Zurich is a three-legged giant straddling its past, present, and future. At the city’s heart lies a labyrinthine old quarter; on its western edge is a repurposed industrial-chic neighbourhood; its sun-bathed hills overlook a river and a misty lake. It is a city that lives well and has a niche for everyone, no matter what their age or inclinations may be.
A couple sits at a sidewalk café on Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich. The man is dressed in a sleek winter overcoat, a designer laptop bag by his side and a Bluetooth headset on his ear—he is the quintessential banker. The woman with perfectly coiffed hair, trademark Louboutin heels, and a book is nonchalantly smoking a slim cigarette. Wealthy, artistic, and perfectly balanced, they mirror the city they belong to.
The easiest way to get into the city from the airport (Flughafen) is to take a train to the Zurich Hauptbahnhof (HB) in the city centre. It offers connections to different parts of the country and Europe (10 min; ticket CHF6.60/₹441). Or take a cab from the airport to the city centre (15 min; CHF60-70/₹4,010-4,678).
Numerous radio taxi companies operate in this city (waiting time 5-10 minutes). Busy places often have a taxi stand and it’s possible to hail an empty cab if the roof light is on signaling availability (basic fare CHF6/₹401 and additional CHF3.80/₹254 per kilometre). Taxi companies like Taxi 444 (+41-44-4444444) and iTAXI (08000 08000) are popular as are Uber cabs (universal app).
Zurich has an excellent public transport network which is easy to negotiate even for a first-time visitor. Exit the Zurich HB station and cross over to the tram station also called Zurich HB. Zurich Transport Network (ZVV) includes a network of trams, buses, and trains that operate within the city. Download the convenient SBB app and find your required connections with tram/bus numbers and station names.
To make travelling around Zurich simple and seamless, plan ahead and buy a ZurichCARD, which allows visitors unlimited second-class travel on all forms of transport within the city. It includes many benefits like discounted rates at museums, select restaurants, stores, and city tours organised by Zurich Tourism (24-hour ZurichCARD for adults costs CHF24/₹1,604; children 6-16 years CHF16/₹1,069; under 6 free). This card can be bought online at www.sbb.ch/ticketshop or at any of the SBB train stations or vending machines in Zurich, as well as at various hotels.
Located at a spectacular vantage point on the wooded sunshine hill of Zurichberg is the magnificent if expensive Dolder Grand. Built in the style of a traditional Swiss castle, the hotel fuses old-world grandeur with fluid, minimalist luxury and a lot of famous art. A giant Andy Warhol canvas over the reception grabs your attention as do modern, oversized sculptures by Jean Tinguely and Fernando Botero (www.thedoldergrand.com; doubles from CHF700/₹46,788).
The Townhouse is an intimate boutique property right in the heart of things on the arterial Bahnhofstrasse. This turn-of-the-century renovated mansion has only 23 rooms, each curated with attention to detail and dazzling wallpaper (www.townhouse.ch; doubles from CHF258/₹17,244).
Budget options are not too many in Zurich. However, pricing is dependent on location and the farther you move away from the city centre, the more affordable it gets. Zurich West is a good bet for cheaper accommodation and is home to uniquely designed hotels in hypermodern buildings. The 25Hours Hotel, Zurich West is cosy, eclectic, and colourful. It showcases the work of local Zurich designers and also offers its guests itineraries and suggestions which go beyond the conventional city tours (www.25hours-hotels.com; doubles from CHF140/₹9,357). For those looking for an even cheaper deal, the open-round-the clock Zurich Youth Hostel is a winner with everything from dorms to private rooms with en-suite baths (www.youthhostel.ch; beds in a dorm start at CHF43/₹2,874 and doubles are CHF144/₹9,624).
Zurich is a city with a 2,000-year-old settlement, and umpteen legends and stories. Right from the Carolingian rule under Emperor Charlemagne to the early days of the Swiss Confederacy, power changed many hands. Witness to the trials of the Protestant Reformation under Zwingli in the 15th-16th centuries, Zurich has been churned by the various spokes of history. The best way to get a glimpse of the city’s rich past is with a walking tour of the city’s expansive Old Quarter. Begin at the historic Zurich Train Stationon Bahnhofstrasse. This was the site of the first train station in Zurich and the second-oldest railway station in all of Switzerland. Rebuilt in 1871, today’s station retains its grand neo-Renaissance facade. The surrounding Bahnhofstrasse is a luxe retail destination and commercial centre.
