When my family and I moved to Zurich, Switzerland, in 2019, locals there would often ask how I was coping with the high cost of, well, everything. After all, Zurich is famously costly — ranking as one of the world’s most expensive cities for expats.

I’d reply that in fact I wasn’t finding it pricier than the city we’d moved from: San Francisco, another exorbitant metropolis. At least in terms of rent and bags of groceries, the cost of living in Zurich seemed very similar to that of San Francisco . Zurich wasn’t that expensive, I thought.

Until we ate out.

Turns out eating out in Switzerland ranges from uneconomical to eye-watering — no matter the cuisine or venue. While San Francisco restaurants are relatively pricey, they don’t come close to those in Zurich. One reason for Zurich’s high eating-out prices is labor costs, since employees are paid a living wage. Zurich restaurants also charge for water, as in $9 for a bottle and $2 per person for tap water.

The cost of living in Zurich is also linked to the high cost of ingredients in Switzerland. Meat is more expensive in Switzerland than anywhere else. The country isn’t in the European Union, so it can block more cheaply produced meat to protect its farmers, who are legally barred from raising too many animals. Swiss farms are small, averaging fewer than 50 acres each, making for a lovely landscape but pricey steak and broccoli. At least top-quality cheese is affordable. That’s a good thing, because it’s a key ingredient in some of Switzerland’s most delicious foods.

Switzerland also makes excellent wines that are all consumed in-country. Secretly spectacular reds come from the Vaud and western Valais regions, while crisp, balanced whites are products of tiny vineyards throughout the country.

Cost of living in Zurich, Switzerland, vs San Francisco, California

Groceries

$70/bag in Zurich vs. $60/bag in San Francisco

  • Meat: Organic chicken breast $18/lb in Zurich, $7/lb in San Francisco
  • Naturally raised beef $45/lb in Zurich, $20/lb in San Francisco
  • High-end cheese, like caved-aged Gruyere: $12/lb in Zurich, $25/lb in San Francisco
  • Organic broccoli $4/lb in Zurich, $3.50/lb in San Francisco

Restaurants

Eating at restaurants is more expensive in Zurich than in San Francisco, at every level.

  • Lunch at a mid-priced restaurant $35 in Zurich, $25 in San Francisco
  • Dinner at a hip restaurant with one glass wine $95/person in Zurich, $65 (pre-tip) in San Francisco

Beer and Wine

The price of beer and wine is about the same in Zurich and San Francisco.

  • A bottle of good white or red is $20 in Zurich, $20 in San Francisco
  • 6-pack of microbrew beer $12 in Zurich, $12 in San Francisco

Coffee

A flat white is $5 in Zurich, $4.50 in San Francisco

Public transportation

$5.40/ride in Zurich, $3/ride in San Francisco

Real estate

One bedroom apartment in downtown Zurich $2200/month, in San Francisco $3200/month

Clothing

Levi’s women’s jeans $130 in Zurich, $100 in San Francisco

Health care

$130 is average cost of a doctor’s visit in Zurich without insurance, $280 in San Francisco

Skiing

One-day ticket at nearby Davos is $70; at Tahoe Palisades, it’s $220. But you’ll pay about $35/person for lunch on the mountain in Davos; that’s more than at Palisades.

Movies

$21 for an adult in Zurich, $15 in San Francisco

Museums

Zurich’s Kunsthaus is $23/adult, San Francisco’s de Young Museum is $15/adult

Mani/Pedi combo

$100 in Zurich , $40 in San Francisco

While Zurich’s real estate is definitely expensive, San Francisco wins first prize in that category. Zurich’s public transportation also costs a lot, but the network of trains, trams, buses, and boats is so extensive – and service so reliable – that you don’t need a car to get anywhere. And that saves you big bucks, including the money you’d spend on traffic tickets, given Zurich’s thousands of speed cameras.

And if you’re going to be sick, you’re better off in Switzerland, where everyone has public health insurance. Those who choose to buy private insurance on top of that will pay about the same as in California, but will have lower deductibles. And if you’re a tourist who gets sick in Zurich and can’t use your insurance, your overnight hospital bill will be in the hundreds of dollars, not thousands.

Even prescription meds cost less, as they’re covered by basic insurance. On the other hand, everything else at the drug store in Zurich — from shampoo to toothpaste — will be pricier and come in a smaller container.