Where to Eat and Drink in Zurich on a Budget
5 months ago, I was glued to an office chair that was all too familiar. Europe was calling and my newly bought campervan was tucked away in a field waiting to be used. My partner George and I had been pinching pennies for three years in preparation to book a one-way ferry. Cut to today and we’ve kayaked down the Verdon gorge, surfed the world-famous longboard waves of Biarritz, hiked across the highest suspension bridge in the Alps, indulged in the best pintxos San Sebastian has to offer, and oohed and aahed at some of Ljubljana’s most beautiful architecture. Van life has unique challenges – think reversing into walls, sweating in 40°C heat without air con, emptying the waste tank… But we’re exploring Europe on the cheap, and never have our budgeting skills been more vital than eating, drinking and dancing in Switzerland’s eye-wateringly expensive Zurich.
We’ve been through seven countries so far, but Switzerland holds some of our most treasured memories. Its giant rolling mountains, crystal clear lakes and pretty but bustling towns make for the perfect road trip.
For us, though, Zurich was the icing on the cake. It’s expensive, but its vibrancy and quirkiness had me saying ‘I could see us putting down roots here’. We were on a mission to enjoy the city without breaking the bank.
Exploring Zurich on the Cheap
Our first task was finding somewhere to park up for night. To stay in campsites around Zurich you’re looking at €40 a night (we’d rather just get an Airbnb, thanks). Fortunately Park4Night, a super helpful app for van lifers that tells you where to wild camp, led us to a park on the outskirts of the city. We got the usual ‘we know you’re not allowed to be here’ looks from people walking their dogs and kids. But that’s something you get used to in a six metre-long motorhome.
The park had greenery, which a massive bonus as car parks are often where we end up), and free water, which is an absolute luxury when wild camping. Plus, a cycle path went from the park all the way into the city. We weren’t reliant on public transport to get home meaning we could stay out as long as we wanted.
After realising it was best to get off our bikes as soon as we reached the city centre (roadworks meant death by bike quickly became a real possibility) we set off to stroll around Zurich’s old town – the hipster’s dream. If your thing is quirky bicycles, American rucksacks and shops specialising in £10 granola, this is the place to be. It was a bit pricey for our budget but a beautiful part of the town to stroll around.
Zurich on a Budget: Where to Eat
We’re massive foodies, so it breaks my heart to go past restaurant after restaurant of delicious looking food and not be able to gorge on a daily basis. But that means we’ve become cheap eat aficionados. We hunt down the best deals everywhere we go because food is a big part of the travel experience. In Zurich, that meant heading into Zurich West. This part of the city is known as ‘edgy’ and (usually) offers cheaper alternatives to the city centre. And, boy, did we strike gold.
Maison Blunt is a Moroccan café that specialises in mezze platters. Naturally, we chose the cheapest one, which unsurprisingly was veggie. Imagine huge roasted tomatoes stuffed with feta and garlic, and pastry wrapped around more garlicky cheese. Homemade hummus and fresh, zingy couscous was included, too and it was honestly foodgasmic. We couldn’t resist ordering some of their melt-in-your-mouth lamb koftas either. We paid £27 for two people which is a hell of a lot cheaper than most restaurants in Zurich.
Zurich on a Budget: Where to Drink
Our next stop was Les Halles, another venue in Zurich West that we fell completely in love with. It’s a pub/restaurant and as soon as you walk in you’re hit with the lively atmosphere of the place. We noticed people slouching on old wooden chairs, crowded around big platters of moules and frites (the restaurant’s speciality). And, even better, people gathered around the bar drinking wine or beer just like any old English pub.
Quirky market stalls popped up all around the bar, too. It was a cross between a buzzing market, a grungy old pub and a Mediterranean restaurant with all of the smells to match – and it was absolute heaven! To complete the random but eccentric mix they had reggae on in the background. Safe to say it’s one of the best bars we’ve come across in Europe so far, especially if you want to cosy up for the night. We had a few too many drinks here and decided we had to continue the night.
Zurich on a Budget: Where to Dance
After leaving Les Halles we joined a queue of night clubbers dressed up to the nines, all waiting to go through a dark, dingy door and presumably into a room playing dance music. Dressed in grubby denim shorts and grey trainers that used to be white, and feeling a little pink after a day in the sun, I wasn’t sure the bouncer was going to let us in but, sure enough, he checked my backpack and waved us through. We got to the ticket booth and our glamorous nightclub hopes were dashed sharpish. ‘60 euros please’. George and I looked at each other awkwardly and just shook our heads before leaving.
Take this as a forewarning that any official looking nightclub in Zurich is going to rip you off to the high heavens. I felt kind of like I’d walked into Prada in my Vans as we walked back through the queue of classy ravers.
We’d pretty much given up hope of finding anywhere to continue our night as we strolled back through Zurich West, when we came to the train station. Music was blaring from what looked like an old garden shed hidden behind a shipping container. We figured this was either a drug den or some sort of makeshift party place and ambled over (hoping for the party venue, not a drug den).
People were gathered around the edges of the venue looking down towards a girl performing on a tiny stage – who later turned out to be a rapper from Australia. Everyone was dressed casually and drinking from plastic cups, so we edged towards the entrance to see if there’d be an entrance fee. There wasn’t. No entry and cheap G&Ts from the bar (£3.50 from memory). Two American guys ended up next to us and genuinely shouted ‘NOISE’ when people were clapping and cheering. It was an entertaining night all in all and a venue (called Helsinki) that’s worth looking at if you’re in Zurich. They have live acts on all the time.
Zurich is a mind-blowingly expensive city. We actually spent £35 on two cocktails at one point to put it into perspective. But there are ways to get around the hefty price tags. It’s absolutely worth a look if you’re travelling through Switzerland and it remains one of our favourite stops so far. Bustling streets, quirky bars and cafes, outdoor river-side pools (open from May until September) and mountains a mere half an hour’s train ride away; it ticks all of the boxes!
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