So on this blog, it seems that most people are bypassing Zurich and going straight to Lucerne instead. Why?
Zurich is "just another city." Rick Steves says it is "comfortable and enjoyable," but with limited time, the mountains offer more. What are you seeking in Switzerland? Have you traveled there before?
If it were anywhere else in Europe it would be a nice city to visit - a serious hub of business and banking on a lake. However, it is too close to the spectacular scenery of the mountains valleys and lakes of Switzerland to waste time there when you could be in the middle of what you really go to Switzerland to see.
I visited Zurich as a day trip from Freiburg im Breisgau on a rainy day. I didn't see any point trying to see Switzerland's amazing scenery in the rain and stuck to Zurich, which I found a stuffy-yet-charming old city. I enjoyed spending a few hours wandering around its old quarters even in a semi-drizzle.
Nothing wrong with Zürich, it is a 4-star city on a lake with some nice old bits.
Unfortunately it is only an hour away from 6-star mountains. Luzern and Bern are prettier cities. And Luzern is within sight and reach of the mountains (click for 360° panorama). Plus lots more places further into the mountains, where you wake up to views like this (Mürren in Berner Oberland): https://img.myswitzerland.com/mys/n64557/images/buehne/muerren_sommer_bergpanorama_gimmeln-1.jpg
Thank you all for the responses. I have not ever been to Switzerland and am thinking of signing up for the the RS 12 day tour. Since they suggest going a day or two ahead of time, I was thinking Zurich, or should I just head to Luzern and not go to any of the itinerary things on the tour? Thank you Chris for the 360 view....So lovely! I can't wait to see it all.
DW and I liked Zurich a lot more than Lucerne, which seemed excessively commercial, with not a lot to do (in the actual town, that is, as opposed to trips to nearby mountains). If you like art museums even a little, the Kunsthaus in Zurich is a knockout. I'll go back to Zurich just to see it again.
Thank you all for the help.
For travel anywhere in Switzerland, be sure to budget accordingly as it's an expensive place to travel. Zürich has some interesting sites and some nice excursions but I tend to prefer Lucerne. I haven't checked on what's included with the RS tour, but I'm sure you can find lots of places to see for a few days prior to the tour.
I think hotels in the banking/finance city of Zurich are much more expensive than similar ones in Luzern.
Personally, I find the Old Town of Luzern to be much more charming than Zurich's. Luzern has so many medieval remnants including ramparts and towers in ancient city walls, and old painted murals on buildings in open plazas. And I love the covered walking bridges across the Reuss River, and the outdoor cafes along the river, too.
I looked up the itinerary of the RS 12-day tour that you're considering taking, and have some recommendations for you in Luzern that aren't included in that tour.
Buy and eat chocolate at chocolate shops all over Luzern. My favorite is called "au cachet: la maison du chocolate." It's located at Pfistergasse 15. It's the oldest chocolate shop in Luzern. But you can do your own chocolate research ;-)
Take the ferry ship on Lake Lucerne (Vierwaldstättersee) to Vitznau. From there take the cog-rail train up Mount Rigi to Kulm at the top for amazing views of the lake and surrounding area. Or take the train to the Rigi Kaltbad station and walk the flat scenic "Blumenpfad" (Flower path) from the Rigi Kaltbad station either way--west to the lookout platform at Känzeli with a panoramic view of Lake Lucerne and the Alps, or east, on the other side of the train tracks, to First and on along the lakeview side of the cliff. From Kaltbad, you can take a cable car ride down to the city of Weggis, where you follow signs to the lake ship as you walk down to the dock and take the next ferry back to Luzern.
If you're interested in museums, I was very impressed with the Rosengart Collection (Sammlung Rosengart Luzern) at Pilatusstrasse 10. It has a large collection of Paul Klee art (Swiss) and that of and about Picasso. It also has paintings by Monet, Renoir, Chagall, Cézanne, and others. There's a good description in the Rick Steves Switzerland book.
So there are some ideas for you, if you decide to spend a couple of days in Lucerne before the RS tour, and if you're not too tired from jet lag.
Edit: I just reread the tour itinerary and noticed your Lucerne tour already includes a tour of the Swiss Transport Museum. So no need to visit it before your RS tour starts. That's a very expensive museum, so you're very lucky it's included! I've now deleted my entry above about visiting it before your tour.
Also, I meant to type "Lake Lucerne," not "Lake Lugano" when describing the Känzeli view on Mount Rigi, and have made that correction, too.
RS Switzerland tour does not go to Mt. Pilatus or Mt. Rigi. I arrived in Lucerne on Saturday prior to my Monday 5:00 tour start. I spent most of Sunday doing the Mt. Pilatus round trip and then spent Monday before the tour started going up to Mt. Rigi. I highly recommend them both, especially if the weather is clear.
Would also recommend sunset cruise on Lake Lucerne
Zurich was a bit of a bust for us. We stayed in a nice hotel, but since it fronted the street there was party noise all night. It was quite hot and air conditioning was needed. There weren't that many "must see" sights for us to outweigh the inconvenience of it all.
There are so many beautiful spots in Switzerland and so many lovely things to do and see that a city that is pretty ordinary just can't compare.
I also went on the RS tour this summer and if you're only arriving a day or two before the start of the tour then I'd go to Lucerne. You'll want a day to go up at least one of the mountains.
I took the boat to the foot of Pilatus and it was a pretty ride but their are trains that get there before the 1st boat. I had about 10 clear minutes at the top before the fog rolled in. It's all a matter of chance, but if I was doing it again I'd take the train instead of the boat, the tour will do a boat ride on the lake anyway (although I guess you can't take too many boat rides on beautiful lakes!)
I would personally hop on a train after exploring Zürich. There so many options outside the larger cities that you can enjoy. Especially now in the winter time, many small towns look idyllic and serene.
Try Biel Bienne, it's an amazing small town with beautiful surroundings, only about an hour by train.
There plenty of cheap hotels and most areas are walking distance from anywhere city center.