Published: June 2009
By Raul Barreneche
Though it's one of Europe's most sophisticated cities, Zürich gets a bad rap. you know all the clichés about the boring banking center with the chocolate and cheeses and expensive watches, the tight-lipped town where no one reveals any secrets, financial or otherwise. The truth is, Zürich is loosening its tie and getting downright hip. The draconian liquor laws that stifled the local bar scene have been relaxed, and a youthful entrepreneurial fever is sweeping the Swiss metropolis. Here are T+L's picks of the places that are giving the rest of Europe a run for its money.
Though Zürich has its share of world-class grand hotels, it has recently delved into the modern boutique craze that has overtaken urban centers all over the globe. The first to open (in 1995) was the Widder Hotel (7 Rennweg; 41-1/224-2526; doubles from $359), and it's still the city's coolest luxury hotel. Filled with high-tech furnishings, the Widder is composed of 10 houses dating from the 12th to the 17th century, and no two of the 49 rooms are alike. Breakfast is served in an airy room on the third floor that overlooks the medieval neighborhood. The newer Hotel Zürichberg (21 Orellistrasse; 41-1/268-3535; doubles from $129) sits on a hillside near the zoo, and offers spectacular views of the city, Lake Zürich, and the Alps. The hotel has two faces: a stately Victorian inn renovated from top to bottom with a sleek, minimalist look, and a quirky new wing that's a bright-red spiral. Rooms are arranged along a corkscrew ramp wrapping a skylighted atrium (think of a miniature version of New York's Guggenheim Museum). The 19-room Bar Hotel Seehof (11 Seehofstrasse; 41-1/254-5757; doubles from $144) is all about cheap chic: simple but stylish materials in cool colors. Head to the converted attic for breakfast; for lunch or dinner a tiny but lively bar offers surprisingly tasty food. The Seehof's owners have just opened another property in the Altstadt, the Bar Hotel Rössli (7 Rössligasse; 41-1/256-7050; doubles from $144), which follows a similar design philosophy.
The World's Sanest Airport?
Zürich's international airport is already one of the world's calmest, most user-friendly hubs — and the going should get even easier when a $200 million expansion opens in 2003. The new 28-gate terminal, designed by Swiss architect Martin Spühler and the L.A.- and Zürich-based architecture firm Angélil/Graham/Pfenninger/Scholl, features bold, two-story-high supergraphics, and concessions galore. And it will still be just a speedy 10 minutes by train to Zürich's Hauptbahnhof, or central station.
In the up-and-coming Aussersihl district you'll find Sormustin (8 Ankerstrasse; 41-1/240-2606), where fashion designer Barbara Egg and textile whiz Anne Koskiluoma sell their one-of-a-kind women's pants and coats in colors and patterns inspired by Japanese kimonos. With its groovy mid-century modern furniture, housewares, even vintage sunglasses, Time Tunnel (7 Stüssihofstatt; 41-1/261-4224), in the heart of the medieval Altstadt, is a time warp. Ask to see the furry green bathroom in back. Around the corner is the quirky Distillerie zur Schnapsboutique (3 Napfgasse; 41-1/262-3227), where the staff will bottle and cork liquors, wines, oils, and vinegars from a sea of giant glass decanters. Sign and Design Möbel Börse (both at 7 Uraniastrasse; 41-1/221-0394) stock illuminated letters from old signs, cleaned up and rewired for use at home (call before visiting—the owners are looking for a new space). There's also modern furniture, artwork, and the newest storage craze—Swissboys, vintage 1980's Swissair galley carts in blazing red, yellow, and blue.
Reithalle (8 Gessnerallee; 41-1/212-0766; dinner for two $54) serves superb food with a pan-cultural spin. This converted stable is part of a former military complex on the Sihl River that now serves as an urban arts center. Horses' hay buckets line the restaurant's stone walls to remind you of the building's original purpose. In an old house just off Bellevueplatz, trendy Rosaly's (7 Freieckgasse; 41-1/261-4430; dinner for two $60) does modern Swiss and has a lively bar scene in the evenings. Kaufleuten (18 Pelikanstrasse; 41-1/225-3333; dinner for two $50) is German for "businesspeople." And although buttoned-down bankers love to dine in this glamorous Baroque theater, so do plenty of black-clad, dramatically bespectacled creative types. Located in the city's gentrifying red-light district, Lily's (197 Langstrasse; 41-1/440-1885; dinner for two $30) is Zürich's version of the cheap but stylish noodle houses taking London and New York by storm, with basic soba, pad thai, and curry served at long tables with benches. Farther west in the booming Industrial Quarter is Monsoon (180 Förrlibuckstrasse; 41-1/271-7787; dinner for two $65), a soaring, tropical-glam, Asian-fusion eatery. On its huge menu, starter dishes take their inspiration from Bangkok to Pondicherry; entrées, from Delhi to Jakarta; and desserts, from Porto to Macao.
Art And Design Secrets
Lurking in these medieval surroundings are monuments to Modernism. No surprise, really. Zürich has always been a haven for avant-garde intellectuals and cultural types. The Dada movement was born here in 1916; James Joyce wrote Ulysses here; and Wagner, Strauss, and Jung all called the city home at some point in their careers.
A Dada collection is among the outstanding 19th- and 20th-century holdings of the Kunsthaus Zürich (1 Heimplatz; 41-1/251-6765), which includes the Swiss Foundation of Photography and the Alberto Giacometti Foundation.
