It’s time to add Zürich, Switzerland to your travel bucket list! Check out our guide and a few key reasons why everyone should visit Zürich during Christmas time.
What a privilege to travel to Switzerland during Zürich’s Christmas Markets, experience their culture and history, and bask in the beauty of shared appreciation for Christmas goodness. Come for the markets and cozy vibes; stay for the raclette, fondue, & Swiss charm.
FIVE RAPID-FIRE FAQ’S
- Should I use card or cash? Mostly cash. Find an ATM to take out Swiss Francs in cash in advance. (Read more about this later in the blog!)
- What are the hours of the Christmas Markets? 11 am-8 pm daily during the Christmas season
- Can you walk from one Christmas Market to the next? Yes! It’s highly encouraged.
- Do I need to eat before I come? No! Christmas markets are basically a food crawl.
- What should I wear? Check the weather before, but typically a sweater, pants, a good jacket, and comfy shoes will do just fine. There’s very little places to sit, so you’ll be on your feet a lot!
NAVIGATING THE LANGUAGE
Switzerland has four national languages – German, French, Italian, and Romansh. The most commonly spoken language is German, but in their own Swiss German dialect. We found most people we encountered spoke excellent English. If you encounter any language barrier, this can always be quickly remedied using Google Translate. While you definitely don’t need to know German to enjoy Basel, here are a few helpful words to know while exploring during Christmas:
- Hallo – pronounced Hah-Low – means hello
- Danke – pronounced Dan-Keh – means thanks/thank you
- Glühwein – pronounced Gloo-Vine – means mulled wine
THE BEST PARTS
- The charm of the Old Town is easy to love. Just a short walk from the city center will guide you to multiple small, cozy markets on the way to the largest one, Wienachtsdorf at Sechseläutenplatz.
- The positively enormous Christmas tree at the ZÜrich HB (central) train station Christmas market greets travelers with the sense of the holidays as soon as they step foot off the train.
- Illuminarium is an incredible event that transforms the National Museum’s courtyard into a winter wonderland of art, music, lights, and creative projection mapping onto the sides of buildings.
WOAH, THAT’S DIFFERENT!
- One market is entirely dedicated to a singing Christmas tree! Made up of dozens of green and red-clad singers, the daily and (and twice daily on weekends) performance can’t be missed.
- The largest market, Wienachtsdorf at Sechseläutenplatz, is very international and offers diverse foods from all over the world. Food and shopping options include Indian, Venezuelan, Mexican, Japanese, Belgian, and Norwegian hand crafted foods and gifts.
ZÜRICH CHRISTMAS MARKETS
Zürich has four primary Christmas markets. The three are within walking distance from each other in the Old Town, and the other is actually in Zürich’s central train station. The Old Town markets are surrounded by historic buildings, cathedrals, and popular modern shops (such as Zara, Mango, and H&M) where you can continue Christmas shopping. All markets felt incredibly family-family while still being a little more elevated than markets in smaller towns. We will say these markets do sell items at typical Swiss prices. As Americans who live in a major city, the prices feel similar to what you’d find in Dallas, Chicago, or San Diego.
The markets are typically open from around 11 am – 8 daily from around the fourth Friday in November until Christmas eve. Visiting on a weekday would be far less crowded than on the weekend. The largest market was the most crowded, but all others had very manageable crowd levels.
Though in Europe, Switzerland plays its own game and uses different money. You’ll need Swiss francs when you visit Zürich! (Fun fact – it’s also the official currency of the tiny neighboring country of Liechtenstein.) If you’re wondering if you should bring cash or card to the Christmas markets, the answer is CARD! Almost all the vendors here take cards, and we were surprised to see many stalls and even entire markets saying “only card, no cash!” This is very, very different than all the other markets we’ve visited. We actually still had about 15 francs left over from visiting Basel that we couldn’t even get rid of. No one wanted the cash!
Before you go, you need to know how “deposits” work at Zurich’s Christmas Markets. When you want to buy mulled wine (Glüwhein), you’ll approach a stall that says the drink is 4 francs (for example). However, it will typically cost an additional 2 or 3 francs when it’s time to pay. This essentially covers the cost of the mug. If you’d like to take the mug home as a souvenir, congrats! It’s yours. However, as a change to many Christmas markets, we found that most stalls gave their food and drinks in disposable containers rather than reusable ones to return for your deposit back.