From Bahnhofstrasse, walk south towards Münzplatz and Wohllebgasse for about five minutes to Schipfe, the oldest part of the city, on the bank of the River Limmat. Sprawling roads give way to narrow cobblestone paths with medieval buildings housing chic boutiques and designer stores. The road snakes up a hill onto beautiful Lindenhof atop Lindenhof Hill. Named after its imposing linden trees, this square is the historical site of an early Roman castle and a spot where old men play chess, and lovers and tourists enjoy staggering views of the city. From Lindenhof, steps lead down Pfalzgasse towards St. Peter’s Kirche, Zurich’s oldest church. Along the way, there are town squares with elaborate fountains with saints and gargoyles. There are reportedly 1,200 potable water fountains in Zurich alone, providing refreshing drinking water and a soothing background sound. Walk for a minute from St. Peter’s south on St. Peterhofstatt to Schlusselgasse, until you see the sign for Thermengasse. This tiny lane is actually a flight of metal stairs. Look closer as the stairs are built over a living history museum. A chance discovery of ancient Roman baths underneath a neighbouring toy store put this city’s history into context. Excavated remains can be viewed through the metal grills in the ground.
Cross the Rathausbrucke over the Limmat River to Limmatquai and walk to Zurich’s most iconic structure, the Grossmünster Church with its trademark spires stretching high into the skyline. This erstwhile Catholic monastery church became a Protestant place of worship in the 16th century. It is believed to be constructed above the graves of Zurich’s famous headless patron saints, Felix and Regula. From Grossmünster, walk northwest for three minutes up Münstergasse to Fraumünster, now a Protestant church. The highlight of the current structure is gorgeous stained-glass windows painted by Marc Chagall. This church is located in the lovely district of Niederdorf with its little boutiques that stock everything from antiques to handcrafted shoes and art supplies. All roads intersecting the Old Town are chock-full of stories of the past and each structure is a historical record in concrete and stone. Continue to soak in the Old Town atmosphere with a meal at Zunfthaus zur Waag on Münsterhof. In this 14th-century guild house is a restaurant serving regional specialities like the Zurich-style sliced veal and rösti. Views of Fraumünster and its surrounding area are a bonus (Münsterhof 8; 044-2169966; open Mon-Sat lunch 11.30 a.m.-2 p.m. and dinner 6 p.m.-10 p.m. CHF100/₹6,729 for two). Guided tours of Old Town are organised by Zurich Tourism (www.zuerich.com; daily tours start at 3 p.m. from the tourist centre at Zurich HB; adults CHF25/₹1,682, children 6-16 years CHF12.50/₹841).
Zurich has something for the entire family, especially an outdoor loving one. Uetliberg is Zurich’s highest hill (2,850 feet) providing unmatched views over the entire city, its lake, hills, the serpentine Limmat River and the wooded suburbs. On a clear day, the observation tower at Uetliberg provides unhindered 360° views including those of the snowy Alps. It’s open all year round and peppered with walking trails of differing levels of difficulty. In winter, some of the slopes are covered with snow and transformed into runs for sledders. There is a special Planet Trail on a model solar system built to scale which both kids and adults can enjoy. Uetliberg’s summit has the heritage hotel Uto Kulm and Allegra, its restaurant serving a hearty all-you-can-eat Sunday brunch on a sunny terrace. (Take the S10 train from Sihltal Zürich to Uetliberg Bahn SZU, which runs every 30 minutes Mon-Sat, and every 20 minutes on Sun; + 44 -4576666; Sunday brunch from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.; adults CHF65/₹4,374 includes train tickets.)
After lunch, make your way back to Burkliplatz which is the dock from where various boat trips start. Run by the Zurich Navigation Company (ZSG), these tours include cruises of various kinds as well as longer trips to neighbouring towns like Rapperswil and Richterswil (boat trips up to 1.5 hours free with the ZurichCARD. Special cruises and longer tours see www.zsg.ch). Round up the day’s activities with a Zurich-style post-work aperitif. Typically comprising fruity aperol spritzers, these evening drinks are almost de rigueur among the banking set.
Zurich has an international nightlife culture. An average weekend (Friday and Saturday) sees the young and restless queuing up to enter the hottest nightclubs in town. Local and international bands perform in industrial bars in Zurich West and top DJs spin tracks in historic dance-halls-turned-discos around the city centre. Plaza Club with its pulsating music and laser lights will keep you dancing till you drop, while the legendary Mascotte, Zurich’s oldest nightclub, is where swing gurus like Sammy Davis Junior and Louis Armstong used to set the stage ablaze. Now bands like Arcade Fire perform, and it is always a great location to party with hip-shaking music (www.plaza-zurich.ch; Plaza Club, Badenerstrasse 109; open Mon-Sat according to schedule on website; entry fee varies. www.mascotte.ch; Mascotte, Theaterstrasse 10; open Mon Sun; free entry on regular nights with ZurichCARD).
Boasting over 50 museums and 100 art galleries, Zurich is a dream city for art enthusiasts. Kunsthaus, a repository of modern art is at par with the best in the world and an essential pilgrimage for art lovers. It has a comprehensive collection of modern Swiss art including the work of Alberto Giacometti, the largest collection of Edvard Munch, as well as important works by Picasso and Chagall among others (www.kunsthaus.ch; Heimplatz 1; open Tue, Fri-Sun 10 a.m.-6 p.m., Wed-Thu 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; entry for permanent collection, adults CHF15/₹1,009; children under 16 free. Wed free entry).
