Zurich, Switzerland

My next stop on the European grand tour would run through Zurich, perhaps the best known city in Switzerland. Long associated with luxury goods and international finance, Zurich is also the largest city in Switzerland, and its eastern location was on the way to my future destinations. (I had looked into a trip to Geneva, but that would have sent me in the opposite direction. Hopefully I'll visit on another trip.) This would be a shorter day of sightseeing than most, as I looked to recover a bit from my grueling hike the previous day at the foot of the Matterhorn.

Zurich wasn't located particularly close to Zermatt in terms of Swiss geography, and I had a lengthy morning train ride once again to reach my destination. After transfering again in Visp, I eventually arrived in Zurich a little before noon. The train station (Zürich Hauptbahnhof) had this huge empty room with virtually nothing in it, looking a bit like an empty aircraft hangar. Zurich is supposed to have one of the busiest rail stations in all of Europe though, so perhaps this wasn't surprising. Near the exit of the building, there was an artist crafting a large castle out of sand, with towers that looked to be about 8 feet tall. It was the kind of thing that I'm used to seeing at the beach, not in a train station in a landlocked country. From the outside, the station had a classic Victorian era look with a neo-Renassiance design constructed out of sandstone. The statue in front depicted Alfred Escher, a Swiss railroad pioneer, and not M.C. Escher the artist. That was a bit of a disappointment.


The station delivered visitors onto the Bahnhofstrasse, the main street that ran down the center of Zurich's old town (Altstadt). This oldest part of the city is technically located on a small island where the lake that sits to the south of Zurich meets together with a river that flows in from the west. This is not obvious though unless looking at a map, and I didn't pick up on the local geography until much later. The Bahnhofstrasse held a collection of expensive luxury stores, advertising for designer clothes and jewelry and the like. I was amused that one of these fashion stores was named "Christ", which probably means something a bit different in German than it does in English. They should have said that the apparel on display was "to die for". More interesting to me were the side streets and alleys, which rambled this way and that way with no discernible pattern. These streets were holdovers from the city's medieval past, and many of the buildings on these alleys had likely stood in place for centuries.


At the southern end of the city sits Lake Zurich (Zürichsee), a narrow body of water situated between a series of hills. The lake is what gives Zurich its most distinctive feature, and here in the summer the lake was bustling with small boats and pleasure craft. Fed by mountain streams, the water in the lake was cool to the touch, although I noticed that there were a good number of local residents swimming in it. There were more people sitting outside relaxing in the nearby park, enjoying the nice weather or feeding the ducks. I spent a little time here doing some reading and taking in the scenery before moving on with my exploration.


At the northern end of the lake the water is channeled into the Limmat River, which flows through the center of Zurich on its long route towards its eventual merging with the Rhine. A series of low bridges cross the river, and there are a bunch of docks along the sides where small boats are harbored. A number of historic guild houses from centuries past are preserved along the sides of the river, and I would have liked to stop by and see them. However, I was stymied by the date of my arrival in Zurich. It was a Monday, and nearly all of the museums in the city were closed on this day. I had thought that visiting Zermatt on a Sunday would work out beautifully, as I would be out hiking in the mountains and it wouldn't matter if certain places were closed. But no, it was the custom in Europe for museums to be closed on Mondays, not Sundays, which did make sense given the weekend pedestrian traffic. This would greatly limit what I was able to see in Zurich.


One place that I knew would be open was the city's main cathedral, the Grossmünster. This structure was older than most of the other great cathedrals I had visited on my travels, with construction largely completed by 1220. Due to its greater age this building was designed in the Romanesque style, not the Gothic shape that I had seen so often elsewhere, lacking the presence of the large stained glass windows or flying buttresses that would later become the norm. The two towers on the cathedral were later additions dating from the 15th century, but the rest of the building remains largely unchanged over the last 900 years. The Grossmünster has had a notable history over the centuries, as this was the church where Huldrych Zwingli initiated the Swiss version of the Reformation in 1520. It was amazing to think that this was the location where Zwingli had preached and led his religious revival five centuries in the past.

Unfortunately, photography was prohibited in the interior of the church. The few pictures that I was able to take had to be done guerilla-style to avoid notice. I don't feel guilty about that either; taking a flashless digital photograph does not harm a historic structure, and this location had significant cultural value. The interior had the spartan design that I expected from a place where an iconoclast like Zwingli had once preached, mostly white walls with little adornment. The single stained glass wall behind the main altar looked like a modern addition, and I doubted that the colorful glass had been there at the time of the Reformation. The interior was brightly lit though, and the windows set high in the walls allowed in plenty of daylight. It was inspirational in an austere fashion. Needless to say, the Grossmünster serves as the most recognizable symbol of the city, and it holds a treasured place for the people of Zurich.


This is an example of one of the surviving guild houses that I was unable to visit due to being closed. Located right on the water, it was one of the places that merchants and bankers would have gathered during the early modern period to drive the commercial trade that helped make Zurich so wealthy. There were other buildings like the house that I saw, but this one appeared to be the best preserved example of a guild structure.

And... that was essentially all that I managed to see on this day. Short day of sightseeing, I know. The combination of so many tourist attractions being closed and my lingering tiredness from yesterday's hiking made this a good day to stop and catch my breath. I spent the morning walking around the city and taking these pictures, then spent the afternoon resting and recovering. I also took this opportunity to do laundry at a local laundromat, which isn't the kind of thing that makes for grand stories but has to happen regardless. I had dearly wanted to visit the Swiss National Museum (Schweizerisches Nationalmuseum) located right next to the train station, only to find that it too was closed for the day. I really should have walked past the building and taken some pictures of the outside, and visited the little park next to it where the two rivers in Zurich meet. Oh well. I had been pretty close to collapsing on the previous day, and I did need to take some time to rest.


I stayed in this little hole in the wall hostel that looked like it had been named after Justin Bieber. It was similar to a number of other places I had stayed in the middle of historic cities, a vertical building with four or five floors and little space on each of them. The nicest aspect of this particular location was a small rooftop patio, a place to sit and eat a meal or read a book while looking out over the rooftops of the city. I sat here for a while during the evening and watched the sun set in the distance, resting my feet and letting my batteries recharge (literally, since there was an electric plug up here). Tomorrow, I would be off and visiting a dozen tourist attractions again in yet another city. For the moment though, I took the opportunity to enjoy the quiet ending of another day of travel.