Located on the Swiss plateau, in the Valley of the Aare, on the river’s right bank, and at the southern foot of the Jura Mountains, the German-speaking Aarau – a town, a municipality, and the capital of the northern Swiss canton of Aargau as well as the capital of the district of Aarau – is a wonderful old city, that despite its size and current population, doesn’t get lost in a large string of unique Swiss cities, having colored more than a few pages of Switzerland’s rich history, while playing an important role in the county’s development and becoming home for a more than a few outstanding personalities.
In fact, Aarau, being situated to the west of Zürich and 65 kilometers (40 mi) northeast of Bern, while bordering directly on the canton of Solothurn to the west, left bright and colorful traces on quite a number of other surfaces aside from adding bright and colorful strokes to the historic canvas of Switzerland. And those are the great gables that this city is so famed for. But, if you think that is all there is to see here, don’t get deceived.
We bet you didn’t know that Aarau is the city where the most beautiful racecourse of Switzerland is located, that Aarau, although for a brief time, was declared the seat of the first Helvetic government, and that you even get a chance to go into the city’s amazing underground system of passageways, spaces and shafts? If not, join us and see what else is to this city!
Interesting things and facts about Aarau
The name of the city is derived from the Aare River
1248 is known to be the first time when the name was used. Before the city was founded the name is likely to have been referred to the settlement in the area. Along with the river name, it comes from the German Au, which means floodplain.
Aarau was the first Swiss city where a non-parochial high school was opened
The Canton School has been operating since1802. A good reputation was established soon after the foundation, and the school provided education to such Nobel Prize winners as Paul Karrer, Albert Einstein, and Werner Arber, and several Swiss politicians and authors among others. Different architectural jewels, including the Tuchschmidhaus that represents the language of shapes of the German Renaissance, are gathered together in this school. Between 1914 and 1916 it was supplemented by a neo-classical wing and an observatory.
Aarau was the seat of the first Helvetic government
March 22, 1798 the Helvetic Republic declared Aarau its capital. This made it the first capital of a unified Switzerland. The city hall was used for the Parliament meetings. However, on September 20, Lucerne was made the capital.
And the Forum Schlossplatz is the first Federal Parliament building of Switzerland. More so, it is a cultural institution that allows various categories to enter into a dialogue with each other. There are three or four thematic exhibitions each year on cultural issues of the present, future and past, accompanied by events and guided tours.
Aarau is slowly overcoming a drastic drop of population
Aarau has a population (as of 31 December 2016) of 21,036 citizens, but almost 20% (19.8% to be precise) of the population is made up of foreign nationals, according to the data as of 2008. Despite all the perks this territory offers, it is quite shocking that over the last 10 years the population has grown at a rate of only 1%! The land, where the capital is located is wonderful, and so is the city itself, but why is it so sparsely populated, especially considering the part of the Swiss nationals?
Between 1800 and 1960 the population of Aarau continuously increased, reaching its peak of 17,045 people, which was more than five times the city population in 1800. However, the population has fallen by 8% since 1960. One of the reasons for the population loss could be that the city has not had any considerable land developments since the last apartment complex Telli was completed.
On the arrival of the 21st century, the downward trend might have stopped since the existing industrial developments are now being utilized for new purposes rather than standing empty. Nowadays the local government does its best to make this city prosperous and enjoyable for living. The efforts give the fruition; the number of the capital’s inhabitants is slowly rising.
Although the official language of Aarau is German, the most commonly spoken language is the local variant of the Alemannic Swiss German dialect, as in other parts of German-speaking Switzerland. The majority of the citizens speak German. Other languages such as Italian (3.3%) and Serbo-Croatian (2.9%) make up the minority.
How to get to Aarau?
The international airports of Zurich, Basel and Geneva are not far from Aarau. They are easily accessible by direct express trains, as Aarau is ideally connected to the Swiss railway network and the international airports in Zurich, Basel and Geneva. The journey from Zurich and Basel takes about 30 minutes, from Bern 40 minutes.
