Zurich's Historical Churches Tour, Zurich

Zurich's Historical Churches Tour (Self Guided), Zurich

The history of Christianity in Zurich is duly reflected in the local churches, found here in abundance. Indeed, Christianity has been the dominant religion of Zurich for many centuries. And while, historically, the city was a center of the Protestant Reformation, today it is home to both Catholic and Protestant communities.

The Swiss Reformed Church is the largest Protestant denomination, but there are also several Roman Catholic churches, too. Alongside the “mainline” Christian communities, the city hosts some smaller ones as well, like the Orthodox and Evangelical.

There is a saying: "Zwingli started it, but Calvin finished it." This refers to the role of two influential Protestant reformers in shaping the religious landscape of Europe. Ulrich Zwingli, a 16th-century Swiss pastor, preached his reform ideas at the Grossmünster (Great Minster), which is now one of the most recognizable landmarks of Zurich.

Just across the river, in the Old Town, is the Fraumünster (Church of Our Lady) – once part of the Benedictine abbey, now famous for its association with the Russian-French artist Marc Chagall. Topping the hill, a few blocks away, is yet another religious site of distinction, the St Peterskirche (St Peter's Church), the oldest church in the city, dating from the 9th century, also boasting the largest clock in Europe.

Apart from being acknowledged for their architecture, the historical churches of Zurich offer a glimpse into the city's religious past and cultural present. Those who are interested in familiarizing themselves with both more closely will benefit from this walking tour.
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Zurich's Historical Churches Tour Map

Guide Name: Zurich's Historical Churches Tour
Guide Location: Switzerland » Zurich (See other walking tours in Zurich)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 5
Tour Duration: 1 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 1.2 Km or 0.7 Miles
Author: ellen
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • St. Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church)
  • Fraumünster (Church of Our Lady)
  • Wasserkirche (Water Church)
  • Grossmünster (Great Minster)
  • Preacher's Church (Predigerkirche)
St. Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church)

1) St. Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church) (must see)

Saint Peterskirche (Saint Peter's Church) was built in the 9th century, which makes it the oldest church in Zurich. It also boasts the fame of having the largest clock face in all of Europe, measuring 8.6 meters (28.3 feet) in diameter. This translates to a minute hand that is 5.7 meters long (18.8 feet)!

The church was significantly altered in the 13th century and again in the early 1700s. Up until 1911, a firewatcher manned the steeple. It was his job to look out the windows four times an hour to look for fires. If he spotted a fire, he was to sound an alarm and point to the direction of the fire with a flag. Apparently, this ended up being an effective strategy because, unlike many other European cities, Zurich never suffered any devastating fires.

The interior of the church features a Baroque nave and a Romanesque choir with some faded medieval murals including a glimpse of a saint. A fascinating sight to see inside Saint Peter's is the name of God in Hebrew above the pulpit, indicating the Reformation emphasis on the original biblical languages.

One interesting fact about the church is that it has split ownership. The City of Zurich owns the church tower, while Saint Peter’s parish of the Swiss Reformed Church owns the belfry and bells, as well as the staircase leading to the tower.

It is very interesting up close, but it is more beautiful from across the river.
Fraumünster (Church of Our Lady)

2) 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)

3) 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)

4) 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.
Preacher's Church (Predigerkirche)

5) Preacher's Church (Predigerkirche)

The Preacher’s Church, located in Zurich’s Old Town, has a long history in the city. The first mention of the church in records dates back to 1213, when it served as a preacher’s church. It was run by monks of the Dominican order who focused on spreading the word of the church. In the 1500s, reformation in Switzerland, lead by Ulrich Zwingli, resulted in the Predigerkirche becoming Protestant. During the time of the Reformation, much of the elegant ornamentation was removed from the church.

The building features Gothic forms, with one side visible from the street and the other side integrated into the city’s central library. The library is located on the site of a former monastery that was also shuttered during the Reformation. The church experienced many renovations and restorations. The main form of the church that is visible today dates back to the early 1600s. A steeple was added in 1899, the work of architect Gustav Gull.

Today, the church is primarily Protestant; however, it does employ a Catholic priest and occasionally has celebratory masses with Muslims and Buddhists. It draws immigrants from a variety of faiths. The church is open seven days a week to parishioners and visitors alike.

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