As I have visited Zurich before, I don’t intend to stay in town more than a night of my arrival and a night of my departure. My plan is to take the beautiful Swiss train system through the Alps and visit several picturesque towns – Luzern and Interlaken. Come with me to the Swiss country side (with a quick stop in Big City) and enjoy the beauty of getting away and always finding your way back home.
Day 1 – Things To Do in Zurich
By every standard, Zurich is a large city. It is a world capital, a center of commerce and finance. But I observed a paradox here that makes Zurich stand out from other very large cities – it has the unmistakable feel of a small town. Here, people smile at each other when they make eye contact. Drivers and pedestrians both obey traffic rules (in my experience this is virtually unheard of in most very large cities). There is a calm in the air, with children freely taking public transportation (I saw kids as young as 6 on their own in the city transit). All together this combines to give a visitor the impression of a small country town, but one that comes with world class museum, history, shopping, dining and a fantastic public transportation network, and one that spreads over hundreds of miles.
Zurich has one of the best public transport systems in the world, and I suggest using it to get around. The commute from the airport to center town is very easy, and although I usually opt for taxies on my way in from an airport, in Switzerland, I make an exception. In the airport come up to one of the information booths. Here you will be able to give the address of your hotel and the helpful clerks will print out exact directions and sell you tickets (ticket to and from the airport costs 6.40 francs). Famously, the transportation system runs precisely on schedule with every train and bus arriving and leaving to the second (the expression “like a Swiss clock” comes to mind). It’s easy to follow the directions and within 30 minutes you will be at the base of your hotel. If you do opt for the taxi, remember that Switzerland is one of the more expensive European countries and be prepared to pay for the privilege.
On my first day in Zurich, I picked up a (free) map in my hotel and walked along the river to the old town. From here, I followed a self-guided walking tour (as suggested on the map) that took me through meandering streets and large avenues, stopping by many notable attractions in Zurich.
One of my favorite stops along the tour was the Grossminister Church, build in the 1500s this historic church is a testament to Switzerland’s path towards reformation. After you walk around the church, approach the gentleman sitting at the side door. Here you can pay four franks (they also accept euros) and go up to the very top of the church via two super creepy and tiny staircases. Up there the air is thin (just kidding you are not that high up) and the view is spectacular. Don’t forget your camera, you’ll definitely want some pics!
I spend the rest of the day wandering old town and alone the river, drinking local coffee and hanging out by the water, of which there is no shortage in Zurich.
Where to Eat in Zurich:
Zurich is considered the 6th most expensive city in the world. And its food prices do not disappoint. A lunch in a nice place costs close to $50 and dinner is double. If you are looking to save money, I suggest hitting the local sausage (delicious and grilled to perfection) for breakfast. For lunch I wanted to try some of the more high end places.
One place I have heard good things about is Restaurant Schipfe16, located on Lindenhof Street. Its well known for its local cuisine and setting – located right on the bank of River Limmat, so you can enjoy water views with your meal. It is also known as one of the more affordable “nice” places in Zurich, with a main lunch dish running about 25 franks, compared with 35 and up in other places. I decided to try this place out on my first day in Zurich, and the food did not disappoint.
I was surprised to learn (I did from a neighbor at the next table) that the restaurant is owned by the city of Zurich, and its employees are former convicts or other people who need to reintegrate into the society. Although some of the servers weren’t great, others were very warm and kind. I was told that many of the servers, after they acquire the necessary skills leave to work in other restaurants, so you have to be patient with staff. Since the place is beautiful, serves very good food and is at a reasonable price point, I would recommend coming here during your stay in Zurich.
My travel hack for visiting more expensive countries, is to eat lunch in the fancy restaurants I want to try, and have dinner in a more low end place. Lunch and dinner are the same quality in most places, and lunch plates can cost anywhere from 20% to 30% less than the compatible dinner plates.
Although I am not a fan of Swiss food same can’t be said for Swiss desert. Whatever you decide to do for lunch and dinner, make sure you designate some time to stop by one of the riverside cafes. Here in the shade, with a view of water enjoy a late afternoon coffee with a traditional chocolate mouse or home made crème. Also worth trying here is the tiramousse, although invented in Italy I do believe it was perfected right here, in Switzerland.
Day 2: Zurich to Lucern by Train
As beautiful a city as Zurich is, I didn’t come here for the big city. My main priority for this trip was to see the beauty of the Swiss countryside. One of my absolute favorite things is visiting the countryside of northern countries in the summer – when the weather is warm, the sun sets late and the local flora finally gets a chance to bloom in all its glory. I suppose I enjoy this particularly because I know the summer up here is such a quick season, its fast beauty so precious it should be enjoyed fully, while you have the opportunity. And so, on day two I took a train to Lucern, an alpine Switzerland town known for its beauty and nature.
