Zurich offers a lot to make a layover memorable

By Susie Woodhams
Globe Correspondent / May 23, 2010

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ZURICH — We were hoping to spot beaver or hare, knowing it was too late in the morning to catch fox, deer, or even wild boar scampering through the wooded creek area to our right or the dandelion-rich field on the left.

Yet 20 minutes into our 12-mile ride through nature conservation land, the sudden chorus of “Wo-ag! Wo-ag! Wo-ag!’’ prompted my son and me to slam on our brakes and let our bikes fall to the gravel trail. Borgi and Gernot Kopriwa, an elderly Swiss couple we met outside Zurich Airport earlier that morning, had mimicked the throaty sound perfectly when they told us to be on the lookout for “frogs marrying’’ in the marshes.

As we crept through reeds to get a better look, the overlapping mating calls almost drowned out the roar of jets landing on a runway 300 yards away.

Who would have guessed that a pair of rented bikes and nature could transform time at the airport into a relaxing adventure?

If the recent volcanic ash crisis reminded travelers of anything, it’s that you never know when you’ll end up stuck at an airport for hours. We weren’t stranded — just curious enough to drive an hour from Basel to judge how Zurich’s airport and surrounding trails compare with entertainment options at a few other European airports.

At the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol, you can pass time at a casino, or visit (for free) an annex of the Rijksmuseum to marvel at temporary exhibits along with 10 works by Rembrandt and other Dutch masters.

The same weekend as our Zurich trip, the Munich Airport Center was hosting the world’s first airport polo tournament at its covered, outdoor atrium between Terminals 1 and 2. The MAC uses the same space to stage beach volleyball tournaments in the summer and a Winter Market that lingers into January, complete with an ice skating rink. Travelers can also dine or drink al fresco at Airbraü, the world’s first airport brewery with a beer garden.

“What is changing today is that airports are offering a lot more services to entertain the traveler, hoping they’ll come a little earlier and stay a little longer to shop, dine, drink, spa, or whatever,’’ said Webster O’Brien, a vice president at ICF/SH&E, one of the world’s largest aviation consulting companies.

I’m not what O’Brien would describe as the typical airport traveler, who “has a higher propensity to spend than the average person on the street.’’ But even I succumbed to Zurich Airport’s subtle marketing strategies on a trip in late February, during the airport’s two-month Chocolate Festival. After passing through security into the pristine and library-quiet Airside Center, I was soon sampling truffles and flavored confections from the booths of seven chocolate makers. I bought a $25 box.

I then read that Zurich had been voted Europe’s best airport in 2009 and second to Munich in 2010, according to Skytrax, an independent London-based aviation market research company that polls nearly 10 million international travelers a year. (Another company, World Travel Awards, has Zurich number one in Europe for six consecutive years, but it allows travel agents’ votes to count twice as much as passengers’.) Skytrax voters also rated Zurich first in the world for terminal cleanliness and baggage delivery last year, when nearly 22 million passengers visited the airport.

On both the airside and landside sections of the airport, Zurich offers what you would expect of a top airport: shops for fine watches to groceries to high-end clothing; health club and spa options; a food court, a few nice restaurants, and sophisticated bars. Yet the airport’s most unique feature is practically a secret to travelers — and widely known to locals.

Much of the airport land and villages around it are nature conservation areas — including a large swath between two runways patrolled by three park rangers who ensure animals — most often rabbits, but occasionally wild boar — don’t interfere with landings.

Over the years, the canton and airport have collaborated to maintain it, adding 12 miles of paths that encompass the airport and get plenty of use, ranging from neighbors on daily strolls to urban dwellers who might take a train there for weekend exercise.

Stopped in mid-skate on the sidewalk just outside the upper-level Airport Shopping entrance, Jurg Nufer, 32, was one of half a dozen in-line skaters we met who proclaimed the airport’s paths as the best place to skate in Zurich.

“It’s flat, there’s no mountains around, and on the east side, there’s a big way that goes four kilometers where no cars are allowed, only military, and they aren’t there on the weekends,’’ Nufer said. He cautioned that while terminal skating is forbidden, security is lenient for those cutting through the landside corridors to get outside or back to the train.

The airport also makes exercise an easy option for passengers with time to spare. At the Information Service Center just opposite the Parking 2 elevators, you can store baggage, rent a bike or in-line skates, and even pay to use the showers (towel and soap included).

We showed up on a Saturday morning, when the supply of 20 eight-speed bikes had yet to be tapped. Annually, we were told, the airport averages 200 bike rentals and more for skates, yet not always by travelers. The attendant helped us adjust our seats and then pointed us down the corridor, to the left and outside past an ice cream vendor. From there, we followed bike path markings on pavement in a counter-clockwise route around airport buildings and construction before finding a trail.

While paths divert to routes to nearby villages, the best way to not get lost is to keep the airfield’s chain-link fence in sight — hardly difficult in the early going with planes landing as close as 200 yards away every three minutes.

We soon passed children on training wheels followed by parents on bikes, butterflies and ducks, and crowds of plane-spotters at observation areas with refreshment stands. We meandered off the path into a residential street, where goats roamed in one yard and tulips bloomed in others. On the homestretch, we chuckled at cows lounging and drinking from an old bathtub in a fenced pasture 100 yards from parked planes.

Susie Woodhams can be reached at

If You Go

Where to stay

Radisson Blu Hotel Zurich Airport

The only hotel directly connected to the airport; weekend night room for two $200.

Day Rooms and Rest Area

In Transfer Zone D, you can rent air-conditioned single, double, or family rooms with single beds and wash basins for three-hour segments to overnight. A single for three hours or less $45; overnight rate (9 a.m. checkout) $78.50. Couch with a blanket in the Rest Area overnight $37.

Where to eat

Angels’ Wine Tower Grill

At the Radisson

Fish, pheasant, steak among options; $12-$30 starters, $26-$100 main course. At the bar “Wine Angels’’ perform acrobatic stunts up and down the glassed-in, 52-foot tower filled with 4,000 wine bottles.

AlpenRock House

Five-minute walk from the airport; pizza, pasta, and barbecue in summer, fondue only in winter. Two courses $18-$40.

What to do

Bike and inline skate rentals

At the Service Information Desk opposite Parking 2 elevators, you need a credit card to rent bikes ($18/4 hours, $32/day) and inline skates ($14/$23). At the same area store luggage (prices vary) and rent shower facilities ($14, including towel, gel, and shampoo). Ask for directions to bike paths.

Airport Fitness

Downstairs from the Radisson. Gym equipment $32/two hours; massage, cosmetic treatments.