Old and New: Exploring Zürich, Switzerland on Foot

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View of Grossmünster from across the river.

When it comes to tourism in Europe, Zürich doesn’t always make the top of the list. It’s labeled as a banking city, a college town, but with a small old city center, it typically serves more as a quick stop before travelers head out to the countryside. That doesn’t mean that Zürich doesn’t have anything to offer though. In fact, it’s a perfect city for leisurely urban hiking, with enough to see and do before you catch that train to the mountains. This guide can easily be done in half a day to a full day, depending on how long you linger in each spot.

 

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As you wander the streets of Zürich, look up to catch glimpses of the clocktower of St. Peter’s.

Zürich HB Train Station

It’s worth mentioning the train station for those who may only have a few hours in Zürich. Located at the northern tip of the old city center, you’ll quickly get acquainted with this busy station. With trains traveling to/ from the airport, as well as around the country and into other parts of Europe, it’s likely you will start your journey here. If you arrive in the morning before you can check into your hotel, there are luggage lockers conveniently located on the lower level—drop your heavy bags there and head out for a walk around the city!

 

Bahnhofstrasse

Head south of the train station (and keep an eye and ear out for the extremely quiet tram cars!) onto Zürich’s main shopping drag, Bahnhofstrasse, which extends parallel with the river and all the way down to the north tip of Lake Zürich. Here, you’ll find most of the modern shops you can find in most cities—H&M, Zara, etc.—demonstrating the city’s function as what I’d like to call a ‘livable city.’ You’ll also notice Zürich’s cleanliness as you walk down this street—unlike other major metropolises like New York, Milan, or Paris, which have a distinct grittiness to their streets, Zürich is meticulously pristine. Spend some time popping in and out of shops if you have the time, and continue south until you reach…

 

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Zürich’s streets are winding, and at every turn you find beautiful little gems like this. 

Münzplatz/ Lindenhof

THIS was my favorite part of Zürich. Turning left off Bahnhofstrasse and onto Oetenbachgasse, then right onto Lindenhofstrasse, you’ll go through a small arched tunnel to an elevated park that overlooks the Limmat River. On a warm, sunny day, this is a perfect spot to stop and rest, catch up on some writing, or check your map to make a plan for the rest of your route. Snap some photos of the city, with the famed Grossmünster church across the way, and watch locals play chess or picnic with family members. Continuing south through the park, you’ll encounter the upscale Münzplatz, the medieval-aged neighborhood that now boasts trendy gift shops, chocolate boutiques, and custom watch makers. Whether you’re looking for a gift, or just browsing, this area is a wonderful snapshot of Swiss city homes—just wandering around I found myself taking notes on how to replicate the design on my future home.

 

Fountains

Zürich is famous for its numerous fountains around the city—approximately 1,200—and all dispense clean drinking water. Be sure to stop and fill up your water bottle at one of these fountains, you’ll be able to taste the difference!

 

Church Hopping

Swiss churches are far more modest than those you may find in Italy or France, but as you trek along the country’s landscape, you’ll regularly spot the distinct pointed towers of these churches. Probably the best example of this in Zürich is the Kirche Fraumünster, on the west bank of the Limmat River. You’ll have to pay to go inside, but you can also take a step back in the adjacent plaza to marvel at the Swiss design. Before you check this church off your list though, be sure to stop at the Church of St. Peter, located between Fraumünster and Lindenhof (look for the clock tower, you can’t miss it).

When it comes to churches in Zürich though, the most famous is Grossmünster, the two-towered Romanesque church on Zürich’s east bank. Entry is free, so take some time to step inside this city landmark and learn more about Switzerland’s history.

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Fraumünster’s pointed tower looms over the river and its many bridges.

Lake Zürich

If you follow the Limmat south, eventually you hit the mouth and get a full view of Lake Zürich. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see the Alps in the distance, and in the summer months, you can swim or take a boat out on to the lake. But don’t be fooled by its size, at 25 miles in length and another 2 miles wide, you could spend all day on the water. Grab a sandwich and have a picnic, or catch the sun setting at the end of the day.