Zurich International Airport is the closest international airport to Aarau. From Zurich to Aarau, trains run at least once every half an hour with departure at 00, 04, 06, 08 and 38 minutes every hour. If the train stops in Aarau, it is usually written on the scoreboard. The travel time is a little more than 20 minutes (about 42 minutes by train S3).
In 2010 the new station in Aarau was inaugurated, which is five minutes from the center. There are direct express train connections to Zurich, Berne, Basel, Biel / Bienne and even to Lausanne and St. Gallen. There is also a large schedule for regional trains. The express trains run mostly half-hourly, some local trains only hourly.
In addition, Aarau has an excellent city bus network, which is marketed under the name AAR. These buses run some in the eight-minute intervals, others only hourly, but usually in a quarter-hour or half-hour intervals. Also, two Post buses run to Frick, one of which continues to Laufenburg. Exact timetables are available at SBB.
It is fairly easy to get to the Aargau canton capital by car, as a dense network of well-developed national and main roads connects Aarau with all the major centers in Switzerland and with the neighboring countries. From the A1 motorway, take the Aarau West exits coming from Bern or Aarau Ost coming from Zurich. The journey from Bern, Basel and Zurich takes an hour and less.
How to get around?
The visitors and inhabitants of Aarau enjoy an exceptionally high level of mobility – regional, national and even international, whether by public transport, by car, by bike or on foot.
The best way to get around in Aarau is on foot. Longer distances can be covered with city buses. The well-developed, reliable network of AAR bus + railway runs from Barmelweid, Erlinsbach, Küttigen via Aarau to Gretzenbach, Buchs, Menziken and Schöftland. Tickets can be bought at the train station, ticket machines or inside the bus. It is important to note that if you take the Postauto from Aarau to Frick or Laufenburg, you cannot get off directly in the city area, but you can get there very easy.
If you are travelling by car, many car parks and public parking are available around the city; thanks to the parking guidance system, the car drivers can find free parking spaces without long searching. The city center and the traffic-calmed Old Town are within walking distance. The parking card offers the possibility to park in cash and without a ticket.
Where to stay and grab a bite?
Various accommodation options are available in Aarau from hotels, inns, hostels and campsites to renting an apartment from locals.
Actually, you should take this option into serious consideration, as private accommodation is not only a good-value alternative to hotels: it also offers an excellent insight into local life. Moreover, the options of such available rentals range from staying in a luxury home with private swimming pool to camping in a back garden.
Now, where to wine and dine. First of all, being in Aarau, it would be a huge loss to miss the expertly cooked traditional Swiss dishes. For example, the Restaurant Laterne is one of a few of the local establishments where traditional Swiss cuisine dominates the menu. They serve excellent meals, and in addition to that, this attractive venue has a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere that guarantees a relaxed and enjoyable evening. At the weekend, this pleasant rendezvous in the heart of Aarau’s Old Town serves all kinds of variations on the theme of Rösti.
Aside from that, don’t miss a chance to feel like a queen at Brändli’s, having ordered the same course and deserts. Yes, even the Queen could not resist the legendary “Brändli-Bomben”, mouth-watering chocolates coated with marzipan and pieces of almond. To make the trip even better, pay a visit to the cafe above the confectionery shop with the delightfully old-fashioned ambience and indulge yourself in locally-made sweets.
Or you may relate to Albert Einstein at the eponymous café. Located in the AZ Media building, the Einstein has been Aarau’s top rendezvous since it opened. Locals come for business lunches, casual meals at the long “kitchen table” and evening drinks – complete with a view into the studios of the local radio station (guided tours are available here as well).
If you’re not a fan of fab places, buzzing with people, you may enjoy the relaxed atmosphere of Restaurant Mürset Aarau-style. When the sun shines, the charming Weinstube opens up to become a summer lounge, while the Brasserie serves a variety of delicious French bistro-style dishes.
