The Layover Guide to Zürich
Table of Contents
Switzerland’s largest city, Zürich is often regarded as more of an international finance hub than a tourist destination. Yet it’s a remarkably attractive city, with a wealth of historic architecture and cultural treasures—all set against the backdrop of glittering Lake Zürich.
With quick connections between the airport and the city center, even a short layover allows you to take in many of Zürich’s highlights. Stroll the cobblestone streets of the compact, well-preserved Altstadt (Old Town) to get a taste of the city’s medieval heritage. See important churches and marvel at beautiful stained-glass windows created by the likes of Chagall and Giacometti. Hop aboard a river or lake cruise for unique views of the city and surrounding mountains. Share a bubbly-hot fondue and a bottle of crisp local white wine. And don’t forget to leave room for some famous Swiss chocolate!
- VISA REQUIRED: No
- MINIMUM CONNECTION TIME: 40 minutes
- MINIMUM CONNECTION TIME TO LEAVE THE AIRPORT: 4.5 hours
Visa info for Switzerland
While Switzerland is not a member of the European Union, it is part of the EU’s Schengen Zone, which allows citizens of many countries, including the United States, to visit for up to 90 days without a visa.
Minimum layover times for Zürich
To make a connection at the Zürich airport: 40 minutes
Switzerland’s largest airport, Zürich Airport (ZRH) has been named “Europe’s Leading Airport” by the World Travel Awards for 17 years running.
Changing flights at Zürich is easy and straightforward, with short routes between its three terminals. Terminals A and B/D are located under one roof and connected by the Airside Center shopping/dining complex. Passengers can walk between gates and there are also moving walkways. Most international flights arrive and depart from Terminal E, a satellite terminal reachable in three minutes by the underground Skymetro.
Depending on your arrival gate, it can take anywhere from a few minutes to around 30 minutes to reach your connecting flight gate, plus additional time to get through passport control and security checks if traveling internationally. Transfer desks are located in every terminal where boarding passes can be issued if you do not have one.
Thanks to the airport’s compact size and the famous Swiss efficiency, the minimum connection time between flights is just 40 minutes. However, to avoid having to rush through the airport or stress about missing your flight in case of delays, choose an itinerary with a layover of at least one hour.
For short layovers, it’s best to have your luggage checked through to your next destination. Allow for additional time if you need to collect, store, and re-check bags. Zürich Airport has several baggage storage and baggage locker areas located outside security, as does the SBB Travel Center at the Zürich Airport railway station.
To leave the Zürich airport and explore for part of the day: 4.5 hours
Zürich Airport is about six miles north of the city center. The quickest, most affordable way to travel is by train; the journey from the airport to the city’s main train station takes 10-12 minutes. From there, it’s a short walk to the Altstadt (Old Town) with many of Zürich’s biggest attractions.
Your layover should be at least 4.5 hours, which will give you a couple of hours to explore the city, plus allow for transportation time back to the airport, clearing airport security, collecting any stored bags, and being at your gate at least 30 to 45 minutes before departure. A layover of 7-8 hours will give you more time to enjoy the Zürich sites without rushing.
- 30-60 minutes to deplane and go through immigration and customs
- 11 mins to transit to downtown by train
- 2 hours to explore
- 11 minutes to return to airport
- 30-45 minutes to go back through security, get to your gate, and board the plane
Getting from the Zürich airport to the city center
- BUS: 30–40 mins
- TAXI: 15–20 mins
- TRAIN: 10–12 mins
The fastest, cheapest way to the city center from the ZRH airport is by regional or Intercity trains or suburban train (S-Bahn) lines S2 and S16; all take approximately 10-12 minutes. Trains run every three to five minutes from the Zürich Airport station, located underneath the Airport Center, to Zürich’s main station (Hauptbahnhof, abbreviated Zürich HB). The cost is 6.80 CHF for a single trip and you can purchase tickets at ticket machines, at SBB (Swiss Railways) ticket counters, or at the Switzerland Info desk in Arrivals 1 and 2.
If you have more time, consider hopping the tram (Line 10) for a scenic, 35-minute trip into the city, ending at Hauptbahnhof. Trams depart from directly outside the Arrivals Hall approximately every 15 minutes and tickets can be purchased from the ticket machines inside the terminal or at the Info desk. The cost is the same as the train.
Don’t take a taxi unless you have to; Zürich taxis are some of the most expensive in the world and the ride to the city center will cost between 50 and 70 CHF—plus an extra charge for larger suitcases. Uber is similarly priced.
A shuttle bus provided by Swiss Airlines takes between 30 and 40 minutes, but is mainly used for those staying at area hotels; the price varies depending on the drop-off point but is about 20% less than a taxi.
How to spend a short layover at the Zürich airport
Zürich Airport’s Airside Center, accessible only to passengers, offers around 60 shops, bars, and restaurants. Shop for Swiss brands at Mammut and Moncler, stocking upscale mountaineering and outerwear, and high-end (and not so high-end) watches at Bucherer, Victorinox, and Swatch. Pick up local chocolate at Lindt and Läderach, or luxe skincare products at the Swiss cosmetic brand La Prairie.
