here we switch to the aerial Dragon Ride cable car and sail to the top of Mount Pilatus. The view of the snow-capped peaks all around us is magnificent.
At the top of the mountain, you are 2132 meters above sea level (that’s nearly 7,000 feet for those of us still using the old imperial measurements). Here you will find two buildings that include restaurants and of course the obligatory gift shops.
But take a few minutes to climb a bit higher to the summit and view the Dragon Trail. Legend has it that dragons with healing powers lived here in the middle ages.
After a bit of refreshment and many pictures, we head over to the station for our ride down the mountain on the world’s steepest cogwheel railway. These rail cars climb up and down the mountain at a pitch of up to 48% all day long. As you round bends and go in and out of tunnels, you catch glimpses of Lake Lucerne and sweeping alpine meadows with cows (all wearing those famous bells) are grazing.
The train ends in Alpnachstad, conveniently right across the road from the lake, where a lovely boat is waiting. This last hour of the tour is spent cruising back to Lucerne on the “Lake of the 4 Cantons” (Lake Lucerne). Note, the lake cruise is only active during the summer months.
The train station in Lucerne is an easy walk from the boat dock, and we enjoyed this short stroll. If you start early enough in the day, you could still spend time in Lucerne. But we plan to return to Lucern tomorrow and spend the whole day exploring the city.
Lucerne, Our Last Day Trip During Our 1 Week In Switzerland
Today starts much like yesterday. We take advantage of Hotel Adler’s excellent breakfast. Having a hearty breakfast at the hotel each day really cuts down on eating out costs. We generally skip lunch or pick up a snack at a local coffee shop or deli. That means the only meal we pay for each day is our dinner.
The weather gods have blessed us for our 1 week in Switzerland. All week has been sunny and mild, so we enjoy the short stroll to the central station to catch the train to Lucerne. In fact, on this 6th day of our week in Switzerland, we will be walking all day. Note: bring comfortable walking shoes!
By the way, I am using English spelling for the most part. In Switzerland, the names will generally look similar, i.e., Lucerne is Luzern, but they are different spellings. Don’t let that through you off.
Again we choose to use the GPSmycity app and tour the city on foot using one of the preloaded walks, the City Introduction Walk. The app tells us this walk is 4.2 km (2.6 miles) and will take about two hours. I say about since the app bases the time as if in constant motion. Obviously, we will make some shorter and longer stops along the way at locations and museums that interest us the most.
The Lucern Walk Starts And Ends At The Train Station
Much like Zurich, Lucerne is very walkable. Except for the slow rise to the area just outside the old City Wall, most of the walk is on reasonably flat ground. Here in Lucerne, the app has us making a big circle of all the sites.
The highlights of the walk for me were in no particular order:
- The Chapel and Speuer Bridge
- These two bridges crossing the Reuss River are old covered wooden footbridges built as initially far back as 1333 to allow for people to quickly get from one side of the city to the other. Both bridges have a feature unique to Lucerne: Along the bridge in the area between the trusses, you will find painted interior triangular frames. These paintings created initially in the 17th century depict Lucerne’s history and the bridges’ benefactors.
- Glacier Garden and the Lion Monument
- Glacier Garden is an indoor and outdoor museum taking you back 20,000 years in time to when Lucerne was covered by the Reuss Glacier. When the glacier melted away, 16 glacier pots were created. The discovery of these pots and the history they contained led the city to develop the Gardens. There is a lot to see here, but we stayed mainly in the outdoor exhibits.
- Sitting at the base of Glacier Garden is the Lion Monument. This monument was designed by Bertel Thorvaldsen and carved in 1820–21 by Lukas Ahorn. It commemorates the Swiss Guards massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. Sitting above a reflecting pool, the Lion Monument is an excellent place to rest and reflect on Lucerne.
- The Old City Wall is also known as the Musegg Wall. The wall, a high point in the city, is semi-circular and frames a panoramic view of the city lake. The homes just inside the wall are pretty grand, making the best of the vistas they oversee.
Day 7 – The Last Full Day Of Our 1 Week In Switzerland
Today is a day of rest, but that doesn’t mean sitting still. We wander around Zurich, ensuring we have all the souvenirs and gifts we want to bring home. It’s been a busy week with a lot of history culture to absorb, and we only covered a tiny part of Switzerland! Making Zurich our home base during our stay was an excellent way to stay focused and still see so many things.
Tomorrow we head back to the airport and start to plan our next adventures.