Zurich, Switzerland | Expat city guide

Zurich, Switzerland | Expat city guide

Welcome to Zurich. Our guide offers lots of information and useful links on living, working, studying, or simply visiting the city.

City guide to Zurich

Situated in the north of the country, Zurich is Switzerland’s largest city and the capital of the Canton of Zurich. Zurich was founded by the Romans in 15 BC and has since grown into a globally important financial centre. The city, which is home to one of the best universities in the world, continues to attract multitudes of tourists and students. It isn’t surprising that Zurich’s airport and public transport are the busiest in the country.      

A short history of Zurich

The origins of Zurich can be traced back to the Roman times. In 15 BC, the Romans built a small fort on the Lindenhof, which, somewhat ironically considering Switzerland’s modern stereotype as an international tax haven, was gradually expanded into a tax collection point named Turicum.

After the Romans, the Swiss plateau was settled by the Germanic Alemanni tribe in the 5th century, and the area became subject to various kingdoms and monarchs, including the kingdom of East Francia and the Holy Roman Empire.

In 853 AD, Louis the German, a grandson of Charlemagne and King of East Francia, founded the Fraumünster abbey, a Benedictine convent, to which he bestowed the lands of Zurich, Uri and the Albis hills.

Middle Ages: the flourishing of Zurich

In 1045, King Henry III gave the convent special powers, which allowed it to collect taxes, mint coins and hold markets. The city of Zurich gained “Imperial immediacy” in 1218, essentially relinquishing its ties with local lords and becoming an autonomous “Imperial Free City.”

The abbess of the Fraumünster convent was raised to a duchess in 1234 by Emperor Frederick II of the Holy Roman Empire. From then on, the abbess would nominate a mayor of the city.

During the 14th century, political power in the city began to shift to a guild system established by Rudolf Brun in 1336. There were 14 guilds, or Zünfte, in Zurich under this new system, each with their own trade, ranging from butchers to tailors to carpenters, while one was for members of Zurich’s nobility.

The guilds are now central to Zurich society, particularly during the annual holiday of Sechseläuten. Rudolf Brun also became the city’s first independent mayor in this period.

The Old Swiss Confederacy

Zurich became the fifth member of the old Swiss confederacy in 1351, after the citizens of the city swore allegiance to representatives from the cantons of Lucerne, Schwyz, Uri and Unterwalden. Zurich was temporarily excluded from the confederacy due to the Old Zurich War in 1440, in which Zurich fought against seven other cantons over the lands of Toggenburg. Zurich was eventually readmitted into the confederacy in 1450.

The Swiss Reformation began at the behest of Ulrich Zwingli in the 1520s, which saw several cantons, including Zurich, convert to Protestantism which resulted in major societal, religious and political changes. Several cantons remained largely Catholic, and escalated tensions led to conflicts that would come to be known as the Wars of Kappel.

Over the next hundred years, Zurich began to take an isolationist attitude and, when the Thirty Years' War ravaged across Europe from 1618 to 1648, the cantons of Switzerland stayed out of the conflict, instead providing substantial mercenaries for both sides.

Zurich flourished during the Thirty Years War, as the conflict provided plenty of opportunities for the Swiss cantons. In 1648, Zurich proclaimed itself a republic and the city was run by powerful families in an oligarchic system.

The Helvetic Republic

The French invaded Switzerland in 1798, the confederacy was dismantled, which marked the end of the Ancien Régime in Switzerland, and the Helvetic Republic was instituted in its place.

The French attempted to reform the political system in Switzerland, but this was fiercely rejected by Swiss citizens, who rebelled against the French invaders. The rebellion was firmly crushed by the French.

The Swiss continued to act against their occupiers, helped support the Austrian and Russian Imperial Armies and rejected calls to support the French army in the conflict. The Helvetic Republic collapsed in 1803, following several uprisings and an accumulation of around 12 million francs in debt.

Napoleon Bonaparte himself declared that Switzerland was a federal system, and it would be unwise to force any other kind of political system upon the country. The Act of Mediation was passed by Bonaparte in 1803, abolishing the Helvetic Republic and restabilising the cantons and the Swiss Confederacy.

Modern history

In 1848, Zurich led the Swiss Confederation against the Sonderbund cantons, a collection of predominantly Catholic cantons, which fought against the centralisation of power. This led to a civil war, called the Sonderbund War, which eventually concluded with a new federal constitution that transformed Switzerland into a federal state.

Huge developments in the city during the 19th century led to mass migration and Zurich flourished again during this period. Switzerland’s first railway was built in 1847 between Zurich and Baden, soon extending to Aarau. This was followed by the construction of Zurich Hauptbahnhof. Zurich’s famous Bahnhofstrasse was also built during this time and, in 1877, the Zurich Stock Exchange was founded.

Despite being accidentally bombed during the Second World War, the industrialisation and mass migration that began in the 19th century propelled Zurich into the city we know today: a cultural, financial, and educational capital of Europe.

Things to do in Zurich: Sightseeing and activities

Whether you fancy taking a walk through the historical city centre, shopping, admiring stunning vistas or partying with friends, there is something for everyone in Zurich.