There’s a variety of international foods, from Asian to Italian to American fast-food, as well as Brezelkönig for pretzels and Chalet Suisse for specialties from around the country. There is free Wi-Fi throughout the airport.
A much better bet—if you have time to leave security—is The Circle, a massive new shopping/dining/hotel destination adjacent to the airport and directly connected via an indoor tunnel. Opened in November 2020, the glassy, modern complex has a huge range of shopping and dining options, with new tenants moving in as it continues to open.
Among the highlights for shopping is Jelmoli Lifestyle and Sports House, a branch of the upscale Swiss department store; the concept store ANECDOTE by Dufry, stocking top fashion labels, accessories, and perfumes; and a boutique from Swiss e-bike manufacturer Stromer. Dining options include the swanky rooftop restaurant Sablier, with a view of the adjacent park, l’Oro di Napoli for Italian wood oven-baked pizza, and restaurants and bars inside the two Hyatt hotels. On tap for summer 2021 is an art market with galleries, exhibition space for private collections, and art forums.
How to spend a Zürich layover outside the airport
Any visit to Zürich should start in the oldest part of the city, the Altstadt (Old Town), about a five-minute walk from the main train station, Hauptbahnhof. The Limmat River flows through the compact medieval center, dividing it into the Lindenhof, the hilly west bank, and the Rathaus, on the east side. Both are equally picturesque, with cobblestone lanes and squares lined with centuries-old guild houses, historic churches, and restored buildings with pretty pastel facades.
Much of the Altstadt is pedestrian-only, making for a relaxing stroll, while its many sidewalk cafes invite you to linger over coffee and cake. The district of Niederdorf, on the east bank, is one such pedestrian zone, with upscale boutiques, galleries, and restaurants tucked among winding, cobblestone alleys.
The Altstadt is home to four landmark churches, the oldest of which is the Baroque Church of St. Peter, which also counts the largest church tower clock in Europe. Be sure to stop inside the medieval Fraumünster church, situated right on the Limmat’s west bank, to see its exquisite stained-glass windows designed by Marc Chagall and Augusto Giacometti. Cross the Münsterbrücke bridge to reach the 16th-century Grossmünster, notable for its two soaring towers; one of which, the Karlstrum, you can climb to enjoy panoramic views of the Old Town, Lake Zürich, and the mountains on the horizon.
Of course, no visit to Switzerland is complete without sampling its renowned chocolate. You can’t go wrong at any of the multitude of chocolate shops scattered all around the Altstadt, but a standout is Max Chocolatier, located next to the Church of St. Peter, where every piece is made by hand using only natural ingredients. Nearby, Confiserie Teuscher whips up divine champagne truffles made with Dom Perignon; the pricey treat (4 CHF) is definitely worth the cost.
How to spend an overnight layover in Zürich
An long layover in Zürich, or even an overnight, will give you time to explore the city’s natural wonders. Tops on the list is Lake Zürich, whose crystal-clear waters are surrounded by charming villages with the dramatic peaks of the Alps as a backdrop. You can stroll along the lake promenade and soak up the scenery, but the best way to experience the lake is by boat. Cruises depart daily all year-round from the lake-fronting Bürkliplatz and last anywhere from 90 minutes to 4 hours.
If you’re short on time, a good option is the 50-minute Limmat River cruise, which sails from the National Museum up the river to Lake Zürich and back. The glass-enclosed boats pass by many of Old Town’s major sites, including Zürich’s Town Hall, the Grossmünster and Fraumünster churches, and the historical guild houses. Boats operate between April and October.
Zürich is also blessed with over 50 museums and 100-plus art galleries. Of these, the Kunsthaus Zürich is not to be missed, with its spectacular collection of modern and contemporary art that include works by Picasso, Giacometti, Warhol, Rothko, and Swiss visual artist Pipilotti Rist. It’s also home to the largest collection of Edvard Munch outside of Norway. In December 2020, the museum unveiled a David Chipperfield-designed addition, which effectively doubles its size and gives a dedicated space to paintings by French Impressionists and post-Impressionists including Monet, Cézanne, Van Gogh, and Degas. Kunsthaus Zürich is located on the east bank, less than a 10-minute walk from Zürich’s Town Hall.
Some of the city’s best restaurants can be found in the Altstadt, with many set inside wonderfully atmospheric historical buildings. Among them is Zunfthaus zur Waag, located in a centuries-old guild house directly opposite the Fraumünster church, where you can dine on Swiss delicacies like sliced veal with rösti (crispy potatoes). Another is Kronenhalle, which has been serving Swiss haute cuisine since 1924 in elegant rooms filled with original artworks by the likes of Picasso, Giacometti, Matisse, and Chagall.
While Zürich is relatively small, for a short stay, it’s best to choose a hotel in the Old Town or close to the main train station around the upscale shopping street of Bahnhofstrasse. Unfortunately, Zürich hotels are wildly expensive—in part due to the strong Swiss currency but also because of the large number of business travelers (especially bankers) and conventions. More affordable options—including plenty of trendy design hotels—can be found in the up-and-coming Zürich West district, about a 15-minute tram ride away from Zürich’s Town Hall.
