Switzerland is famously known for its majestic alpine ranges and major cities like Geneva and Zurich. But in the north, the country is less about epic mountains and more about idyllic small-town life along the scenic river Rhine. Of the many tourist destinations that line the Rhine’s banks, one of the most endearing is the delightful medieval town of Stein am Rhein.
Located in the Schaffhausen canton of Switzerland, the story of Stein am Rhein stretches back 1000 years. As the town’s name suggests, Stein am Rhein is found on the Rhine river (Rhein in German), at the point where the Rhine flows out of Lake Konstanz along the country’s northern border.
Packed with quintessential European charm, Stein am Rhein is simply captivating and is one of the easiest day trips from Zurich. Although underrated, it may well be one of the best places to visit in Switzerland.
A Scenic Day Trip to Stein am Rhein
The Painted Houses of Stein am Rhein
With a visit to Stein am Rhein, travellers have a picture-perfect medieval town in store for them. Masterfully preserved, it’s hard not to feel as if you’ve been brought back to the Middle Ages as you explore.
Along each street, visitors are treated to exquisite, historic half-timbered houses. Many of the houses have grand old bay windows that are miraculously still holding on. Many houses also feature antique signs and guild symbols, adding to the ambiance. These houses alone would make for a charming sight, but as they say, wait there’s more.
On many of the medieval houses, their front façade is decorated with elaborately painted frescos. Walking about, it feels as if you’re in a large, open-air art gallery and treated to one work of art after the next. With so much color and detail, it’s it’s easy to find yourself stopping at each and every house just so you can take it all in.
Certainly, the best example of what Stein am Rhein has to offer is at the main square of Rathausplatz. Although not a huge square, the plaza is lined by some of the town’s most exceptional buildings. Naturally, that includes the Town Hall with the painted murals that wrap around the sides of its exterior.
The Story Behind Stein Am Rhein
Starting life as a small fishing village, Stein am Rhein grew and prospered with the arrival of an abbey in the early 11th century. Centuries of good fortune led to the growth of this small town, not to mention its wealth. It’s easy to see how the town would have burgeoned given its strategic position along the major trade route of the Rhine.
Despite rises and falls in its importance in later years, the medieval look and nature of Stein Am Rhein has managed to survive to this day. That includes weathering bombing by the USA during WWII mind you. Today, the small town is home to just a few thousand people and a moderate number of tourists.
The Old Town Walls
Another enticing feature of the Stein am Rhein Old Town is that it was once encircled by defensive town walls. Interestingly, you can’t really see these walls now as they’ve been morphed into a ring of townhouses. Still, it’s easy to visualise the walls with this curved row of houses in front of you.
For modern visitors, the most obvious remains of the walls though are the two striking town gates at its northern end. One, the Untertor gate, features a clock face on both sides of the gate. Then there’s the Obertor gate, which has an elaborate mural above it.
It’s a little deceptive standing outside the town walls as they mask just how special the town behind them is. But they do show how little the town has grown since its heyday.
Town Museums and the Abbey
Besides its many artfully painted houses, Stein am Rhein has several museums and landmarks to visit.
For starters there’s St. George’s Abbey, around which the town grew. In the early 11th century, the abbey was strategically moved here along the Rhine by Emperor Henry II. While the institution has remained uninterrupted, the abbey was completely rebuilt in the 1400s. Now a museum, visitors shouldn’t miss the decidedly Swiss Renaissance murals found in the abbey’s Banquet Hall.
Other museums in Stein am Rhein include the Lindwurm Museum and the Cribs World Museum. The Lindwurm Museum highlights what family life was like back in 1850 through clothes and furnishings.
Slightly more idiosyncratic is Krippenwelt or the Cribs World Museum, which as its name suggests, focuses on everything related to baby’s cribs. Exhibits range from different cribs from around the globe to the different looks of the nativity scene; you’re bound to learn something new about cribs here.
It’s worth mention that both museums offer a good opportunity to see what the interiors of the houses of Stein am Rhein look like.
It would be a bit silly to visit Stein am Rhein and not see the river in its name. With a river as important as the Rhine flowing right there, you’re going to spend some time by its waterfront. The bridge across the river is naturally a good spot to admire the riverfront from, as is the small ferry terminal. Both treat you to views of the town’s storybook houses along the river’s edge.
There’s also the Sankt Otmar im Werd island monastery just a little upstream of the town. Not only do you get to enjoy the splendidly scenic monastery, but also the river as it flows past either side of you.
Sitting above Stein am Rhein you’ll find Hohenklingen Castle watching over the town. Dating back to 1200, Burg Hohenklingen is now a high-end restaurant and wedding venue. Even if you don’t stop for lunch here, it’s worth heading up to the castle for the views back out over Stein am Rhein. Looking down from above like that really offers some perspective on how small the town is.
Speaking of Swiss food, if the castle restaurant doesn’t appeal to you, you’ll find plenty of lunch options available to you in Stein am Rhein. Right on the main pedestrian street a little along from the Untertor gate lies Salmenstubli that specialises in grilled meat. Several doors down you’ll find La P’tite Creperie, that serves delicious sweet and savoury crepes.
Those looking for a cheap meal may have a harder time, you are in Switzerland after all. One option though is the Imbiss und Take Away zum Tiergarten near the Untertor gate. Here you can enjoy snacks like chips and currywurst without breaking the bank.
Getting to Stein am Rhein
For travellers to Switzerland, visiting Stein am Rhein as a day trip from Zurich may be the best approach. While it requires a couple of simple changes, Stein am Rhein is only a 1 hour 20 minutes train ride from Zurich. That leaves plenty of time for sightseeing around the town before you have to return. Timetables may be found here.
Of course, if you’re travelling by car, the visit is even easier, taking just 45 minutes from the centre of Zurich. This approach also affords you the chance to stop in at a number of other places, including Winterthur, Frauenfeld or Schaffhausen.
Since Stein am Rhein lies by the river, you may be asking is there a river cruise there? The answer is a resounding yes! From the cities of Schaffhausen and Konstanz (in Germany), you can enjoy the sights along the Rhine as you slowly make your way there. Both cruises take roughly 2 hours to reach Stein am Rhein, with timetables found here.
David is an avid traveller from Australia who has spent the last three years exploring as much of Europe as he can. He has a passion for trying to find the lesser-seen, quieter pockets of the world. From hiking in the outdoors to exploring medieval old towns, his travels have taken him to some fascinating places well off the beaten path. You can follow him through his travel blog Travelsewhere, and on Instagram and Facebook.