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Our “Your Layover Guide” series feature airports and destinations around the world where you’re likely to be stuck between flights, offering tips on navigating and spending time in the airport, as well as some things to do if you find yourself with time to explore the nearby city. TPG Contributor Katie Hammel guides us through Zurich (also known as Kloten) Airport.
Zurich Airport (ZRH) is Switzerland’s largest international airport and the main hub of SWISS Airlines. Like Switzerland itself, ZRH is generally pleasant, clean, efficient and well-organized. In 2015, it was ranked among the world’s 10 best airports — and one of the 10 best transit airports — by the World Airport Awards.
There are three terminals, labeled A, B and E, servicing corresponding gates A, B/D and E, which are all linked to a post-security Airside Center that serves as a hub of shops, restaurants and bars. There’s also a pre-security Airport Center shopping area and parking garage. Transferring here is a quick and truly stress-free affair with no more than 30 minutes needed to travel the well-marked route from Terminal A or B to Terminal E, and just a few minutes needed to travel between A and B. If given the choice between, say, a two-hour layover in the labyrinth that is Paris-CDG or a 45-minute one in Zurich, you’ll end up far less pessimistic about the state of the world if you choose Zurich.
Terminal A serves flights within the Schengen Area; Terminal B is separated to control the flow of both Schengen and non-Schengen passengers (and has gates labeled both B and D, depending on which side from which you access them); and Terminal E, which is connected to the Airside Center via underground tram, serves only non-Schengen international flights.
At the Airport
When it comes to services, Zurich is the Swiss Army knife of airports; it’s prepared for any emergency. In addition to the standard travel agencies, banks and ATMs, there are dental and medical offices and an eye clinic, an emergency passport office and an on-site vet. You’re even covered if you accidentally scheduled your layover on your kid’s birthday, as you can book a child’s birthday party (with advance notice) complete with a guided airport tour, cake and photos.
Zurich Airport is also an aviation geek’s dream with two observation decks open to passengers. Observation Deck B (next to Check-in 2) has informational displays and multimedia binoculars — called Airportscopes — with information on points of interest around the airport. It’s open from 8am to 8pm in summer (9am to 6pm in winter) and admission is 5 CHF (about $5). Observation Deck E is open only in summer and is accessible via a free shuttle bus from Deck B.
Bus tours of behind-the-scenes areas like the hangars and maintenance spaces are also available. The 75-minute tour costs 8 CHF (about $8) and is offered on Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays.
If you’d rather while away your time in a manner more expected in an airport — that is, sleeping or drinking — head to one of several lounges. In the Airside Center there’s a Dnata Skyview Lounge and ASPIRE Lounge, along with a SWISS Business Lounge, SWISS First Lounge and a SWISS Senator Lounge. Terminal E has an Emirates Lounge and Panorama Lounge and there’s a SWISS Senator/Business Lounge in the Non-Schengen Service Zone in Terminal B. There are also kids’ play areas in Terminals A and E, and 18 smoking lounges throughout the passenger area.
For those who need some shut-eye, there’s a Transit Hotel in Terminal B/D, offering rooms available for short-term use. Single, double and multi-bed rooms are available, along with a semi-private rest area with reclining chairs and locker storage. Prices range from 45 CHF (about $50) for three hours in the rest area to 79 CHF (about $82) for six hours in a private double room. Shower and bathroom access as well as free Wi-Fi are included. Given that Wi-Fi throughout the airport is only free for the first 60 minutes (with additional time available for purchase) it’s a worthy investment if you need a quiet place to do some work, but don’t have lounge access. Shower facilities in the Transit Hotel are available to non-guests for 15 CHF (about $16) and include towels, toiletries and use of hair dryers.
Even without lounge access, the Zurich airport is not a terrible place to spend some time. There’s ample seating (with no armrests, so you can stretch out) and plenty of power outlets built into the benches. Sometimes it’s the little things that make all the difference.
Lockers and left luggage services are available in the Airport Center, next to the Service Center in Car Park 2 (Level 1). Left luggage is available from 6am to 10:30pm with prices ranging from 5 to 12 CHF (about $5-12) per day depending on the item and length of time (max storage length is three months). Locker prices range from 9 to 12 CHF (about $9-12) per 24 hours, with a max of 72 hours. Lockers are available 24 hours a day, and are payable with Swiss or euro coins.
Switzerland is a center of banking and finance and, predictably, the Zurich airport caters to the upper class. If you’re looking to drop some cash, you have your choice of high-end shops such as Bulgari, Bally, Gucci, Hermès, Hugo Boss, Swarovski, Tiffany and Co. and Mont Blanc. If you want to pick up the ultimate Swiss souvenir, there are plenty of watch shops to choose from: Türler Uhren & Juwelen sells watches from such brands as Breitling, Chopard and TAG Heuer; OMEGA, a Swiss luxury watch producer; SWATCH, which also offers some more affordable options; and IWC Schaffhausen Boutique.
For a cheaper memory of your brief time in Switzerland, head to the Spirit of Switzerland, the Lindt chocolate boutique, Sprüngli Swiss confectionery or the Edelweiss Shop. If your travels are taking you on outdoor adventures, look no farther than Mammut, a Swiss supplier of alpine equipment. And if you need something to read for your next flight, head to the k kiosk bookseller.
