Free Things to Do in Zurich While on a Switzerland Vacation

Travel tips

Young female tourist with swiss flag at the top of Grossmunster Tower in Zurich, Switzerland

The terms “Switzerland vacation” and “budget travel” aren’t often used together in the same sentence. When they are, they’re usually followed by a meek one word plea: “Help!”

Common wisdom about this beautiful country has it pegged as one for business travellers on expense accounts, cashed-up ski enthusiasts, and the occasional keen hiker willing to live on instant ramen for a week. Visitors often pass quickly through Geneva and Zurich on their way to the picturesque mountain towns, slowing down in Bern just long enough to say they didn’t skip Switzerland’s cities completely.

As is the case with many gateway “big cities,” such breezy dismissal is a bit unfair, particularly on Zurich. There’s no getting around the fact that this is probably Europe’s most expensive “big city” to visit. But like all pricey cities, there are ways to save if you’re well-prepared, a little shrewd, and willing to make a compromise or two.

Zurich may not be the kind of city where a budget traveller will spend more than a day or two for fun, but these ideas will help you fill out a short stay in Switzerland’s biggest city. They’re also ideal for a long layover at Zurich Airport. The Line 2 train can have you downtown in just 10 minutes, while the cheaper Line 10 tram takes no more than half an hour.

City tram (Line 10) in Zurich on a beautiful summer day, Switzerland
City tram (Line 10) in Zurich on a beautiful summer day

Explore the City on Two Wheels

Your active Switzerland vacation doesn’t have to wait for the mountains! City bikes, e-bikes, and children’s bikes are free to rent in Zurich, provided you have a valid ID and a deposit of CHF 20. Bikes are available year-round from the Europaplatz train station or bike station at Postbrucke, and from numerous other locations between May and October.

Stroll the City’s Finest Parks

Zurich is all about making the outdoors accessible. Belvoir Park is a great place to explore if your tastes lean toward landscape gardens. Reiterpark is the city’s largest landscape garden, dating back to 1855. On the banks of Lake Zurich, you can also explore or pedal your way through Arboretum, perhaps stopping in at Zurich Aviary and Bird Sanctuary, which is also free to visit.

Visit the focusTerra Museum

Geology, climate change, volcanic science… All of it is on display at the focusTerra Museum. For anyone interested in the earth sciences, this is a Zurich must-visit. During the week, pick up a free audioguide to help you find your way around, or on Sundays, join a free guided tour, which includes a bone-shaking visit to the museum’s earthquake simulator.

See Rodin’s The Gates of Hell at Kunsthaus

Zurich’s most famous gallery, Kunsthaus, sadly isn’t free to explore, but you can see one of its star attractions by no less an artist than Rodin from the street. The Gates of Hell stand in stark contrast to the gallery’s mild, inoffensive stone façade. Look closer to see a small rendering of Rodin’s masterpiece, The Thinker.

Broaden Your Mind at the University of Zurich

The University of Zurich has several free museums with stunning collections to suit a variety of interests. Admire antiquities from across the Mediterranean and Middle East in the Archaeological Collection, and delve into 240 million years of natural history at the Paleontological Museum. Ideal for families, the Zoological Museum showcases 1,500 animals, and is as much an experience for the ears as it is the eyes. Finally, the university’s Botanical Garden will transport you to across the world through a variety of greenhouses exploring various habitats and climates.

View from the Grossmunster Tower towards the University of Zurich, Switzerland
View from Grossmunster Tower towards the University of Zurich

Go Swimming in a Natural River Pool

Zurich’s waterways are so clean, many of them hold natural public swimming pools that are free to enjoy on a Switzerland vacation. Just up from the Swiss National Museum is the Upper Letten River Pool. Those seeking a more active experience may wish to jump into the fast-running waters of the Lower Letten River Pool in the city’s west. The historic Schanzengraben River Pool is also conveniently located in the central city, but is only open to men.

Visit the Animals in Their Natural Habitat

Located just outside of Zurich, Langenberg Wildlife Park is free to enter year-round, and showcases many wild animals including bears, elk, wild boar, wolves, and more. Zurich is one of the most ecologically-minded cities in the world, so large, natural enclosures give the animals as much space as possible to behave as they would in the wild.

European brown bear in Langenberg Wildlife Park, part of Zurich Wildlife Park, Zurich, Switzerland
European brown bear in Langenberg Wildlife Park, part of Zurich Wildlife Park

Other Tips and Tricks to Save

  • Take the train or tram to and from the airport. Zurich has some of the highest taxi prices in the world.
  • Bring an empty water bottle and fill up for free at Zurich’s 1,200 drinking water fountains. Many of these are works of art in their own right, and a tour of them runs on the first Wednesday of each month from July to October.
  • Ass-Bar is a local bakery famous for its unique concept of cheap pastries “fresh from yesterday.” With the idea of cutting down on food waste, Ass-Bar sells high quality, day-old baked goods at half price, and is a favourite with bargain hunters, local and otherwise.
  • Coop is another Zurich budget-friendly favourite. These large grocery stores offer ready-cooked meals at very reasonable prices. You can even pick up a fine Swiss chocolate bar for dessert for around $2.
  • Before you completely dismiss the idea of shopping in Zurich, consider browsing its extensive range of secondhand shops and markets. If you can navigate through this non-English site, check out nichtneu.ch for ideas on where to track down a bargain.
  • If you’re staying in Zurich for either 24 or 72 hours, consider picking up the Zurich Card for CHF 27, or CHF 53 respectively. It includes unlimited travel by bus, train, and cableway in Zurich and its surrounds, short boat trips, and a Limmat river cruise, plus discounted entry to many paid attractions, and on some tours including an Old Town Walking Tour. As with all cards of this type, get the best value for money by leaving free experiences (plus those not covered by the card) for days you don’t have an active card.
Cruise vessel on River Limmat at Canton of Zurich, Lake Zurich, Switzerland
Cruise vessel on River Limmat at Canton of Zurich