St. Gallen is the most beautiful city in Switzerland.
Alright, maybe 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 earn its spot on your itinerary. Especially if you’re on a budget.
Here’s my list of 20 free or cheap things to do if you have a day or two in St. Gallen.
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 and as of September 2019, I'm lucky enough to call this place my neighbourhood.
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.
The cathedral is open to the public year round and free to access.
Attached to the cathedral lies the famous Abbey Library. It displays over 170'000 books that are in part hand-written and sometimes over 1'000 years old.
Speaking of old, dusty books...
The library’s astonishing Rococo Hall in itself is worth the trip. Even if you’re not into ancient books, walking through this meticulously designed hall has something soothing and awe-inspiring
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. Laurence Church
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. Laurence Church tower. This church is easy to find as it's just around the corner from the cathedral.
You know, the one with the colourful roof.
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. 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. Hang out at Gallus square
This one has to be one of my favourite squares in St. Gallen. Right next to the Abbey District, Gallus square invites you to take a break, chill out on a bench and watch the city life take its course.
Situated a mere stone's throw from Chocolaterie Kölbener, it's the perfect spot to take in the peaceful surroundings of St. Gallen while munching away on a chocolatey dessert.
4. Take a refreshing dip at Drei Weieren
Most Swiss cities are built near water.
This is why people often hold the fact that St. Gallen doesn’t have access to a river or a lake against the city. But everyone who makes this 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.
Granted. It's not Lake Constance or the River Rhine. But it certainly packs its charm.
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 Drei Weieren were created, they consisted of only three ponds. These served as water reserves to help in case of a city fire and to secure the textile industry’s water supply.
The additional two ponds weren’t established until later, when the name was already set.
Out of these 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 cards, 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 the premises provide extra infrastructure like hot showers and a separate area for women only.
Even if you’re not planning on going for a swim, include the Drei Weieren in your schedule all the same. The view over the city, down to Lake Constance and into Germany never disappoints.
Now, how do you get up there?
You have several options here. Either walk from the city centre or catch bus No. 8 going to St. Georgen and get off at the bus stop called 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 and says Bäderbus in the front.
There is a third option to overcome the altitude between St. Gallen and St. Georgen. Which brings us to…
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5. 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.
6. Check out the city’s very own waterfall
If you decide to skip the ride on the Mühleggbahn, you can tackle the steep trail up Mülenenschlucht instead. The path starts right behind the station and you should reach the top within 10 and 15 minutes.
Depending on your lungs' and calves' capacity.
During the climb through the gorge, you’ll pass a surprisingly impressive 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?
After a few heavy days of rain, this innocent-looking stream can turn into one big fat force of nature. One that's definitely worth stopping by for.
7. Give your legs a free workout
St. Gallen is the city of stairs.
We're looking at over 13.000 steps spread throughout the city here, which gives you plenty of opportunity to conquer the slopes of St. Gallen.
Since the city is nestled into a valley, stairs are the most efficient way to overcome the altitude in a very direct way and reach the living areas on the hillside. Whether you're after a fantastic view over the city or just a pair of sore calves, you're never far from the next set of steps taking you higher.
Or back down if you get lost?
8. Go for a walk
At the risk of repeating myself, I have to point this one out as well.
Due to the unique position of St. Gallen in a valley and its long, narrow shape, you're never far from nature. In case you'd like to get out of the city and stretch your legs on a walk, just follow the steps to the upper parts and you'll be right in the middle of nature.
Here are my two favourites, in case you're looking for inspiration:
- Walk up Mülenenschlucht to St. Georgen, turn right and keep going until you reach the Falkenburg Restaurant. From there, there's a beautiful trail leading through Bernegg Forest. It's my go to place if I'm looking for some peace and quiet – and maybe a couple of cheeky squirrels.
- Walk up Mülenenschlucht to St. Georgen, turn left and pass Drei Weieren. Move on to the monastery in Notkersegg for some snacks at one of the farmers' stalls. They sell their products straight from the farm and if you're looking for some fresh milk, a slice of Swiss cheese, a bowl of berries or a glass of apple juice, you'll be happy here.
9. Walk the trail of bridges
This two-hour walk starts in the western outskirts of St. Gallen and leads along the River Sitter. On the way, you'll be passing a total of 18 bridges, viaducts and boardwalks. This also includes the Sitter-Viaduct, which is Switzerland's tallest railway bridge.
You can find a detailed description of this hike here and if you bring your bathing suit and a picnic, this one will keep you busy for half a day.
All without breaking the bank.
10. Say hi to the marmots at Peter & Paul
In the north eastern part 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.
11. Pick some flowers at the botanical garden – or not
Like Peter & Paul, the botanical gardens can be found in the eastern part of St. Gallen. The gardens are home to over 8.000 native and foreign plants, which make for a great indoor alternative on a rainy day.
And did I mention the gardens are free to get in?
To get there, catch Bus No. 1, direction Stephanshorn, and get off at Naturmuseum.
Speaking of museums…
12. Still your cultural thirst
Truth be told, I’m not into museums.
