Going to Zurich on a budget is like going to Vegas sober. It’s an impossible-sounding proposition, and you might even wonder if it’s worth the trip at all. The most exciting city in Switzerland is also one of the world’s most expensive. The average cocktail costs $15. A meal at an inexpensive restaurant costs an average of $27, and the average hotel will set you back $250 per night. Luckily, if you know where to look, it’s entirely possible to visit Zurich without exhausting your entire budget on a single night out.
Skip the hotel for an Airbnb
Hotels are often the most expensive part of any trip, and that’s doubly true in Zurich. With the average hotel costing $250 per night, you’d be looking at a $750 price tag for a long weekend. That might be doable if you’re working a Swiss job and making Zurich cost-of-living wages, but it’s pretty untenable for most travelers. Airbnbs, however, offer an affordable alternative. You can get a perfectly serviceable Airbnb in Zurich for as little as $50 per night, giving you more wiggle room to splurge elsewhere.
Another huge benefit of Airbnbs is their kitchens. Travelers staying in hotels often find themselves at the mercy of local restaurants. Unless you’re willing to stick to fast food the whole trip — which isn’t the worst thing in the world — you’ll find yourself paying exorbitant prices at most of Zurich’s restaurants, even those not considered upscale. Airbnbs allow you to cook your own meals for the cost of a quick grocery run. That doesn’t mean you can’t still treat yourself once or twice during your trip, but at least you won’t be beholden to menus you can barely afford for every single meal.
Take a look at a map before you rent an Airbnb. Towns on Lake Zurich may not be considered Zurich city, but are actually just a 15-minute train ride from town. You may even get a lake view at one of the Airbnb apartments on Seestrasse (Lake Street) in towns like Herrliberg or Meilen.
My first night in Switzerland, I went to a relatively casual bar and ordered a Jack and Coke. The first of many, I thought, until I got the $17-bill. Just like that, my epic night out turned into a chill two-drink evening. Even at restaurants and bars, you might consider being inexpensive, liquor will run up your tab. Going out to eat is one thing, but adding $35 to every bill just for the drinks quickly becomes unsustainable.
To solve this problem and save money in Zurich, simply buy your own liquor. Whether that means buying a six-pack to drink at Park Platzspitz or stocking up on booze to drink in your Airbnb before hitting the town, BYOB in Switzerland is a lifesaver for your wallet. When it comes to water, you’re better off skipping the pricey still and sparkling water at restaurants and simply asking for tap water — although some restaurants may even charge you a couple of Swiss francs ($2) for it. If you’re walking around, there are over 1,200 fountains around the city producing high-quality drinking water, which locals freely help themselves to. Bring a water bottle and enjoy.
By eating at your Airbnb, you will save money in Zurich, but you may miss some of the dishes that Switzerland is known for. Luckily, most of these involve cheese, and high-quality cheese, which costs less in Switzerland than in the US. At the grocery store, buy some Gruyère — that justifiably famous cheese from the region of the same name — in the regular, packaged cheese section. Or, if your Airbnb has a home raclette maker (which is likely), pick up pre-sliced Emmental squares, a bottle of paprika raclette spice, and some small potatoes. Your cheap Swiss dinner will be easy to prepare — and, as you melt the cheese tableside, fun to eat.
From May through September, different towns around Zurich hold month-long carnivals or weekend street fairs. During those months, and again over the holidays, you’ll find kiosks that specialize in specific foods, like raclette and rösti potatoes or grilled sausages or even desserts like apfelrösti, made with cooked apples. They aren’t cheap, but they are a less expensive way to try traditional Swiss fare.
Lastly, no one should leave Switzerland without having some chocolate. And while local chocolatiers like Läderach and Sprungli make mouth-watering confections, their prices are eye-watering. No worries. Since chocolate standards are so high in Switzerland, you can buy top-quality supermarket branded bars at grocers like Coop.
Nature is free
Above all else, nature in Zurich is free to enjoy. You can walk along Lake Zurich from downtown to the Zurichhorn green space. The mountain and lake views are so stunning you won’t believe you don’t have to pay for them. And, if you do want to get up into the hills and mountains surrounding the lake, it’s a quick train ride to get there. (See the Travel Pass info below for the cheapest way to use Swiss public transport).
