9 Things to Do in St. Gallen—Switzerland’s UNESCO Gem

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Have you heard of St. Gallen, Switzerland? I know I hadn’t before I was invited there by a lovely woman I met on a tour to Morocco several years ago. I thought it would be fun to meet up with her again, and of course, I’d love to spend the day touring the area!

If you’re in Switzerland and have the opportunity to go, it’s well worth a day trip. St. Gallen is a small city with a stunning and slightly quirky city center worth wandering a bit. The true gem of this city is the Abbey of St. Gall.

This UNESCO World Heritage Site is pure magic, featuring a stunning cathedral and the incredible Abbey Library. The monastery began in 719 AD in honor of Saint Gall. It was originally an independent principality, and the city of St. Gallen grew around it.

The foundation story of this city and the abbey was that a priest got attacked by bears and found a place to hide. He lived and dedicated himself to building the abbey here, the Abbey of Saint Gall. If you see images of a priest with a bear, it’s a dedication to him.

This small city of around 75,000 also has some fun architectural highlights worth seeing. It’s a great day trip from Zurich, and you can get there in around an hour by train, passing through some beautiful countryside.

main building in one of the squares of st gallen. st. gallen switzerland, st gallen things to d, day trips, tours

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1. Wander Around Red Square (Stadtlounge)

Artist Pipilotti Rist designed Red Square in an area of the corporate center of St. Gallen. It’s filled with offices and shops, and the streets and sidewalks are covered with a red rubber granulate. It’s a quirky and fun “city lounge” according to the artist, and the first public lounge in Switzerland.

There are seating areas including sofas, chairs, and tables to take in the views and people watch. There’s even a car—a porsche, covered in the red carpet. Why? Perhaps a touch of whimsy.

You’ll also see an interesting-looking Synagogue of St. Gallen here with no sign that it’s an actual synagogue.

2. Tour the Old Town & Grab a Sweet Treat

The Old Town of St. Gallen is quaint and beautiful, with a traditional Swiss look. This area is specifically known for the metal signs and large wood-framed bay windows.

Wander around and enjoy the architecture, interesting designs, and signs as you meander through the area. Be sure to grab an ice cream as you do, made fresh from the local cows’ milk. Chocolaterie Kölbener was incredible!

If you want a walking tour of the old town, check this one out. They also have private day tours from Zurich!

3. Get Fresh Water from One of the Fountains

Another feature of St. Gallen’s old town is the many beautiful water fountains. They offer fresh drinking water, so top off your bottle when you see one.

fresh water fountain in st gallen, ststue of a saint holding s cross

4. Admire the Architecture

Though most of the city is filled with beautifully traditional Swiss architecture, there are some structures with a little bit more whimsy. This building across the drive from the prison is interesting, and there are others.

There’s another interesting building adorned with carved heads representing each continent. It’s an appealing structure, though when we went up close to check it out, our local friends told us that it’s a bit “socially inappropriate.”

traditional swiss architecture building downtown

5. Check out the Police Station

This may seem a strange place to visit, but since you’ll be in the area, it’s worth taking a look. The interesting-looking building shared above has a small stone called the Freiheit stone. Freiheit means freedom in German.

The building is across the street from the prison. In 1587, some prisoners escaped and touched the stone to gain their freedom. Or at least, that’s how the story goes!

Next to the prison, you’ll see an entrance that flips up when there’s a show at the Pfalzkeller Concert Hall. It goes back down when it’s not in use.

outside of the police station in st gallen, what to do in st gallen, st gallen switzerland

6. Visit the Incredible Abbey Church—the Abbey Cathedral of St. Gall

As someone who loves historic architecture, I’m quite obsessed by churches. I’m sure I’ve said this a lot, and in this case, I truly mean it: this is one of the most incredibly beautiful churches I’ve ever seen!

The original structure burned down in a fire and was rebuilt. However, its current splendor dates to the middle of the 18th century. The outside is a bit understated, and the inside is an incredibly ornate Baroque style.

There’s an interesting color scheme of turquoise and brown that is rarely seen. Everywhere you look, you will find something incredible, including frescoes, sculptures, and ornate stuccowork.

7. Wander Around the Stunning Abbey Library

Though the cathedral is gorgeous and worth visiting, the creme de la creme is the abbey library. This is a must-see when you visit St. Gallen, and it’s the attraction that draws people from near and far.

It’s the oldest library in Switzerland and the third oldest in the world. The Abbey Library carries some of the oldest books and manuscripts in the world.

Don a pair of slippers to keep the fir wood floors pristine, and dig right in! The library itself is gorgeous, so take your time exploring. And the contents are equally worth your time when you visit.

The library was constructed around the same time as the abbey cathedral, and it was the only original structure that wasn’t lost to the fire and rebuilt. It’s done in the Rococo style and features rich wood, frescoes, and paintings decorated by Peter Thumb of the Voralberg School.

The library is filled with many treasures, including over 160,000 books. Some date back to the 8th century and earlier, including manuscripts, books, prints, and more. You’ll find several illuminated manuscripts featured in glass cases.

