It’s an overcast day. The boats on the lake, covered in their cutely uniform little blue tarpaulins, bob almost imperceptibly as swans glide between them. A gull sits on one of the boats, cleaning itself. The top of Uetliberg, Zurich’s cherished mountain (although it’s really just a large hill) is obscured. The cloud seems to be suffocating the ridge and seeping down the cracks in the rock.
By the lakefront, the wooden chairs of the beachside bars are all folded up and strapped to the tables with a cable. The swimming baths that essentially just cordon off part of the lake are left with an open door and a bored receptionist. A sign says that the water temperature is 21 degrees Celsius and the air temperature is 17. Not tempting enough for the Zurchers, it seems.
It’s morning and Switzerland’s largest city feels ever so sleepy. But it won’t stay that way. Zurich may give off an image of bankers scuttling between secretive vault and gut-busting lunch whilst wearing ludicrously expensive watches, but the reality is sharply different.
Nightlife in Niederdorf…
Sure, the amply-gutted men in suits exist, but Zurich is considerably more lively than most would give it credit for. It hosts one of the world’s biggest street parties every August, and that’s a full on techno-blaring assault rather than a tame family affair.
The traditional area for a night out in Zurich is Niederdorf on the eastern bank of the Limmat river. The action zone runs from roughly parallel to the main train station, all the way down to the imposing Grossmunster. You’ll actually find some of the more attractive independent shops and cafés to the south of Grossmunster on a highlights tour of Zurich, but if you’ve come for a night out, then the beer halls, iffy fast food joints and ‘special’ cinemas of Niederdorfstrasse are where the rowdiness is. There’s a real buzz, but it’s a mainstream one.
…And Zurich West
Less polished, but indubitably where the proper action can be found, is Zurich West. In the last ten to twenty years, formerly grotty areas out here have undergone a real renaissance. You’ll find underground club nights taking place under the radar in unadorned former warehouses, while other old industrial buildings have been turned into cultural and restaurant complexes. Walk through a few of them, and it’s seriously impressive.
Langstrasse is the major thoroughfare of Zurich west. Streets packed with bars, cafés and indie enterprises spring off from it, and whilst the area still has the odd red light and gentleman’s club, it’s a genuinely multicultural, happening scene. The area north of the railway tracks pouring out of the main station has arguably gentrified the most, but for eating options you can go from Thai to Indian to Turkish to Haitian within a few steps.
Of course, if you have a heavy night and get up to no good, you may wish for something a little more wholesome the next day. And thus it’s time to go to church. Zurich’s largest is the Grossmunster, which dwarfs anything else in the city. It’s a big lumpen thing, where bulk takes precedence over elegance. The twin towers at the front are an unusual feature – they make the building look like one of those universal adapters lying on its back, with the prongs for the European plug socket stuck out at the top.
Inside, you can tell that the hardline reformers have had their way with it. There is very little in the way of decoration – just an austere, overbearing mass of stone.
The Fraumunster on the opposite side of the river is much daintier – it looks more like an upturned stiletto hell with a clock face near the point. Much of the same Protestant simplicity applies inside, but the lines and arches have a glorious elegant beauty to them. It feels light where the Grossmunster feels obesely heavy.
The real stars on a tour of the Fraumunster are the stained glass windows. The one at the far end as you enter is by Alberto Giacometti, and anywhere else, it’s this one that would get all the attention. Turn round and double back, however, and you get to the choir, where there’s a set of five long, slender windows by artist Marc Chagall. Created when he was 80 years old, they feel like flowing artworks, where parts of the tale blend into another. The childlike sketching of the key figures also provides a marked contrast to the usual blocky, straight line reverence that stained glass windows can tend to have.
Swiss National Museum
Arguably the most fun building in Zurich, however, is the Schweizerisches Landesmuseum (or Swiss National Museum). Just to the north of the main train station, the museum sits inside a rather silly mock castle. It looks as jaunty as a drunken oompah band, and what’s inside is presented with commendable flair and innovation. It’s a great 101 grounding for anyone wanting to get to understand Switzerland and how it came together from a hodge-podge of independent mini-states. The country has a unique political system, where a lot gets decided at the level of the individual cantons (the term for what those states merged into) and leadership is in the hands of a council of seven, proportionally representing the main political parties. This means compromise and agreement is essential for anything to happen.
There’s an odd system of direct democracy too – any petition that gets 30,000 or more signatures gets put to the vote in a national referendum.
For all the urban attractions, however, the Zurchers tend to be at their happiest when they’re out on the open, either walking round or sailing on the lake or taking a stroll on Uetliberg. Regarded affectionately as the ‘local mountain’, it is easily accessible by train. From there, it’s possible to take on a 5km walking trail along a hilltop ridge to Felsenegg. Oddly, this has been turn into the Planetweg, where models of the sun and the planets of our solar system are placed along the route in scale. A few things come as a surprise – not least the relative tininess of most planets and the distance between the furthest away planets. Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars all come very quickly into the walk, with Jupiter and Saturn not too far behind. It’s odd to realise that Saturn is closer to the Sun than it is to next-planet-along Uranus, however.
For most of the walk, the view is obscured by trees. But when there’s a clearing, you can look down to magnificent images of forest and fields on one side, the city and the lake on the other. And when you reach Felsenegg, there’s a cable car to Adliswil village, which is connected by regular trains back to the city.
In terms of location, it’s hard to beat the Hotel zum Storchen. This heritage-packed four star is right on the west bank of the river, close to the main shopping area. The views from the first floor terrace at breakfast are rather special. The Alden Hotel Splugenschloss is smaller, with impeccable service, huge rooms and an emphasis on guest privacy.
– David Whitley