Discover Zurich’s past

If you’re a fan of history and sightseeing, then Zurich is the perfect place for you. Zurich’s history is proudly on display throughout the city. Visitors arrive in droves to check out the famous twin towers of the Grossmünster church, the city’s most famous landmark, or the Fraumünster, which once housed the city’s ruling convent.

Sightseers can also walk through Zurich’s historic old town, which is separated into two parts by the Limmat river and offers some gorgeous views of Zurich’s beautiful houses, guildhalls and quaint little cobbled streets that are bursting with the culture and history of the city. Don’t forget to check out the Lindenhof either, the very hill on which the city was founded.

Become one with nature

For a city that has become an important centre of business and finance, Zurich offers some of the most breathtaking sites in the world. One of the best places to take in Zurich’s beautiful scenery is from the skies, and what better place to do that than 2.850 feet above sea level, on the Uetliberg, Zurich’s very own mountain. The mountain offers unparalleled views of the city, the surrounding environment and even the Alps. It is particularly popular with tourists for its hiking trails, stargazing routes and, in the winter, its sledding runs.

The Uetliberg also offers gorgeous views of Lake Zurich, one of Switzerland’s “big five” lakes. The lake is a popular hotspot for water sports, swimming and nature trails, particularly in the gorgeous, wooded hills that surround its shore. The lake also contains four tiny islands that are popular with tourists.

Retail therapy

Zurich is home to one of the most exclusive and expensive shopping boulevards in the world: the Bahnhofstrasse. The downtown street is home to luxury stores and designer boutiques, making it one of the busiest areas in Zurich. Towards the end of the Bahnhofstrasse, near Lake Zurich, you can find the Paradeplatz, one of the most famous squares in the country, which has become synonymous with wealth, luxury and banking. You can find the Confiserie Sprüngli here, an internationally renowned chocolatier, famous for its Luxemburgerli macarons.

For those that prefer a bit more culture and an alternative atmosphere to the luxuriousness of the city centre, Zurich boasts plenty of trendy districts such as the area under the viaduct arches in Zurich-West. Here visitors are treated to an explosion of art, design and street food, as well as galleries, fashion boutiques and furniture stores.

Something for everyone

Whatever takes your fancy, there really is something for everyone in Zurich. Aside from the shopping, nature and history, Zurich is home to a plethora of museums and galleries, including the world-famous Kunsthaus Zürich, the Swiss National Museum and the Haus Konstruktiv. For horticulture enthusiasts, Zurich also has plenty of public gardens, including the Botanical Garden and the Chinese Garden, which was instituted as a gift by the Chinese city of Kunming, Zurich’s partner town.

Fan of the arts? Zurich is home to the Zurich Opera House, which also houses the Zurich Ballet. Zurich is also home to several prominent theatres, including the grandiose Schauspielhaus Zurich and the Theatre am Neumarkt, one of the oldest theatres in the city.

Zurich is also known for its stylish clubbing and nightlife scene. The main areas for nightlife in the city are the Niederdorf district and the Langstrasse. Here, partygoers can find all sorts of clubs, bars, concert halls and parties, as well as street food, cocktail bars and cafes.

Public transport in Zurich

Public transport is pretty popular in Zurich, with around 70 percent of tourists using trams or buses to get around. Zurich’s public transport system, known as the ZVV, consists of S-bahn trains, trams, buses and ferries. Zurich is also home to Switzerland’s largest and busiest train station and airport.

Education in Zurich

Zurich is home to around 70.000 students that study at the universities, colleges and other educational institutions located within the city. Zurich is home to two of the world’s best universities: the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and the University of Zurich.

Annual events in Zurich

Here are just a few of the many events that take place every year in Zurich.

Zurich film festival

The Zurich Film Festival is an annual, international film festival aimed at promoting and celebrating emerging filmmakers from all over the world. The 11-day festival holds three competitions: International Feature Film, International Documentary Film and “Focus: Switzerland, Germany and Austria.”

Street parade

Zurich’s street parade is one of the largest and most popular techno and dance music parties in the world. The event is a celebration of freedom, love and tolerance and attracts more than 1 million people every year.

Weltklasse Zurich

This one-day athletics event is held every year at the Letzigrund in Zurich. The event is sometimes referred to as the “one-day Olympics,” and hosts many track and field competitions, including a 100-metre sprint, high jump and javelin throw.

Zurich Marathon

The Zurich marathon covers 42.195 kilometres and passes through some of Zurich’s most famous and beautiful areas. Another similar event, the New Year’s Eve run, which takes place every year on January 1 at the stroke of midnight.

Jobs in Zurich

Got the urge to live and work in Zurich? Can’t say we blame you! Take a look at our list of expat jobs in Zurich.

Housing in Zurich

Zurich is a stunningly beautiful city, and continually attracts expats and tourists year in, year out. Planning on visiting or moving to Zurich? Check out our list of short-term accommodation or apartments to rent in Zurich.

Video footage of Zurich

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