Some other incredible exhibits in the library include a 2,700-year-old Egyptian mummy, Shepenese. She was the daughter of a priest and has been at the library since 1820. There is also a copy of an earth and celestial globe dating back to the 16th century, as the original was stolen several hundred years ago. It’s exquisite and really interesting to view.

8. Don’t Miss the Abbey Library Lapidarium

This cellar museum under the library was excavated in the 1960s, exposing some of the original masonwork. It’s now a treasure trove of artifacts from the site’s Early Medieval origins.

You’ll find information about the history of the area and the site, as well as the life of St. Gallus, the abbey’s patron. As you wander the halls, you’ll learn more about the history of the monastery and can see a 3-D blueprint replica of the structures on the grounds.

9. Climb Drei Weieren Hill

You’ll get your heart racing heading up this hill. Or take the funicular and hike the rest of the way. It’s worth heading up for gorgeous views of the city and Lake Constance in the distance.

Three small lakes are natural swimming spots the locals flock to in the summer. Some have bathroom facilities. If it’s a hot day, go for a swim!

Dreilinden Restaurant is a great spot for a local traditional meal if you’ve worked up an appetite. We tried St. Gallen Olma bratwurst with rösti potatoes. It’s usually eaten with mustard, but not in St. Gallen.

We also came across a small market for a local farm that sells its items in vending machines. This included meats and cheeses!

If you continue on the hill path, you’ll come across the Notkersegg Cloister, an active cloister of Benedictine nuns.

Should You Get the Zürich Card?

When traveling to Zurich and the surrounding regions, many people like to get the Zurich card. With the card, you get tons of discounts on attractions and even free admission to some places.

If you’re traveling as a family, you can save quite a bit of money which can give you more cash to spend on other things like nice food or visiting other cities.

How to Get to St. Gallen

The easiest way to get to St. Gallen is by taking a train from the central train station in Zurich. It only takes about an hour and is a really beautiful journey.

Trains run on time, and they are clean and neat. The countryside between Zurich and St. Gallen is beautiful, and it’s a lovely train ride heading to St. Gallen and Lake Constance.

red square with buildings on all sides, st gallen weather, things to do in st gallen

How to Get Around St. Gallen

You can easily get around St. Gallen with the extensive bus and train networks. Most routes have a frequent timetable so you’re never waiting for too long.

In Switzerland, the buses and trains are always on time. Make sure to keep track of the timetables and try to get there before the scheduled departure!

In certain parts, such as the downtown area, you can walk and bike around.

When to Visit St. Gallen

St. Gallen weather is pretty predictable, so you can plan your vacation when the weather is not too cold and not rainy. Most people like to visit from June to September because the months have really mild weather.

However, St. Gallen and the surrounding regions have a lot to do in the winter. Some people prefer to visit in the colder months if they plan to ski or do other winter activities.

me and my friend sam smiling for a photo with the hills and country in the back

Sam and… Sam!

Best Hotels in St. Gallen, Switzerland

While overnighting in St. Gallen, make sure to book one of these amazing hotels!

Budget—B&B Hotel St. Gallen: Just a 5 minute walk from the train station, this hotel is bright and colorful. They offer basic rooms and family rooms which can sleep a family up to 4. They have a bar on site that offer free snacks and happy hour deals.

Mid-range—Tailormade Hotel LEO St. Gallen: This hotel is closely located to many different attractions like the Abbey Library and the St. Gallen Museum of Art. Some of the rooms also have kitchenettes.

Luxury—Einstein St. Gallen: For one of the best hotels in St. Gallen with plenty of luxury, make sure to book a room in this stunning hotel. The rooms are extremely elegant with marble bathrooms, Nespresso machines, and cherry wood tables and desks. They have a bar, restaurant, and cigar lounge on site.

Best Restaurants in St. Gallen

Not sure where to eat? Add some of these restaurants to your itinerary for the best food in St. Gallen.

  • Dreilinden Restaurant on Drei Weiern Hill is a great spot for a local traditional meal. We tried St. Gallen Olma bratwurst with rösti potatoes, a local traditional meal. It’s usually eaten with mustard, but not in St. Gallen.
  • Candela is a great upscale restaurant perfect for a date night or just a fancy night out in the town. You definitely need a reservation as they get super busy and you don’t want to waste time waiting for a table. The cocktail menu is extensive and has some really unique choices.
  • Al Capone is perfect for a quick stop if you want some burgers and pizza. They also have vegetarian options and a really nice outdoor area for seating.
  • La Vigna is one of the best Italian restaurants in town. They have all the best traditional Italian dishes as well as Italian wines and fresh bread.
  • Brasserie LOK is one of the best places to come if you want a casual lunch while you work. They have high-speed WIFI and amazing cocktails. They also have a nice outdoor area where you can sit if the weather is warm.
bratwurst with rosti potatoes, restaurant st gallen

Bratwurst and roshti at Dreilinden Restaurant

What to Do in St. Gallen in a Day

All of the activities and places listed in this post can easily be done in one day. My friend and I took the train for a day trip from Zurich to St. Gallen, and this was the itinerary my local friend set for us.

It tours you through some of the best things to see and do in this charming town and UNESCO site.

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