I used to drive my parents nuts on every... single... family holiday. No exceptions. I’d always act as if they were violating my human rights by forcing me to visit a museum.
It was bad.
But I can’t introduce you to my city without telling you about our museums. After all, you might be more of a cultural fanatic than me and I wouldn't want you to miss out. So here it goes:
- Due to St. Gallen’s rich history in the textile industry, the Textilmuseum is iconic to this region. They have over 56.000 fabric samples in their repertory and every textile lover will cherish this place. Visit this website for more information. Admission is 12 CHF and free if you own a Swiss Travel Pass.
- As the name suggests, the Naturmuseum covers everything related to nature. The museum relocated to the east of the city in 2016 and is now very close to the botanical garden. Maybe a good opportunity to combine some nature with – well – some more nature? Admission is 12 CHF and free if you own a Swiss Travel Pass.
- Art lovers won't want to miss the art museum (Kunstmuseum) in the city centre. Their website gives you more information on current exhibitions. Again, admission is 12 CHF and free if you own a Swiss Travel Pass.
- 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 where I'd let my parents drag me to, this would be it. And that’s saying something, coming from a museum grinch like me.
Right, mum? 🙂
Moving on to a subject that brings up fewer evil childhood memories...
13. Hunt down those bay windows
In terms of bay windows, St. Gallen is second only to Schaffhausen.
A total of 111 bay windows decorate the houses of the city. Once you're on your stroll through St. Gallen, make sure you occasionally look up to marvel at the creatively decorated bay window hanging over your head.
14. ... and the fountains
Now, St. Gallen doesn't have a Trevi Fountain to show for. But that's ok.
We still have our fair share of impressive fountains and with a total of over 100, I'm sure you'll find some that you like.
Even if it's just to refill your water bottle with fresh drinking water.
One of the most popular ones is called Broderbrunnen. You'll find it at the intersection next to the Textile Musem. Or have you seen the jugler outside the Arts Museum yet? And there's one at Gallus Square as well. Just to give you a little headstart.
15. Check out the city wall restaurant
Only a short section of the old city wall is still standing and I'm going to tell you why you should visit it.
Attached to the wall, you'll find one of my favourite restaurants – Restaurant Zeughaus. It serves the best cordon bleu in town and beats many other restaurants in terms of location.
Walking toward it makes you wonder if they forgot to build the other half of the restaurant. Maybe you'll figure this one out while treating yourself to a hearty Swiss lunch?
Speaking of which...
16. Grab a lunch deal
We're going to leave the "free" section for a second here and switch to "cheap" instead. Because everyone has to eat and food isn't really free anywhere, is it?
Except at Mum's... And you're not there now.
Most restaurants offer pretty good lunch deals and if you'd like to eat out on a budget, definitely visit a restaurant during lunchtime instead of dinner. And by "budget" I mean between 12 and 20 CHF, which is quite cheap for this pricey country.
My favourite place, and probably the cheapest one you'll find in town, is called Rice & More. Its menu is simple yet delicious and comes in big portions. Plus it's super cheap. As in 6 CHF to 10 CHF cheap.
And the owner of the place is the friendliest and most entertaining person you can imagine.
Make sure to give her my regards.
17. Relax in the city’s very own living room
Back to "free" an yes, St. Gallen has a city lounge.
In 2005, 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 sqm area which has been completely covered in red plastic granulate.
Apart from a café and a restaurant, you'll find benches, sculptures, trees and fountains placed throughout the lounge. Plus a red Ferrari that kids enjoy to play on. All these opportunities to relax make the city lounge a great spot to take a break from all the museum visits, sightseeing and stair-climbing.
To find this piece of modern art, walk down Vadianstrasse towards the train station and keep looking left. You can’t miss it.
18. Party with the locals
St. Gallen hosts a variety of festivals throughout the year.
Be that Fasnacht (carnival) in February, Buskers Festival in May, New Orleans or Streetfood Festival in June or 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. This is even more crucial now that Covid-19 has caused most events to be cancelled...
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.
19. Borrow a bicycle
For some people, walking around all day just doesn't cut it.
If you're of sort that needs at least two wheels under your behind to get from A to B, head to the train station and follow the signs to "Velostation". They rent out free bicycles you can use for a day to discover the city.
That way, you can expand your radius and maybe see some of the more remote places (and ponds) without having to walk everywhere. But be warned, St. Gallen isn't flat and you might end up working your calves just as you would on those stairs.
20. 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.
Apart from the farmers’ market, there’s also a smaller weekly market taking place 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.
You name it.
21. Read the binary clock
No other piece of art divides the local population like the binary clock at the train station does.
Once they were done renovating the train station of St. Gallen, most people didn't know what to make of the clock that was installed at the main entrance. And I have to admit, as an easy way to figure out how many seconds you have left before you miss your train, it's not much help.
But if you'd like to challenge your brain and let it figure out how to read this thing, it's a fantastic opportunity. I'll let you figure this one out yourself and decide whether or not you love or hate it.
(A little hint: the o's signal the hour, the x's stand for minutes and the squares count the seconds)
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 🙂