Need to Know
- CURRENCY: Swiss France (CHF)
- LANGUAGE: German/Swiss German
- SAFETY: A+
- COST: $$$$$ (out of $$$$$)
- BEST TIME TO GO: May–October
Currency in Switzerland
The official currency is the Swiss franc (CHF). While euros are often accepted at larger stores and restaurants, the exchange rate is generally unfavorable. If you need cash, there are ATMs across the city, but be aware of possible high withdrawal fees. Most businesses take debit cards and major credit cards.
Cost in Zürich
There’s no way around it—a visit here will cost you; along with Paris and Hong Kong, Zürich is one of the world’s most expensive cities. It is very much a business hub, with an emphasis on the banking and tech crowd (Google’s European headquarters are here), so hotels and restaurants are largely geared toward those with big expense accounts.
Zürich charges one of the highest average daily room rates in Europe, at 222 CHF per night. A meal for two at a mid-range restaurant will set you back 115 CHF, depending on the number of courses.
Weather & Best Time to Go to Zürich
Summer is peak season to visit, with warm, sunny days and temps hovering in the 80s. Late November and December are a festive time, with Christmas markets and holiday lights all around the city, but keep in mind that winters can be cold and snowy. January and February are particularly busy, as Zürich serves as a base for outings to the surrounding Alpine ski resorts.
Spring and fall are considered the off-season, with fewer crowds and lower prices, but the weather can be foggy and wet. April and May are fairly mild, and a great time to see cherry trees blossoming around the city, however they are also the rainiest months.
Safety in Zürich
Switzerland is one of the world’s safest countries, ranking 10th on the Global Peace Index (2020). Zürich is extremely safe, with a low incidence of crime, and even solo travelers can walk around the city at night with no issues.
Transport in Zürich
Zürich’s compact nature means most of the major sites can easily be reached on foot. Biking is also a great way to get around, and fortunately, city bikes (which include e-bikes) are free to use with a deposit of 20 CHF and a valid ID. Rent them from the Velostation at Europaplatz near Hauptbahnhof year-round, or seasonally at other locations throughout the city.
If you’re staying a bit outside of the city center or are tired of walking, there’s an efficient, extensive tram system that, along with S-Bahn trains, buses, cable cars, and even boats, make up the city’s ZVV transport network. The city is divided into multiple zones, and ticket prices change depending on how many you cross. A single ticket, good for one hour in zones 1-2 (the city of Zürich), costs 4.40 CHF. Tickets can be bought from ticket machines (they are located at every tram stop) or you can download the ZVV app and purchase on your phone. Zones and validity times are printed on all tickets or shown in the ticket app.
Those planning to use public transport frequently should consider purchasing a Zürich Card; it offers unlimited travel on all local city transport, including travel to/from the airport, plus a free river cruise and free or reduced admission to 43 museums. It starts at 27 CHF for 24 hours and can be purchased online, via the Zürich City Guide app, at tourist information desks at the airport and train station, or at ticket machines of the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) or ZVV.
Food & Drink in Zürich
Without a doubt, fondue is Switzerland’s most iconic dish; the rich melted cheese and wine dip, served in a communal pot with chunks of bread and potatoes for dipping, can be found at restaurants all over the city. Le Dézaley, set at the foot of the Grossmünster church, has been serving its classic fondue—made with “sur choix” cheeses from the region—for over 100 years.
A Zürich specialty is Zürcher Geschnetzeltes, pan-fried slices of veal in a creamy mushroom and white wine sauce. Try it at Restaurant Haus zum Rüden, located inside a 14th-century guild house with a stunning wood barrel-vaulted ceiling, or out on the promenade-fronting terrace with wonderful views of the Limmat and Münsterbrücke bridge.
The wines of Switzerland are little known outside the country, as it produces a limited amount and exports only a small percentage of its wines. The canton of Zürich is home to some 600 vintners producing Riesling, Räuschling, and Gewürztraminer as well as several red varietals. Sample them at the city’s oldest wine tavern, Oepfelchammer, a rustic, wood-lined space in Niederdorf that dates back to 1801.
Zürich lies in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, but Swiss German and Zürich German, a local dialect, are widely spoken. Nearly everyone speaks English quite well, especially in tourist areas, and many signs and menus include English translations.
Tucked into the winding alleys of the Altstadt, Cabaret Voltaire was the birthplace of the influential Dada art movement in the early 20th century. Today it’s both an exhibition space and live music venue, with an atmospheric café/bar that’s ideal for a coffee by day or a glass of absinthe come evening.
Unless you have really deep pockets—or a true love of window-shopping—skip Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most expensive shopping streets. The upper end is lined with luxury boutiques such as Prada, Armani, Gucci, and Rolex, while the lower half is mainly big fashion chains like Mango and Zara. There’s almost nothing here that you can’t find in any major city (and you’ll pay more given the exchange rate). One exception is at Christmastime, when the street is beautifully illuminated with thousands of colored lights.
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Published November 30, 2023
Last updated December 21, 2023
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