It's not hard to accept local rumours that hoards of bank vault gold are stashed beneath almost every Zurich street. And it's equally easy to believe that Switzerland's largest city is an ultra-pricey vacation destination. But while the first assertion is probably true, the second can be challenged with a strict budget-hugging approach to your trip.
Arriving from London on a $45 EasyJet flight, I hunted down a full day of frugal dining and attractions, discovering that the ZurichCard tourist pass is the best way to stretch your meagre Swiss francs. The 19-franc (around $18) 24-hour version includes unlimited transit and admission to 39 attractions, some of which normally charge up to 15 francs. Quick tip: Buy the pass at the airport and the train ride to the city centre is included, saving another eight francs.
Bellevue Deli in Bellevueplatz
Cost: 4.40 francs
Zurich's dine-out prices can curb the most rapacious appetites, but there are ways to keep your refuelling costs down. I picked up a coffee and croissant breakfast combo at this bustling takeout window for around $4. You can then perch on a wooden bench and watch the trundling trams or nip across to the lake's picturesque shoreline for some Alps-fringed views. English is widely spoken in Zurich, so ordering is usually a doddle.
Old Town, east side of the Limmat River
The winding streets and cobbled plazas of the achingly attractive Old Town are a short stroll away. Soon lost among the artsy shops and elegant little cafés, I stumbled onto the site where Lenin lived in 1917; sat in a wood-panelled room where Reformation firebrand Ulrich Zwingli once resided; and checked out a large-scale model of 19th-century Zurich at the city archive building. It showed that this turreted, mostly medieval neighbourhood has hardly changed in 200 years.
Police Station and Fraumunster Church
Old Town, west side
After a water bottle refill at a baroque drinking fountain - Zurich has hundreds of these, so you'll never go thirsty - a Limmat-traversing bridge delivered me to the Gothic-looking main police station. Inside, I found a breathtaking vaulted lobby of scarlet and orange murals, painted in 1924 by Alberto Giacometti. It's one of Zurich's best hidden art treasures. Less of a secret are the large, richly coloured stained glass Marc Chagall windows in the nearby Fraumunster Church - look for the artist's face in one of the panels.
Swiss National Museum, Museumstrasse 2
Cost: free with ZurichCard
Weaving to Bahnhofstrasse - Zurich's main shopping drag - I hit the No. 13 tram for a five-minute ride to the castellated National Museum ( www.landesmuseum.ch). Entry is 10 francs without a ZurichCard and I spent a leisurely hour here trawling labyrinthine galleries of regional costumes, Reformation artifacts and precious antiquities. For rusty German speakers, most rooms are stocked with English-language information cards.
Migros, Falkenstrasse 19-21
Cost: 10.50 francs
Hungry for lunch, I rolled back southward on another tram and hopped off near the Opera House. Zurich restaurant entrées typically start around 20 francs but value-conscious locals often dine instead at the surprisingly agreeable cafeterias of supermarket chains Coop and Migros. Tray in hand, I joined the second-floor line at this bustling Migros and selected the cheapest combo: heaping sausage and mash swimming in gravy, served with a soda. Then I joined a communal table of students and office workers to scoff my nosh.
Tram Museum Zurich, Forchstrasse 260
Cost: free with ZurichCard
Since I had quickly fallen for Zurich's cute tram system, I stoked my infatuation by skipping onto the No. 11 to find this smashing little museum ( www.tram-museum.ch) located in a quiet residential area of handsome townhouses. Colonizing a former maintenance shed, it's lined with more than a dozen lovingly restored old cars and, unusually, you can climb onboard and ring their bells. After my visit, I was inspired to use my ZurichCard to zip across the city on a couple of freebie sightseeing trundles.
Clock and Watch Museum Beyer Zurich, Bahnhofstrasse 31
Cost: free with ZurichCard
Back in the city centre, I ducked into this fancy jewellery shop ( www.beyer-ch.com), waved my pass and descended to the basement museum. Housing one of the world's finest private timepiece collections, I perused a jaw-dropping array of about 500 antique clocks and watches in a room alive with murmuring mechanisms and tinkling hour bells. Some date from the 15th-century, but the most mesmerizing are those topped with tweeting robotic birds or bejewelled medieval figures.
Merkur Chocolaterie, Bahnhofstrasse 106
Continuing northward on foot along the main shopping strip, budget-busting chocolate shop temptation lurked almost everywhere. Eventually buckling, I nipped into this popular, sweet-smelling spot near the main railway station. But rather than unleash my credit card on the shiny, foil-wrapped bars, I headed to the back of the store and watched the freeconfectioners demonstration where smiling chocolatiers pipe, pour and twirl everything from filigree bonbons to hubcap-sized brittle slabs. Since I was visibly salivating, several samples soon came my way.
Sternen Grill, Theaterstrasse 22
Cost: 6 francs
With appetite primed toward the end of the afternoon, I followed my taste buds to a Zurich dine-out legend for a hearty helping of perfect bloke food. Anyone who thinks North American hot dogs are the way to go should join the virtually all-male queue at this unpretentious, chat-noisy joint. After ordering from a friendly fella at the counter, I stood at an alleyway table grasping a giant, piping hot bratwurst in one hand and a large hunk of tooth-pulling, crusty bread in the other, gnawing alternate chunks from each.
Riffraff Bar, Neugasse 57
Cost: 4.60 francs
Tramming to the fringes of the trendy Zurich West neighbourhood, I rolled into this popular little bar that's attached to an independent cinema. Lined with hipster patrons and animated student-types, it seemed like a cozy, laid-back joint for a candlelit end-of-day tipple. Asking the slightly puzzled young server for the cheapest beer - a local lager called Goldsprint - I calculated I didn't have quite enough cash for a second. Riding the trams would have to entertain me for the rest of the evening.
Special to The Globe and Mail