 

Niederdorf Neighborhood

When you’re tired from the walk, head back towards the train station along the east bank of the Limmat, and take a detour into the Niederdorf neighborhood. This area is more hip, with trendy gift shops and plenty of bars and restaurants, and adorable side streets to explore. Take some time to sample some local favorites, and don’t forget to try the fondue!

 

BONUS: Thermalbad

Looking for something a little more relaxing? Take an afternoon or evening to visit Zurich’s Thermalbad Spa, with a rooftop bath that overlooks the city and plenty of spa services indoors—it’s a nice way to relax after a long walk around the city.

 

 

48 Hours in Milan

Milan is a very livable city. While it may not be as packed with landmarks as Italy’s Florence or Rome, it provides travelers with a nice getaway filled with Italian charm, while also catering to the day to day lives of locals. With ample shopping and charming streets, Milan is perfect for urban hikers who love to people watch. On our last visit, we had 48 hours to take in as much of the city as possible, making time for some must-see attractions, and plenty of gelato.

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Milan’s Duomo lights up the streets at night.

Duomo di Milano

Dedicated to St. Mary of the Nativity, this breathtaking cathedral is a must-see when you visit. As you wander into the heart of Milan’s old city, you will catch glimpses of the Duomo’s pinnacles and spires, typical to Gothic style. The best view of the cathedral itself is from the piazza that surrounds it, but to really get a full experience, we recommend heading straight up to the roof, where you can walk among the spires and gaze out at the surrounding city. Tickets cost 9 euros to walk, or 13 euros to take the lift (NOTE: It is actually faster to wait in line for the lift instead of climbing the stairs) and you have to purchase tickets ahead of time either online or at the ticket center to the right of the cathedral’s façade. You can also buy tickets to enter the cathedral and visit the museum.

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View of Milan from the Duomo Rooftop.

 

The Last Supper

Art history lovers flock to Milan for this painting. Located in the refectory of the Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie, this 15th century painting by Leonardo da Vinci shows the story of Jesus and his Disciples breaking bread the night before Jesus’ crucifixion. It is da Vinci’s second most famous painting, only behind the Mona Lisa, and is slowly deteriorating due to the painter’s methods and environmental factors. Only a small number of people are allowed to view the painting daily, so you need to book tickets far in advance, or book through a tour group (we recommend booking through Walks of Italy, which includes a guided tour and tickets to the Duomo roof).

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Take a break at Sempione Park, located just behind the Castello Sforzeco. In the distance you can view one of Napoleon’s many triumphal arches. 

Castello Sforzesco

This former castle for the Duke of Milan is now home to a complex of Milan’s best museums. The highlight is of course a visit to see Michelangelo’s Rondanini Pieta, but you can also explore museums dedicated to Ancient Art, Musical Instruments, Archaeology, and more. Entry to the castle is free, but you will need to pay to visit the museums. If it’s a nice day out, we recommend also walking through the castle and into Sempione Park (and be sure to grab some gelato on your trek!)

Urban Hiking

Milan’s layout stretches far beyond the old city’s walls, but when planning your trip, try to book a hotel close to the center. This way, you can spend your evenings eating in one of Milan’s many charming pizzas and people watch in front of the Duomo. If you’re an early riser like me, take some time in the morning to wander Milan’s narrow Italian streets, where you will encounter pockets of old world Italy molded into the modern feel.

If shopping is your thing, Milan offers plenty of opportunity to pop into stores on your walk. Visit the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II (with its famous gold and glass roof) and browse top designer stores, or wander outside of the city center for more affordable fashions, food, and more. And if it’s food you’re looking for, keep an eye out for cheese and charcuterie shops to sample some of the best in the region!

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Even on a rainy day, Como has plenty to offer for travelers. 

Day Trip out to Lake Como

If you are in Milan for a weekend and want a change of scenery for day two, you can easily venture to one of the many towns surrounding the picturesque Lake Como. Como, the village at the southwest corner of the wishbone-shaped lake, is only an hour by train from Milan and has plenty to see in one afternoon. On a sunny day, take a ferry tour out onto the lake or rent a paddleboat, and even if it is raining, be sure to take the funicular up into the hills for a view of the Lake and its surrounding villages. On a clear day, you may even be able to see the Italian Alps in the distance. If it’s glitz and glamour you’re looking for, head a little farther by train to Bellagio, which has played as a backdrop for films including Casino Royale and Star Wars.

