Walking Tour of Zürich Altstadt by Andrew Nash
This walking tour covers central Zurich: Bahnhofstrasse and the Altstadt. It’s mostly my favourite places in the old city.
Start at the south exit from the Hauptbahnhof. Cross the square, be careful of all the traffic and trams. Head south on Bahnhofstrasse.
Bahnhofstrasse is Zürich’s main street. Seven different tram lines run up and down the street between the Hauptbahnhof and Burkliplatz on the Zürich Lake. Bahnhofstrasse is mostly dedicated to public transit vehicles although delivery trucks and taxis are allowed on many segments of the street (a good compromise between public transit and business). Bahnhofstrasse has some of the highest rents in the world, look at the prices in the windows and you will see why!
The Museumslinie historic tram line (weekends only) begins on the south side of the Pestalozzianlage square. The Globus department store located here has an unbelievable assortment of food from around the world (basement level).
At Uraniastrasse Look left towards the Limmat River. The Urania building located on Uraniastrasse 9 has the Jules Verne Panorama Bar in the observation tower. The bar has great views over the city and is especially beautiful at night.
As you walk south, you will reach Rennweg, on the left side of the street. There is a small square here with an English bookstore (Orell Füssli) and café. Here, you have two options: continue down Bahnhofstrasse or go into the Altstadt.
Zurich Grossmuenster in the Altstadt
The section of Bahnhofstrasse south of Rennweg includes many small pedestrian streets opening on the left side, the Augustinergassegasse is particularly interesting with many renovated medieval buildings.
Paradeplatz is a major interchange point between different tram lines. The shelter was recently renovated and includes a Ticketeria where you can buy transit tickets from a human being. Also on Paradeplatz is the Sprüngli Restaurant one floor above the street. This is a wonderful place for breakfast and people watching. Sprüngli has a cafe and chocolate shop here too, but go upstairs for the real experience!
Bahnhofstrasse ends at Burkliplatz. Here you can board VSG boats for a trip on the Zürichsee. There is also a great farmers market at Burkliplatz every Tuesday and Friday morning (from about 7 am until 11 am). It is a great place to watch people and pick-up picnic food.
Altstadt means old city in German. Zürich’s Altstadt lies along both sides of the Limmat River from the point where the Limmat leaves the Zürichsee to the Hauptbahnhof. The city was originally surrounded by walls, which are visible today as the streets where some of Zürich’s ‘new’ cultural institutions are located.
Walk up Rennweg. This street was recently renovated into a pedestrian-friendly street with cobblestones. Half-way up Rennweg, look down at the Roman-era well that was discovered when the street was renovated.
At the top of the Rennweg head just to the left on Strehlstrasse. Go a few meters downhill and then turn left up the Lindenstrasse to the Lindenhof. The Lindenhof is a pleasant park overlooking the Limmat River. The park is full of people in summer, enjoying the shade and view. It is the site of the former Roman fort.
When you leave, return down the Lindenstrasse, cross the Strehlstrasse, and walk up the Schlüsselgasse. After a few meters, you will reach the St. Peterhof, an almost perfect square (fountain, tree, no cars, church steps, and a few shops). The St. Peter Church steeple has clocks with the largest faces in Europe.
Continue on the Schlüsselgasse to Thermengasse, a small path (actually steps) on the left side. Walk down Thermengasse; at the bottom of the steps you will see the excavations of a former Roman bath. There is a description in German with some diagrams of how the bath worked and looked. When you come out of Thermengasse, turn right on Storchengasse and walk towards the Münsterhof. As you reach the Münsterhof, directly to your right is the Café de Presse, one of the only cafes you will find in Zürich with English-language newspapers.
The Münsterhof is named after the existing Fraumünster and the former convent located here. The Fraumünster is famous for five stained glass windows designed by Marc Chagall. You should definitely go in the church and see these beautiful windows.
After leaving the Fraumünster, head across the Münsterbrücke (Cloister Bridge) to the east bank of the Limmat River. On the right is the Helmhaus, a church with an exhibition centre that was once located on an island. Walk across the Limmatquai and up the steps to the Grossmünster. Walk towards the left to the front of the church and continue walking around. You can go in through the door on the side away from the river.
The Grossmünster was built between 1100 and 1250 on the site of a former church (and Roman cemetery). It includes a small building museum and one can climb the towers for a great view of Zürich. The Grossmünster is famous as the site where Zwingli, an initiator of the Reformation in Switzerland, preached in the 16th century.
As you leave the Grossmünster, walk across the Zwingli-Platz and turn right. Walk straight up a small street called Neustadtgasse. Walk up the street to the end (Trittligasse) and turn right. Admire the medieval buildings and city plan. Walk down this street turn left and walk down to the end (Oberdorfstrasse).
