Most people have heard of Zurich, the Matterhorn or Geneva. But St. Gallen? The name generally draws blank stares. Yet Switzerland’s northeastern capital is charming, foodie focused, relaxed, and blissfully tourist free.
I rode the train from Lucerne to St. Gallen, which turned out to be an incredibly scenic journey. It cut through green expanses of fertile valleys filled with grazing cows below big fluffy clouds in a brilliant blue sky, all surrounded by mountain peaks crowned with snow. Crossing rivers and curving past multiple lakes, this has got to be one of the best ways to see Switzerland, especially since traveling from one end of the country to the other doesn’t usually take more than a few hours.
The Story of St. Gallen: Textiles and One Pious Irish Monk
St. Gallen Textiles
The city of St. Gallen has been defined by the textile industry, which made this one of the richest cities in Europe during the 15th century. In 1912 over 50% of the world’s textile production came out of St. Gallen, (today it’s just .5%) and St. Gallen embroidery was the top Swiss export. St. Gallen exported cotton, embroidery, and lace—that is, until WWI and the Great Depression rolled around. Today the industry still thrives, albeit in a much reduced form. Yet St. Gallen lace is still popular with Parisian haute couture designers. Fashion lovers can discover more at the St. Gallen Textile Museum.
Saint Gallus’ Legacy
The origins of the city can be traced further back to the city’s patron saint: Saint Gallus (aka Saint Gall), an Irish monk who traveled all the way down to Switzerland in the year 612. Legend has it he stumbled and fell into a bush of thorns in St. Gallen. Enter the story of one very helpful bear, who according to legend picked up branches of wood and handed them to St. Gallus to build a fire, thus becoming the sign from God St. Gallus needed to stay permanently. He founded a monastery here, and consequently a town grew around the abbey, eventually becoming a center of education and culture in the Middle Ages.
St. Gallen’s Top Sights
The Old Town and its Oriel Windows
St. Gallen has a beautiful old town filled with 111 preserved oriel windows. These glass and wood encased window extensions protrude from the half-timbered houses like a sort of balcony-greenhouse hybrid, each elaborately decorated with carved embellishments bragging of the adventures and riches of the families that commissioned them. A status symbol back in the day, this was a way for families to show off their affluence and their travels to exotic lands. All sorts of intricate details can be found in the different oriel panels, among them sea creatures, mermen, carved dragons, and African faces.
St. Gallen’s Rococo Abbey Library
Perhaps the gem of St. Gallen is the city’s famous UNESCO world heritage library. This gorgeous rococo hall showcases an ornate frescoed ceiling and two stories of endless rows of wooden bookshelves filled to the brim with beautiful old books—170,000 medieval printed books and 2,000 original handwritten manuscripts to be exact. Of these, over 400 volumes are over a thousand years old, and the scent of these old books is magnificent.
St. Gallen’s Baroque Cathedral
The cathedral, recognized by its double baroque towers, houses an ornate altar, carved choir stalls and a historic organ. The interior is full of vibrant colors, all accented with malachite green stucco embellishments.
Modern Architecture and Design in St. Gallen
Red Carpet Streets and Floating Clouds
A few blocks in the city center are blanketed in cherry red carpet streets with an overhead canopy of floating cloud lights, all part of a modern art installation by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist. It’s not just the streets that are covered in red, but benches, tables, large vases, and a car you can sit on too.
During the day this open air living room is striking, but at night it’s spellbinding. Walking on red foamy carpet below giant glowing orbs overhead, I felt like I was Alice in Wonderland.
Cutting-Edge Contemporary Architecture
Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava’s avant-garde buildings populate St. Gallen. One of his most interesting designs is the entrance to Pfalz cellars in the abbey district. This underground building used to be a wine cellar of the St. Gallen monastery, but now houses meeting rooms. The building has a transforming cover, so when an event is going on and the building is open, the cover transforms into a retractable entrance gate. When closed, the gate lowers, folding flush against the ground.
Sleeping and Eating in St. Gallen
One of the best hotels in town is Hotel Einstein, a bastion of modern luxury. The hotel is sleek, comfortable, spotless, and well equipped with every convenience, due to its status as a premier business hotel. Its location is perfect too, just steps from old town and a short walk to the train station. The hotel’s Caf E.Bistro, downstairs from a giant multi-storied conference center, serves a big breakfast and great bistro fare as well.
Our multi-course feast of broccoli foam soup with roasted pine nuts, monastery pâte with chutney and salad, roe deer fillet on savoy cabbage with brioche-dumplings and glazed apples, entrecôte of beef with herb-butter french fries and veggies, all washed down with local St. Gallen beer.
St. Gallen for Foodies
St. Gallen is surrounded by countryside and abundant nature. Perhaps this is why the city offers such a fresh and varied culinary spectrum ranging from haute cuisine to hearty regional specialties like bratwurst, chocolate, beer, and of course cheese. Another St. Gallen specialty is biber, a sweet decorated gingerbread pastry made from honey dough with an almond filling. Interested in making biber? Get the recipe for Lemongrass Marzipan Biber here.
There are plenty of Erststockbeizen, or old wood-paneled restaurants on the first floor of historic buildings, in the old town. These restaurants were converted from former dining rooms of bourgeois houses, and serve traditional fare and regional cuisine.
Lokremise & Lokal
On the other end of the spectrum, Lokremise is a cultural complex in the former circular locomotive depot at the train station. It houses a concert hall, art museum, cinema, and most importantly St. Gallen’s trendy culinary hot spot Lokal. This restaurant serves up gourmet meals made with the freshest local ingredients in a beautiful setting. Tables populate an open high-ceilinged warehouse lined with windows and mirrored orbs. The restaurant is filled with burning candles from jumbo candelabras, as well as the soft glow from giant hanging lamps.
Gaststuben zum Schlössli
Hands down, the most unique meal in town is the St. Gallus haute cuisine dining experience at Gaststuben zum Schlössli. Created by an entire team of chefs and scholars, this meal is inspired by the life of St. Gallus himself, and is composed only of ingredients that were historically available to the monk during his day. (Stay tuned for our upcoming feature on Haute Monastery Cuisine.)
An Undiscovered Gem
St. Gallen is filled with unique treasures. This city has it all—classic and modern architecture, a vast historical legacy, a focus on fashion, UNESCO world heritage sights and an emphasis on good food. St. Gallen makes an art form out of balancing the old with the new. With its beautiful old town, stunning cathedral, and magnificent baroque library, St. Gallen is an essential stop on any Switzerland itinerary.