Getting around Switzerland is a pleasure, as I have mentioned before, the public transport system is outstanding. I booked my tickets for Luzern in advance via this website. The train ride, about two hours in very comfortable surroundings was one of the things I looked forward to on this trip. As we got further out of the big city and closer towards the mountainside, the landscape began to grow more wild and beautiful. I strongly suggest taking a train to Switzerland on your trip here, you will not be disappointed.
Upon my arrival in Luzern and checking into my hotel I picked up another map and followed its plans for a walking tour. This tour takes you over 7 major city attractions and tells you a little bit about each one. These guides are free and available in your hotel.
Although Luzern is less expensive than Zurich, it’s not so by much. The food here is still rather costly making even a jaded New Yorker like me take a double look (average lunch dish costs between $25 to $35), they even charge you for tap water. If you are a fan of Swiss food there is no shortage of high-end places to try. But if like me, you are ambivalent towards Swiss food, one place I am glad to have found is the Manora Mall. Don’t laugh – instead walk all the way up to the 5th floor, past the food court and to the rooftop. You’ll see a spectacular view and a lovely place to enjoy a beer or drink (that can be purchased at the food court). And if you are looking for a bargain lunch, the place has the best bargains in town such as fresh pasta bar ($12 a plate) and chicken Ceasar salad ($14).
The bloody struggle between Roman Catholicism and Protestanism may sometimes feel like it was a million years ago, in Luzern reminders of it remain, you just have to know where to look. While nearby Zurich turned Protestan, Lucern remained strictly Catholic. In 1365, Prior to the rise of protestanism, a wooden bridge was build connecting the two parts of town. This wooden structure, which remains to this day is a famous city landmark and the city’s symbol. When walking it, not everyone notices the triangular paintings hanging directly overhead. These paintings, commissioned in the 15th century, depict the life of two catholic saints and served as a way to reinforce town folk in their faith on what was for many a daily commute. The bridge remains standing to this day thanks in no small part to the paintings and the “propaganda value” that the leaders of the town assigned to this structure.
If you follow the walking tour as I did, the very last stop will be the Schimerturm, a tower build into the Musegg Wall. This wall build in 1386, is almost intact, and a host to four towers, each of them open to public from April through October. Climb the steep stairs of the old clock tower, and inside you will see the inner workings of an old clock, climb higher and you’ll the entire city – old and new. Wait for a bit and you’ll see the old chimes in action – precisely on the minute of course. I sat here for a few minutes listening and watching the swaying clock workings, an ancient rhythm by which we measure our lives, often to our own detriment.
If you are into the history of time (and have the time) make your way over to Zug, about 40 minutes outside of Luzern center by public transport and visit the Zytturm Clocktower. To get inside you’ll need to ask for the key in the restaurant beneath, adding to the air of mystery about the place. This place is special – the clock was built in the middle ages and it just so happens to be the one exception to the famous Swiss precision. The clock here is allowed to chime 1 full minute before all other clocks in town, an ancient tradition continued to this day. The views from up here are gorgeous and worth the trek.
I spend my evening on the river. One of the great joys of travel is to have a delicious meal in a great location. Here, I would suggest picking from dozens of restaurants lining Lake Lucerne. Try the pork or the beef, both local specialties and raised just a few miles outside of town. Wine is one of the great bargains in Switzerland costing only a little more than coffee. As I watched the night change very slowly (I am very far north after all) from eve to night I remembered how incredibly privileged I am to be able to travel to amazing locations.
Luzern, Switzerland, 2017
Day 3, Luzern
Luzern is a city at the base of a mountain. Several actually, to be exact. Pilatus is one of the most accessible mountains and many chose to visit here during their stay in Lucern. Visiting Pilatus is one of the reasons why I am spending 2 days here, and today is the time to go up – really high up. Unlike with most of my trips, I will not be hiking up these mountains as part of the fun of getting up there is to take the transportation.
Legend says that the black lake on top of mountain Pilatus is one of the devil’s favorite abodes. This doesn’t make much sense to me, because supposedly hell is a hot place and a lake on an alpine mountain doesn’t even qualify as warm, but hey who am I to argue with a legend. So, to get up here you have to take a bus from the center of town to the base of the mountain, then a cable car, then a second cable car. Then, you walk up about 30 to 45 minutes. To get back down you can take a train that travels down at a very high gradient (48%, the highest gradient in the world), and finally a boat that will get you back into Lucern. You can also reverse the trip and start with the boat first, then the train, then two cable cars. But the locals tell me the train is much more fun going down then up and feels a bit like a roller coaster.
Having done the trip, I have to say the luxurious boat ride with the sun setting, is definitely the best way to end this trip.
