Zurich: by design
Written by Brian Johnston
Zurich is one of those cities in which you may wish you’d stayed longer. Swiss travel expert Brian Johnston looks beyond its CHOCOLATE-BOX BEAUTY to reveal a cultured, innovative, very contemporary city.
Zurich is a thrifty, hard-working city famous for bankers and businesspeople, but you don’t have to look far beneath its tidy surface to find anti-establishment attitudes and an arts and design scene that has long been ahead of its time.
Most visitors, whether they’re coming from the airport or elsewhere in Switzerland, arrive in downtown Zurich at its cavernous main station, one of the world’s busiest. They alight from their train, turn right off the platform, and, a few minutes later, are strolling down Bahnhofstrasse, the city’s smug main street, lined with private banks, watch shops, and the suave stores of the usual fashion labels. No surprise that Bahnhofstrasse is the most expensive property on the Swiss Monopoly board. As for Zurich, it generates a fifth of Switzerland’s considerable fortunes and is one of the world’s most important financial centres.
It’s easy to give in to the stereotypes in Zurich, but veer away from Bahnhofstrasse and the predictable tourist trail and you’re in for a surprise. Take a different exit from the train station and you can find yourself in another city entirely: the working-class, multi-ethnic Zurich West cut through by Langstrasse, where you’re more likely to see Croatian cafés and Albanian eateries than Lindt chocolate shops, and boutiques selling innovative, hipster jewellery rather than Cartier and Dior.
A decade or so ago, Zurich West (which covers parts of what is officially known as Districts 4 and 5) was a decaying inner-city industrial area. Now it’s one of the most happening parts of the city, with factories transformed into outrageous art galleries and chic restaurants haunted by Zurich artists and journalists. A former brewery is now an arts centre; a shipbuilding enterprise that once built lake steamers has been recycled into a restaurant complex topped by a glass tower providing views over the distant Alps. Above it all lords the tower of the oh-so-hip Renaissance hotel, quite the alternative to the traditional, grand luxury of old-town establishments. As for the Park Hyatt, it has brought Zen-like luxe to what was once a multi-storey car park.
The renaissance of Zurich West shows that this city does more than just the polite and proper, and can even have a rather edgy appeal. Indeed, Zurich is being touted as the ‘new Berlin’ with its heady mixture of experimental creativity and refreshing urban ideas. It offers free public bikes, street benches in the shape of cows and bathtubs, an avant-garde music scene, and thriving summer festivals and street parades.
For such a small city, Zurich also has a remarkable number of museums, several rather cutting-edge. Helmhaus features experimental art by local artists and, in Zurich West, the Kunsthalle too pushes the artistic envelope in its exhibitions, which range from film and painting to video installations and puppet plays. On the floor below is the Migros Museum, a private project by Switzerland’s biggest supermarket chain, which features contemporary art and often holds public discussions with notable artists, sometimes in English.
Actually, there’s nothing new about the liberal and alternative in Zurich, which has long been a place for anti-establishment thinkers, from novelists Thomas Mann and James Joyce (who is buried in Fluntern Cemetery near the zoo) to psychiatrist Carl Jung. Check out the city’s design and arts scene and you’ll soon dispel the myth that this is just a stuffy banking city full of thrifty moneymen – or that it ever was. Sketches by Chagall and Miró decorate Kronenhalle restaurant, where the redwood and bronze bar was designed by Swiss Modernist great Robert Haussmann. And the entrance hall of Zurich’s main police station is eye-popping: it features a floral fresco in gorgeous orange and red hues by Swiss artist Augusto Giacometti, cousin of the more famous sculptor Alberto.
Meanwhile, one of the city’s top art galleries, the Kunsthaus, showcases Dadaist art, an early form of Surrealism established in Zurich in the early 20th century, from which it spread to Berlin and New York. The anti-bourgeois, almost anarchic art movement went on to influence pop art and punk rock – surely not quite what you’d expect to emerge from this supposedly conservative banking city.
If it’s more mainstream art you’re after, the Kunsthaus also has a good collection of Dutch and Italian paintings and Impressionism. The other must-see is the Stiftung Sammlung E. G. Bührle, put together in the 1950s by a local industrialist. He clearly had a fine eye: the Manets, Monets, Cézannes, and other 19th-century French canvasses that adorn his villa are among the best on the continent, even if rather more predictable than Zurich’s other museum offerings.
