St. Gallen is great.
Granted, I’m not objective here because I grew up in the area.
But even if staring up the mighty cathedral doesn‘t conjure up a sense of home in you, St. Gallen still offers plenty of reasons to be put on your itinerary. Especially if you’re on a budget.
Here’s my list of 11 free or cheap things I recommend doing if you have a day or two in the area.
1. Spend some time in the Abbey District
One of my favourite places in St. Gallen is the historical city centre with its Abbey District. It's been on the UNESCO World Heritage list since 1983 for good reason.
Towering in the middle of the precinct, you’ll find the impressive baroque cathedral. It dates back to the 18th century and is probably the most photographed building in town. You can go inside for free all day every day.
Attached to the cathedral lies the famous Abbey Library. It displays over 170'000 books that are in part hand-written and over 1'000 years old. The library’s astonishing Rococo Hall is also definitely worth a visit. Even if you’re not into ancient books.
Admission to the library is free with your Swiss Travel Pass. If not, it’ll be 12 CHF well spent.
2. Tackle 186 steps at St. Laurenzenkirche
Once you’ve taken a good look around the Abbey District, you might feel like observing the whole setting from above. Hands down the best place to do that is the top of St. Laurenzenkirche tower. This church is easy to find as it's just around the corner from the cathedral.
Getting up there is a bit of a mission, though. The tower is only open March through November, Monday through Saturday at 10 am and 3 pm for one hour. So if you fancy snapping some amazing photos of the cathedral and its surroundings from above, plan your day around visiting this 360 degree viewing platform.
Admission is 5 CHF and you pay inside the church.
3. Take a refreshing dip at Drei Weieren
So what people often hold against St. Gallen is the fact that it doesn’t have access to a river or a lake. But everyone who makes that claim clearly hasn’t been to Drei Weieren yet. This idyllic spot right above the city is St. Gallen’s secret weapon in terms of water access and great views.
Drei Weieren, which literally translates to three ponds, is a recreational area with five artificial ponds. And yes, we actually do know how to count.
Originally, when they created Drei Weieren, there were only three ponds. They served as water reserves to help in a fire and to secure the textile industry’s water supply. The other two ponds weren’t established until later, when the name was already set.
Out of the five ponds, only two are suitable for swimming. The Mannenweier (men’s pond) in the west is the largest one and free to use. It comes with lockers, changing rooms, cold open-air showers, toilets, diving platforms and benches to leave your towel while you’re out splashing around.
On a sunny day, the lawn next to the Mannenweiher attracts hordes of people to hang out with their friends, play, study for their next exam, have some ice cream or just work on their tan.
The second place where swimming is allowed is the Frauenweier (women’s pond). It lies two ponds further down from the Mannenweier, right behind the bistro and the Buebenweier (boy’s pond). It costs 5.50 CHF to get in and provides some extra infrastructure like hot showers and a separate area for women only.
If you’re not planning on going for a swim, include the Drei Weieren in your schedule anyway. The view over the city, all the way to Lake Constance and into Germany never disappoint.
Now, how do you get up there?
Either walk from the city centre, catch bus No. 8 that says St. Georgen and get off at Mühlegg. Alternatively, hop on the free shuttle bus going to Dreilinden. This seasonal bus runs every half hour during summer if the weather is good.
Your third option, and the one I recommend, is catching the oldest means of public transport in St. Gallen. Which brings us to…
4. Fetch a ride with the Mühleggbahn
The Mühleggbahn is a 316 m long inclined lift heading up and down Mühleggschlucht, a gorge right behind the Abbey District. Back in 1893, when the Mühleggbahn was established, it was the first means of public transport in town.
The ride between St. Gallen and St. Georgen takes roughly 90 seconds and is part of the local fare zone system. If you don’t already have a zone ticket, you’ll pay 2.40 CHF for a single ride.
From the top, Drei Weieren is only a couple of minutes away by foot.
5. Check out the city’s very own waterfall
As an alternative to catching the Mühleggbahn, you can tackle the steep trail up Mühlenenschlucht instead. The path starts right behind the station and the walk will take between 10 and 15 minutes.
On the way up through the gorge, you’ll pass a pretty cool waterfall to reward you for your struggles. You’ll see it as soon as you reach the footbridge about halfway up.
Who said you had to go far to be in the wilderness?
6. Say hi to the marmots at Peter & Paul wildlife park
In the north east of the city lies the wildlife park Peter & Paul. This free park is home to native animals like deer, chamois, ibex, lynx, feral pigs, marmots and many more. Their website is in German but even if you don't understand what it says, it’ll still give you a general impression of what you can expect.