The weather on the mountain can change quickly. When my second cable car pulled up it was 85 degrees, sunny and hot. As I climbed up to the top, the weather began to turn. By the time of my descent, it was raining and the temperature dropped about 25 degrees. The forecast, which I checked before leaving, showed sunny 85 degrees the entire day. If I know one thing its to never trust the weather on a mountain – I was grateful I had brought my thick technical sweatshirt and rain jacket, and I really suggest that if you follow my itinerary you do the same.
I would also suggest doing this trip on a weekday and not a weekend. If only a weekend is possible, be prepared to wait in long lines. My line to go down in a train was almost 2 hours – the line is well managed, and everyone is polite, but it’s still long and frustrating. Still, even with the line the trip is worth doing. You can purchase a ticket from your hotel for the entire trip for about 95 franks or at the train station for about 100. You can not buy the ticket online.
Day 4, Luzern to Interlaken
My office, for the next hour, is the ancient stone steps that lead down to Lake Lucern. The sound in my temporary office is the waves beating against the steps and the occasional duck quacking in the background. As I wait for my train (that will leave precisely as a Swiss clock at 12:05) I have about an hour to go over some of my impressions so far. Traveling in Northern Europe is always an easy experience for me. There is no culture shock here – their cultural tradition of following rules and timetables is as native to me as breathing. I can relate to this way of life and so I walk out of these trips not so much as having learned anything or grown in any way, but having simply enjoyed myself and the ease with which I slip into the life here.
It is interesting to think that when we are comfortable (as I am here) we are not learning. Learning comes from discomfort, and learning through travel is a prime example. I do love a good relaxing trip as much as anyone. I try to intermix trips like this one with more life jarring trips such as my recent trip to Cuba. It’s important to get a variety of experiences when traveling. It’s important to see a variety of cultures, even if some of them might be very similar to your own.
For anyone who is looking for a relaxing European vacation, I can recommend Switzerland in the summer. There are a variety of routes to take here, and I do not recommend staying in one place for long. One or two days in each town should more than suffice. The train website offers a variety of different interesting train trips. Although I did not see very crowded trains during my time in Switzerland, booking in advance means you can reserve a window seat. Additionally, be sure to book all the hotels in advance. In the summer Switzerland hosts millions of tourists and your ability to book a hotel at the last minute may be limited. Finally, if you follow to have your hotels and trains travel booked, you do not need to plan an itinerary otherwise. The place is a well-oiled tourist machine, information on activities is easily available in your hotel and in various tourist information booths through each city. It easy very easy to travel through Switzerland.
Interlaken is a small, quaint town of the kind distinctly northern European. It’s spotless, with a virtually nonexistent crime rate. The locals are warm and welcoming and the tourists overtake the town during the short-lived Swiss summer. A day spends in Interlaken is the perfect amount of time, not too much and not too little. On their day here, most chose to take the venicular up to the mountain (Harder Klum) and either hang out by the restaurant at the base and take selfies or go for a hike. Of course, I opted for the latter. There many beautiful trails here extending from 45 minutes to 6 hours and a level of difficulty that satisfies any level hiker. As I did not have a full day or proper shoes I took one of the shorter paths which led to a lovely lookout point and sat up here in silence. The trails are not at all crowded and I only passed by a few people on my way up and down, this is a great experience I can definitely recommend.
Day 5, Interlaken to Zurich
Its august 1st and this means its Switzerland Day, a day of national celebration. Of all the places I visit, Switzerland has one of the least conflict-ridden histories. This is not surprising due to the fact that the nation has famously been neutral since 1815. Its role in World War 2 was particularly interesting, as a neutral country that bordered Germany they immediately prepared for an invasion. That invasion never came – due to a combination of financial concessions towards Germany and good luck (Germans had bigger matters to attend to). Its press was famously critical of the Nazi neighbor and the Nazi party never took hold in Switzerland.
Switzerland however, does have a spotty record with admitting refugees during World War 2. Although many were admitted temporarily, many were also turned away when the country felt their resources dwindling. It did serve as a haven for escaped prisoners of war and over the course of war all together Switzerland hosted close to 300,000 refugees, out of which only about 60,000 were escaping persecution and only 27,000 were Jews. Only a few hundred refugees were granted permanent status.
Switzerland day celebration is to honor the time “in early august” when in 1921 three Alpine Cantons (provinces) swore and oath of confederation, thereby establishing the beginnings of modern day Switzerland. The day is celebrated through the entire country with parades, fares, and fireworks.
Its time for me to head back now. Switzerland, especially in the summer has got to be one of the most beautiful places in the world. I hope you have enjoyed reading about my trip and as always I look forward to your comments. Happy Switzerland Day!
Zurich, August 1st, 2017