Visiting Chur: Switzerland’s Oldest City
January 1, 1970
by Lauren Jones
What is Chur?
The city of Chur is the capital of Switzerland’s easternmost Canton, Graubünden. Chur is celebrated as being the oldest city in Switzerland, with archaeological evidence going back 5000 years. The city is solidly located in the Alpine region, and the mountains that surround it have steep slopes; the upper parts of the mountain face are grey and rocky from being unable to host foliage. Grisons is the only Canton with three official languages (German-Italian-Romansch), but Chur is almost entirely German-speaking, so if you like to be polite and say words like please and thank you in the local language, remember this.
Why Should You Visit?
This small mountain city shows off the beautiful mountainous landscape of Switzerland in a city that has things to do but isn’t overwhelming. While it’s located in a valley like most Swiss cities, the land Chur itself is on is actually pretty even, which makes it much easier to traverse than many other cities in Switzerland, such as, for example, Lausanne, which is completely on a hillside. Despite being the largest city in the Canton, it is still quite small, and you can easily see the highlights within a day or two. In the rest of this article, I will be sharing the experiences of the places I visited during my trip here in October, but also some of the other opportunities that I noticed one could take advantage of.
What Is There To Do?
The Old Town
A vital part of a visit to any notable European city is seeing the old town, and Chur is no exception. There is no vehicle traffic and most of the streets are narrow. The area is only a few blocks large, and the streets curve into each other, so if you’re wandering around, you might get lost (like I did). The old town is the quietest place in the city that still has shops and restaurants; it’s the most worthwhile to stop for lunch here. I personally ate at an Italian restaurant called ‘Da Mamma’. If you’re seated at one of the tables across from the register counter, you can actually see into the kitchen. The door is open, and you can see the women who the restaurant is named after at work. They also sell some pastries and cakes, but I didn’t buy any even though they looked really good. If you don’t want Italian, there are also some casual kebab restaurants and other cuisines to choose from.
Cable Car to Brambrüesch
The cable car has to be the activity that I recommend the most. The Swiss Alps are something to behold, and the different perspective of the city and the other mountains is nothing short of amazing. The gondola station in Chur is a short walk from the old town, barely five minutes away. To get all the way up to Brambrüesch, there’s a middle station called Känzeli that joins the one in Chur to the summit. The first cable uses a standing car that can fit about 16 people, but it only takes about 4 minutes. The second leg has smaller cars, the size you see in amusement parks, that seat up to 4 people. These ones are constantly rotating one after another, so this means if you’re alone, you get a car to yourself, and the 12 minutes up the rest of the mountain is peaceful as Chur shrinks behind you. At the time of my visit, the rate for a round trip was about 25 CHF (and if you have a half-price Swiss public transportation card, it applies to this too, so you pay 12.50 CHF). There are also a couple restaurants at different points along the road the station spits you out on, all boasting the view their terraces have, none of them being too far of a walk. Instead of going up and down on the cable cars, you can also hike or ride mountain bikes on trails along the mountains. In the standing car there were two mothers and their kids with light backpacks and hiking shoes, and two men with mountain bikes, so paying to go up then going down on your own accord is a popular option, and considering how beautiful environment is, it’s not surprising.
Cathedral and Evangelical Church
Like most European cities, Chur has a Church and Cathedral that are open for tourists to visit. Saint Martin’s Church sports one of the cities symbols, the clock tower, and it right on the edge of what is demarcated as the old town. The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption is set a bit further back, and while I said that Chur is for the most part flat, the walk to the Cathedral and it’s surrounding buildings is the exception. There’s a set of stairs that go through an old town gate (somewhat long, but manageable, especially if you’re familiar with how long stairs in Switzerland can go on for) and then a small incline the rest of the way. The Cathedral is proportional to the size of Chur, small and charming. I found the Cathedral here particularly interesting because within there is a mix of the traditional and the modern. The front section is sleek and boxy, and the same style also frames the organ. This is in contrast to the stone that makes up the majority of the building. There are also some remnants of older paintings in sections on the walls.
Rätisches Museum – the Cantonal Museum
Behind St. Martins is a building with a small garden labeled Rätisches Museum black lettering on the front of the building (and Museum Retic on the side); this is a museum for the history museum specifically for the Canton. I personally really enjoy museums, but I can admit they can easily become dry and uninteresting. This, however, was incredibly well curated and surpassed my expectations. The exhibits had a lot of variety, and most notably, there are things you can touch and interact with. For example, one room had a table with headphones reading fairy tales in a couple languages, and in another, there were at desk tables used in an old school you could sit at. Again, as someone who goes into museums quite a bit, I was baffled and unsure what to do, worried that someone would come in and tell me I wasn’t supposed to touch. It’s more friendly to kids in this way which I think is very important. The five floors are split up by theme and cover a large span of years – from ancient times to the recent past; the current special exhibit “il fund” is about archaeology in Graubünden. One negative thing is that it is less accessible to those who don’t speak German, as that’s what all the plaques are in. However, there are complementary books in German, Italian, Romansch, and English, but they don’t follow along with the exhibits exactly. Overall, I would say it’s worth a couple of Francs for the entrance fee.
Shelter for Roman Ruins
In a square building near the gondola station, there are some remains of Roman buildings. The building is a bit out of the way and not terribly well marked. According to the Chur tourism website you can go to the tourist office and put down a returnable deposit to get a key to the site, so you can walk through them in person, but I didn’t check it in person to verify. On the front of the building there are a couple tinted windows, so you can see the ruins if you stand close and look through them, though you can’t really see the couple display cases too well. The foundations of what look to be two building lay inside, but not much else. As an anthropology student, I wish I could recommend this, especially since Chur is apparently the oldest city in Switzerland, but the inaccessibility makes it disappointing.
The Bernina Express is a sightseeing train with one of its end stations in Chur, and its routes have been declared as World Heritage Sites. This is one of the things I did not experience because of time constraints, so I cannot give a personal review, but if you have the time to take a 4+ hour train ride for an impressive view of the Alps, it is probably worth checking into. Its popularity is backed by the fact that there are multiple postcards in every tourist shop with this red train on them.
So Now, Go!
Chur is only an hour and a half train ride from Zurich, so it’s not an inconvenient city in the slightest. There are of course more things to do than the things I did, but I believe this gives a good impression of the possibilities of things you can try in Chur. I hope after reading this you will consider visiting this small Swiss city and its history and beautiful landscape.