The Planet Trail is one of the city’s most popular, learning from Uetliberg Mountain to Felsenegg Mountain. Take the short Sihltal Zürich Uetliberg train to the trailhead. From there, the 3.7-mile hike, with views of Lake Zurich and the distant mountains, is meant to mirror the distances in the solar system. Each meter of the path represents one million kilometers, with markers for each planet. The hike takes you from the sun all the way to Pluto.
If you’d rather forego the planetary allusions, the Rigi Panoramic Trail is one of the most picturesque around Zurich. It’s a 40-minute train ride from Zurich’s main station to the Arth-Goldau train station. From there, a 4.3-mile trail winds along a mountain slope and through forests, offering stunning lake and alpine vistas the whole way.
For the best views of Lake Zurich, take the popular, seven-mile Trail Pfannenstiel. You’ll pass some of the many cascading falls that you find throughout the hills here, and you can climb the wooden, 115-foot lookout tower for sweeping Lake Zurich views. From the Zurich HB train station, ride for 24 minutes to the Forch train station and hike from there.
Free attractions in Zurich itself
Much like trails, trees, and lakes, Zurich’s historic architecture is also free to appreciate. The city’s Old Town can be explored at no cost and at your own pace. From the famous cobblestoned Niederdorf pedestrian area — home to shops, restaurants, and nightlife — to Augustinergasse street lined with old, colorful houses, and the churches of St. Peter and Fraumünster, you won’t have to spend a cent to enjoy the beauty of Old Town. The Grossmünster (Great Minster) Church is probably the city’s most famous church, often cited as the origin of Zurich’s Protestant Reformation. For just, $4 you can climb the stairs to the top for panoramic views of the city.
The Old Botanical Garden is a great way to experience nature without even leaving the city. Free to visitors, the garden is one of the last remaining Baroque fortifications in Zurich, dating back to 1837. Within the gardens, you’ll find the Gessner Garden, a medieval herb garden located on a hill, which has around 50 plants used by 16th-century healers for medicinal purposes.
Museums are another great way to save money in Zurich. Although some have entry fees, many are completely free to the public. The Paleontological Museum has fossils dating back 240 million years on display, the Museum of Art contains masterpieces by renowned artists, and the Zoological Museum is home to over 1,500 animals.
Get out on the water — or next to it
Zurich views are dominated by the lake and, behind it, the Alps — which are best viewed from the water itself. Skip any tourist tour of the lake and take a boat ferry instead. Buy a Swiss Travel Pass (details below), and the price will include the boats that ply the lake up and down and are used as public transportation in Zurich. If you’re in a rental car, then take the Meilen-Horgen ferry across Lake Zurich. It departs very frequently, so there’s no reason to look at the schedule. It costs about $8 for a car and is a shockingly smooth ride. You can also walk on ($1.50), or take a bike ($3). If you prefer to ride a bike along the water, and to other locations in the city, you can rent unique, cool-looking cycles from Bike Rental Zurich for about $30/day and $20 for every following day.
Travel passes are another way to keep things cheap in Zurich, especially if you’re visiting for a more extended period. The Swiss Travel Pass is the most comprehensive, giving visitors access not just to Zurich, but much of the country. It includes unlimited train, bus, and boat travel, entry to over 500 museums, and discounts on a range of other excursions. It’s best for those planning to stay in the country awhile, and take advantage of a wide variety of activities. There’s also a Half Fare Card that focuses solely on discounted transportation deals.
The Swiss Coupon Book is another option. The book offers discounts and two-for-one deals to parks, museums, guided tours, restaurants, UNESCO sites, rental cars, and other experiences. Make sure to browse the book first, so you know if the deals are right for you before purchasing.
Student Passes aren’t exactly travel passes in the traditional sense, but can come in handy if you’re a student looking for discounted rates. Whether you’re at a museum, park, ski mountain, or other attraction, save money in Zurich by always showing your student card and asking about a student rate. You might be surprised by the savings.