Old Town Walk, Zurich

Old Town Walk (Self Guided), Zurich

The Old Town, or Altstadt (in German), is the historic heart of Zurich which beats on both sides of the Limmat River that runs through it. "Zurich is a city, but Altstadt is a village" – this saying reflects the charming, small-town feel of Old Town Zurich, which stands in contrast to the more modern and cosmopolitan areas of the city.

Bordered by the Bahnhofstrasse, a bustling thoroughfare, the central district is divided into two main sections – the Niederdorf in the north, and the Oberdorf in the south – and is characterized by narrow streets, picturesque houses, and old-fashioned charm. The Niederdorf is a more touristy area, with a lively vibe, numerous bars, restaurants, and shops, while the Oberdorf is quieter, a more residential neighborhood with a relaxed atmosphere.

One of the most recognizable landmarks of the Old Town is the iconic 12th-century Grossmünster (Great Minster), whose twin towers dominate the skyline. Another famous site is the Gothic-style Fraumünster (Church of Our Lady), renowned for its stunning stained glass windows by renowned Russian-French artist Marc Chagall. The city's town hall – Rathaus – is an attraction in its own right, featuring the impressive Renaissance façade, dating back to the 17th century.

One of the busiest Zurich squares – Paradeplatz (Parade Square) – is also here, lying at the intersection of Bahnhofstrasse and Poststrasse, and known for its high-end shops, banks, and financial institutions.

Back in the day, the locals used to say, "If you're looking for the devil, go to the Old Town." Reportedly, this expression dates from the Middle Ages, when the narrow, winding streets of Old Town Zurich were seen as dark and dangerous places, where anything could happen. Nowadays, things have changed and the area is pretty safe, with the wealth of history, romantic little streets, and cute hidden corners waiting to be discovered.
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Old Town Walk Map

Guide Name: Old Town Walk
Guide Location: Switzerland » Zurich (See other walking tours in Zurich)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 9
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.4 Km or 0.9 Miles
Author: ellen
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Bürkliplatz (Burkli Square)
  • Confiserie Sprüngli (Sprüngli Confectionery)
  • Paradeplatz (Parade Square)
  • Fraumünster (Church of Our Lady)
  • Wasserkirche (Water Church)
  • Grossmünster (Great Minster)
  • Rathaus (Town Hall)
  • Schwarzenbach Kolonialwaren (Schwarzenbach Colonial Goods Shop)
  • Niederdorfstrasse (Niederdorf street)
Bürkliplatz (Burkli Square)

1) Bürkliplatz (Burkli Square)

Bürkliplatz is one of the main town squares in Zurich–not only is it a fabulous destination, but it is also a central node in the city's transportation scheme. Many tram lines run through here, and the location connects the downtown with the lake-front promenades.

Directly north of Bürkliplatz lies a tree-lined square known as Stadthausanlage. The park centers around a music pavilion and is the site of a popular vegetable, cheese, flower, and bread markets. Bahnhofstrasse heads north from here, leading into the shopping district.

Bürkliplatz is a picturesque site to see the historic Alpenquai area on Lake Zurich. To the east is the nineteenth-century Quay Bridge, which crosses over the Limmat. The Seeuferanlage is a lake-front park, and there is also a nearby arboretum and aviary. Several lake cruises and water taxis depart from the area for scenic tours on Lake Zurich. There are also several fast-food kiosks in the area.

At the end of the plaza is a lake overlook, featuring a prominent statue of Ganymede. Just east, you will find a large monument called Geiserbrunnen. Built in 1911 by Jakob Brüllmann, the statue features a man taming a bull.
Confiserie Sprüngli (Sprüngli Confectionery)

2) Confiserie Sprüngli (Sprüngli Confectionery)

Founded in 1836 by Rudolf Sprüngli, the luxury confectionery Confiserie Sprüngli is one of Zurich’s very first chocolate makers. However, the company has been renowned internationally primarily for its signature macarons, "Luxemburgerli" invented by a Sprüngli confectioner from Luxembourg. In 1892, the chocolate-producing branch of the business split off from the confectionery and now operates independently as Lindt & Sprüngli. Their assortment includes an immense range of chocolates with various fillings, pralines, and truffles, of which the most recognizable are the Grand Cru truffles.

Now in the hands of the family's sixth generation – since 1994, Sprüngli has several locations in Zurich: one in the central train station and two on Bahnhoffstrasse, at No. 21 and 67.