Chartres Blue

IMG_6338The sun had just started to reach it peak when they opened the doors. It’s amazing to see the lines of modern-day pilgrims line up outside the cathedral, waiting patiently for visiting hours to start. Some were there to pray, others to marvel at the architecture, and some because a guidebook made a compelling enough case to spend a day outside of Paris.

I first heard about the cathedral in Chartres from a professor at my university. It was the way she described the stained glass that caught my attention, how the design of the structure allowed space for larger than usual windows, how the deep sapphire blue of its windows compliment the white interior. It’s a marvel to see on a slide show, so in person you’ll be left awe struck.

My hope was to arrive early to beat the crowds, unfortunately I arrived a little too early—doors were closed to the public until 11 a.m., leaving me plenty of time to wander ahead of time. Chartres is a perfect place to experience that small French town charm, without having to travel too far outside of Paris (it’s only about an hour by train, and trains run so frequently that you can easily make this a half day trip and return to Paris for more sight-seeing later in the day). Once you arrive, it’s easy to spot the cathedral towering over the other buildings, so use this as a marker if you find yourself getting lost.

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Wandering the streets of Chartres

From the train station, follow signs to the cathedral, passing a town square that celebrates its name in the same fashion as Amsterdam (perfect for Instagram!). Rounding the street corners, you’ll come to a small green park in front of the cathedral façade, with its contrasting Gothic and Romanesque spires casting a shadow over visitors. The square is surrounded only by a few shops and cafes, all of which remain closed until late morning. Since my particular trip was so early, I headed left of the cathedral, taking in the detail of the structure. Behind the cathedral lies the entrance to the Museum of Fine Arts and the Jardins de l’Eveche, a small green space that includes foot labyrinths and overlooks the L’Eure River. This area offered ample seating in the sun, but still eager to explore, I headed back towards the Stained Glass Museum and back to the cathedral.

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Mythologeny, seen in Chartres

To the right of the cathedral is the more vibrant areas of the town, with businesses, shops, and cafes. As I wandered, it felt in part like I was taking a step back in time, until by chance I encountered some exquisite graffiti art. It’s fairly obvious that Europe’s embrace of graffiti in certain cities has resulted in some amazing and thought provoking works. In Chartres, I particularly loved Noty Aroz’s Mythologeny series, which depicts modern comic book heroes and sci-fi characters in the form of mythological gods, similar to the traditions in Mexico, Greece, etc.

Of course, the highlight of a visit to Chartres lies in the cathedral itself. Even for the non-religious, this landmark is a wonder worth seeing. It is an UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the best depictions of French Gothic architecture at its prime. No natural light enters the building, only through the 176 stained glass windows. As you walk through, take time to gaze up at these windows, as the trademark ‘Chartres Blue’ illuminates the white walls around the nave.

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Chartres Cathedral is famous for its blue rose windows.

For travelers heading to Paris, this is a great way to escape the city for a few hours without having to brave the crowds at Versailles. I recommend arriving between 10 and 11 a.m., taking time to wander the cathedral first, then stopping for lunch before exploring the city. If it’s warm out, enjoy a leisurely lunch at Le café serpent, with a perfect view of the cathedral.

Basilica Hopping in Florence

As the birthplace of the Renaissance, Florence has become a destination for art lovers, foodies, and the religious alike. With so much history around every corner, it’s easy to miss something when wandering the city’s cobble stone streets. But you don’t have to be a person of faith to appreciate the wonders of Florence’s many basilicas—with so many grandiose structures in a small footprint of the city, it’s easy to dedicate a day to see them all (with stops for gelato of course!). For this tour, we start at the Santa Maria Novella, located right by Florence’s main train station.

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Florence renovated the courtyard in front of Santa Maria Novella, creating the perfect spot for a picnic lunch.

