Could this ‘dull’ Swiss city become Europe’s queer capital?

Sensible and slow? There’s actually lots more to Zurich  (Getty Images/iStockphoto)
Sensible and slow? There’s actually lots more to Zurich (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

What is the recipe for a good LGBT+-friendly city break in the summer? The ingredients surely include a thriving club scene, seasonal cocktails and a welcoming community. Bake that together with a city that seamlessly blends impressive nature and metropolitan amenities and you’ve got yourself a weekend away in Zurich – the city that should be on every queer traveller’s list.

“Whatever you want from Zurich, you can find it,” I’m told by a local while enjoying a free livestream of Bizet’s opera, Carmen, on a lakefront square in the Swiss city. “It’s all right there.”

The sweeping statement is accompanied by an equally sweeping gesture, a hand waving seemingly at the entire city. But what is this man referring to with this all-encompassing motion? After a few days in Zurich, that one smooth gesture seems to round up everything from wild swimming and boat trips to a pulsing dance scene and riverfront cocktails that all come together to make for an LGBT+ holiday destination that often gets overlooked – if considered at all.

Streets are filled during summer parades and parties (Getty)
Streets are filled during summer parades and parties (Getty)

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While more commonly touted queer hubs like Berlin, Amsterdam or Brighton might get more attention as LGBT+-friendly destinations. Zurich has a deep queer culture. It was the birthplace of Der Kreis (The Circle), an underground network and social club for gay men in the 1940s when homosexuality was still criminalised.

And today, the riverfront Niederdorf quarter is home to dozens of queer bars along the Limmat river. Start your time at Cranberry Bar, home to charming staff and inventive cocktails behind a “blink and you’ll miss it” front door on Metzgergasse, while cafe-bar GLEIS will see you through the day into the night with an impressive array of spritzes designed to be enjoyed in a Swiss summer.

What truly makes Zurich special, however, is the unusual blend of natural beauty and a thriving cultural city centre. It’s impossible to resist the gravitational pull of Lake Zurich. The blue water beckons when glimpsed down narrow streets and the crystal-clear depths are the ideal way to while away a few hours on a sunny summer’s day. There are around 40 outdoor pools – known as badis – scattered throughout the city between May and October.

Groups of people cooling off in the Limmat (Getty)
Groups of people cooling off in the Limmat (Getty)

Luckily, that’s not the only – or even the most common – way to enjoy Lake Zurich. The vast array of parks and swimming areas pull in many young people, preferring to take their dips in the clear, sparkling water outside of the badis. You can take a dip anywhere in the lake – although it’s advisable to make sure you’re doing it somewhere where there’s an easy way to get in and out.

Stone and grassy slopes offer wonderful spots to sunbathe afterwards, with kiosks and cafes nearby from which to grab a bite to eat or refreshing beer to pair with the sunshine. The view from the lake looks directly onto the Swiss Alps in a landscape that you’re pushed to find elsewhere in Europe. The combination of a bustling city centre, a tranquil lake, and a mountain view is certainly a rare one – and not something to miss.

If you prefer to enjoy the lake from the surface rather than the water, there’s an easy, not to mention cost-effective, way of doing so. The Zurich Card, priced at CHF 29 (£25.60) for 24 hours, includes all public transport – including boats. It might seem like a steep sum for transport alone, but you can also use the Zurich Card to hop on a 90-minute cruise around the lake, with tables and chairs for prime views of the water and surrounding woods.

Don’t miss August’s vibrant Street Parade (Getty)
Don’t miss August’s vibrant Street Parade (Getty)

When the sun starts to go down and you’re looking for somewhere to continue the fun, Zurich’s dance culture has various open doors to welcome you. Nightlife here is understated yet rewarding. The best advice is to search out specific nights: Plaza’s Glitter Gwitter on Saturdays, for example, or the revolving door of local and international techno/electro DJs heading to Kauz.

The festival scene is alive and well on Lake Zurich, too, with the world’s biggest electronic music event taking to the streets of Zurich every year in August. The Street Parade in 2024 falls on 10 August, a strong contender if you’re wondering when to time your trip to Zurich. The convoy of trucks blasting music, stretching over two kilometres, starts at Utoquai in Zurich’s Seefeld district before rolling along the Zurich lakefront to end at Hafendamm Enge. Pick a truck that’s pumping out music and follow it along until midnight.

And don’t miss Flash Party at Volkshaus Zurich, the queer afterparty that’s held every year. While the Street Parade itself is free, tickets for Flash Party start from CHF 30 (£26.50) and are worth buying in advance.

All in all, Zurich offers a quieter, more intimate experience, thanks to its dense city centre that opens up onto a stunning natural backdrop. You can spend a summer lounging by the lake by day and enjoying a hive of bars and nightlife at night. Its lesser-known status allows for a more authentic city break, uncovering a destination away from the usual throngs of tourists.

How to do it

Zurich can be reached via direct flights from major UK cities – including London, Manchester, Edinburgh, Bristol, and Birmingham – with various airlines, including easyJet, Ryanair and Swiss International Air Lines. Flight time is around two hours.

Read more: The best LGBT-friendly holiday destinations around the world, from honeymoons to partying