The Sprüngli café on Paradeplatz, Bahnhofstrasse 21, is a traditional meeting place for the elderly ladies of Zürich's upper class. Local folklore has it that the young men who attend this café alone may signal their availability to the well-to-do females by turning over coffee spoons in their cups. But according to the company's director, this is a persistent myth reflecting Zurich's more puritanical past, when the Sprüngli café was one of the few places where upper-class women could talk to strangers without risking their reputation.
Paradeplatz (Parade Square)

3) Paradeplatz (Parade Square)

This busy square off on Bahnhofstrasse is lined with famous Swiss banks. It lies right on the tram lines and in the middle of the shopping district. It lies at the intersection of Paradeplatz, Talacker, Poststrasse, and Bleicherweg. Credit Suisse and UBS both have headquarters here. Property here is some of the most expensive in the world, leading the area to be synonymous with wealth.

The present-day Paradeplatz was outside of the original city walls but was incorporated in 1642 with the addition of more ramparts. In the 17th century, the area was a livestock market. It got its name in 1865 at the time that Bahnhofstrasse was created. Trams in the area were first horse-drawn and then electrified in 1896.

The buildings surrounding the square date from the mid-1800s. The Credit Suisse building to the north was build in 1873. The hotel Baur en Ville opened in 1838, and it is Zurich's oldest grand hotel. The building was completely demolished in the 1970s to bring it up to code and make it more comfortable, but the original facade was preserved and reconstructed.

Of particular note on the Paradeplatz is the Sprüngli Cafe, world-renown for their chocolates. This luxury confectionery shop has been open since 1859, though Rudolf Sprüngli had been operating in Zurich since 1836.
Fraumünster (Church of Our Lady)

4) Fraumünster (Church of Our Lady) (must see)

As you may have noticed, Zurich’s skyline is dotted with church spires; however, none are as remarkable as the slender blue spire of the Fraumünster. In 853 Emperor Ludwig founded a Benedictine convent on this site and his daughter became the first abbess of the convent. In 874 a basilica with a crypt was added. The crypt holds the relics of the martyred two Patron Saints of Zurich, Felix and Regula.

The present church on the site dates from the mid 13th century, but the crypt still remains beneath the church. Reformation closed the convent and in 1524, the last abbess donated the church and abbey to City of Zurich. All icons and religious imagery were destroyed.

The church underwent a remodel in the 1970, with the installation of beautiful stained glass windows by the famous Russian-French modernist artist Marc Chagall. The five windows are 10 meters high and each has its own color theme. On the northern side is the red-orange “Prophet” window. On the eastern side, the windows are named “Jacob”, “Christ”, and “Zion”, from left to right. The south wall piece is called “Law”.

Why You Should Visit:
Reasonable entry fee and definitely worth stepping in to admire the lovely Marc Chagall stained glass windows.
Included in the ticket is a very good audio guide that really brings the building and the 5 windows to life.

Be sure to bring Swiss francs as only cash is accepted.
NO PHOTOS of the Marc Chagall windows allowed inside.
Wasserkirche (Water Church)

5) Wasserkirche (Water Church)

The Water Church is another church with a long history in the city. The first mention of the church goes back to 1250. It was constructed on a small island in the Limmat River. The first church on the site was built in the 1100s and was reconstructed at various times. It was completely reconstructed in 1486.

During the Reformation, the church was seen as a place of idolatry. The Reformation leader turned it into a secular use, specifically a library. In 1634 the church became the first public library in Zurich. In the 1800s, the island was connected to the riverbank. In 1917, the library that was housed in the church merged into the Central Library and the empty church became a place for storing crops.

In the 1940s, together with reconstruction work, some archaeological excavations took place. After the 1940s renovations were complete, the church building went back into religious use, specifically as the Evangelical-Reformed State Church of the Canton of Zurich.

Aside from its long history, the church is also known for standing on the site of where it is believed that two Patron Saints, Felix and Regula, were executed in the Middle Ages. Felix and Regula were siblings and members of a Roman military unit. Legend has it that Felix and Regula refused to particulate in the persecution of Christians. The Water Church site is where they were decapitated.

Why You Should Visit:
Hushed and intimate – a space for rest or meditation in the middle of an active day.
The Giacometti windows are a highlight, as is the crypt below.
Grossmünster (Great Minster)

6) Grossmünster (Great Minster) (must see)

The Grossmunster Church stands proudly in Zurich, boasting a Romanesque architectural style and a rich historical background. Alongside the Fraumunster, Predigerkirche, and Saint Peterskirche, it forms one of the city's four major churches. Legend has it that the church's origins trace back to a commission by the Roman emperor Charles the Great, with construction beginning around 1100 and completion marked around 1220.

Notably, the Grossmunster Church holds significance as the birthplace of the Swiss-German Reformation. In 1520, Huldrych Zwingli, a key figure in the Swiss Reformation movement, initiated reforms from his pastoral office within the church. Zwingli's debates, which he triumphed in before local authorities in 1523, led to the church's separation from papal authority.

