Zurich On A Dime – Budget Travel Tips for the World’s Most Expensive City

zurich ETH universityOn my second day in Zurich, named the world’s most expensive city by The Economist, I found myself sitting at an outdoor table, high above the city, savoring a splendid view of the altstadt and a tasty $3 mug of Swiss beer, while my young sons shared an ice cream cone in a moment of rare culinary cooperation.

We’d just returned from visiting James Joyce’s grave, which is adjacent to the zoo (his wife thought that he’d want to be buried there because he was fond of hearing the lions roar), and after a day of cataloging Zurich’s costly pleasures, we had finally discovered a relative bargain. We got off the #6 tram at the ETH/University Hospital stop and noticed a host of young people filing into the student cafeteria for ETH, the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. The cafeteria and adjacent pub/café have extensive outdoor seating and million dollar views of the city below. (See video and photo above.)

The prices are a bargain by Zurich standards with reasonably priced drinks and decent quality sandwiches and full meals for under $10, not to mention free tap water – a rarity in Zurich. There are 42,000 university students in the city and this is the neighborhood both of the largest universities are based in, making it a good bet for budget friendly dining and drinking. From the city center, you can take the Polybahn funicular from the Central stop right up to the cafeteria in three minutes flat.Finding a cheap place to stay in Zurich is also a tribulation but if you book ahead, you can get a private room at Zurich’s H.I. hostel for as little as $116 or a bunk for as little as $43. Not cheap by hostel standards, but a bargain in Zurich, especially for a nice hostel like this one (see video below). It’s not right in the center, but it’s only a five-minute walk from a tram that can get you downtown in 15 minutes. Other good budget options include the City Backpacker, Hotel Biber, and the Longstreet Hotel, which was recently opened by some veteran backpackers.

When the grey skies disappear and the snow-capped Glarner Alpen mountains just outside the city come into brilliant focus behind the city’s skyline of handsome clock towers, it’s easy to see why the city is routinely ranked as one of the best places to live in the world. Set right on a beautiful lake, Zurich is an attractive place at any time of year, with two rivers converging in the city center, tidy streets and a well preserved Old Town, but when the sun shines… it’s magic.

zurichThere’s no getting around the fact that Zurich is expensive but the best things in life are still free. Stand at the Platspitz, Joyce’s favorite spot, where the Limmat and Sihl rivers converge and watch the boats go by. Go to the Merkur Laderach on Banhofstrasse and watch them make chocolate. Take a walk up to the Lindenhof Park in the altstadt and take in the spectacular view of the city. Amble over to watch the guys playing chess on two massive boards with huge pieces. Steal a glimpse at the teenagers covertly making out in the shadows. None of these things costs a franc.

%Gallery-153190% After meeting with Daniela Strobel from Zurich Tourism and chatting with some students, I discovered that, with a bit of foresight, it’s definitely possible to visit Zurich on a budget. Here are a few more tips.

Free water – Zurich has 1,224 public fountains and the water quality is reportedly better than bottled water. Get one large bottle in a supermarket – the real ones, not the takeaway annexes, which are pricey – and drink to your heart’s content. At restaurants, you can ask for hahnenwasser (tap water) but many will still charge you for it.

Free bikes – You can rent a bike for free right in front of the main train station year round at Zuri Rollt, or at a host of locations around the city in the summer. With a 20-franc deposit, you can rent a normal bike, an electronic bike (if you want to go fast) and even kids’ bikes or adult bikes with children’s seats.

Zurich card – Invest in a Zurich card, 20 francs for 24 hours or 40 francs for 72, and you’ll gain free entrance into nearly all of Zurich’s world class museums, discounts at shops, plus free rides on all Zurich’s trams, trains, buses, funiculars and boats. I highly recommend taking the scenic boat ride on Lake Zurich to see the castle and atmospheric old town of Rapperswill on the outskirts of town.

Red Light District - A young Swiss couple told me they hit the heart of Zurich’s red-light district, Langstrasse at Circle 4, when they’re looking for cheap eats. The truth is that you see graphic sex posters even on Zurich’s main shopping streets, so there’s no reason to be squeamish about visiting this area – though it’s best to come here during daylight hours.