Written by Brian Johnston
It might have a reputation as a staid banking city, but Zurich has a lively alter-ego that features avant-garde art and design, hip nightlife, and revitalised inner-city suburbs full of energy.
Many visitors start exploring on Switzerland’s most famous street, the Bahnhofstrasse, lined with private banks, top-end jewellery shops, sedate departments stores, and cafés specialising in posh chocolate truffles from Zurich brand Sprüngli. It’s one of the world’s most elegant shopping boulevards.
Wander down side streets into the old town, where you’ll find the guildhalls of former merchants and tradesmen, splashing fountains, and the Fraumünster, adorned with glorious ruby and turquoise stained glass by Marc Chagall. The Grossmünster cathedral, though rather bare inside, is a Zurich landmark for its two bulbous towers.
For a small city, Zurich has dozens of rather fine museums. The Landesmuseum houses prehistoric artefacts, Roman clothing, medieval silverware, and armour among its eclectic collection, and has interesting exhibits on the history of clock making. The Kunsthaus features works by the Dada school, a precursor of Surrealism founded in Zurich in 1916, as well as a fine collection of Impressionist, Dutch, and Italian paintings. Don’t miss Stiftung Sammlung E.G. Bührle, the 1950s collection of a Zurich industrialist, whose Manets, Monets, and Cézannes are among the best in Europe.
When it’s time for fresh air, the Limmat River, which splits the city in two, has promenades and cafés that deserve lingering enjoyment. The river spills into Lake Zurich, where Utoquai heads along the lakefront past promenades lined with flowerbeds, while Myhtenquai takes you along the western lakeshore and eventually into wooded countryside. You can also take cruises by steamer onto the lake to admire the alpine peaks in the distance. Alternatively, Uetliberg hill provides terrific city views and can be accessed by train or via meandering hiking trails from the city’s southwest suburbs.
You aren’t done until you’ve experienced Zurich’s nightlife. The streets of Niederdorf on the Left Bank are crowded with clubbers and jazz enthusiasts until the wee hours on weekends, while lakefront restaurants offer fine Swiss fare and light-twinkled evening views. Ballet, opera, and the theatre flourish. The annual Live at Sunset Festival (July 3–19) offers open-air concerts, many featuring international names.
In Zurich West, former factories have been transformed into hip nightclubs, restaurants, designer hotels, and art galleries. Boutique stores provide an interesting alternative to city-centre brand-name fashions. Local designers include Freitag for bags made from recycled tarpaulins, Erfolg for T-shirts, and Einzigart for furniture. The multi-ethnic neighbourhood also has diverse dining.