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An Expat's Guide to Living in Zurich, Switzerland

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Jonelle Simunich
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Zurich, Switzerland is a fascinating city. The people who live here are quite reserved and quiet, and the city is full of exciting intricacies and history, plus it has depth in culture. It was a key location in the protestant reformation, Dadaism was founded here, and it was home to artists' revolutions and subsequent riots in the early 1980s.

Now, it is seen as a finance and tech center in the region and is not yet a very popular tourist destination, especially compared to other European cities nearby. There really is so much to explore here so I imagine the city will only become increasingly popular for expats and tourists alike.

Although famously pricey, living in Zurich offers a wonderful lifestyle, where you have all of the city amenities surrounded by some of the best nature and outdoor activities in the world in the nearby Alps. You might be able to find a similar setup in other cities in Switzerland but as the largest city in the country, you'll find the most job opportunities and the largest expat community here.

Let's dive into what it's really like living in Zurich to see if it'll offer you the life abroad you're searching for.

Best Neighborhoods to Live in Zurich


Zurich is a medium-sized city, with around 500,000 residents. The city is comprised of 12 unique districts, each with its own personality. Locally the districts are often referred to as ‘Kreis XX’ with the XX representing the number and kreis meaning district. The locals call the districts both by their numbers as well by their names.

The areas I’ve spent the most time in and are my personal preference for you to build your home base in are: 

  • District 1 (Old Town) - This is key for tourists. As the city center, it’s where many of the historic areas are.  
  • District 5 (Creative Quarter) - This area has cool ‘hipster’ and artistic vibes. Many people in their 20-40s live here, there are unique shops, culture, coffee, and street art to experience.
  • District 6 (University Quarter) - It is worth checking out the university buildings and there is a very special library Rechtswissenschaftliche Bibliothek hidden inside the University of Zurich. It’s fun to go on a hunt to find it. This neighborhood boasts a number of nice coffee shops and restaurants to explore and work from.
  • District 8 (right on Lake Zurich) - I stay here when I’m in town. If you stay on the water, there are a ton on things to do, great museums to visit, and pools to experience. The pool culture in Zurich is a very popular activity for locals that I'll go into more detail further in the article.

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Apartment Hunting Tips

Whenever I move to a new city, I suggest starting by living in Airbnbs. This way you can experience different buildings, areas, neighborhoods, and the culture before you start house hunting and commit for a year plus.

It's an expensive city and rent is no exception. Flats here are quite costly, coming in around 1000 CHF ($1078 USD) per room if you are staying alone.

Finding a Job in Zurich

Zurich Old Town on the waterfront

If you work in the tech sector, you are in luck, there are plenty of international companies including startups, tech companies, and even Google has a headquarters here. This industry is where many expats work. In most other sectors the job will expect you to speak both Swiss German and English, or learn both.

Zurich isn't the easiest city to network in, as the Swiss culture (and people) are quite reserved, BUT if you are patient, persistent, own your personality, and invest in networking the efforts will pay off.

While Zurich is a German-speaking region, most people speak English quite well, so as an expat or tourist, it is a very friendly place.

Getting a Long-Term Visa


Do note, that if you are originally from outside of the EU the Swiss visa process is a bit different than other countries in Europe. Namely, they have an annual quota system, as well they only offer 1-year visas to 3rd country nationals, so your company will need to renew it each year.

This isn't much of a problem for those just wanting to live in Zurich for a year or two but can be stressful if you're trying to permanently move here.

For those moving to Zurich and not working for a company in Switzerland, you'll have a much harder time trying to stay for longer than 90 days at a time. Although Switzerland is not in the EU, the country recently became part of the Schengen Zone. This means that combined with all countries in this zone, tourists or those without long-stay visas can stay in the zone only 90 days every 180 days.

That means if you're dreaming of living in Zurich while working remotely, you'll have to leave every 3 months and wait another 3 before entering Switzerland again. It's not impossible but it will require some forward planning on your part. Switzerland is not one of the many European countries with digital nomad visas.