Since Peter & Paul is located on a hill, it offers great views as well. On a clear day, you can see the Alpstein mountain range in all its beauty.
The easiest way to get to Peter & Paul is by bus No. 5, direction Rotmonten or No 9, direction Schuppis Nord. Get off at St. Gallen, Sonne and follow the signs that say Wildpark.
7. Pick some flowers at the botanical garden – or not
Also in the east of the city lies the botanical garden. It's home to hundreds of native and foreign plants and makes for a great alternative on a rainy day. Oh, and it's free to get in.
To get there, catch Bus No. 1, direction Stephanshorn, and get off at Naturmuseum.
Speaking of museums…
8. Still your cultural thirst
Truth be told, I’m not into museums. At all. Zero. Zilch…
I used to drive my parents nuts on every family holiday. No exceptions. I’d always act as if they were violating my human rights by forcing me into a museum.
It was bad.
But I can’t introduce you to my city without telling you about our museums, can I? So here it goes.
- Due to St. Gallen’s long textile history, the Textilmuseum is iconic to the city. Visit their website for more information. Admission is free with your Swiss Travel Pass or 12 CHF without.
- As the name suggests, the Naturmuseum covers everything related to nature. The museum recently moved out to the east of the city and is very close to the botanical garden. Admission is free with your Swiss Travel Pass or 12 CHF without.
- Art lovers will love the art museum (Kunstmuseum) in the city centre. Their website will give you more information on current exhibitions. Again, admission is free with your Swiss Travel Pass or 12 CHF without.
- Another museum your Swiss Travel Pass includes is the historical and ethnological museum (Historisches und Völkerkundemuseum). It sits right next to the art museum and costs 12 CHF for non pass holders.
- Last but not least, I’d like to mention the Abbey Library (Stiftsbibliothek) again. If I had to choose one, this would be it. And that’s saying something, coming from a museum grinch like me.
Right, mum? 🙂
Moving on to a subject that’s more to my taste…
9. Chill out in the city’s very own living room
Yes, St. Gallen has a city lounge.
In 2005, the Raiffeisen bank had two artists redesign the area around their building to give the quarter a new identity. The result is now known as the city lounge or the red carpet of St. Gallen. It‘s a 4.600 square metre area that‘s completely covered with red plastic granulate.
Apart from a café and a restaurant, there are benches, sculptures, trees and fountains placed throughout the lounge. All these opportunities to relax make the city lounge a great spot to take a break from all the museum visits and sightseeing.
To find this piece of modern art, walk along Metzgergasse towards the train station and keep looking left. You can’t miss it.
10. Party with the locals at a festival
St. Gallen hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year.
Be that Fasnacht (carnival) in February, the Buskers Festival in May, the New Orleans or the Streetfood Festival in June or the St. Gallerfest in August. There‘s always lots of food, drinks and entertainment involved.
To stay on top of what’s happening, download the Swiss Events app.
At this point, I’d also like to mention the Open Air St. Gallen. It‘s neither free nor cheap. But it’s huge, popular and thousands of people flock in from all over the country each year to be part of this four day festival and listen to various concerts.
For more information, visit the OASG website.
11. Rummage through the weekly markets
Lastly, let’s talk markets.
Every Saturday from May through November, the farmers’ market turns Marktplatz (market square) into a haven for food lovers. You’ll find everything from fruit and veg, bread and cheese, Italian Olives and German woodstove bread to exotic dried fruit. And lots more.
Apart from the farmers’ market, there’s also a smaller weekly market happening all year round on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
In addition, St. Gallen hosts two seasonal markets. One in spring (April) and one in autumn (October). Those markets last over a week and are combined with a funfair.
At those to annual markets, you can buy almost everything. Gummy bears, gingerbread hearts, gloves, shoe polish, household equipment, backpacks, clothes, Magenbrot (#1 in this post), beer, sausages. The list goes on.
One last thing...
If all this information hasn't given you enough ideas yet, I recommend checking out the "Wohin" guide. I went to school with the person behind this site and I think it’s a fantastic resource for everyone spending time in St. Gallen. Visitors and locals.
You’ll recognise some of the points from this post but there are loads of additional tips, too. Especially in terms of eating, drinking and partying.
Enjoy my city. I hope you‘ll like it 🙂
Update 21st April 2019:
If you head to the train station and follow the signs to the "Velostation", you can borrow a free bike to discover the city.
BOOK YOUR BED HERE...