St. Gallen, Switzerland | Expat city guide

St. Gallen, Switzerland | Expat city guide

If you find yourself in St. Gallen, check out our city guide for sights, activities, history and any other information you might need while in the city.

St. Gallen city guide

The capital of the Canton of St. Gallen, St. Gallen represents the centre of eastern Switzerland. The city is steeped in history, even taking its name from the Abbey of St. Gall, where the city first grew. St. Gallen has long been a centre for Germanic culture, due to the abbey’s famous library and its monks who continued to spread the works contained within the convent around the world.

Today, St. Gallen is known for its strikingly beautiful appearance, even winning the Wakker Prize for the city’s dedication to preserving its historic structure and appearance. The city continues to attract students seeking higher education from all over the world, due to it being the home of the University of Saint Gallen, one of the best business schools in the world and one of the oldest Swiss universities.

A short history of St. Gallen

In 720 AD, a monastery was founded by Saint Othmar, supposedly at the site of the hermitage of Saint Gallus, who, according to legend, came from Ireland with Saint Columbanus to spread Christianity throughout the continent. Gallus eventually set up a hermitage in the forests near Lake Constance, near the source of the Steinach River. The monastery was instituted as the Abbey of Saint Gall.

Rise and fall of the Abbey

During the 9th century, the abbey became a significant site as a centre for trade and academics. It was also a pilgrimage destination at this time and had guest houses, stables, a hospital and even a school. By the 10th century, a small town had grown up around the abbey.

For the first half 10th century, the abbey and town were threatened and attacked by Magyar raiders. The abbey caught fire in 937 and spread to the surrounding settlement. It was around this time that a wall, with gates and towers, was built around the town.

The town then called St. Gall pushed for independence from the abbey in the 12th century. However, the abbey grew in power after its abbot, Ulrich von Sax was given the title of Imperial Prince by the German King, Philip of Swabia, in 1207. The abbey became its own principality, with corresponding territories.

The city eventually freed itself from the rule of the abbey and, in 1291, Abbot Wilhelm von Montfort granted the citizens of the town special privileges. The city eventually came under the control of the old Swiss guilds, who then bought the city’s freedom from King Sigismund of Luxembourg.

Conflict between the abbey and town

In 1405, the town of Saint Gallen became allies with the Old Swiss Confederation. The abbey became allies with Confederation members, Zurich, Lucerne, Schwyz and Glarus in 1451. The town of St. Gallen eventually joined as a full member of the Confederacy in 1454 and gained independence from the abbey and its abbot in 1457.

In 1463, the Abbey of St. Gall came under the control of Ulrich Rösch, who wanted to restore the abbey to its former glory, as it had lost much of its lands and power during the wars over Appenzell. The abbey lost its control over Appenzell during the conflict, and had been significantly weakened as a result. Rösch devised a plan with the Holy Roman Emperor and the Pope to move the abbey to Rorschach on Lake Constance.

However, St. Gallen’s mayor, Ulrich Varnbüler, protested against this, as did the town’s citizens. The abbot's plan to move the abbey was supported by four Confederate cantons: Zurich, Lucerne, Schwyz and Glarus. Varnbüler did what he could to resist the building of the new abbey, including sending armed troops to destroy the buildings already under construction.

Invasion and reformation

In retaliation, the four cantons moved to invade the town of St. Gallen in 1490. The town was invaded without serious resistance and a treaty was struck, although the terms of the treaty restricted the city’s power and obligated the city to pay reparations.

In 1526, the Protestant Reformation made its way to St. Gallen and the town converted to Protestantism. The abbey remained Catholic and stayed true to its religion until 1803, when the Helvetic Republic was overthrown.

Helvetic Republic and later history

When Napoleon invaded Switzerland and instituted the Helvetic Republic in 1798, both the abbey and city were combined with Appenzell into one canton called Säntis. When the Helvetic Republic was dissolved in 1803, St. Gallen was raised to the capital of the Canton of St. Gallen. The new canton suppressed the Abbey of St. Gall and its monks were driven into exile.