The last building designed by legendary Swiss architect Le Corbusier was completed in 1967 (two years after his death). His cubic Technicolor pavilion for eccentric arts patron Heidi Weber (8 Höschgasse; 41-1/383-6470) is open to the public on Sundays.
And then there are the six brilliant stained-glass windows Marc Chagall created for the 13th-century Fraumünster church (Fraumünster; 41-1/211-4100) in 1970, when he was 83 years old.
Next Great Neighborhoods
Two emerging sectors are the epicenter of the new, hip Zürich. The city's Third and Fourth Kreis, or districts, are together known as Aussersihl. Located west of the Sihl River, the area is still a mix of blue-collar housing and mild sleaze—two things that foreigners don't usually equate with Switzerland—but stylish new watering holes are giving it a second lease on life. The Industrial Quarter, directly west of the Limmat River, has cleaned up its seedy drug scene and transformed itself into Zürich's Silicon Alley. Young entrepreneurs are drawn by the cheap rents, huge lofts, numerous high-tech businesses, design shops, and warehouse-like dance clubs.
Had enough of the city's modern side?Check out the die-hard classics.
Hotels: The Baur au Lac (1 Talstrasse; 41-1/220-5020; doubles from $372) has reigned as Zürich's toniest hotel since being founded by the Baur family in 1844. Thanks to a recent $44 million renovation, the stately property is better than ever. The Dolder Grand (65 Kurhausstrasse; 41-1/269-3000; doubles from $324), on a hillside just north of town, is a sprawling castle of a hotel.
Restaurants, Bars, and Cafés: Dark wood paneling, chandeliers, coats of arms, and a Miró and Matisse here and there lend a dignified air to the celebrated schnitzel and Rösti at Kronenhalle (4 Rämistrasse; 41-1/251-6669; dinner for two $42). The James Joyce Pub (8 Pelikanstrasse; 41-1/221-1828) isn't the most authentic Swiss bar in town, but it's loaded with history. The interior was salvaged from the pub at Jury's Hotel in Dublin, where the Irish laureate hung out. Expect lots of brews, lots of Brits, and amazing Swiss-style cheeseburgers (no bun). Colorful, cramped Café Schober (4 Münstergasse; 41-1/251-8060) in the Altstadt serves up a dizzying array of rich desserts.
Shopping: Forget Toblerone bars and go for the champagne truffles and other melt-in-your-mouth confections at Sprüngli (21 Bahnhofstrasse, at Paradeplatz; 41-1/224-4711; other locations throughout Zürich), the chocolate shop that locals swear is Switzerland's best. Head to the five-story Bally flagship store (66 Bahnhofstrasse; 41-1/224-3939) for its signature leather goods, as well as new lines of sleek, Prada-esque clothes for men and women.
True, Zürich has plenty of art and music. But it's so close to other major cultural spots that you should hop a train and head out of town for a day. Consider these easy trips, all less than an hour from Zürich by rail (for fares and schedules, contact SBB, the Swiss national rail system, online at www.sbb.ch).
Lucerne: Switzerland doesn't get more picturesque than the medieval lakeside town where Walt Disney got ideas for his first theme park. Just yards from the Cinderella streetscapes is the cutting-edge lakefront Culture & Conference Center (1 Europaplatz; 41-41/226-7979), a state-of-the-art music hall.
Basel: Europe's pharmaceutical capital is home to two important new museums. The Museum Jean Tinguely (Solitude-Park; 41-61/681-9320) showcases the Swiss artist's kinetic Tinkertoy-like sculptures as well as works by his contemporaries. The Fondation Beyeler (101 Baselstrasse; 41-61/645-9700; www.beyeler.com) displays Ernst and Hildy Beyeler's superb Modernist and African art collections in an exquisite Renzo Piano-designed building. Design nuts can take a 45-minute bus ride from Basel across the German border to Weil am Rhein, home of the modern furniture manufacturer Vitra (1 Charles-Eames-Strasse; 49-7621/702-3200). Its campus-like headquarters includes a museum and buildings designed by Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, and other heavyweight architects.
Schaffhausen: A mile from the famed Rhine Falls, in a converted factory, is the Hallen für Neue Kunst (23 Baumgartenstrasse; 41-52/625-2515), one of the world's largest and most important collections of minimalist art, with installations by the likes of Donald Judd, Carl André, and Dan Flavin.
Though it doesn't quite swing like London or party all night like Madrid, Zürich still has plenty of life after dark. The bar of the moment is Schmuklerski (101 Badenerstrasse; 41-1/241-1541), a sleek boîte owned by a local soccer star. In summer, the buzzing scene spills out into the back yard. Nearby is Si Noi (6 Ankerstrasse; 41-1/241-0301), a more relaxed lounge serving tasty tapas, mojitos, and caipirinhas. On Tuesday nights, the Widder Bar in the Widder Hotel (7 Rennweg; 41-1/224-2411) is a great spot to catch live jazz and have a nightcap from the 800-bottle "liquor library." For Zürich's young and beautiful, the only place to dance is Kaufleuten (adjoining the restaurant at 18 Pelikanstrasse; 41-1/225-3300). The gilded hall has all the trappings of a major club—velvet ropes, guest lists, long lines, $10 cocktails—but surprisingly little attitude.