Santa Maria Novella: ‘Novella’ translates literally to ‘New,’ identifying this church as the first true great basilica of Florence. Commissioned by the wealthy textile merchant Rucellai family, this basilica was designed by architect Leon Battista Alberti and constructed between 1448 and 1470. It’s most prominent feature is of course the elaborate facade design that overlooks the courtyard, but be sure to visit inside to spectate Masaccio’s Holy Trinity, an early Renaissance fresco that brought perspective back in vogue.

Basilica di San Lorenzo: Our next stop takes us down Via Sant’Antonio and then turning towards Via de’ Gori, right to the façade of the Basilica de San Lorenzo, a final resting place for some of Florence’s most powerful patrons. What detail the outside of this church lacks is made up for inside, with its iconic white and gold ceiling. While much of the church’s design is credited Filippo Brunelleschi, it is not entirely of his doing. However, the true gem of this church and must-see for all visitors is the Cappelle Medicee (Medici Chapel), with Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florence’s golden child, designing the marble statues adorning the tombs of Guiliano di Lorenzo de’Medici and Lorenzo di Piero de’Medici.

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PIT STOP: For true Michelangelo fans, be sure to visit the Laurentian Library, an extension of San Lorenzo and a perfect example of Michelangelo’s renaissance architecture design with its oversized staircase and reading room.

LUNCH BREAK: Hungry and looking for something authentically Italian? Visit the Mercato Centrale, located on Via dell’Ariento, right around the corner from the Basilica de San Lorenzo. Here, you can eat at the take-out counters, or buy a variety of fresh fruit, meats, cheeses, and more to create a picnic. Staying at a place with a kitchen? Buy your ingredients here and cook at home!

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Walking along the streets of Florence, you can always catch a glimpse of Brunelleschi’s Dome.

Santa Maria del Fiore (The Duomo): As you walk the streets of Florence, there is one landmark you can always pick out. Whether you are hiking in the hills above the city, or catching glimpses of the great dome from Florence’s narrow streets, you can’t miss the city’s main attraction. Towering above the city, the most prominent feature of this basilica is of course its dome—designed by Filippo Brunelleschi after winning a contest to design it. The story goes, that while the Gothic Revival base of the church was built in the 1200s, it was left uncovered because the opening was too large for a traditional dome. And because the Florentines would rather die than see its beloved church supported by flying buttresses a la French Gothic design, they commissioned any eligible architect to find a solution. Thus comes in Brunelleschi, who designed a dome inside a dome (a double dome!) to top the structure. Today, you can climb the 463 steps and actually walk between the two domes to reach the top for spectacular views of the city and the surrounding hills of Tuscany.

ALTERNATE CLIMB: If the dome seems daunting, you can also climb the bell tower, designed by Renaissance heavyweight Giotto. It’s still quite a climb though, but at only 414 steps you’ll save that bit of energy for more walking later.

PIT STOP: All that dome climbing will absolutely make you hungry, so as you make your way over to the Santa Croce basilica, stop at famous gelateria Grom at the corner of Via del Campanile and Via delle Oche. It’s a popular spot, and once you have your first bite you’ll know exactly why.

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Santa Croche at sunset.

Basilica di Santa Croce di Firenze: You’ll have to pull your map out for this one—heading south towards the Arno River, take your time to explore the winding streets as you make our way to the smaller but dazzling Basilica di Santa Croce. Translated as “The Sacred Cross,” this church is a part of the Franciscan order and still has a functioning cloister. However, the true draw to this church is its collection of Renaissance history—here, you can view works by Giotto, Donatello, Cimabue, and Vasari, or pay respects at the tombs of famous Florentines including Michelangelo, Alberti, Galileo, Ghiberti, and Machiavelli.

San Minato Church: High above the city on a hill on the south bank of the Arno is the ever-popular Piazzale Michelangelo. For urban hikers, this is a true challenge as you climb the stairs up to the peak, but the view is worth it. From here, you get a full glimpse of the city, with the Santa Maria del Fiore watching over it. I love visiting this spot at sunset, but for the purpose of this walk, be sure to get there before 7 p.m. to visit the San Minato al Monte, a small Romanesque church near the Piazzale, and then venture over to the lookout point to watch the day end.