Zurich architecture has been as inventive as its art. The Constructivist movement of the 1920s, though it originated in Russia, was thoroughly embraced in Switzerland in the 1930s and 1940s. Head to the Haus Konstruktiv – housed in a Modernist former electrical substation – to trace its history, and see art from the likes of Swiss expressionist painter Paul Klee and influential graphic designer Max Bill. To admire a superb example of Functionalist architecture, take a look at the Design Museum, which houses exhibitions on graphic design and applied arts.
Of course, the most famous Swiss architect of all was Le Corbusier, one of the pioneers of modern architecture. His Heidi Weber Haus down on the lakefront was created in the 1960s to epitomise all that he believed in architecturally. It’s a curious building of steel, concrete, and brass, studded with brightly coloured enamel blocks and covered by an elevated roof. The museum inside covers his life and works.
Set among the sedate flowerbeds of the lakeshore, Heidi Weber Haus is a bold statement of ‘alternative’ Zurich, and quite the contrast to the buildings of the rather spartan old town, which have little colour or adornment except for the coats-of-arms and leaded-glass windows of its guildhalls. When you’ve had enough of museums and need some fresh air, Zurich’s fine location also demonstrates a surprisingly relaxed side to this sedate city. Head to its lakeshore beaches to enjoy a summer splash and an evening party atmosphere, its riverside cafés and restaurants for a relaxed meal, or its surrounding countryside for mountain-draped landscapes. Walk the length of Bahnhofstrasse too, if you like: at least you’ll know it isn’t all that Zurich has to offer.
Zurich’s lakeshore setting is part of what makes this city so relaxing. Spend a sunny afternoon strolling its quays, planted with flowerbeds of roses, marigolds, and petunias. City-centre Limmatquai starts near the train station and heads along the Limmat River, while the Utoquai follows the lakefront past one of the last buildings designed by revolutionary Swiss architect Le Corbusier. Mythenquai leads along the western shore of Lake Zurich right out into the countryside. You could also consider renting a bicycle at the main train station, since Zurich is in the process of vastly expanding its dedicated cycle lanes; the cycle route from Seebach to Katzenruti is particularly fine. You can also take cruises by steamer onto the lake itself and watch yachts skimming along against a background of alpine peaks. Rapperswil at the far end of the lake, topped by a medieval castle, is a pleasant steamer excursion.
This delightful café in a 14th-century building in the old town occupies a warren of rooms, each with a distinctive theme: one like a Victorian-era salon in red velvet and gilt, another mimicking a conservatory complete with palm trees and bird frescoes.
Napfgasse 4, +41 44 251 5150
Lovers of design should look no further than this hotel, housed in interconnecting medieval buildings in which murals and original stone have been beautifully preserved. Quirky modern additions include artworks by Giacometti and Warhol, and every room is styled differently.
Rennweg 7, +41 44 224 2526
One of Europe’s best zoos keeps the whole family entranced with its elephant and ape houses, daily penguin parade, aquarium, open-air aviary, and collections of rare creatures such as red pandas, Indian lions, and snow leopards. A greenhouse that recreates a Madagascan rainforest showcases lemurs, brightly coloured frogs, and chameleons. The zoo also has playgrounds and a family-friendly restaurant.
Zurichbergstrasse 221, +41 44 254 2505
Housed in an avant-garde glass cube inside an old Zurich West industrial building turned arts centre, and boasting a sleek, minimalist interior, LaSalle is the epitome of newly trendy Zurich, and specialises in seasonal Italian- and French-influenced fish and seafood dishes.
Schiffbaustrasse 4, +41 44 258 7071
Allenmoos Swimming Pool
If your kids need to burn off a bit of energy, this big family swimming venue is just the place. It has diving boards, a giant water slide, two paddling pools for toddlers, and a large pool dotted with water toys for those who don’t swim. The sprawling grounds also have table football, volleyball courts, ping-pong tables, and a playground.
Ringstrasse 79, +41 44 315 5000
Distance: 4,490 km
Flight Time: 6 hours, 25 minutes