Three things to know before you go to Switzerland.
1) Start saving up your sheckles the second you decide to travel there.
2) Simultaneously start hoarding your calories, as you will triple your daily intake with one meal.
3) Swiss timepieces, Swiss chocolate, and Swiss cheese are famous for a reason.
We landed in Zurich just over six hours after leaving JFK, pleasantly surprised with how the headwinds sped us along much quicker than anticipated. We took the S2 commuter train from the airport to Zurich Enge stastion (Click here for a Zurich City train route map), arriving at Sheraton Zurich Neues Schloss Hotel a little after 9am. Luckily, the friendly woman at the counter found a room for us, and we were able to retire for a very restorative nap. Emerging later that afternoon (after eating some Christmas cookies in the hotel lobby), we set out to explore the city with absolutely no itinerary in mind.
The hotel is only one block from Lake Zurich, 1/2 mile from the famous Bahnhofstrasse shopping street, and very close to other city attractions (the Opera, Zoo, and the Museum of Modern Art). We followed the water around to the mouth of Bahnhofstrasse, passing Cartier, Louis Vuitton, and a host of Swiss chocolatiers whose offerings could have been sold in jewelry boxes.
Venturing down the many side streets, I was reminded of how jealous I am of European bakeries. Is it the butter fat? The sugar? The environment that makes them taste so good? Here, all sensable eating degenerated, and I began to stuff a variety of confections in my face.
Crossing over the river to the Old Town, the Alstadt’s charm was a clear counterpart to the modernity of the Bahnhofstrasse. Little Shops, castle-like hotels, and a pop-up Christmas Market wooed us through the side streets, and I spent way too much on things that I probably didn’t need (100mls of Kirsch balsamic Vingear? $11CHF.)
Time for the main event- dinner! We chose Rheinfelder Bierhalle based on the number of old men clinking steins, as this is my standard measure of quality. Apparently, this is one of the oldest beer halls in Zurich, opening in 1870 and grumpily throwing down delicious Cordon Bleus, Spatzle, and Rostis for locals and visitors alike. Seating is communal, and you will most likely find yourself being stared at by throngs of Swiss men if you are a woman, but who cares! The beer is cold, the food portions are huge, and they serve the traditional Swiss fare designed to keep you warm through the cold winter.
Walking back to the other side of the river, our Christmas market experiences continued; Spicy smells of Gluhwein wafted through the streets, trumped by the stink of bubbling Raclette in every form- cheese on potatoes, baguettes, and pretzels. Locals scarfed meter-long hot dogs en plein air, while pups waited patiently underfoot for misplaced morsels. And in the middle of it all? A massive Christmas tree made of singing kindertots! A children’s choir perched in the square’s Christmas tree, dressed as ornaments and officially swelling my heart to three sizes larger.
To save some money, we visited the Coop Supermarket on the way to the train station in the morning to load up on goodies for the journey. Prices are reasonable, with many options for prepared food as well as pre-packaged snacks. Trains run like clockwork, and we found seats for the 1 hour journey to Basel. Here, we would be meeting up with family for a quick rendezvous and tour of the city’s Holiday offerings.
Basel is actually quite small, and can be navigated easily once you wrap your head around where you are. All of us were staying at the Radisson Blu , a 5 minute walk from the main station (assuming you head in the right direction, which we did not). Out we went after dropping the bags and meeting up with the family- the ladies to the market for some shopping, and the men to the bar for a pint.Basler Weihnacht is the largest market in Switzerland, with branches in Barfusserplatz and in Munsterplatz to explore, and plentiful vendors offering hot drinks and bites.
There was a surprising amount of free trade stalls, making it feel more like New York’s Union Square than Switzerland. I mostly window shopped due to the prohibitive prices, but did come home with wooden, woolen, and ceramic ornaments, Christstollen, and many other snacks in my tummy.
The branch by the Basler Münster also housed a bizarre collection of activities for the kiddies, all of which would have made an American lawyer’s heart palpitate. Buy some tokens, and send your 6 year old to do some blacksmith work!
A few more, and they can blow molten hot glass! Why not set them on a self-powered train track amisdt the other pedestrians, fingers crossed they don’t hit one another or get kicked by a passerby!
We veered past the cathedral toward the Rhine, where tourists were being boated across the river by a cable ferry below. While the river pulled the boat, a rope secured the passage directly across to the other side. Why travel this way? I’m not really sure, but it looked cool.
With purchases in tow and everyone in need of a rest, we headed back to the hotel for a break before dinner.
The Radisson Blu room was clean and modern, but what is with the trend of having clear glass doors on bathrooms? This is surely something that should be specified before booking, as this hotel offers business services to visiting conferences, and I do not like ANY of my coworkers that much.
Though we had made an effort by Yelping the top restaurants in Basel, upon arrival at Restaurant Rubino, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to pay the asking price (be advised that the surprise menu begins with a 2 course option, but 3 or more are expected, and starting price is 65 CHF for 2 courses). Instead, we chose the completely average Restaurant Zum Alten Stockli, serving more traditional Swiss fare in a lovely old building. Here, I consumed a boatload of proper Swiss fondue ( a veritable bargain at 35 CHF). And really, what can you do after all that eating but head straight back to bed?
The family was heading out the next morning, so after an early goodbye, what did we accomplish? Not much at all. This trip had turned into one of the laziest in history. More eating, more shopping. More markets, and more cheese.
While Basel is very beautiful, we were very much done after 2 days there. The prices and the greasy food was going to our heads, and we were ready for the next city- PLUS, many shops and restaurants were closed since it was Sunday.We decided that the best thing for our tummies and our wallets was to head to our favorite Swiss find- the Migros supermarket, purchase some much-needed salads and juices, and have a bed picnic in the hotel room. Lame? Definitely. Did we care? Nope.
Next morning, off again on a train to Lucerne, and a room at another Radisson Blue, this one about 5 minutes’ walk from the train station.
Our view showed off the main spectacle of this lovely city- the Lake.
Walking from the Main station, the famous Kapellbrücke bridge quickly greets you, truly beautiful on the sunny day we arrived.
The paintings that span the length’s interior tell Lucerne’s history one by one.
Along the banks lie many cute cafes, hotels and shops, but venturing further afield, we hiked up the hill to Museggmauer. Built in 1386, the wall complex runs high over the city, providing gorgeous views of the mountains and the Lake below.
Also in the complex is the city’s oldest clock, of which you can see the inner workings and hear it chime just before the others in town.
Back towards the water, families fed the swans, lovers looped the lake, and we sat in the sun for a mid-afternoon tea.
Lucerne was the most historically beautiful of the three cities we visited in this quick trip, and we will make sure to stay in one of the hotels on the water (or in a castle on a hill) the next time we visit.
Our last meal of the trip before an early train and flight back to NY was dinner at Wirsthaus Taube, a beerhall just off the river where the waitress offered to steam off my beer label (I have an ever growing collection of these, and in the rare event that I can’t remove one, the assistance of the staff is extremely appreciated). A platter of game meat, more Cordon Bleu, more beer- the perfect way to say auf wiedersehen to Switzerland.