In January 2017 I undertook my annual plane spotting ‘pilgrimage’ and spent 34 hours in the Swiss city of Zurich. Due to the high number of business trips between London and Zurich, I was met with the oddity of it being cheaper for me to fly out, stay one night and fly back the next day than for me to do the trip in one day. This allowed me the opportunity to spend some time seeing the city itself in addition to the
obligatory plane spotting. It is very much a ‘blog of two halves’, the first half of the blog covers my exploration of the city of Zurich and the second half covers the opportunities for plane spotting at Zurich airport.
Zurich’s public transport system, in common with many European cities, is expansive with 16 tram routes, plenty of buses and the S-Bahn. Unfortunately, when I travelled, I found the ticketing system rather confusing as the Airport and City are
in different zones. Although the zone system itself is familiar to me, I was unable to navigate the ticket machines successfully and so rather than purchasing a multi-zone day ticket (which supposedly existed), I ended up buying numerous tickets for single journeys. Despite this ticketing hiccup (later diagnosed as user error!), I found the transport system itself easy to navigate and had no problems with either the
Tram or S-Bahn despite travelling into the city in the morning peak.
For my one-night trip I stayed at the Ibis Budget hotel, approximately 5 minutes tram ride from the airport and 35 minutes from the city centre. The Ibis Budget was very basic (Bed, Desk, Chair & shower/toilet facilities), however was perfectly sufficient for one night on my own. As with the room, the breakfast buffet, provided for a few additional euros, was basic but filling and was the traditional
Continental buffet with cold meats and cheeses etc.
An added advantage of my inability to use a ticket machine was that it encouraged me to walk more around the city to save money. The centre of Zurich is not particularly expansive and to walk between the main station (in the north of the city centre) and the Opera House (on the banks of the Zurichsee in the south) along the banks of the Linmat took between 20 and 25 minutes.
My walk took me along a stretch of Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich’s main high-end shopping street, past branches of Swarovski & GH Goldhaus and emphasised how rich a city Zurich is. After crossing the Linmat, I continued up the east bank and past the late 17 th century Rathaus (Town hall). The Rathaus houses both the cantonal parliament and the city parliament and is notable for being built on a foundation anchored in the river. This
means the Rathaus protrudes into the river, making it visible from elsewhere along the Linmat. From the east bank of the Linmat I could clearly see the towers of Fraumünster Kirche and St Peter Kirche, the latter of which I explored in more detail later in the day.
As I passed the Rathaus, the grey clouds that had been threatening finally opened and it began to snow. Whilst making the beautiful old town district of Zurich look even more
picturesque, the snow did seriously reduce visibility out across the Zurichsee. As the snow got heavier, I decided to regroup and dived into a Starbucks to re-caffeinate and warm up. (N.b. Whilst this blog is unfortunately in no way sponsored by Starbucks, they are my coffee shop of choice and so may feature frequently within posts).
Having warmed up and tried to determine what I had been able to see over the lake, I set off back towards the Hauptbahnhof with the intention of visiting the Grossmünster and the Swiss National Museum. Unfortunately, as forewarned by Robbie Burns
and John Steinbeck, my best plans went awry as the Grossmünster didn’t open until 10am (and with an hour to wait in heavy snow, I wasn’t hanging around) and the National Museum wasn’t open on Mondays (I certainly wasn’t hanging around 24 hours!).
Out of ideas, I headed into the Tourist Information Centre located within the Hauptbahnhof to ask for some suggestions on how to spend the rest of my day. Coincidentally the free walking tour map they provided me with covered part of the route I had covered earlier, so I retraced my steps and headed south again. Staying on the west bank of the Linmat, my first stop was Lindenhof, an oasis of calm within the city. As one of the highest points within the immediate area, the views afforded from the park were wonderful, especially with the city covered in fresh snow.
Leaving Lindehof and heading down the other side of the hill, I arrived at St Peter Kirche. Following my earlier failed attempt at visiting Grossmünster, I decided to take the opportunity to head inside for a while and have a look at the inside of St. Peter’s. The church has a beautifully decorated high ceiling adorned with a chandelier and a verse from the Gospel of Matthew painted onto the back wall. The clock face on the tower of St. Peters is also the largest church clock face in Europe and gleamed in the sunshine that was breaking through after the earlier snow.
I continued to explore the city throughout the morning and early afternoon, finding surprising areas of peace and tranquillity dotted throughout the city, although
unfortunately the weather did not clear enough for me to experience the views over Zurichsee that I had wanted to see. Heading back to the Hauptbahnhof, I took the S-Bahn back to the airport which took just over 10 minutes as opposed to the tram that would have taken a rather longer time.
Spotting at Zurich was a pain free experience, something which unfortunately cannot always be guaranteed at other airports. The airport has two official open-air spotting areas on the roofs of piers B and E. Unfortunately, when I visited in January, the pier E area was closed for the winter, although this does give me an excuse to make a return trip at some point in the future.
Access to the spotting area on pier B is from ‘landside’, however there is a standalone security checkpoint that you are required pass through to gain access. This does prove that where there is the willingness to provide viewing facilities, it is logistically possible to provide these whilst maintaining security.
From the viewing area it is possible to see all the ‘Bravo’ and ‘Delta’ gates along with some of the ‘Alpha’ gates. Unfortunately, one downside of this location is that depending
upon which runways are in use, it may not be possible to see some movements. The viewing area does also have a 5CHF charge, which is currently the only time I’ve had to pay to access a viewing area. However, compared to the cost of most things in Switzerland, this fee seemed reasonable for the facilities provided.
By sheer good luck, I timed my visit to Zurich at the same time as the World Economic Forum was being held in Davos. Arriving on opening day meant some interesting visiting aircraft including an Air China 747 (transporting the Chinese President) and two C-32s (military 757s – think Air Force 2) amongst various others. All in all, I was impressed with viewing area at Zurich and it was good to see another airport providing official viewing facilities.
Viewing Location: 3*
Charge (5CHF): 3*
Variety of Traffic: 4*
ZRH Overall Score: 3.5*
Overall, Zurich was well worth a visit for both the spotting and the city itself. There was plenty that I didn’t get to see around the city, certainly enough to fill a weekend break, and the airport is certainly on my ‘Visit Again’ list. I would recommend visiting outside of the winter months as it was very cold, especially on the open-air viewing area. Additionally, consider that everything generally costs more in Switzerland than its equivalent elsewhere.