Aarau, Switzerland | Expat city guide

Aarau, Switzerland | Expat city guide

Passing through Aarau on your travels? Be sure to check out our city guide for lots of useful information, links and tips.

Guide to Aarau

Located on the banks of the river Aare, Aarau is the capital of the Canton of Aargau. The town is famous for being the first capital of Switzerland when the country was transformed into the Helvetic Republic by Napoleon. At this time, it was also home to the country’s first-ever parliamentary assembly.

Aarau is a picturesque town, known for its abundant art and culture. Expats and citizens can stop by numerous museums, churches and galleries around the town during their adventures. The town is also well known for the “Dacchimmel,” the name given to the beautifully decorated eaves that adorn the underside of Aarau’s roofs.

A short history of Aarau

The history of Aarau begins in 1240 AD with the counts of Kyburg. The Kyburg lands were sold by Agnes of Kyburg to King Rudolf I von Habsburg once the family line had ended. The king granted Aarau city rights in 1283.

Bernese invasion

In 1415, the city of Aarau was invaded by Bern and Aarau subsequently surrendered to the invaders after a brief resistance. In the 16th century, the rights of the lower classes in the city were abolished, Protestantism was introduced, and industry started to develop.

On August 11, 1712, the Peace of Aarau was signed, granting cantons the right to choose their own religion. This saw Protestantism overtake Catholicism as the predominant religion in the area. A textile industry began in the city around that time, driven by German immigrants who introduced cotton and silk factories.

Aarau as a two-time capital

In December 1797, the Federal Diet of the Old Swiss Confederacy met for the last time in Aarau. The city refused to help the Bernese defend their borders and the French, under Napoleon, invaded Switzerland in 1798, establishing the Helvetic Republic with Aarau as its capital, the first capital of Switzerland. However, its status as a capital city would be short-lived, as, in September, just 6 months later, the capital of the Helvetic Republic was moved to Lucerne.

After the fall of the Helvetic Republic in 1803, Napoleon ordered the cantons of Aargau, Baden and Fricktal to be combined into a new canton, still called Aargau. The textile industry in Aarau declined in 1850 due to tariff controls and other industries developed in the city, namely shoes, cement and mathematical appliances.

Other industries developed in the first half of the 20th century, however, the populace eventually moved into service-based jobs, or started working for local government organisations. Since then, many industries have left the city.

What to do in Aarau: Sightseeing and Activities

Aarau is a town steeped in art and culture. There are plenty of sights to see around the city, make sure you don’t miss out these ones during your travels.

Explore the castles

During your time in the city, make sure you check out the Schlössli, the oldest building in Aarau. The Schlössli served as a residence for noble families and wealthy middle-class families, a silk ribbon manufacturer and eventually, Colonel Emil Rothpletz. The city inherited the castle from Rothpletz’s inheritance, and it now houses the Aarau City Museum. 

There are other castles that can be found a short distance from Aarau too. Art fanatics can head to Hallwyl Castle, a picturesque castle surrounded by water on three sides. The castle was home to the noble Hallwyl family, who were prolific art collectors. Their collection is still displayed in the castle today.

The legendary Lenzburg Castle should not be missed either. Known as The Dragon Castle, it offers spectacular views of the surrounding hills. The castle was apparently built after two knights, Guntram and Wolfram, killed a dragon that was terrorising the local community. For their service, they were allowed to live on the hilltop.

Check out the famous Dachhimmel

The city of Aarau is mesmerisingly beautiful. The architecture and design of the city’s houses and buildings, as well as its dramatic landscape, makes it seem like you’re walking through a fairytale. One of the town’s unique features is the brightly coloured Dachhimmel, the elaborately decorated eaves. Several buildings around the old town sport this feature, so make sure you keep you keep an eye out every now and then.

Discover Aarau’s heritage

Aarau is a culturally important city, and this is reflected in the city’s numerous historical sites. The Reformed City Church is a particularly striking building, and well worth a visit while on your adventures. The cantonal Library is another important heritage site. The library started after the purchase of a manuscript collection in 1803 and now contains many important works and documents, including a bible annotated by Ulrich Zwingli.

The cantonal school is also a historically and culturally important building. The school was instituted in 1802 and was the first high school in Switzerland that was independent from a church parish. The school counts some of the world’s greatest minds among its alumni, including Nobel Price winners Albert Einstein and Werner Arber.

Museums and parks

Aarau is home to some internationally renowned museums. The Aargau Kunsthaus houses a collection of pieces from the 18th century to the modern day. The Naturama museum is a modern natural history museum, including interactive exhibitions on animals and environments throughout history.

If museums aren’t exactly your thing, why not spend a day enjoying the fresh air in the city’s parks. The Roggenhausen Wildlife Park is a great place to spend an afternoon with the family. There is a playground for kids, an orchard for long romantic walks and plenty of wildlife to be seen along the park’s nature trails for all the nature watchers among us.

Travelling around Aarau

Public transport in Aarau is provided by Busbetrieb Aarau AG, who operate buses in the city and the surrounding areas. Busbetrieb Aarau is a member of the A-Welle tariff network, which includes rail services.

Annual events

These events are on every year in Aarau and are a must for anyone visiting the city.

The Bachfischet

The Bachfischet is one of the oldest of Swiss customs. The city’s stream, the Stadbach has long been a source of drinking water for the local population. The Bachfischet is a ceremony honouring the stream’s history as a supply of water, in which the citizens of Aarau thoroughly clean the stream. The first stream of water is then taken by the city’s youths and carried to the Aare River. A vibrant procession is formed, where lanterns are flown and songs are sung. Children in Suhr send little boats with candles up the stream to Aarau.

Jazzaar Festival

Aarau hosts the Jazzaar Fesitval, which sees some of the most famous and celebrated jazz musicians perform every year.

The carrot market

Every year, on the first Wednesday of November, the old town of Aarau becomes the setting for the town’s traditional carrot market. The market has become a major cultural highlight and is highly popular, so popular in fact, that around 140 vendors register to take part in the market every year!

Jobs in Aarau

Aarau has long been a haven for small businesses and manufacturing, with the city being famous for the quality of their mathematical instruments and bells. Check out our listings for jobs.

Housing in Aarau

Aarau is a beautiful city and a desirable place to live, however, it can be hard to find accommodation in the city. Check out our list of rentals and short-stay accommodation in the city.

Video footage of Aarau

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