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Cost of Living in Zurich

Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in Europe to live in. The average price of coffee is 5 CHF, a burger is 35 CHF, and a cocktail is 17 CHF. Groceries and cooking for yourself are the way to go, however, they are also on the higher end.

Public transportation is fantastic, trains and busses run like clockwork. They are regular and reliable, yet also costly. If you choose to live here, purchase a half-price public transport card for about 200 CHF per year. It will pay dividends, especially if you plan to travel around Switzerland.

While living in Zurich will cost you a pretty penny, if you work for a local company, your salary will reflect the cost of living. Digital nomads might have a harder time affording life in the city unless they also have a high-paying job in their home country or only visit for a shorter period of time.

A Few Things I Wish I Knew Before Moving to Zurich

Another view of Old Town on Lake Zurich

For me, it was hard to fathom the actual cost of living. People warned me, but living in a place that costs so much is really remarkable. I still get sticker shock most days and have to remind myself that this is just part of life here. It really is one of the most expensive cities in the world.

Another useful piece of information that'll help you settle in and make new friends is that the locals take time to warm up. If you have lived in German-speaking countries before, you will feel ok with this, but if you're from more outgoing countries like the USA, Australia, or some of the Mediterranean countries, this characteristic can be challenging at first.

For the best chance at really integrating into your community and making friends with locals, learning Swiss German will take you far. I recommend you start learning a few months before your move online with Mondly. This online language platform teaches basic vocabulary, grammar, and even helps you speaking with practice conversations. Start speaking with Mondly today.

If you want to live here, and if you want to make friends outside of the expat community,  you need to assimilate and be patient as locals warm up to you.

Fun Things to Do in the City

I really enjoy long walks, architecture, and nature. Zurich offers all three. The architectural sites are many and quite unique. Be sure to check out their one-of-a-kind police station covered in gorgeous frescoes!!!!

This is an extremely walkable city, and one best seen on foot. Zurich is situated around Lake Zurich and the water is so fresh, clean, and clear. Take a stroll around Lake Zurich, starting in Seefeld and heading to the Rote Fabrik red brick factory building for a perfect day spent in the fresh air.

A Nature Lovers Paradise

Photo by Marco Meyer

If you like nature, you’ll love Zurich! When preparing to move to Zurich, be sure to pack a pair of hiking boots and a swimsuit. Incredible hiking is only a 1-hr ride away. With such a short commute, you’ll be in the Swiss Alps where there is so much variety of experiences available to you. From leisure activities to extreme sports, you won't be in short supply of ways to enjoy the outdoors any time of the year.

There are also lots of little Swiss towns with rich histories and vibrant frescoes. They're beautifully preserved and worth a day trip to see them for a change of scenery.

Zurich also has an amazing and unique swimming culture. Do yourself a favor and spend some time at one of the pools (Bads) as they are really special. You can go to men only, women only or mixed pools. Some require clothes, some don’t; some serve food, drinks, and some even have dance parties.

Top Food Recommendations in Zurich

Photo by angela pham

While most people associate Switzerland with simply incredible nature, which isn't untrue, people forget to talk about the food. Here, you'll find pretty traditional German food but with Swiss chocolate and plenty of cheese fondue for good measure.

There are plenty of great restaurants in Zurich so you won't have trouble finding a yummy meal. If you have any dietary restrictions, you'll be happy to know that you can find vegetarian and vegan options.

Once you've moved here, do yourself a favor and try these foods:

  • Laugen Gipfili - aka pretzel croissants. This is a must-try! Luckily, they can be found at most bakeries in the city.
  • Reindeer - If you’re visiting in the autumn, grab a dish with deer. It’s widely available and more delicious than you might expect! 
  • Traditional meals - These are typically a version of meat and potatoes.
  • Brotli - This is a local bread roll. It's really crispy on the outside and soft on the inside.

Moving to Zurich? You'll Love It

Switzerland is a seriously dreamy country to call home. The pristine cities, Swiss Alps, and plenty to do (if you love spending time outside) will make your life here truly something special. Living in Zurich has given me an incredible expat life and I think you'll agree as soon as you give it a try.

Hero photo by Henrique Ferreira.

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