How much cash do you need?
It’s best to assume about $30 per meal for markets in Zürich. Hot drinks typically cost between 6-7 francs with an additional average 4 franc deposit for mugs. Dishes such as raclette cost around 12-15 francs. Hot dogs of most kinds cost between 7-15 francs, depending on the type. More interternational dishes such as Ramen or Bao Buns cost an average of $20 per entree. Sweet treats and desserts, on average, range between 6-15 francs.
Always make sure to ask the vendor before ordering or deciding to purchase anything which payment method they will take. (Even if your german language skills are poor and your English is limited, this question can be easily communicated by holding up your credit card and asking, “do you take card?” They will quickly answer with either hand gestures or a verbal yes or no.) If you can, use your traveling expenses to rack up those travel credit card reward points when you can, y’all! We love that the Capital One Venture X card gives us 2x points on everything from glüwhein to ghost tours.
A helpful note about taking out foreign currency in cash:
The best practice (and cheapest) for having cash on hand in a new country is to go to your bank 5-10 business days before your trip and ask them for the new currency. Depending on your bank, this transaction will either be free or just a few dollars.
If you’re like us and realize the airplane tires hit foreign soil that we forgot to do this, then find an ATM to take out Swiss francs in cash! Yes, you can do this even with an international debit card and even some credit cards. There will typically be a small transaction fee along with the exchange rate. It’s still cheaper to take out cash this way than to go to a money exchange or Western Union.
FOOD & DRINKS TO TRY
- Hot Chocolate – You are in Swizterland after all! There’s nothing quite as delicious as Swiss chocolate.
- Fonduebrot. A fresh baguette filled with cheese? Yes, please!
- Fondue, in general. No one does it quite like the Swiss! Fondue cheese is way more popular here than fondue chocolate. However, you can still find both at either Christmas market or many restaurants. Is there anything better than sharing melty cheese and Christmas cheer? We think not.
- Raclette. I’m sure there’s a better direct translation than this one, but it’s delicious cheese melted on the block, then scraped off right onto your plate and served with accompanied snackies like little pickles, french onions, and potatoes.
- Chimney Cake. Hands down, our favorite dessert we tried. It apparently has Hungarian origins, but the Swiss have adopted it too. Imagine an elephant ear at the fair paired with a soft pretzel. It’s a hot cone of bread dipped in butter and then coated in cinnamon sugar. It’s not as sweet as it sounds, and it’s perfection.
- Glühwein. Mulled wine comes in many different forms here. When you order Glühwein, tell them whether you’d like it with red or white wine. Want to get fancy? There are many add-in options at most booths, from vodka, rum, amaretto, or Grand Marnier. For an alcohol-free spiced cider, get the Kinderpunsch! It’s just as delicious.
- Potato pancakes are also famous, but as they were so fried and greasy, they weren’t our favorites. But if you love a greasy, American hash brown, these are for you!
WHERE WE STAYED
- 3-Star property for between $160-$200 within walking distance of Zürich’s Old Town and their central train station.
- Location, location, location! Ibis Styles Zürich City Center is in one of the most walkable locations to the multiple Christmas markets and many great shops and restaurants. It was also only a twelve-minute Uber ride from the airport.
- Everything was perfectly fine. We chose this three-star property instead of our typical four-star route because of the high prices in Switzerland’s largest city during this peak time. Instead of finding a unique, boutique hotel, this hotel felt like the European equivalent to Holiday Inn Express. Nothing fancy or wild, but nothing bad or sketchy. Their internet worked fine, the lobby was home to a good enough breakfast and yet an overpriced dinner restaurant, and the neighborhood was really convenient. While it wasn’t anything fancy, we would stay here again.
HOW TO GET AROUND ZÜRICH
Stay in or near the old town and walk! Walking is always the best way to see the city. If you’d like to go a little further, the trams and trolleys are constantly running all around town. Easy walk across the main bridges to explore more of the city. If you’d like a ride to and from the other Christmas markets, Zürich has it’s very own Christmas tram that stops by most of them! We’ve heard it’s perfect for kiddos as Santa and angels read them stories along the way. Going a little further into town and need a ride? We easily used Uber to get where we needed to go. Zürich’s main train station is easy to access and goes to many other major stations in many other cities.