The reforms spearheaded by Zwingli and later continued by Heinrich Bullinger left their mark on the church's interior. In 1524, iconoclastic actions saw the removal of religious imagery and the organ. These reforms went beyond aesthetics, impacting various aspects of religious practice including fasting traditions, the Mass, celibacy, and the use of church music. The Grossmunster Church thus stands as a pivotal site in the history of the Protestant Reformation.

A statue of Emperor Charles the Great adorns the southern tower of the Grossmunster Church, commemorating his reign as Holy Roman Emperor from 771 to 814. Known for uniting much of Western and Central Europe, his legacy extends to language, with many European terms for "king" deriving from his name. The statue portrays Charles holding his sword, with his crown seemingly slipping from his head.

Why You Should Visit:
Fairly plain inside, but the sliced agate windows are some of the more interesting and colorful anywhere.
The old statue of Carolus Magnus is definitely worth seeing, and you can't miss the beautiful door as you go in.

A trip to the top of the tower is worth it if you can do 180+ steps straight up. The views are wonderful and you can stay as long as you wish.
Rathaus (Town Hall)

7) Rathaus (Town Hall)

The Rathaus dates to the 1690s, and it was the seat of the Republic of Zurich until 1798. It sits on the site of a city council building built in 1397 built on a courthouse dating from the 1200s. The current building is owned by the Canton of Zurich, which uses it as home to both legislative chambers, the canton's parliament, and the city's parliament.

City Hall, or Stadthaus, is where the executive government and city council meet. It's a separate facility, located on the Limmat's west side, just to the south of Town Hall Bridge. You can view government sessions, if they are in progress, from a terrace on the second level.

Zurich Rathaus is located on the Limmat's east side, sitting right on the riverbank at the pedestrian Town Hall Bridge, known locally as Rathausbrücke. The bridge is a public square, known as "vegetable bridge" since medieval vegetable markets were held here. This is the historic center of the city, back to when the Romans called the town Turicum. The bridge connects the Lindenhof and the Rathaus quarters of the town.

The bridge was a fixture of Zurich since medieval times when it was built entirely of wood. Expansions were performed in 1375 and 1420. It has always been oversized, with buildings and landmarks built over the water. It has had its present-day dimensions since the early 1600s, and in the late 1800s, it was gradually replaced with stone and cast-iron construction.

The bridge and its square are still used for festivals and markets to this day. There are numerous souvenir shops, restaurants, and cafes in the area. Since it's a walking district, it's a great place to explore on foot.
Schwarzenbach Kolonialwaren (Schwarzenbach Colonial Goods Shop)

8) Schwarzenbach Kolonialwaren (Schwarzenbach Colonial Goods Shop)

If you long for a break from sightseeing in Zurich's Old Town, Schwarzenbach Kolonialwaren may be a good place to stop by for a drink and some sweets. This historic gourmet grocery store and coffee roastery has its origins in the family business that was established by Heini Schwarzenbach in 1864 and by now has become one of the most recognizable and popular destinations for local foodies and tourists alike.

The historic interior and old-world charm of the place make it a unique and memorable shopping experience. Indeed, the store is known for its impressive variety of products of high-quality and superb flavor such as dried fruits, natural honey, jams, syrups, pulses, rice, wine, chocolate and sweets, and other gourmet items, not to mention great choice of coffee beans and teas sourced from all over the world.

At Schwarzenbach Kolonialwaren they still roast their own coffee using only the best beans, which you may sample in their small café next door. There, along with a cup of coffee or tea, customers can also enjoy a selection of baked goods.
Niederdorfstrasse (Niederdorf street)

9) Niederdorfstrasse (Niederdorf street) (must see)

Niederdorfstrasse is the main street that runs through Zurich's Niederdorf district. It lies on the east bank of the Limmat. It's a pedestrian-only cobblestone street. Along the way, you'll find busy pubs and fast-food restaurants. The small streets and tightly packed outdoor cafes have an unmistakable medieval vibe to them.

The pedestrian zone of Niederdorfstrasse begins just opposite the Zurich HB and runs parallel to Limmatquai and the river Limmat. It's a beautiful place to explore on foot, with historic buildings towering over you and tight medieval alleyways to wander. The area transforms into a nightlife and entertainment district, with many bars, clubs, and street artists. The Dörflifäscht festival takes place here in late August, with music, food, and shows.

Limmatquai, also a pedestrian zone, lies just one block west of Niederdorfstrasse. It provides spectacular views of the Limmat, as well as a park-like atmosphere. On the south end of Limmatquai in the Niederdorfstrasse district, you will find Grossmünster church. The Romanesque cathedral's twin-towers can be seen from all around town.

Walking Tours in Zurich, Switzerland

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