Shopping in Aarau
There are two big shopping centers in Aarau, the Tellizentrum and the shopping center Gais behind the train station. But if you want to go shopping in Aarau, it’s better to go to the “Igelweid”. There are a lot of stores that are just next to each other. Everything is available here: clothes, food, shoes, decor, household items, etc. The “Igelweid” is located between the (upper) Bahnhofstrasse and the Old Town. In the Old Town, you can find smaller shops from small fashion shops, to music shops and the Reform House. Since the station is newly built, so there are also some shops where you can buy the most necessary things.
Besides, Aarau is known for its markets, especially fruit and vegetable ones. The Aarau markets with their fresh and regional offerings enjoy a long tradition and are popular with locals and guests alike. Every Saturday there is a vegetable market in the Graben on the outskirts of the Old City.
All the products are supplied from the regional farms. There are large vegetable markets on Saturdays from 7-12 between Igelweid and the Old Town.
If you like to dig in various old and vintage things, head to the Flohmärkte (Flea market), which is always set up at the Färberplatz and the adjacent streets in the Old Town. What’s more, during the last week of September the MAG takes place in the city, where regional companies offer their products as well. On the first Wednesday of November, you can visit a Carrot fair called The “Rüeblimärt”. Also, don’t miss out on the chance to visit the Aarau fair, which is held throughout spring. The most interesting things you can buy there are chocolate formed like Swiss army knives (Mercury), which would be really great presents for just about anyone.
What is the weather like in Aarau?
Aarau lies in the temperate climate zone. However, the area is subjected to the winds (from the east or the north-east), which are usually associated with high-pressure conditions and cause the weather to be considerably cooler than would be expected on average during all seasons.
The average temperature in the region is 9.7 ° C. January is the coldest month (0.7 ° C), while July makes the warmest month with 19.2 ° C. June and July are the wettest months, while February is the driest one.
What to see and do in Aarau?
Take a walk through the historic Old Town and get acquainted with the new one!
Situated at a narrowing of the Aare river valley, on the southern part of the Jura Mountains, the magnificent Old Town of Aarau has plenty of interesting sites which attract many tourists. Küttigen is the neighboring municipality lying to the north, Suhr spreads to the south-east, Unterentfelden lies on the south, Rohr and Buchs are on the east side, and Eppenberg-Wöschnau and Erlinsbach are located on the west. The nearby municipalities along with Aarau have formed one interconnected agglomeration. Unterentfelden, however, is separated from Aarau by the vast forests of Gönhard and Zelgli. The city is not like any other small town: you can see the impressive architecture of various time periods gathered in a tiny space.
On the way to the picturesque old town streets, you should always take a look at the top – a unique feature of more than 70 richly painted roofs of the Old Town houses. And then you will discover why Aarau bears the name of the “City of the Beautiful Gables”. Taking turns at visiting various sites and museums, you may also find many shops and restaurants to buy a few souvenirs or enjoy an expertly cooked meal.
In addition to the nickname mentioned above, the whole city of Aarau was awarded the Wakkerpreis 2014 for the exemplary implementation of quality compaction in the right place, while preserving the identity of the different city districts. The city, indeed, has an intricate layout and the new buildings are not only very well strategically located, but also complement the old city’s architecture and character.
Discover the underground world of Aarau!
For over two centuries, an incredible network of chambers, tunnels and shafts was constructed under the city to harness hydropower. Now you can walk the tunnels on a guided tour and explore the world underneath the city. Rest assured, this experience is entirely unique and unforgettable. After all, not many Swiss cities can boast of such an extended network of underground tunnels that are open to the public. Just make sure you won’t get lost in the endless maze.
Take a look at the Stadtkirche and its gorgeous painted windows!
The late-Gothic building in Aarau’s Old Town is a three-aisled basilica that is classified as a cultural property of national importance.
