Friday, September 2, 2022

Zurich, Switzerland

Our eight-day visit to Switzerland has been more than two years in the making. We were supposed to go in August 2020, but obviously those plans were cancelled due to Covid. Two years later we finally managed to leave the country, and boy was it worth the wait! Switzerland is every bit as clean and picture perfect as advertised  or at least the cities that we visited (Zurich, Engelberg, and Lauterbrunnen and Murren) were. It's also just as expensive as everyone says; however, due to the recent record-breaking inflation in the States, the prices for meals and activities actually didn't seem so insane. Yay for inflation?  

I was surprised by how many things in Switzerland operated on the honor system. Our travel passes were never checked or scanned on trams and buses. We went into a small grocery store to ask for directions and were surprised to find that it was completely unmanned  you were supposed to leave behind the appropriate amount of money if you wanted to buy anything!

If you're traveling around Switzerland, as we did, you should absolutely invest in the Swiss Rail Pass, which covers just about every mode of transportation that exists, and also gets you discounts at certain attractions. We took full advantage of the pass. In Zurich, particularly, the public transportation was the best way to get around (this coming from someone who would almost always prefer driving), and all transportation systems were clearly marked, well-organized, and timely. 

The pass also covers all the long-distance trains that take you between cities, and kids ride for free (one child per adult). In Engelberg and Lauterbrunnen, the pass even covers (partially or fully) the cable cars that go up and down the mountain. I think we managed to ride every form of transportation imaginable: trams, buses, local trains, long-distance trains, chair lifts, gondolas, even a funicular! If you're not renting a car, I highly recommend getting the pass and not having to worry about how to get around.

Some other pro-tips for traveling in Switzerland: Tap water (not still or sparkling, but just regular tap) typically costs a few francs at restaurants, so get used to paying for water. Yet all over Switzerland there are public fountains with drinking water flowing freely from pipes (and plenty of people fill up their water bottles using these), so I'm not sure why the restaurants are so stingy with the water. 

To make up for the cost of water with your meal, though, tipping is not expected at all at restaurants. This felt a little strange at first, especially given the excellent and personable service we received just about everywhere, but you quickly get used to not having to add on to your already very expensive dining bill!

Where to Stay

In Zurich, we stayed at the really cute Hotel Sorell Rex, about a 15-minute walk (or 5-minute tram ride) from the main Niederdorfstrasse (literally translated as Old Town Road) area. Our room was cozy and clean, with Ikea-esque furnishings. The hotel seemed more like an apartment in a neighborhood than a hotel, and it was nice to be near the bustle of a main area, but not have to deal with the noise at bedtime. The only noise that made it all the way to our little sanctuary was the ringing of church bells at certain hours.  

What to Do

Our first stop in Switzerland was Zurich, because that's where our plane landed (the other major airport option is Geneva). I only planned for us to spend a couple days in Zurich because I was eager to get to the mountains, but as it turns out, Zurich is a super cute and beautiful city (not at all intimidating and austere, like New York City can be), and we could've spent a few more days exploring. The public transportation was amazing, and the few restaurants we tried in the Niederdorfstrasse area were absolutely delicious. 

The picturesque Limmat river runs through the whole city, and there's also Zurich Lake, which is so clean that we saw people swimming in it! We spent one morning walking along the promenade, where we encountered many dogs (and dogs swimming in the lake). We strolled along this route suggested by Swiss Family Fun, and were fully expecting to come across stands selling gelato and applesauce crepes, as was described, but we didn't see any of that, perhaps because it was early Monday morning. It was still a very pretty walk.

Another day we visited the Lindt Home of Chocolate, which is absolutely touristy, but also just a really fun place. In addition to the kid-friendly exhibits that show everything from the history of chocolate to how it is made, there are free samples everywhere! There's a machine that delivers a spoonful of liquid chocolate when you turn a knob, an automatic chocolate bar dispenser, and a Rube Goldberg setup that culminates in a free piece of chocolate. 

