Getting around in Zürich

Zürich is a city lover’s dream. I was privileged to live there between 1999 and 2007, these pages provide information, tips and my impressions from living there (updated whenever I can find an excuse to visit!) as well as a series of city walking tours I developed.

Zürich with a population of about 350,000, is Switzerland’s largest city and commercial center. It is clean, well organized and surrounded by beautiful natural areas. Zürich’s motto “Little Big City” means that it has the amenities of a big city (world class opera) but is small enough to make visitors feel welcome. In short, it’s a great place to live.

Zürich was first settled in the Neolithic period. The Romans named the city Turicum and used it as a tax collecting point for goods entering the province of Raetia. The city is famous for protestant religious reformer Zwingli who preached there in the late middle ages. Today, the city is a financial center serving as headquarters for several major Banks and Insurance companies. The city is also the home of the famous University of Zürich and the 150-year old Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH). Interestingly for a city often considered conservative, Lenin lived here in 1917 and the Dada movement began in Zürich’s Café Voltaire in 1916.

Zürich is justifiably famous for its highly efficient, clean, safe, and inexpensive public transportation network. Residents are proud that everyone—from elementary school students to the Mayor—uses the streetcars, buses, boats, and trains that criss-cross the city and region. A word to the wise: Don’t drive! It’s expensive and hard to find parking, but most of all you won’t want to miss the public transport.

Even if you’re traveling elsewhere in Switzerland, the country’s dense network of railways and connecting public transport (boats, buses, cable cars, and more) mean that you can easily get almost everywhere quickly using public transportation. There’s absolutely no need to rent a car.

Zürich has 42 different public transit companies providing service to a region of approximately 1.2 million residents. The Züricher Verkehrsverbund (ZVV) coordinates fares and schedules for all these different companies. The ZVV website (German) has useful maps, links, and trip planning information.

One Ticket for All

One of the best things about Zurich’s public transport network is that customers can use a single ticket for all modes of transportation. Tickets are based on zones and once you have a ticket, you can use any type of public transportation between the zones. For example, you can take the train from Zürich to Rapperswil, walk to the lake, take a boat back to Zürich, and take a tram back to your origin.

Public transport tickets are available from machines and from salespeople at main interchange points including most railway stations. In outlying areas the bus driver will sell you tickets, but in most places you MUST purchase your ticket before boarding. Buying a ticket is simple. Don’t get caught without one, or you will be fined. Unlike many cities, the ticket inspectors come frequently in Zürich.

To buy a ticket from a machine simply select the zone you’ll be traveling to, decide whether you want a one-way trip or a 24-hour ticket (good for multiple trips), and pay the amount shown. The city of Zurich is zone 110. Complete instructions for using machines are available on the ZVB (Zurich City Transport Agency) using the ticket machines page (English). More information is available in German only on the ZVV Ticket Machines page.

Ticket machines accept coins, the 5 CHF coin is especially handy! The newer touch-screen machines accept 10 or 20 Swiss Franc (CHF) notes, as well as credit cards and bank cards (be sure you can use your credit card in Europe!). All the tickets are described on the ZVV Tickets and Prices (German) page.

A popular option for people traveling around Switzerland is the national rail pass. These are generally good for city transit in addition to the whole national network of trains, ships, inclined railways, and cable cars. These passes are sold by the Swiss National Railway (SBB in German). The SBB Travelcards and Tickets page describes several different ticket plans for visitors (there are SBB stations in both the Zürich and Geneva Airports). Please note that Eurail passes are not valid for city transportation in Switzerland (except for trains operated by the national railroad).

Multimodal Zürich!

Here are some ways to get around Zurich:

  • Buses and Trams (Streetcars) – The Verkehrsbetreibe Zürich (VBZ) is the Zürich city public transit company. Zürich’s transit priority program makes buses and trams a fast and efficient way to get around all over the city. The VBZ website provides maps, trip planning assistance, ticket machine instructions (very easy to understand) and more.
  • Limmat River Boat Trips – “Boat buses” (long and short boats that fit under the bridges) operate on the Limmat River during the summer months. The river boats operate between the Landesmuseum (near the Hauptbahnhof) stopping at several points on the Limmat River and out in the Zürichsee (Zürich Lake) to Tiefenbrunnen.  They are included in the Zürich city zone.
  • Zürich Lake Steamship Trips – The Zürichsee Schifffahrtsgesellschaft (ZSG) operates lake steamers which leave from Burkliplatz (at the end of Bahnhofstrasse). These ships operate all year round, but on a much reduced schedule during the winter. The ZSG also operates historic steamships and taking a trip on the Zürichsee is fun. Check the ZSG website for special sailings and offers.
  • S-Bahn – The S-Bahn is Zürich’s regional rail system. The ‘S’ stands for schnell (fast). Zürich’s S-Bahn system provides convenient and fast service throughout the region. Most of the lines pass through the Hauptbahnhof.The ZVV offers ideas for free time activities (German only) on the S-Bahn. One popular destination easily reached by S-Bahn (not mentioned on the ZVV website) is Stein am Rhine a restored medieval village on the river Rhine which can be reached using the S-Bahn number 29 from Winterthur.
  • Walking – Zürich is a walker’s paradise. Be sure to walk down the Bahnhofstrasse, through the old city (Altstadt) on both sides of the river, and on the lakeside promenade (people watching at its best on warm days!).
  • Free Bicycles – In the summer, the city of Zürich in partnership with social service organizations offers free bicycles for temporary use. You need to leave your passport or other identification and a small deposit. The bikes are well maintained and include a basket (with advertising!). Biking is a great way to see the city.

Public Transport Information and Tour

More about public transport in Zürich: Zürich Public Transport Introduction.

My tour of Zurich public transport highlights is available at: Zürich Trains, Trams and Transport Tour.

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