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Layover in Zürich

Zürich, Zurich, Switzerland, Limmat River

ABOVE: Zürich's Limmat River, looking in the direction of the lake, with the Grussmünster's towers in the distance.

Zürich Airport (ZRH) is a major European gateway, and many travelers change planes in Zürich on multi-segment intercontinental flights. We often receive e-mails from readers who ask, "What can I do in Zürich during a four- or five-hour layover?" Here's our answer, in five easy steps:

If you have four hours between flights, you should have plenty of time for a trip into the city. The train trip takes only 10 minutes, but you might have to wait 10 or 15 minutes for a train in each direction. For safety's sake, allow 1-1/4 hours for the roundtrip, plus enough time for security and boarding (and for check-in, if you don't already have a boarding pass for your next flight).

  • Tip: If you're short on time, skip a city excursion and catch a local train to nearby Oerlikon, a Zürich suburb where you can have a snack, visit the shops, or walk around and see how the Swiss live before returning to the airport.

Take a train into town.

In Zürich Airport, take the escalators downstairs to the underground railway station. There, you can buy a roundtrip ticket to Zürich Hauptbahnhof (the main railroad station) and catch a train into the city.

Walk up the Bahnhofstrasse.

The Bahnhofstrasse is Zürich's answer to Fifth Avenue and Wall Street combined. It's lined with upscale stores, banks, tearooms, and investment firms. You'll find many other shops, restaurants, and department stores in the streets on either side. (The twisty streets to the left of the Bahnhofstrasse are fun to explore when you aren't in a hurry.) 

To reach the Bahhofstrasse, take the escalator to the railroad station's underground shopping mall (ShopVille) and come up the Bahnhofstrasse escalator on the other side of the Bahnhofplatz. The Bahnhofstrasse lies straight ahead. Walk all the way to Bürkliplatz at the far end for a view of Lake Zürich. During the warmer months, you can rent a paddleboat or go for a short excursion on a lake steamer.

Zurich Limmat River

ABOVE: Evening on the Limmat. The Fraumünster and St. Peterskirche are on the left; the Grossmünster is on the right side of the river.

When you're ready to return...

Catch a tram back to the railroad station via the Bahnhofstrasse. 

Or, if you have a little more time, cross the bridge across the River Limmat to Bellevueplatz. Turn left and follow the left bank of the Limmat on foot or by tram until you reach the Bahnhofbrücke ("Railway Station Bridge"), stopping at the Grossmünster church along the way. Then turn left and walk across the bridge to the main railway station, where you can catch the next train to the airport.

Another option is to cut inland at Bellevueplatz and take the Rämistrasse uphill to Oberdorfstrasse, then turn left and work your way through the Old Town until find yourself back at the river next to the Bahnhofbrücke.

If you reach the Bahnhofbrücke with time to spare, you might want to ride the Polybahn from its lower station near the bridge to a terrace by the Federal Institute of Technology for a view of the city. The fare is modest, the ride is quick, and the funicular departs at three-minute intervals throughout the day.

  • Tip: If you don't have a perfect sense of direction and are worried about getting back in time to catch your plane, buy a map at the airport or in the railroad station before venturing into the city proper. The Globus and Jelmoli department stores and several bookstores along the Bahnhofstrasse also carry maps. Or, if you're on a budget, you see what's available free at the Zurich Tourist Office at the main railroad station. (Another option is to save a Google Map to your smartphone and avoid roaming fees.)

Other things to do

When it's raining, the National Museum Zürich (Schweizerisches Landesmuseum) is a wonderful place to spend several hours. It's in a park immediately to the left of the Hauptbahnhof as you leave the station by the front or main exit.

During summer, you can take a sightseeing cruise on the Limmat River. The pier is near the National Museum Zürich, and boats depart every half hour or so.

Finally, if you have children with you, ask the tourist office for directions to the nearest playgrounds. There are several within walking distance of the railroad station. The Zürich Zoo is another possibility, if you don't mind a long tram ride or expensive trip by taxi up the Zürichberg.

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