And if that isn't enough, there's a room full of every kind of Lindor chocolate you can imagine, and you are allowed to take whatever you wanted. 

I would've eaten more chocolate, but by the time I reached the endless sample room, I'd definitely already had my fill. It turns out there's only so much chocolate you can eat before you start to feel intensely thirsty, and even though there's a humongous chocolate fountain at the Lindt Home of Chocolate, there are no water fountains! The Swiss know what they're doing.

What made our visit truly awesome, though, was the chocolate-making class I signed us up for. The museum offers many kinds of classes, and we took the kid-friendly molding and refining one with our 11- and 13-year-old. It was a blast! After getting dressed in toques and aprons, our class was divided up and each group assigned a master chocolatier, who showed us how to make chocolate molds of the Lindt bear. 

We got to choose between milk and dark chocolate, and then personalized them however we wanted. We were taught a lot of cool techniques and learned the secret of how these chocolate molds are made. Our master chocolatier was very patient and good-natured, even though we made a complete mess of our station!

As our bears cooled, we designed two chocolate lollipops, which was also fun  and not as easy as it looks. Then we got to package up our creations and take everything home. We intended to give the bears as gifts, but sadly two of them didn't make it through the whole trip and had to (not so sadly) be consumed.

Our neighborhood friends also happened to be visiting Zurich while we were there, so we met up with them one afternoon to take a bus tour to the Rhine Falls and historical city Stein am Rhein. Rhine Falls is billed as the "largest waterfall in Europe," so I was expecting a lot, but what we saw was no Niagara Falls. Still, it was fun to take a boat ride right up to the gushing water and feel its spray. After the boat ride, we walked around the falls to see it from various angles.

The second part of the tour focused on Stein am Rhein, a medieval city whose building walls famously feature colorful frescoes. The city was originally founded in 1007 and was then a small fishing village, but today it mainly features touristy shops and restaurants. We spent most of our time there buying gelatos and eating them by the fountain in the main square.

Where to Eat

The restaurants along the super cute Neiderdorfstrasse offer so many choices, and many of them very good. There are plenty of tourists in the area, but we also saw lots of locals gathering there to enjoy the food. Our first night, we were headed to a popular restaurant called the Raclette Factory, but was told there would be a half-hour wait, so we ended up eating at the nearby Spaghetti Factory instead. (Not sure why so many restaurants contain the word "factory," but they're not the least bit factory-like.) 

Another night, we had dinner at the popular Swiss Chuchi fondue restaurant to get our first taste of Swiss fondue. While the food isn't cheap, the fondue is indeed excellent. We got two kinds (traditional and ham with mushrooms), which came with chewy white bread chunks. Pro-tip: If you're sharing your fondue with the kids, ask to forgo the white wine that's typically added to the cheese, which makes it too bitter for most young palates. We added on chicken, pickled onions, gherkins, and potatoes. The kids also got raclette rostis  basically a giant hash brown smothered in the local cheese.

As snacks, we also tried the pretzels from Bretzelkonig, which are actually pretzel-shaped sandwiches rather than the pretzels we know (they're sliced in half and filled with everything from sweet-and-salty butter to salami). So yummy! And we also sampled three types of sausages from the popular fast-food place Sternen Grill: the bratwurst, the Italian, and the spicy sausage. Each one comes with a cup of very spicy mustard and a crusty piece of bread. My son declared the Italian the best sausage he's ever had.

What's Nearby

After Zurich, we hopped on a train to nearby Engelberg and then went on to Lauterbrunnen and Murren, where we got to experience the Switzerland of our imagination: soaring alpine mountains and spectacular, towering waterfalls. Check out my itineraries for those parts of the trip!

You may also like: Engelberg with Kids: What to See, Do, and Eat
Lauterbrunnen and Murren with Kids: What to See, Do, and Eat

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