Lonely Planet recently released its Best in Travel 2014, which includes a list of the top 10 cities for traveling. These cities are spread across the globe and include classics as well as cities that are just coming into their own as traveler destinations. The Lonely Planet list includes some obvious choices like Paris, Cape Town, Zurich, Shanghai, Vancouver, Chicago, and Auckland but it also includes less obvious choices like Trinidad, Cuba, Adelaide, Australia, and Riga, Latvia. Check it out here and then let us know, which cities would you add to the 2014 list?
On 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.
There’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.
There 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.
I 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.
I 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]
While Switzerland is not usually thought of as a budget-friendly destination, there are actually many worthwhile hotels, sights, and restaurants that won’t cost you a fortune. To help travelers navigate their way around this usually costly country, EuroCheapo has launched budget travel guides for the cities of Zurich and Geneva, marking their first Swiss guides on the site. These guides will not only feature accommodation recommendations and photographs from the editors themselves, but also insider tips on how to explore these cities without breaking the bank.
Says EuroCheapo’s founder and editor-in-chief, Tom Meyers, “While it’s certainly easy to overspend in Geneva and Zurich, our editors have uncovered many simple ways to make visiting more affordable. Both cities offer delightful inexpensive hotels that will keep your trip budget in check.”
Public art exhibitions featuring a common sculpture that is multiplied and then embellished by various artists have been popping up in cities worldwide since 1998. Artistic director Walter Knapp first came up with the idea and convinced artists to dot Zurich, Switzerland with a collection of artfully-decorated lions. Within a year, Chicago businessman Peter Hanig had taken the idea and ran with it, using life-sized cows for an exhibition titled CowParade that is still circling the world today.
This idea of serial public art spread like wildfire into over 70 cities across the United States and many other locations worldwide. Tourism administrations seem to think the installations draw a crowd, while the exhibitions typically end in pieces being auctioned off to charity. It’s a win-win for all–unless, of course, you think the artworks are an eyesore.
From mermaids to gorillas, click through the gallery below to see a sampling of serial public art from around the world.