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Switzerland’s largest city Zurich is aptly named the portal to the Alps, serving as an ideal base for driving excursions anywhere in the country. Virtually every highway leads to Zurich, ensuring easy road access, whether you are simply village-hopping around the central lakes or delving deep into alpine resorts around Interlaken. Travellers won’t need a car within Zurich itself, but exploring the surrounding area with a car is a fantastic way to go. All the major car hire firms are represented in downtown Zurich, as well as its Kloten Airport.
Who to Book With
Budget, Hertz and Avis are just three of the top rental companies to choose from in Zurich. Offices are typically located along Gartenhofstrasse and Morgartenstrasse in the city centre or in the Arrivals area of Kloten Airport. Online bookings are advised to ensure you get the best rates and the vehicle of your choice.
Best Time to Go
Zurich is busy almost all year round, but expect higher rates during popular holiday periods such as the summer months. Certainly the Alps region is much more comfortable during the summer; driving among the Alps in winter is not recommended to those unfamiliar with the terrain. Zurich itself is a busy city year-round.
Need to Know Essentials
To pick up your rental car, you must provide the following documents:
- A valid EU driving license or International Driving Permit
- A second form of picture ID, such as passport
- The credit card used in the booking process
- Printed confirmation
It is not particularly pleasant to attempt driving around the centre of Zurich. Parking is extremely rare and inevitably expensive, congestion is common and signage is not always in English. Street-side parking is particularly hard to find, but there are plenty of pay-for parking garages around downtown, which are usually marked by a ‘P’ sign. Public parking garages charge between £4 and £7 per hour, depending on the location. Some hotels have their own private parking lots, but they will also charge extra to park there.
Zurich is linked to other major Swiss cities by highways that require an annual toll called a vignette, costing around £27 per year. Your rental car should have a vignette sticker, which must be displayed on the windscreen. These toll stickers can be purchased from Swiss tourism offices or at border crossings. Traffic police will impose a fine of around £67 on anyone driving a vehicle without this sticker. Some of the longer alpine tunnels also have their own separate tolls. There are also many rural roads that do not require a vignette, but it is hard to move around Switzerland without using the motorways at some point.
Highways are marked with green signs containing the number, while mountain roads occasionally have one-way traffic during certain hours, indicated by a blue sign with a yellow horn inside it. Winter driving conditions can be dangerous after snowfall, particularly on alpine roads. Switzerland requires every vehicle to carry a warning triangle and snow chains, so be sure the car hire company has provided these safety items.
The ZVV public transport system is the way to go within Zurich, although a car is great to have for excursions to outlying areas. Zurich’s transport system is incredibly efficient, clean and safe, connecting every single village in the region by an integrated network of trams, buses, cable cars, trains and ferries. Most of this transport web operates daily between 05:30 and 00:30, with wait times rarely longer than six minutes.
Automated ticket machines with English, German, Italian and French language instructions are found at every transport stop. You must purchase your ticket before boarding, and people caught on board without a ticket are fined around £34. A one-hour unlimited ticket costs just under £3, but the 24-hour Tageskarte is the best deal at around £6. The national Swiss Pass is also valid on Zurich’s public transport system.
Zurich’s S-Bahn trains are ideal for moving out of the city centre and into the suburban districts and outlying villages in the canton. Every line stops at the central Hauptbahnhof right in the heart of Zurich, except for rural lines. The ZVV has tour maps for special excursions on the very useful S-Bahn trains.
Taxis are very expensive in Zurich, and considering the speed and efficiency of the ZVV transport network, should only be used when convenience is the priority. Taxis use meters to determine the fare, which start at around £4 just to get in. Each kilometer is then around £2.50 extra. Any hotel will gladly call a taxi for you, or simply use Taxi 444 by dialing 444-4444.
Buses and Trams
A (mainly) electric bus and tram network provides the most convenient transport option around downtown Zurich. As part of the ZVV system, the trams and buses require you to buy a ticket from a machine before boarding, or risk a fine. Buses and trams pass each stop every seven minutes or so, and accurate schedules are posted at each stop. ZVV also has a free mobile app for those looking to keep up with real-time travel information.
Tucked between the forested hills of the Zurichberg and the Uetliberg, with the Limmat River cutting right through its heart, Zurich is surrounded by natural beauty and a wealth of excursions. This leafy lakeside city is a joy to explore, particularly its Old Town, where most of the grand historic landmarks and urban amenities are located. But Zurich is also the perfect base to use for exploring central Switzerland, with easy access by road, cable car or train to countless alpine destinations.
The Great St Bernard Pass - This is arguably the most famous and impressive mountain drive in Europe, beginning in French-speaking Martigny and terminating in Italian-speaking San Bernardino. You can practice your German along the way as you traverse a cross-section of this multi-cultural country. The route follows several pretty lakes before climbing over the mountains.
The Lucerne Lake Loop - This dishes up great valley scenery, heading south on the Motorway 4, around Lake Lucerne and Lake Zug, before rolling back into Zurich. This short daytrip is ideal for those who don’t want to bother with winding mountain roads and appreciate stopping off at endless picnic spots with lake vistas.
The A3 Motorway - This doesn’t quite sound romantic, but it efficiently gets you immediately into some of Switzerland’s finest scenery, whether you head north towards Basel or south towards Davos, with endless options for rural loops and stopovers.
Lucerne - Another favourite destination in Switzerland, and within easy reach of Zurich. This town has a pretty lake setting with some excellent day driving. It is also free of the business-like mood of Zurich and presents a far more relaxing atmosphere.