The most populated county (canton) in Switzerland is Canton Zurich. Situated in north-eastern Switzerland, the canton is bordered by Schwyz, Zug, Thurgau, St. Gallen, Aargau and Schaffhausen, as well as the German state of Baden-Wurttemberg.
Zurich in numbers
- Surface area: 1.728 km2
- Population: 1.539.275 (December 2019)
- Expat population: 416.780 (27 percent, December 2019)
- Universities: 2
- Unemployment rate: 2,1% (December, 2019)
- GRP per capita: 95.608 Swiss francs (December, 2019)
History of Canton Zurich
The lands we now known as Canton Zurich were first settled by the Helvetii tribe, a tribe whose name gives Switzerland its official Latin title (Confederation Helvetica). The land was conquered by Julius Caesar in the 1st century bc and was incorporated into the Helvetic province of the Roman empire.
Free city and Swiss confederation
After the fall of Rome, the Canton of Zurich was divided between the Abby of St. Gall (later St. Gallen) and the Duchy of Alamannia. It was under Emperor Louis the Pious in 820, that the Canton of Zurich was given its nominal independence.
For much of the following 400 years the land was split between the Kyburg family and the Austrian Hapsburgs. In 1218, the canton was given the title of “reichsfrei”, meaning that it could be independent of direct imperial rule. After several large territorial expansions into what would become the Zurich Oberland, the canton joined the old Swiss confederacy in 1351.
One of Canton Zurich’s most famous citizens is the Christian reformer Ulrich Zwingli. Following the protestant reformation in Germany in 1517, many Swiss theologians began to question papal authority within Switzerland. This included the leader John Calvin in Geneva and Zwingli in Zurich.
It is said that Zwingli’s first complaint with papal authority began in 1522 with the proclamation that people should be able to eat sausages on Sunday, defiantly eating a sausage in front of the Wasserkirche in Zurich, where his statue remains to this day.
Under Zwingli, Zurich was converted into a quasi-religious state, with the majority of power going towards the head of the church, who at the time happened to be Zwingli. Unfortunately, Zwingli’s ideology and desire to expand Zurich further caught the ire of the neighbouring Cantons who remained Catholic. After three civil wars, Zwingli was killed in battle in 1531 and the Canton was dramatically reduced in size and power over the next 200 years, only to be conquered by Napoleon in 1798.
After a brief spell as a puppet of Napoleon's French empire and almost 60 years of radical government, the canton’s constitution was finally ratified in 1869, leading to greater stability. It was this stability that allowed Zurich to flourish as a centre of trade for Switzerland. The first ever railway in Switzerland between Zurich and Baden in Canton Aargau was constructed in 1847, leading to the canton becoming the most developed part of the network of public transport.
During the period of 1869 to the present day, the canton has used its stability and peaceful nature to become a financial hub for banking and mortgages. It is estimated that Swiss banks hold 25 percent of all global assets. With Zurich possessing quick links to Germany, France, Italy and Austria, as well as the largest airport, the canton has become a go to destination for businesses and expats alike.
Geography of Canton Zurich
The Canton of Zurich is divided into two major geographical zones. The Unterland begins in the city of Zurich and extends down the Zurich Lake to the castle of Rapperswil in Canton St. Gallen. This area has several narrow valleys with large hills either side, with large rivers and lakes in their centre.
The Oberland is all the land to the north and east of the city of Zurich, this land is wide open grass or swampland, organised into several hundred conservation areas. This part of the canton is less developed and more devoted to agriculture.
Weather in Canton Zurich
The canton sits to the north of the Alpine Mountain range, meaning that it does not benefit from a Mediterranean climate. The weather in Canton Zurich has long, cold winters, and long hot summers. In the winter, snow is commonplace 600 meters above sea level, with temperatures often being around freezing. In summers, the weather is characterised by long hot spells of around 30 degrees, followed by two to three days of thunderstorms and rain before returning to the hot spells.