In 1471 to 1477 the present church was built instead of a smaller predecessor building. The stones mostly come from the broken castle of Obergösgen and were brought to the Aare.
Gisel, the master craftsman, took over the scheme of the monastery church of Königsfelden for the new building. After the Reformation in 1528, the twelve altars were removed and the images burned. In 1965/66, the Gotteshaus was restored in original simplicity and placed under monument protection.
The Aarau’s Stadtkirche is famous for its windows with glass paintings. The six windows in the choir are by the artist Felix Hoffmann. He created three windows from 1940 to 1943, but they were not used until 1948. Three more windows followed in 1953. In the sense of a Biblia pauperum, the six windows represent different Biblical scenes from the Old and New Testament and the windows on the southern wall of the choir are decorated in light colors. In 1968 to 1970, the artist Roland Guignard created eight additional windows in the side aisle, which as a cycle represent the father in the form of non-representational compositions.
Check the time at the magnificent Obertorturm!
The geared clock from 1532 can be admired on the 9th floor to this day, and in the attic there is a carillon (“Glockenspiel”). The Upper Tower can be freely visited by the public. Information on guided tours is available from the tourist office “Aarau Info”, if you want to learn some additional information.
Explore the area while hiking and biking!
The charming old town invites you to take a walk, but also the surroundings of the city have a lot to offer for pedestrians. Aarau is a popular starting point for beautiful walks in the surrounding area, thanks to the nearby hilly landscape of the Jurasudfuss. Well-signposted hiking trails lead towards Staffelegg or Suhr along the way to Suhr and Entfelden. Brochures with suggestions for hiking are available at the Info Tourism Office Aarau.
Aarau is also an ideal starting point for shorter cycling trips in the region or for larger tours. On the Aare Island there are three major national bicycle routes: the north-south route from Basel to Chiasso, the Mittelland route from Romanshorn to Lausanne and, of course, the Aare route, which extends from Meiringen to Koblenz.
Enjoy the miraculous atmosphere of the fascinating holiday of Bachfischet!
The Bachfischet takes place on the second Friday in September before the autumn holidays. Hundreds of Aarau’s schoolchildren go through the city with their artfully drawn lanterns and call out such verses: “Fürio de Bach brönnt, d Suhrer händ ne aazöndt, d Aarauer händ ne glösche, d Chüttiger, d Chüttiger riite uf de Frösche!” that can be translated as “Furio de Bach, the owner of the house, the owner of the castle, the chattering, the chattering of the frogs!”
The Bachfischet goes back to a medieval custom, when it was customary to shut down the city stream with a barrier, in order to thoroughly clean the stream bed. The school youth took the Stadtbach, which was in need of life, afterwards, with great joy.
The event presents a changing art exhibition full of light and sound and offers the viewer a total fascinating impression of innovation and tradition with the total darkening of the old town lanes and the approximately 1700 luminous lanterns. Afterwards, as always, fireworks enchant the Aarau sky which is a great ending to this beautiful holiday.
The Bachfischet reminds a little bit of those traditional holidays in Japan and China, when the cities get drown in thousands of bright lanterns, each one with a particular wish. The Asian believe that all those wishes always come true, as the lanterns reaching the sky are considered something heavenly, a connection with gods. The Aarau lanterns do not sail up into the skies, but the atmosphere in no less heavenly. Each year the festival is dedicated to some particular theme, and so are the lanterns, some of which are really huge. So, if you’re in Aarau at the time of the Bachfischet, don’t miss it! Though, in the end, you’ll inevitably be drawn by the numerous colorful lanterns that will decorate the trees and streets of the city, as well as pulled in by fascinating parades going on all around it.
Take part in the most important holiday in Aarau – the Maienzug!
The Maienzug takes place on the first Friday in July, but begins with the so-called eve.
Highlights include the parade of the school youth through the Old Town and the big banquet on the Maienzugplatz. The whole of Aarau’s Old Town is transformed into a large festival ground, where thousands of people celebrate the start of summer holidays.
