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Discovering Zurich

In the case of Zurich, it's the extras that put it on top when stacked against other quality-of-life candidates like Melbourne, Vancouver, Toronto, and archrival Geneva. Everyone expects the world's most livable cities to have a good airport, low crime rates, and a strong education system. Not necessarily factored in are cultural diversity, outstanding food stores, proximity to nature, a dynamic modern art scene, and a lake with drinkable water .

In the mid nineties I started taking long weekends in Zurich to get away from the grind of London. I returned to the city for the very same reason that I first fell for it in 1983—it was easy. Everything I wanted to see or do was within walking distance: I could drink the best coffee by day, see non-dubbed English films in the afternoon, and sit quietly in a perfect Italian restaurant in the Kreis Vier district in the evening and watch smart-looking couples pull up in their muscular Audis .

You can tell a lot about a town by the cars that circulate through its streets, and Zurich is firmly an Audi town. Just as the brand is discreet, confident, and a little sporty, the same can be said for the city: Zurich doesn't reveal or share its secrets readily, there's a bit of self-satisfaction that can veer close to arrogance , and the 90-minute drive up to the Alps makes most locals more sportif than average.

Zurich does its best to discourage cars in the city center —those of residents and visitors alike—by investing heavily in a busy tram schedule and issuing some of the stiffest traffic penalties anywhere. While the Swiss will look for any excuse to dig a tunnel or drill into a mountainside, the city's politicians have not been persuaded to build a subway system, although if they did it would doubtless be perfectly engineered and architecturally interesting . But, given its scale, Zurich does just fine with its mix of trams, buses, and bicycle lanes. This is a good thing, as the taxis are some of the worst I've ridden in anywhere in the world—developed or otherwise. Switzerland is obsessed with quality, good design, and efficiency, yet Zurich's taxis are often ex–U.S.-military-personnel cars that have been imported from Germany and tend to be both smoky and dirty, and the drivers rarely know where the hell they're going. On top of all this, the cabs are absurdly expensive. It's for this reason that I usually tackle most of the city on foot and bridge any gaps by jumping on the tram.

A perfect Zurich weekend (and the city can be covered in 72 hours) used to involve my leaving work at lunchtime on a Friday and jumping on a Swissair flight from Heathrow. One hour and 15 minutes later I'd be touching down at Kloten airport, and then I'd take the train to the Haupt­bahnhof and grab a taxi, despite my better judgment, to the Hotel Baur au Lac.

I'm convinced you can't have an affair with a city unless you have a comfortable, efficient hotel to work from. It doesn't need to be luxurious or crammed with amenities; it just needs to function as a base for rest and refreshment . The Baur au Lac does these things, including the luxury bit, very well. It's a grand hotel in the truest sense of the words, and the manager, Michel Rey, is still the keeper of the keys and can arrange anything from a private-jet transfer to St. Moritz to delivery of all the Japanese dailies with your breakfast. The staff knows you by name beginning the moment you check in, and in the 12 years I've been staying there, I've never encountered anything the management team couldn't cope with—including storing large parts of my life in their cellar for months on end as well as rustling up last-minute restaurant reservations. The Baur au Lac is the type of hotel I could see myself moving into at some point later in life. Its location at the foot of the Bahnhofstrasse puts the best shopping within easy striking distance, the lake is just across the road, and Restaurant Kronenhalle is a five-minute walk over the bridge.

Just as you need at least one good hotel to fall in love with a city, you also need at least a handful of restaurants. Or perhaps not?What if a restaurant serves the best schnitzel and Rösti in double portions, displays original works by Marc Chagall and Joan Miró on its walls, and has a bar designed by Robert Haussmann, a godfather of Swiss Modernism ?I'm inclined to think that one restaurant of such a caliber is reason enough to make the journey. Anyone who knows Zurich knows the Kronenhalle, in part because it's a culinary classic, in part because it's a scene from another time.

The restaurant is divided into a main salon, inhabited by regulars, and a pair of side rooms stacked one on top of the other, and I've had some of my most enjoyable meals there while dining alone and deciphering the personalities behind the meringue-like coiffures, bronze-tinted glasses, fur collars, and fallen cosmetic surgery— and those were just the men. In the bar next door, entire evenings have vanished with a few good friends and many bottles of rosé from Canton Vaud.

I used to harbor a certain jealousy of Zurich's locals, who seem to have the most charmed life in Europe, if not the world. Theirs is a completely manageable city; skiing in the Alps is a short car ride away and desirable parts of Italy and the south of France a bit farther off; and their national airline could take them anywhere else in the world with daily frequency from an airport just 10 minutes from town. The autumn of 2001 gave me an opportunity, if somewhat tragically, to experience the city as a full-time resident. In the wake of September 11, Swissair went bankrupt and its global fleet was grounded. Having had little warning that the airline's balance sheet was in such bad shape, the country was in a state of disbelief. How could a national icon collapse?In the Swiss press the morning after, a blame game erupted with many pointing fingers and no solutions to the crisis . Watching the unbelievable unfold from London, I spoke to the editors at one of the leading German-language Sunday papers in Zurich and offered up a 10-point recovery plan for the airline. Long story short: the advertising and branding agency I run was hired to create a new national airline brand for Switzerland.

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