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Four Days in Zürich: What to Do, See & Eat on a Budget

The Swarovski studded tree illuminates Zürich’s largest indoor market. Justine Hall

Zürich was never at the top of my must-see travel destinations list. And boy, was I wrong. 

Zürich is one of those cities that for years earned an unnecessarily bad rap as a snoozy, expensive destination. While the latter can be true, it’s totally possible to spend four days in the city and stick to a budget—you just need to get your priorities straight. For my friends and me, that was to spend as much time at the Christmas markets and to drink as much mulled wine as possible.

Keep reading to find some of my favourite spots in the city at this insanely festive time of year.

Must-do: Christmas markets 

The raison d'être for this trip was to go to the Christmas markets. My friends and I settled on Zürich for its plethora of traditional stalls and grand markets alike. 

The largest outdoor market is Zürich’s Wienachtsdorf at Sechseläutenplatz. It’s directly outside of the Opera House and boasts around 100 stalls. Aim to hit this market on the day you think you’ll have the best weather during your trip; while the snow makes it that much more magical, it also makes it that much colder.  

Wander the stalls sampling cheeses, dips, sauces, nuts and gingerbreads. Make sure you grab a drink in the Fondue-Chalet located inside the market. This place was a serious highlight of our trip—we spent an entire night here drinking glühwein (mulled wine) and chatting with locals—pretty much everyone we encountered in Zürich was bilingual, if not trilingual.

While it smells strongly of raclette cheese when you first enter, the smell quickly dissipates as you’re transported into a cozy, charming beer hall-style space. Winter coats are strewn upon the wooden rafters as travellers and locals alike settle in for the night. It feels like you’ve been transported into the coziest ski lodge, complete with a refurbished sled serving as a light fixture. I could go on raving, but you really ought to check it out for yourself.

Then there’s the Christkindlimarkt held inside Zürich’s main train station. It’s one of the biggest indoor markets in Europe and is the perfect space to spend a few hours when the weather outside is oh so frightful. At the centre of the market is the 50-foot Christmas tree adorned in Swarovski crystals. You’ll quickly forget you’re in a train station. Make sure to snag some spiked apple cider while you’re there to add some variety to your glühwein consumption.

You’ll find other, smaller markets nestled on street corners and in plazas selling an assortment of wares, food and of course glühwein.

Must-do: Eats

As a self-described foodie my first instinct was to research the best spots to eat. I quickly learned an average meal in Zürich can run you about 20 to 30 Swiss francs (CHF) minimum (or about $25 to $40 CAD). My friends and I have yet to amass such a fortune, so I quickly found ways to improvise. 

This is definitely not the most glamorous option, but cooking in your hostel is surefire way to save your francs. As it was mid-December we had trouble finding farmers' markets offering more than flowers, so to the local groceries we went. Denner, a Swiss chain, was close to our hostel and sold good, fresh bread. We also bought pasta and vegetables to provide for two night’s worth of dinners and was around 6 CHF total. 

Breakfast is easy if you’re okay with pastries, simply head to any cafe you find. Though a word of warning: Coffee in Zürich can seriously mess with your budget. It ran from 4 to 5 CHF for an americano and only goes up from there. Groceries like Denner have espresso machines offering cups at a third of the cost. My hostel also provided a coffee machine, and while it certainly wasn’t the best coffee I’ve had, I didn’t go to Zürich for the coffee—I did, however, go for the mulled wine, and that does not disappoint. 

Easily purchased at any of the markets, and at a few stand alone spots, glühwein, is a Zürich Christmas-must. Inside the markets a cup is around 6 CHF, or 9 CHF if you want to keep the festive mug as a memento from the trip. It is well worth every franc as the spicy sweet concoction warms your heart and soul, reminding you why you ate hostel pasta for dinner. Enjoy every sip of your second and third cup.

For wildly good breakfast and lunch options head to John Baker for Our Daily Bread  to pick up deliciously fresh sandwiches for around 8 CHF. There’s not much indoor seating, so grab your sandwich to go and enjoy a meal to keep you full and satisfied throughout your day. The place boasts great vegan options as well, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Hit up the Tidbits buffet bar on your last night to spend up any remaining francs you may have. You pay for your plate’s weight so you can pile up as little or as much as you fancy. This veg-centered eatery was opened with the help of legendary Swiss family Rolf and Marielle Hiltl who created Hans Hiltl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world, which happens to be in Zürich. (A bit out of our price range, but a definite Zürich must do if you can swing it.) 

You can’t go to Switzerland without sampling some Swiss chocolate. At least I can’t. Confiserie Sprüngli  is one of the best in Zürich. Established in 1836, the place knows how to do chocolate. I bought two truffles for about 3 CHF, though gift boxes are closer to 30 or 40 CHF, so I wouldn’t necessarily buy chocolate for everyone I know here, but it’s worth a taste.

Must-do: Explore

There are tons of cities in Europe that are walkable and Zürich easily fits into the pack. The city is divided by the Limmat River, an outfall from Lake Zürich. Follow the river for an easy tour and admire the charming views of the city as you do.

Make your way to Lake Zürich (follow the river) to find snow-covered trees and boats all bundled up for the winter. It’s easy to imagine the lake in balmy, less-than-freezing weather, but it’s still worth the trek to see it. Plus, you might just be privy to some crazy impressive runners out for a jog when you can barely feel your toes.

Walk up to Lindenhof, a park that sits atop the city offering stunning views of snow blanketed roofs and the heart of Zürich. Along the way up be sure to admire the store windows and small cafes festively decked out in their Christmas best.

Bits and pieces 

A local friend passed on this golden piece of advice to us, and now I’ll share it here. Head to Coop, a Swiss grocery store where you can find all of your souvenirs at half the price. Whether you have your eye on Swiss chocolate, gingerbread cookies, shot glasses, magnets or mugs, you can find them here.  

As I’ve noted throughout the article, Switzerland uses the Swiss franc as currency, so the best way to convert your money is to hit up an ATM as soon as you arrive to get a better conversion rate. But don’t worry about doing it in the airport or train station; most train ticket kiosks take euros and give you francs in return, an easy way to get a few francs before heading into the city.

Switzerland has four national languages. In Zürich and most of the north Swiss German is most commonly spoken, however, most people we encountered spoke English too. But please, don’t be that English speaker who assumes everyone speaks English, and always ask do you speak English? Or even better, ask in German: Sprechen sie Englisch? One vendor was so impressed by this he actually complimented my friends and me for not assuming he spoke English.

If you want to experience the very best of European Christmas markets I can’t think of better destination than Zürich, especially if you foster a proclivity toward mulled wine. Devise a plan and you can spend four days in Zürich and easily stay within your budget.  I’d love to read any other Zürich recommendations in the comments below!

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Published in Work Abroad Blogs
Justine Hall

When she’s not immersed in life as an au pair, Justine Hall can be found wandering the streets of Madrid, practicing her Spanish with anyone who lets her and chronicling her experiences as a freelancer.

Website: instagram.com/justinetherese11/

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