The Maienzug is actually a children’s and youth festival, but Aarau and the surrounding area is always looking forward to the festival. For more than 400 years this custom has been celebrated and to this day the Maienzug has lost nothing of its magical attraction.
In the morning the parade takes place and at noon young and old meet for the big banquet with over 3’000 persons. It’s always a wonderful day for the citizens of Aarau and many foreigners from near and afar.
Go to the horse races and see the most beautiful horseracing turf in Switzerland!
An equestrian facility that is probably unique in Switzerland, it was built under the direction of the Aarau architect Andreas Marti. It is a simple rectangular cube, 82 by 33 meters wide and a good 9 metres high. Agree that these are impressive dimensions for an indoor riding arena. The hall is located in the Aarau Schachen in the immediate vicinity of the most beautiful horseracing turf in Switzerland.
It is certainly true that Schachen has hosted race meetings since 1921. The country’s first permanent turf course was established here in 1947 and has drawn crowds of fans ever since. Today, races are held on four Sundays during the year. Highlights include the traditional steeplechase for the Grand Prix of Switzerland and the Trotting Championship.
The races are always thrilling to watch. Besides, if you are a venturesome person, you may try your luck at gambling.
Visit Aargau’s Lenzburg and its magnificent castle!
Being the city’s main landmark and most popular attraction, the castle was founded in the 12th century: a palace and a residential tower were built. After the death of the Count of Lenzburg in 1173, he became the property of the German Kaiser Frederick I Barbarossa.
In the 13th century, as a feudal estate, the castle was passed to the Habsburgs, whose family house is a few kilometers from the castle. The Habsburgs extended the watch-keeping system to the grounds of the lodge and the knight’s house and completed the fortifications around the hill.
Since 1415, when the Bernese troops captured the territory of the canton of Aargau, the city governor began to live here. That’s why a part of the buildings in the Bernese style (Stapferhaus) has been preserved. Other buildings of that period, such as Pfisterei (bakery), laundry, storage and security building did not survive, unfortunately. During the period of 1978-86 the castle was completely restored and converted into a museum.
You should really set aside a couple of hours to visit the castle along with the museum, as it is one of the best places where you can not only get interested in history, but feel through and enjoy the atmosphere of the past centuries. Actually, thanks to this museum and its unique atmosphere, the castle of Lenzburg can be ranked among the five best castles in Switzerland.
Take a photo in front of the Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen!
The Justice Fountain in Aarau stands on the square in front of the city church. It was created in 1643 by the sculptor Heinz Henz and painted by Balthasar Fisch. Originally, the fountain was a little further east at the intersection of Rathausgasse and Kronengasse / Kirchgasse. Because of the increasing traffic, however, it had to be moved to its current location in 1905. The fountain figure on the square is a copy; the original is kept in the Stadtmuseum Schlössli.
Travel back through the history of Aarau at the Schlössli!
This city museum is located in the oldest building in Aarau and contains an exhibition dedicated to the history of Aarau, closely connected with the political, economic and cultural life of the city. Currently, the museum has collected a collection of more than 100,000 items illustrating life in the 16-20 centuries. The collection on the top floor of the tower is dedicated to the international significance of the history of technology. Exhibitions reflect industrial development, including optical and astronomical instruments, camera lenses, brochures, plans, blueprints of buildings and numerous books. The museum also holds various temporary exhibitions. This is a really versatile museum, and each one will find a corner worth of his attention.
Visit the Kunsthaus – one of the most important museums for new Swiss art!
Moreover, since its extension by the leading architects Herzog & de Meuron, it has also been one of the most impressive architecturally. Aside from lots of spectacular exhibits, in the spectacular entrance area, you can find a café that offers market-fresh lunches at moderate prices.
Face various living and pre-historic creatures at the Naturama!