There are nearly 20 dining options on the passenger side of the airport, ranging from sit-down restaurants with a view of the Alps to quick takeaways with coffee and pastry.
If you’re craving something quick and familiar (no judgement), airside dining options include a Burger King and Starbucks. But you’re better off heading to Marché, which offers self-service seasonal cuisine (try the rösti, the Swiss version of a large potato pancake), fresh-baked breads, focaccia, sandwiches, coffee and freshly pressed juices. For more Swiss delights, try the beer, pretzels and sausages from Bier-Bière-Birra-Biera Bar in Terminal A. Or go international in Terminal E at The Deli, which offers an eclectic array of salads, pastas and mains.
Travel to the City Center
Zurich Airport’s location — just 8 miles from the city — means it’s easy to take a jaunt into town on your layover. And, true to stereotypes, the efficiency and punctuality of the frequently running trains means you don’t have to worry about getting back to the city on time. It takes just 15 minutes to reach the Zurich Hauptbahnhof (main train station) from the airport, and trains run 10 times per hour.
Tickets can be purchased from machines in customs halls 1 and 2 or from the SBB travel center located below the Airport Center in the Check-in 3 area. If you plan to visit any museums or attractions in the city, it’s worth investing in a ZurichCARD, which includes free transit for 24 or 72 hours plus admission to many city museums. The 24-hour pass is 24 CHF (about $25). Between admission to the Kunsthaus museum (22 CHF / about $23) and round-trip transport from the airport (around 13 CHF / $14), the card pays for itself.
If You Have Half a Day
With a few hours in Zurich, you can explore the city center at a leisurely pace. Wander down the Bahnhofstrasse, one of the world’s most expensive shopping streets, and dream of life as Swiss banker — or stick to the end closer to the train station for shops that fit a more modest budget. Explore the cobbled streets and alleyways of the medieval Alstadt (or Old Town), and if it’s a nice day, head to the Landesmuseum station for a one-hour cruise on the Limmatschifffahrt in one of the flat boats built to pass below the seven bridges that cross the river. Keep an eye out for the Grossmünster and Fraumünster churches, the most recognizable structures on Zurich’s skyline.
Zurich is home to more the 50 museums, including the famous Kunsthaus; the Swiss National Museum; and the Kunsthall, a gallery and museum located in the former Löwenbräu brewery. For a taste of modern Zurich, head to Viadukt, a shopping area in the formerly run-down Zurich West that was built into an old railway station along the river. There’s a markethall and dozens of shops and restaurants and there are frequent special events such as concerts.
If You Have a Full Day
With more time, get out and explore the nature that surrounds the city. No gear? No problem. Zürich Airport rents bikes, helmets and inline skates for kids and adults in a variety of sizes, as well as Nordic walking poles. Prices range from 10- 20 CHF for four hours, and up to 35 CHF (about $36) for a full day. For a mini adventure not far from town, take a train up the 2,800-foot Uetliberg mountain, which is easily accessed from the city and offers some of the best views of Zurich. You can take a cable car, hike or mountain bike back down.
Rhine Falls, continental Europe’s biggest waterfall, is an accessible day trip, as well; tour operators will even pick you up from the airport for the 30-minute drive. If you’d rather explore another Swiss city, Lucerne, Basel and Bern are all about one hour from Zurich by train.
If You Have the Night
Switzerland is an expensive country to visit, and even its more basic hotels come at a high price. One of the lowest-cost options is also the closest: the airport’s Transit Hotel offers the same basic rooms for overnight use as it does during the day at a slightly higher price (94 CHF or $98 for a single room). With 24-hour room service, two restaurants and a bar, a fitness room, and free Wi-Fi, the airport-adjacent Radisson Blu is a more comfortable option. Rates start at 167 CHF (about $174) or 70,000 Club Carlson points per night.
Less than five minutes’ drive from the airport, the Hilton Zurich Airport offers bike rentals, a gym, sauna, steam bath and a lobby bar and restaurant with views of arriving planes. Rates start at 199 CHF ($207) or 40,000 HHonors points per night.
If you’d rather stay in the city (and with it so accessible by train, why not?), the Zurich Marriott Hotel is a great choice close to the train station. For 270 CHF ($281) or 40,000 Marriott Rewards points per night, rooms include pillow-top mattresses, in-room coffee and tea facilities and a mini bar. There’s also a 24-hour fitness center, two restaurants and a lounge. The five-star Park Hyatt Zurich, a short walk from the Bahnhofstrasse, offers free Wi-Fi, a spa and fitness center, five dining and drinking options, and rooms with Italian linens, Nespresso machines and floor-to ceiling windows. Rates start at 578 CHF ($601) or 30,000 Gold Passport points per night. The Points Guy Assessment: The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great pick for the beginner and the frequent traveler. The CSP has superb travel benefits, double points on certain purchases, and a 50,000 point sign up bonus. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year so this puts it as one of the less expensive cards, while still allowing you to earn one of the most valuable point currencies.
The Points Guy Assessment:
The Chase Sapphire Preferred is a great pick for the beginner and the frequent traveler. The CSP has superb travel benefits, double points on certain purchases, and a 50,000 point sign up bonus. The $95 annual fee is waived the first year so this puts it as one of the less expensive cards, while still allowing you to earn one of the most valuable point currencies.