Switzerland: Impressions of Zurich

Impressions of Zurich


I arrived at the station after spending nearly six hours on what was billed as a four hour trip. My train broke down at the Italy-Switzerland border and we had to take two local trains to get to Zurich.

I checked the map on my phone and realized in an instant that the train station isn’t where I thought it was, and that the hotel I booked thinking it was just a few blocks from the station was actually quite a long ways away. So I did what I always do when that happens: I started walking.

The upside to booking a hotel that is nowhere near the center is you get to see how people live. You get to see how they spend their spare time, the things that are a part of their routine, and the small things they take for granted. My impressions of Zurich are just that: fleeting glimpses of lives I make no claim to understand – but the things that stuck out and struck me as noteworthy on first impression.

Grossmunster Church, Zurich
Grossmunster Church, Zurich

Impression 1: Zurich is clean.

In fact, Zurich is very clean. The streets are so clean that I’m unsure where to let my dog use the toilet. I guide her to a spotless gutter (possibly the first spotless gutter I’ve ever seen) and figure I’ll hear about it if that isn’t right. The streets look as though they are cleaned at least twice a day and the sidewalks look even cleaner. There is no litter in the empty spaces, very little dust and dirt (even in places where there really should be some dust and dirt), and no clutter. I’m not sure how Zurich stays so clean, but I’m sure the next one has something to do with it.


Impression 2: Zurich is expensive

A tangle of electric lines for Zurich's trams at an intersection
A tangle of electric lines for Zurich’s trams at an intersection

It is a cliche that Switzerland is expensive but even in expensive cities I expect to be able to find some relatively affordable street food. Even the street food in Zurich is expensive and when I walk the streets of Zurich, I’m impressed by how poor I am.

Usually I am impressed by how rich I am. How many luxuries I’ve been able to afford in my modest little life, but here – where even a cup of coffee feels out of my reach, I understand that I am poor. I return in my mind to the days where I saved money all week to buy a six dollar sandwitch at WaWa – Everything was out of my reach then too. It occurs to me Even then, the breakfast meal – a McMuffin and a coffee set me back around $7. I wish I could have stayed longer in Zurich but if I ever go back, I’m bringing my own food $10 for a beer feels like flat out robbery.

Impression 3: Zurich has great drinking water

…and it’s the only affordable thing in town. I usually drink bottled water when I’m traveling, but the drinking fountains in Zurich are practically an institution. Every few blocks or so an ornate little fountain spits water into a basin…and it is all potable. Locals lean over the basin and allow the cool, clean water to pour into their mouths. I couldn’t resist trying some of the water, and when I had, I couldn’t bring myself to spend any money on overpriced bottles.

Impression 4: Zurich is beautiful…

…at least the old town is. New Zurich and Old Zurich are two completely different cities. OK, this is true of most places with a proper old town, and Zurich is no exception.

Old Town Zurich
Part of Zurich’s Old town rises on the eastern shores of the river Zimmat

The old town feels like something from a fairy tale. Tall Swiss houses with flags fluttering outside and flowers perched on the window sills lined grey cobbled streets where tourist meandered looking into the windows of the darkened shops. That’s what I get for visiting Zurich on a Sunday afternoon: window shopping only. Besides us tourists and a couple of waiters dressed in sharp black and white uniforms and behaving with a certain courteous professionalism I haven’t encountered anywhere else in the world, the old town was empty.

As for the rest of Zurich, outside of the old town, Zurich has a very different vibe. The city feels practically utilitarian. The wide, treeless streets are made the exact width to accommodate traffic and trams and bicycles and pedestrians. The parks are just big enough to give the people who live around them somewhere to cook out on a Sunday afternoon and a fountain for the children to play in. The buildings are tall, rectangular, soulless cement constructions that do little to enhance the aesthetic image of the city. Architecture is important. It enhances quality of life in hundreds of intangible ways. Trees are important – they remind us that we are not the sole inhabitants of this planet, the clean our air, and they protect us from an increasingly relentless summer sun…but I digress.

As I watched joggers run in tight circles around the tiny park next to my hotel (the one the hotel concierge described to me as “quite large,” I had to wonder if, for all of the beauties of the old town, the city planners missed out on some beauties in planning the new town.

Late afternoon on the Sihl River
Late afternoon on the Sihl River (Zurich, Switzerland)


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