The language of Canton Zurich is Swiss German. To many expats’ ears, the dialect spoken in Canton Zurich is the “stereotypical” accent known by German speakers to be Swiss German. The accent, known as Mundart, is an Alemannic dialect. Each part of the canton has its own variation of Mundart, ranging from Stadt Mundart in the centre of Zurich to, Winterthurer Mundart, with its origins in the city of Winterthur.
For example, to say “The police operation had finished”, in high German would be “die Polizeiaktion wurde beendet”. In mundart, the sentence would go “d'Polizeiaktion isch beändet wordä”. Needless to say, as time goes by, Swiss German is slowly moving away from high German.
Largest cities in Canton Zurich
One of the most populous cantons in the country, Zurich contains a large number of different cities.
The largest city in Switzerland, Zurich is the beating heart of the canton. Nestled between two large hills, the city has stood since Roman times, expanding from a single fort to the large metropolis you see today. Within its boundaries you will find the captivating old town alongside the famous guilds that adorn the water. The centre of town offers Swiss history and culture to both the tourist and the expat.
Known as Zurich’s younger sister, the city of Winterthur was once the centre of manufacturing for the canton. In the past, the city was famous for producing beer, steel, trains, and automobiles. Today, the old town is known for its bohemian atmosphere and great bars and restaurants.
Very popular with expats, the city of Uster is the capital of the Zurich Oberland. The city is dominated by its castle, which is now a primary and secondary school. The city is close to the Greifensee, a smaller lake to the east of Zurich that is known for its tranquillity and opportunities for swimming.
Once the home of Zurich airport, the town of dübendorf is still dominated by its large aerodrome. Although the site is expected to be used for housing in the coming years, for now the airbase is home to the Swiss fighter display team and the national air and air defense museum.
Dietikon, not to be confused with Dietlikon, is a large transport hub for Swiss railways as it is on the mainline between, Zurich, Bern, Basel, Geneva, and Lausanne. That is why the martialing yard contains over 50 different sidings and stretches for an area of over three football fields. The city is also where you can access the stunning Aare valley, using the mountain railway.
The largest city in the Zurich Oberland, the city of Wetzikon is known for its wetlands that dominate the area around the Pfäffikersee. Recently, scientists have discovered alpine settlements in the wetlands that date back to the prehistoric period. The area is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Traditional food of Canton Zurich
Food in Canton Zurich is a mixture of German and Austrian cuisine with a Zurich twist. The most well-known Zurich dish is Zurich Geschnetzeltes, a dish of veal in a creamy mushroom sauce with a large helping of Swiss Rosti. In traditional restaurants, do not be surprised if you are served two portions of Rosti, so be prepared!
Sights & Attractions in Zurich
There are many different sites and attractions in Canton Zurich. From large museums to beautiful vistas, there is always something interesting to do for families and children. For a full list of things to do in the capital of the canton, see the guide to the city of Zurich.
Take a swim in the lakes
There are many different lakes that you can use to swim and play. The Zurichsee, Greifensee, Pfaffikersee and Katzensee are all clean enough to swim in. The Katzensee is famous for being the warmest lake in Switzerland during the summer months, with water temperatures exceeding 28 degrees.
For the science-curious, Technorama is the largest interactive science museum in Switzerland. Each exhibit is designed to be interacted with and is an excellent way to learn about scientific phenomenon. Highlights include a static electricity show and an optical illusion section.
If you want to get away from the bright lights of Zurich, the Zurich Oberland is a place of astounding natural beauty. Home to multiple forests, rivers, streams, and hills, the Oberland is an ideal place to hike or cycle.
On the banks of the Pfaffikersee sits the famous Jucker farm. This farm specialises in locally grown produce from the Oberland. Most famously, it has an annual pumpkin festival with different pumpkin sculptures formed out of thousands of different pumpkin species.
Zurich coat of arms
The cantonal coat of arms for Zurich is the same as the city, with a blue and white cross design. During cantonal celebrations, the flag also has a long and thin red strip on the top of the flag, known as the Schenkel. For more information, check out the guide to Swiss flags.