Oberdorf-Strasse is a main shopping street through the old city. If you are hungry or interested in seeing a bit of the street you can turn left and walk about 100 meters to the Weisser Wind restaurant. This is a very traditional Zürich restaurant. Try the Züricher Geschnetzeltes mit Rösti (veal cutlet with a mushroom cream sauce and hash brown potatoes), or simply the Rösti (hash brown potatoes) baked with cheese, both very traditional dishes are well done here.
The Weisser Wind restaurant is a Zunfthaus. A Zunft is a guild and the Zunfthaus is where members of the guild meet. Guilds are still active in Zürich as social and charible organizations. The Weisser Wind is Zunfthaus for the bakers (look for the sign above the door “Zunft zum Weggen”). On the third Monday in April Zürich celebrates Sechseläuten and the guilds parade through the city in their medieval costumes to celebrate winter’s end. The day culminates in a huge bonfire where a papermache snowman-packed with fireworks-is burned. There are many other Zunfthäuser in Zürich’s old town. The Tourist Service has developed a brochure (in German) titled “Zu Gast in Zürcher Zunfthäusern” which describes the history of guilds and provides contact information for guild houses-most of which are excellent restaurants.
You should also walk a few steps further on Oberdorferstrasse past the Weisser Wind to the small bakery located on the left side of the street. The bakery has been here since 1626 and the building since the early 1300’s. It’s open from Tuesday to Friday during the day. You can turn around here retracing your steps past Trittligasse and passing more stores and cafes. As you walk through the Altstadt notice how all the modern uses have been integrated into the medieval buildings sometimes well done, other times less so.
Once you reach the back side of the Grossmünster, turn left and walk up the hill on Kirchgasse. Here you will find a series of antique stores and old book stores. Some feature books on art, planning, and architecture. Walk to the top of the hill and you will find yourself at a small square. From here you can continue straight across Hirschengasse and through the small alley to the Zürich Kunsthaus (art gallery). The galley contains a nice collection of art and is worth a visit. There is also a cafe serving food and drinks all day.
Otherwise, walk down the steps and make a sharp left turn to Untere Zäune (be careful there is an Obere Zäune too) and walk along the street. There is a restaurant located at number 15 called Zum grünen Glas, which serves excellent French food. Zum grünen Glas is also a Zunfthaus.
Continuing on you reach Spiegel-Gasse. Turn left walking up the hill to a small square. Enjoy the medieval street layout and shops. Continue on Spiegelgasse to Münstergasse. If you turn left here and walk a few steps you can visit the Schober Cafe – full of chocolate and cafe-drinks (it’s on the tourist circuit, but worth it). The actual address is Napfgasse 4.
After the Schober Cafe, turn right on Münster-Gasse. At the corner is the Caberet Voltaire, an exhibition space and cafe focusing on DaDa (the art movement started in Zürich).
From the Caberet Voltaire Walk down Münster-Gasse to the small square.
Continue past the Starbucks Cafe where the Münster-Gasse changes names to Markt-Gasse. There is a good and reasonably priced pizza restaurant (wood-burning oven) located at Marktgasse 21 called Santa Lucia.
Turn right on Rindermarktgasse and continue walking. On your right side you will pass a travel book store in case you need to re-stock (they have many books in English especially about Zürich and Switzerland).
About a hundred meters past the travel book store you will find yourself in the Neumarktstrasse. Look directly to the right (in front of the café) to a building at Neumarktstrasse 4 that houses the city archives. The building is open to the public at certain hours and on the first floor there are models and drawings of the Zürich through the ages as well as special exhibitions. It is a quite interesting exhibit.
Upon leaving the archives building, you can turn right to explore the Neumarktstrasse-there are lots of interesting shops focusing on design and jewellery turn right retracing your steps on Rindermarkt to a small alley on the right called Froschaugasse.
From Froschaugasse, turn right on Brunngasse, walk a few meters to Zähringerplatz, site of Zürich’s central library (a sympathetic integration of a modern library in an old building). Turn left, walk a few steps further and turn left again Preyergasse; walk back to Niederdorfstrasse, and turn right.
Walk down Niederdorfstrasse, cross Mühlestrasse, and continue down Niederdorfstrasse. This is Zürich’s party area, lots of beer-hall restaurants and walk-up wurst (sausage) stands, and naturally, a McDonalds and a Starbucks.
At the end of the Neiderdorfstrasse is the Polybahn, a funicular railroad that goes from Centralplatz to the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). The Polybahn is part of the city of Zürich’s transit network and you can use your ticket to ride it. Why not ride to the top, have a look around, or a coffee at the ETH café located near the top.
Go back down the Polybahn and you can see the Hauptbahnhof: your starting point.
As you cross the Bahnhofbrücke, you might want to turn right and walk over to the Swiss National Museum (Schweiz Landesmuseum), the building that looks like a castle, located on the north side of the Hauptbahnhof on Museumstrasse. The museum has interesting exhibits about Swiss history.