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  • Maria Smith

A Pantser's Guide to Zurich

Updated: Apr 9, 2021

7 Things I Discovered From A Spontaneous Trip to Switzerland

Luggage wheels clopped behind us as we disembarked the train and headed down the slate-tiled path. Hauptbahnhof, the nineteenth-century train station, was magnificent with original architecture and old-timey ambiance. The only modern features were the long, backlit signs that displayed arrival and departure times and a large cube clock that stood high in the middle of the hall on four sleek, gray poles. Waiting passengers talked amongst each other in thick Swiss-German accents. We moved down the corridor until we found the money exchange, promptly traded euros for francs, and then made our way through the arched, glass doors and out into the city.

The writing community often discusses two types of writers; planners and pantsers. Most everyone knows that a planner, plans, but what exactly is a pantser? The name actually comes from the old phrase, “fly by the seat of your pants,” so thereby, pantsers, do little to no planning.

I have found that planners and pantsers can also describe travelers. Some people prefer to plan trips months in advance—and then there are pantsers, which I, for better or worse, fit the description. Most of my travels have been figure-it-out-as-I-go—and I love doing it that way! I find that traveling with a loose itinerary allows me to experience the essence of a place. It also dramatically reduces the number of tourists that show up in my photos. If I’m fortunate, I even get to meet locals and receive firsthand advice on what to see or do.

In 2009, my study abroad roommate and I chose to go to Zurich and Paris for our mid-semester break. We had been studying in Rome, and this was our first opportunity to travel alone, without teachers. Since we already had Eurail passes and passports, booking a train was done within an hour. So here we were, after a fourteen-hour train ride, on a stone path along the Limmat River.

Zurich was unlike anything I had imagined. The only prior reference I had was a childhood computer game where there was a snow-covered Swiss town with lots of cuckoo clocks and a merchant that periodically shouted “Guten Tag!” In truth, we traveled here per Jess’s request, and I was sure that she chose Zurich based on her taste in movies (cue up Mission Impossible). My only expectation was what most connect to Switzerland, the Alps, and we could already see the snow-capped mountain range softly outlined in the distance.

So what did our two-day pantser excursion reveal about Zurich? Aside from the fact that Zurich is one of the cutest cities I’ve ever been to, I discovered these seven highlights:

1. For a city, and the largest in Switzerland, Zurich is quiet—tranquil even. I was used to big cities with inescapable traffic, quick-footed people crowding sidewalks, and questionable odors that resembled old trash and sewage, but Zurich had none of these. On the contrary, it was impeccably clean and quiet enough to be mistaken for a large town. Most of the neighborhoods were small and stately, with buildings that looked like the paint was never given a chance to peel.

2. The natives are career folk, but kind nonetheless. The people we encountered were well-dressed and had an air of affluence but not in a pretentious way. They seemed like the kind of people I would like to befriend and go hiking in the mountains or have lunch at a small cafe with. As a bonus, most of them knew English and were always polite when we needed help.

3. Couchsurfing is a great way to get to know locals. I can hear the alarm bells ringing. What is Couchsurfing? Is it safe? The short answer is that Couchsurfing is a website and online community for travelers seeking overnight lodging via locals at their travel destination. The platform allows travelers to stay, free of charge, with a willing host. I will admit that if my mother had known I was doing this, she would have been worried sick; however, the site has a review system that makes overnight stays less risky. Their website relies on host reviews, and I spent hours reading them before reaching out to hosts in Zurich. However, that isn’t to say you shouldn’t proceed with caution. I would not recommend Couchsurfing alone or without a backup plan in case the weirdo vibes are strong. All that to say, this is how we met Jens, a thirty-something career person in Zurich’s finance world. He was kind, non-invasive, and we shared some good conversations with him during our stay.

4. Old Town is worth spending an afternoon in. Old Town is full of historical charm and is part of the Altstadt district, which sits across from District 1. It was one of my favorite neighborhoods in all of Zurich. The streets are lined with colorful eateries, museums, and dozens of small boutiques. We found a small clock shop with a large assortment of wooden cuckoo clocks displayed in the window. I could have stood there all day watching the clock hands and pendulums move.

5. The Alps are just an hour away. Zurich is technically in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, however on a sunny day you can still see them from afar. To get a closer look we took a cable car south of Zurich to an overlook in Lucerne and viewed the snow-covered Alps at dusk. For me, it was the moment that made our whole trip to Switzerland worth it. It was a perfect reminder that the world is vast and so full of beauty.

6. Lake Zurich (Zürichsee) is just as beautiful as the mountain views. Lake Zurich is stunning. Lush mountains, dotted by neighborhoods, surround the lake. In the Fall, the lake is accented with orange and yellow foliage, a cascading fountain at the Northern end of the lake, and is a gathering spot for swans. Stone esplanades lined with park benches make a perfect viewing spot. Lastly, there are opportunities to boat on the lake, including round-trip ferries that offer cheap fares for short 90-minute trips up to a full day. The entire lake is about 34 square miles, making a longer day trip worth the while.

7. Zurich is NOT touristy. This discovery made my pantser heart soar. But, really, Zurich has museums and a lot of old architecture, but nothing that screams tourist attractions like most of the sights in Rome. In my two days in Zurich, I didn’t encounter one other traveler, which isn’t to say they weren’t there, but if so, they blended in and left their selfie-sticks at home. So if you’re like me and get anxiety in tourist-laden hotspots, Zurich is the place for you.

Before we knew it, we were boarding our train for Paris, luggage in tow. Our first independent trip had proved that spontaneous travel, with the right mindset, and enough precautions is rewarding. While two days may not seem like enough time to explore a place, it is enough time to get a taste of another culture, to see the landscape that molded its citizens, to enjoy their music, and to know if it is a place worth going back to—Zurich is such a place.

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