Take a short walk from Kunsthaus into the heart of the Old Town to experience a piece of history and have a cup of coffee at the atmospheric Cabaret Voltaire. Regarded as the birthplace of the anti-establishment art movement called Dadaism in 1916, this café retains its well-worn, intellectual air. With 2016 marking the 100th anniversary of the movement, a range of soirées and performances will be held in celebration (www.cabaretvoltaire.ch; Spiegelgasse 1; open Tue-Sun 12.30 p.m.-6.30 p.m.).
Design buffs will find Zurich West fascinating. It is a like a giant Lego artwork with old industrial buildings and warehouses turned into spaces of quirky art and design. Derelict arches under railway tracks have been transformed into the Im Viadukt. This shopping/arts/performance arcade accommodates everything from organic farmer’s markets to dance studios, bars, and modernist furniture stores. Walking around Viaduktstrasse, it is hard to miss the distinct grungy vibe. Everything has a repurposed existence. An iconic structure that defines this part of the city is the 126-metre-high octagon called Prime Tower on Hardstrasse. The futuristic design of Switzerland’s highest skyscraper makes it a coveted corporate address and an unmistakeable part of the city skyline. Freitag Tower is another “building” of interest. It comprises giant shipping containers stacked to create a home for products designed by the creative duo Daniel and Markus Freitag, perhaps Switzerland’s most famous graphic designers. Their grungy chic bags are created entirely of recycled materials (Grüngasse 21, Mon-Fri 11.30 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat 11 a.m.-5 p.m.).
Zurich West is a young neighbourhood. Its all-night parties feature electronic music; visual and laser light shows are held at numerous warehouse nightclubs. Contemporary art spaces like the Kunsthalle Zürich, Migros Museum of Contemporary Art and other galleries are located in a red brick building which used to be the Löwenbräu brewery. (Löwenbräu-Kunst Limmat-strasse 268-270; museums Tue-Fri 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sat-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m., and Thu until 8 p.m.; Kunsthaus and Migros entry adults CHF12/₹673 and children under 16 free; free entry Thu 5 p.m-8 p.m.)
With its legends of dragons, headless saints, and knights, Zurich is a dream city for children and the young at heart. Spend a day at the child-friendly Swiss National Museum, inside a 100-year-old Swiss castle. Kids are kept engaged with tracing the history of Switzerland through interesting objects and installations, as well as costumes and toys (www.landesmuseum.ch; Museumstrasse 2; open Tue-Sun 10 a.m.-5 p.m., Thu 10 a.m.-7 p.m.; adults CHF10/₹673, children under 16 free). Another must-visit is Zoo Zurich, for its dazzling menagerie of animals. Spread over a large area atop Zurichberg hill, the zoo is divided into various enclosures including the Kaeng Krachan Elephant Park. Some sections are open, allowing visitors to see animals up-close. Even tiny tots can be around and feed domestic animals like goats and ponies in the Zoolino area. At the adjoining Masoala Rainforest the biome of a rainforest in Madagascar has been recreated inside a giant dome enclosing over 1 lakh square feet. Temperatures hover around 20-30°C and often the ground literally steams. Small creatures native to Madagascar can be seen from the treetop walkway. Piercing bird calls, tinkling streams, and massive trees arch over visitors, completing the fantasy of a distant tropical forest right in the heart of Switzerland (www.zoo.ch; Zürichbergstrasse 221; open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; Masoala Rainforest open from 10 a.m-6 p.m.; one ticket for both; adults CHF26/₹1,749, children 6-16 years CHF13/₹875, family ticket CHF71/₹4,745).
Close by is another family treat, the Dolder Open-Air Ice-Skating Rink. With 6,000 sq metres of smooth ice to glide on, young and old can show off their moves (www.doldersports.com; Adlisbergstrasse 36; Mon-Sat 9 a.m.-10.30 p.m., Sun 9 a.m-5.45 p.m.; entry adults CHF8/₹538; children 4-16 years CHF4/₹269).
Zurich is also a city of delightful confectionery. Brands like Sprüngli, Teuscher and Läderach serve up everything from chocolate marshmallows to macaroons, making the city a treat for those with a sweet tooth. A tub of Mövenpick ice cream is a great place to start. Prohibitively expensive in India, Mövenpick’s frozen desserts are affordable and ubiquitous here. And the pleasure of savouring each silky scoop while admiring the underlying perfection of this city is a sweet endnote to any Zurich trip.
Appeared in the February 2016 Swiss Special issue as “In a Zurich Minute”.
Diya Kohli is the former Senior Associate Editor at National Geograpic Traveller India. She loves the many stories of big old cities. For her, the best kind of travel experience involves long rambling walks through labyrinthine lanes with plenty of food stops along the way.
Chirodeep Chaudhuri is former Photo Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. He is the author of "A Village in Bengal", a portrait of rural Bengal.