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An Expat's Guide to Living in Zurich, Switzerland

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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

Photo by OMID VISUALS

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)

District 1, or Old Town, is the heart of the city, especially for tourists. If you just visit Zurich, this is where you’ll want to spend most of your time. As the city center, it’s where many of the historic areas are.

You’ll love living in Old Town if you’re searching for a neighborhood with winding alleyways, cobblestone, and medieval architecture right outside your door. If tourists won’t bother you and you’re willing to pay potentially a little bit more each month in rent, District 1 is an incredibly charming place to live in Zurich. 

Another perk to living in Old Town is that the train station is here so if you dream of plenty of weekends away exploring the rest of Switzerland and nearby countries, this will be really convenient for you.

📍Before you decide to move to this neighborhood, I suggest you book a hotel or vacation rental for at least a night or two to get a real feel for it at all hours. This will give you the best chance to see if living in Old Town is a good choice for you.

  • Budget Stay: City Center Apt: Located just 5 minutes from the train station, this apartment is super well-located and pet-friendly. 
  • Mid-Tier Stay: Enchanting 1BR Haven: Located right in the center of Old Town, this apartment is bright, spacious, and has a nice outdoor patio. 
  • Luxury Stay: Le Bijou Bahnhofstrasse: Right on the main street of Old Town, you’ll have everything that brings people to Zurich at your fingertips. 

District 5 (Creative Quarter)

Searching for the coolest part of Zurich? District 5, also known as Zurich West or the Creative Quarter is the place to be. 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.

The main part of this neighborhood is the Viaduct. This has been renovated into a great place to take a stroll, pop into shops, and grab a coffee or drink. 

📍Before you decide to move to this neighborhood, I suggest you book a hotel or vacation rental for at least a night or two to get a real feel for it at all hours. This will give you the best chance to see if living in the Creative Quarter is a good choice for you.

  • Budget Stay: Sup Stadium: This is one of the most affordable places you’ll find in the heart of Zurich but do note that only the bedroom is private with the other spaces shared. 
  • Mid-Tier Stay: Perfect for Up to 4 Adults or Family: This family-friendly apartment is ideal for families moving to Zurich looking for a great place to stay while apartment hunting. 
  • Luxury Stay: Loving Apartment: This bright and clean apartment has a home office for remote workers and a large outdoor patio. 

District 6 (University Quarter)

District 6 is located right in the center of Zurich so living here will give you ease of access to all parts of the city, making it highly convenient. This neighborhood boasts a number of nice coffee shops and restaurants to explore and work from.

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. 

📍Before you decide to move to this neighborhood, I suggest you book a hotel or vacation rental for at least a night or two to get a real feel for it at all hours. This will give you the best chance to see if living in University Quarter is a good choice for you.

  • Budget Stay: Trendy Unterstrass: This apartment and the next option on this list are both available for long-term leases so apartment hunting could be incredibly easy with this one. 
  • Mid-Tier Stay: Sunny Unterstrass 1BR: Stay in a more residential part of the city, still with easy access to the city center with this bright, modern, and clean apartment. 
  • Luxury Stay: Rare Triplex Central: A sucker for a view? From this apartment, you’ll enjoy great views of the city, Alps, and Lake Zurich. 

District 8 (Lake Zurich)

District 8 is where I live when I’m in Zurich. If you stay on the water, there are a ton of 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.

This district is growing in popularity (and rent prices) as you can get a great mix of beautiful nature with the lake and plenty of greenspace but the north of this district borders District 1, so you’re still well-positioned in the city. 

📍Before you decide to move to this neighborhood, I suggest you book a hotel or vacation rental for at least a night or two to get a real feel for it at all hours. This will give you the best chance to see if living on Lake Zurich is a good choice for you.

  • Budget Stay: Lakeside Dream Apartment: Just a block away from the shores of Lake Zurich, this charming apartment holds a lot of history.
  • Mid-Tier Stay: Green Haven: Bright, green, spacious and with a fantastic balcony to start your morning with some fresh air. 
  • Luxury Stay: City, Lake and Luxury: This pet-friendly apartment is ideal for 4 guests and is centrally located in District 8. 
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Apartment Hunting Tips

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

You'll notice the places I recommended above you rent to get a feel for each neighborhood are on Vrbo, not Airbnb. Personally, I like Vrbo because you're able to cashback on each stay that you can then use on your next trip. Whereas with Airbnb, there are no rewards for users. But if you still prefer that platform, most rentals are on both Airbnb and Vrbo.

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

Photo by OMID VISUALS

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.

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.

If you're looking to move to Switzerland but enjoy a slightly lower cost of living, consider moving to the smaller resort town, Grindelwald.

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 Switzerland! From the stunning Bernese Oberland region to picture-perfect Lucerne, there's so much to explore here.

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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