Welcome To Zurich, Home Of The $12 Big Mac Meal

zurichThere are no Dollar Stores in Zurich. But if there were, they’d probably offer single sticks of gum, paper clips or kernels of popcorn. In February, Zurich assumed the top spot in The Economist’s annual list of the world’s most expensive cities, knocking Tokyo off its perch, largely due to the strength of the Swiss Franc.

I’m a frugal traveler – the kind of person who prides himself on finding good deals, even in the most expensive places. So I viewed a recent three-day trip to Zurich as the ultimate challenge. If you can find bargains in Zurich, you deserve a Ph.D. in budget travel. And besides, I’ve always been smitten with Switzerland and the Swiss. It’s a country with four official languages and 37,000 miles of sign-posted hiking trails. It’s best known for neutrality, cheese, knives, watches, secretive banks, chocolate and Roger Federer.

I was up for the challenge but on my first day, when my toddlers requested – no, demanded – McDonald’s, it became painfully obvious that sticking to a budget in Zurich would be a challenge. My kids’ Happy Meals cost the equivalent of $9.15 each. Want a Big Mac value meal? $12.51. No joke.

After they ate, my wife and I repaired to a hole-in-the-wall fast-food Turkish restaurant the size of a broom closet. We ordered doner kebabs and two small bottles of water. The bill came to the equivalent of $28.34. The menu said that doners were 9 francs ($9.81), so I was confused.

“How much is the bottle of water?” I asked.
“Four francs,” said the Turkish proprietor.

In all my years of travel, I don’t believe I’ve ever paid $4.35 for a small bottle of water and I wasn’t about to start in a zero star take-away, so I asked for some tap water.”We don’t have any,” said the Turk, half apologetically.

We ate our doners with nothing to wash them down and left the place thirsty. I assumed that we’d be able to walk into a shop and pick up a bottle of water for a franc or two but soon realized that the entire city is full of what must be some of the world’s most expensive bottled water.

expensive bottled waterI passed a vending machine that was also charging 4 francs, and checked the menus of various other fast food outlets, and all were charging about the same. I found a kiosk that was selling water and cokes for 3 francs, ($3.27) but still couldn’t pull the trigger. I’d read somewhere that the supermarket Migros’s takeaway outlets are a great place for bargain meals, so I ducked into one to check their price. A small, cold bottle cost $3.81 and mediocre looking slices of pizza were going for $7.07. No sale. In the basement supermarket, liter sized bottles at room temperature cost less than a franc.

In no other city in the world have I spent more time comparison-shopping for water but I couldn’t help but record all kinds of pricey offerings in my little notebook.

Here are a few examples:

  • Large cheese pizza in a sit-down Italian restaurant – $41.36
  • “Special” burger at a brasserie in the Old Town – $24.49
  • Club sandwich at a casual restaurant – $23.95
  • Plate of spaghetti in the cafeteria of the Zurich Zoo – $16.11
  • A cup, not a pot of tea in a café – $5.44

How do the good people of Zurich afford these prices? The monthly minimum wage is about $3,488, and most make much more than that. The Swiss are also careful with their money and aren’t prone to impetuous behavior of any kind. Case in point: they recently voted against giving themselves an additional two weeks of vacation time per year.

Expensive food and drink is really just the tip of the iceberg in Zurich. Take a stroll down Banhofstrasse, the city’s most elegant shopping thoroughfare, if you really want to get a taste of moneyed Zurich. There, and all over the city, one cannot help but notice how well put together the residents of Zurich are. In my neighborhood in Northern Virginia, I often see adults shopping in pajama pants, but in Zurich, everyone looks like they just stepped off the pages of a fashion magazine.

zurich shopping  pradaI did some window-shopping at Louis Vuitton, Prada, Cartier, Bvlgari and Salvatore Ferragamo, all the while working up the courage to actually enter one of these temples of consumerism with my two young sons in tow. I took a few steps into an Ermenegildo Zenga store and immediately felt unwelcome.

Feeling as though security was about to press a button to release us down into an underground dungeon, I asked a lovely young sales associate, who accosted us, how much a suit in the window cost. She gave me a half-smile and a sort of pitying look, as if to say, ‘There is no chance you can afford it.’

She checked the price, nonetheless, and said, “It’s two thousand, four hundred and fifty francs.” (A bit more than the annual per-capita GDP of The Philippines.)

“Is that all?” I wanted to say, but thought better of it, as sarcasm doesn’t usually play that well across linguistic and cultural lines, particularly in absurdly high-end shops.

“Will it go on sale?” I blurted out, feeling ridiculous but wanting to save face somehow as we backed out the door.

“On sale?” she asked, as though she was unfamiliar with the term, despite her apparent fluency in English.

“Never mind,” I said before we slinked out.

But of course, people have been bitching about the high cost of living in Zurich for a very long time, even well before the surge of the franc. James Joyce, the legendary Irish writer lived in Zurich for years, and is buried there (see video) and he apparently felt that his monthly rent of 40 francs in 1916 was highway robbery.

Joyce wrote Ulysses in Zurich but was constantly short on cash, and lived in a variety of very ordinary apartments, including one that Mrs. Joyce claimed was infested with mice. These days, 40 francs barely buys you a pizza and struggling writers, as Joyce was during his early years in Zurich, still have plenty to complain about.

Tomorrow: Part 2: Zurich on a Dime: Budget Travel Tips for the World’s Most Expensive City.

[All photos by Dave Seminara]