The city has long been involved in the textile industry, since the 15th century in fact. However, World War One and the Great Depression caused a serious strain on the industry and it only recovered in the 1950s. A small textile industry still survives in St. Gallen today, with its embroidered fabrics still popular with haute couture designers.

What to do in St. Gallen: Sightseeing and activities

When you’re in St. Gallen, make sure you don’t miss out on these!

Check out the famous Abbey of St. Gall

Anyone visiting the city should make absolutely sure they explore parts of the Abbey from which the city takes its name. The Abbey Cathedral is perhaps the most grand of these attractions, with its impressive twin towers, Baroque façade and ornate decorations. The Abbey Library is definitely not to be missed either; it houses one of the oldest and most valuable collections in the world, with extremely important works of literature, including an original Gutenberg bible.

The Lapidarium of the Abbey Library is also worth a visit. It houses priceless pieces of Carolingian art, as well as an exhibition dedicated to the history of the abbey and its patron. Aside from the Abbey buildings, St. Gallen is absolutely chock full with cultural heritage sites.

Check out St. Gallen’s museums

The city of St. Gallen is home to some pretty incredible museums. The Kuntsmuseum St. Gallen is particularly popular, boasting a huge collection of invaluable and historic pieces of art. You can also find out more about the city’s textile industry at the Textilmuseum, which showcases fabulous examples of historic fashion and lacework. The Naturmuseum St. Gallen, the city’s natural history museum is another popular attraction, and the perfect place to take the family.

Get close to nature

While in St. Gallen, you should take the opportunity to stop and appreciate the sights around you. Just on the outskirts of the city, you can find the Peter and Paul Wildlife Park, which is home to numerous Alpine species of animals. The park aims to educate, offering loads of information on the species found in its grounds including deer, marmots, lynxes and even Apline Ibexes.

Nature lovers should also check out the Botanical Garden. The garden proudly displays over 8.000 different types plants, and even boasts two greenhouses with different microclimates that can host a vast variety of plants. If that isn’t enough for you, the Walter Zoo, Switzerland’s biggest privately-owned zoo, is just a 15-minute drive from the city.

Explore the streets in the Old Town

St. Gallen’s historic old town is the perfect place to spend a lazy weekend afternoon, soaking in the beautiful architecture and taking a stroll down the meandering city streets. The old town is also famous for its elaborate oriel windows that can be found on some houses.

While in the Old Town, make sure you stop by the striking St. Laurenzen Kirche, a beautiful church with a majestic tower. Scaling the tower will provide you with an opportunity to look out over the city and the streets of the Old Town.

Using public transport in St. Gallen

There are plenty of ways to get around in St. Gallen, which also has connections to many other cities through its extensive public transport network.

Annual events in St. Gallen

If you find yourself in St. Gallen at the right time of year, make sure you check out these events.

OpenAir St. Gallen

This annual music festival is Switzerland’s biggest and longest-running open-air festivals, attracting over 11.000 people every year.

St. Gallen Symposium

The St. Gallen Symposium is a leading academic conference held every year at the University of St. Gallen. The conference was set up with the aim of trying to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems and attracts people from the fields of economics, science and politics.

Aufgetischt St. Gallen

Every year, the streets of St. Gallen become a stage for international street artists and a haven for street food.

Culture Festival St. Gallen

For lovers of music and culture, do not miss this fantastic music festival. Set in the courtyard of the Historical and Ethnological Museum St. Gallen, the festival brings together the sounds of soul, jazz and folk music.

Jobs in St. Gallen

Love St. Gallen so much that you want to stay? Well, why not? Take a look at our list of jobs.

Housing in St. Gallen

Now that you’ve found a job, it’s time to find somewhere to live! Check out our listings for short stay rentals and apartments.

Video footage of St. Gallen

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