Without a doubt, you and your kids will have the time of your life at this museum. This thrilling journey, which takes you through indigenous wilderness, will unveil the enthralling world of the dinosaur and the mammoth, offer encounters with live animals and let the bravest peek into the future. At the Naturama you can also have a snack at the museum café, visit their resource center for more information and buy a souvenir in the shop. Special exhibitions on current issues are regularly shown as well and are well worth inspecting.
Drop by the beautiful fairy-tale-like Obermühle that is a… McDonald’s!
The Obermühle or Alte Mühle is a 17th century former mill building on Bahnhofstrasse 5/7. You won’t mistake it for another, as with its decorative polygonal staircase, the building looks almost like a small castle. The top of the three floors was erected in 1694 and renewed in 1964 by Hans Jakob Gysi.
The mill is built in the Late Gothic style of a burgher house with a saddle roof. The roof has slightly kinked surfaces and a high headboard. On the eastern long side of the three-storey oblong cube is a protruding polygonal staircase (“Schneggen“) under an angular pointed helmet. The rooftops and the carved benches display baroque accents. Since the reconstruction of 1893, the round arched gates on the east and south side are missing on the ground floor and the exterior floor level is now lowered. The sculpted carved branches of the south side are volute-shaped with leaf masks. On these are the coat of arms and the initials of Hans Jakob Gysi and his wife Barbara Stapfer.
The building was built in 1608 as a grain mill. The mill was formerly free on all sides and allowed a great view of the western part of the Old Street (today: Bahnhofstrasse). The building has a symbolic role, as it represents the connection of the Old Town with the newer, larger Aarau.
It is interesting that at the beginning of the 1990s, the planning application of an American fast food chain, which wanted to renovate the building and use it as a restaurant, caused great indignation and various objections from the Aarau’s population. Finally, however, the city council gave the building permit and since 1995 a new McDonald’s restaurant is located in the Obermühle.
However, the attractions don’t end with just the Old Mill. Next to the building, a passage leads from Bahnhofstrasse to the Hintere Vorstadt. In this area there is a colored graffito by Felix Hoffmann with the “Bachfischet” from 1956, which reminds us of the custom of the same name. In front of the building, facing the rear suburbs, there is the Bruno Egger district fountain, which was donated by the municipalities of the Aarau district of the city in 1983 to commemorate the “700 years of municipal law”.
Take a look at the 12th-century Kloster St. Ursula!
The monastery of St. Ursula is a former monastery nowadays. The founding of the monastery is traced in a document dated as 26 February 1270 (Ash Wednesday). At that time, the city gave the construction site, promised protection and granted tax exemption. The monastery was founded as a women’s penitent in 1270 and abolished in 1528 as a result of the Reformation. After that, it served as a Latin school, food store and factory. Today, the building houses a retirement home.
The monastery building is located on the western edge of the old town, not far from the city church. It forms the end of the row of houses on the heap, as is called the suburb located at the foot of the rocky head. The building presents itself in the state of the late 18th century, when Johann Rudolf Meyer had it completely rebuilt. On the east side, the earlier cape tract closes at right angles. It has been preserved from the Middle Ages, the substructure of a Circular tower, the Powder Tower or Stork’s Nest Tower. The structure belonged to the city fortification and formed the south vestiges of the monastery garden.
Pay a visit to surrounding cities and towns!
The Canton of Argau is by far a great place for tourists. There are numerous castles, including some of the most remarkable architectural structures in Switzerland – Hellville Castle, Lenzburg Castle, and Habsburg Castle, which is the primary residence of the famous dynasty from way back to the 10th century. Brig, Baden and Gretzenbach with the famous Bally-Park that is a museum in the open air are not far away. The Vindoniss Museum provides an opportunity to learn about the Roman life and culture, while Windic is the owner of the largest amphitheater in Switzerland, which has been well-preserved to date. Bremgarten, Zofingen are some of the historical towns which are worth exploring in the canton of Aargau.