I'll start with a confession. For the better part of 20 years I've been carrying on a string of illicit rendezvous in various corners of the world. The locations have largely been familiar, the names recognizable, and the intensity of the liaisons universally equal. I have done my best to be discreet, have always been respectful of the feelings of others, and have lavished all with the attention they rightly deserve.
In the summer of 1983, at age 14, I had my first summer fling. With my maternal grandmother as my chaperone, we embarked on our own self-styled Grand Tour of Europe. It was my first extended trip without parental supervision, my first transatlantic crossing, and the first time I experienced those odd, unfamiliar feelings of obsession.
Our journey started in London, jumped to Paris, went north to Stockholm, and then circled back down to Essen for a visit with family. Using the Ruhr Valley as a base for visiting other cities, we planned a brief jaunt through Switzerland. Having already been on the road for nearly a month, I was well versed in which nations had the best rail networks. British Rail was in a steep decline even then, France's SNCF was comfortable and punctual, Sweden's national railway had charming living room–style seating in first class, but nothing quite prepared me for my first trip on Switzerland's SBB.
Stepping into the dark-olive carriage in late July, we had the entire car to ourselves. The setting was immaculate—the cotton headrests were crisp, the windows were spotless. Two decades later I can still smell the cabin, a scent that could only be described as reassuringly "railroad," the product of various petroleum-based substances sticking to the undercarriage, horsehair in the seats, and sweet tobacco .
We crossed the Swiss frontier, and I don't think I uttered a word for the next two hours. Hurtling by outside was an entire childhood spent playing with model trains brought to life in full size and vivid color . Like most boys of my generation, model-train sets made up an essential part of my toy box, and the towns of either Switzerland or Austria seemed to have provided the blueprint for the miniature replicas made by brands like Mârklin and Herpa.
From my rear-facing seat, I watched as perfectly proportioned villas with orange-and–chocolate brown awnings zipped past. On the shores of tiny lakes were picnicking families and small stands selling sausages. Cheerful villages were a blur of window boxes, bursting with geraniums, and leathery-looking pensioners taking the sun in their garden allotments. Everything in Switzerland was just as it had appeared in the perfect world of my model-train catalogues .
Ninety minutes after we left Germany, the greenery gave way to the start of a city. The geraniums were still visible but were now housed on the balconies of lean high-rises; silent trams carved through the leafy neighborhoods . As soon as this ordered urbanism appeared, our boxy little carriage started jolting from one track to the next and, before long, platform signs for Zurich started slipping into view. Stepping off the train, I was smitten. Zurich was the capital of my faultless model-train world, an instant infatuation, and the start of an urban obsession.
The city that greeted us was a deeply civilized, if somewhat buttoned-down , affair. Perfect for a recently retired grandmother and her grandson companion . It was compact, safe, easy to navigate, and a pleasant mix of quaint and unswervingly modern. Having budgeted only 48 hours to see Zurich, we spent our days along the Bahnhofstrasse eating dainty cakes, drinking freshly pressed blood-orange juice, and buying up as many of a new type of plastic Swiss watch as our bags would accommodate. The summer of 1983 saw the launch of the Swatch—and a turnaround for an industry that was fighting hard to stay relevant in the face of stiff competition from Japanese brands.
Sitting in the dining carriage on our return to Germany, I wrote in my journal: "Zurich is the most pleasant city we've visited over the past four weeks. All cities should be so easy for visitors." I went on to praise our little hotel, in the city's Old Town, with its voluminous duvets; the carved-wood farm animals I bought for my mom; and the glamour of buying a Rolex from a very elegant lady at Bucherer, on the Bahnhofstrasse. Once I was home, in Montreal, Zurich was the only city I spoke of to family and friends. London and Paris scarcely got a mention in conversations about my first tour of Europe.
It took me almost a decade to get back to Zurich. In the intervening period I'd managed to fall for other cities too. I loved the physical beauty and optimism of Sydney. After a series of quick trips to Tokyo, I found little to fault in its unfailing attention to detail and boundless energy. And London, snubbed the first time round, had become home . But I was never able to shake my abiding fascination for Switzerland's biggest city.
Yet Zurich is not big. It might punch above its weight internationally in areas of finance, insurance, and pharmaceuticals, but no matter how many surrounding suburbs and villages you might want to add to its head count , it would never qualify as a large, sprawling metropolis. At a stretch , Zurich proper can muster a population of just 400,000. Locals like to say the surrounding area brings the number up to a million, but it's tricky to see how they get to this tally. Besides, they shouldn't bother. Despite being generally quite expensive, the city consistently takes top place in quality-of-life surveys because it's able to combine compact proportions, global influence, and a strategic position at the heart of Europe to lure corporate headquarters and give residents a lifestyle that has few competitors . The only problem with these surveys is that they tend to miss out on the emotional, occasionally intangible, qualities that make cities truly great.
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.
The winter of 2002 was spent getting this new airline, Swiss, airborne, and before long, without time to really even consider my move, I left London, where I had lived for nearly 13 years, and became a Zuricher . Meanwhile, the new carrier was still in turmoil, despite our branding efforts: passenger volume at the airports was dropping and routes were being axed.
I've been a resident of Zurich for going on three years now and have based both my company and some parts of my life here. I continue to carry on my fling with London, have long been doing the same with Stockholm, and added St. Moritz to my list a few years ago, when I rediscovered skiing. Among all these places, I'm not entirely sure where "home" is. My friends are mostly in London, my spiritual home is my summer house in the Stockholm archipelago, and Zurich picks up the slack for everything else. For both visitors and residents, the city makes entertaining incredibly easy. New York, Paris, and London have increasingly become obsessed with guest lists, knowing the doorman, and planning everything in advance; Zurich is a place where you can decide to have a night out after you've folded your napkin at 10:30 P.M. All over various districts of the city, bars stay open late, are populated by handsome people, and don't require customers to endure attitude from a jumped-up kid with a clipboard and earpiece.
My favorite Zurich activity is one that could happen only in a city with the best quality of life in the world. On hot, sunny days in July and August, when the air is heavy and the work at the office too much to bear, I have a quiet word with my colleague Andrea and tell her to forward the phones to London. Andrea smiles, knowing exactly what I have in mind. We summon our other colleagues, and all of us make a dash for the wardrobe, dig out our swimsuits, and make our way down to the Limmat River. Leaving our towels at the public bathing pavilion, we dive into the river and swim down along the banks to the lake . They say that in summer Zurichers never leave, because the lake is so perfect and the weather's at its best. I've found it difficult to argue when work and pleasure can be woven together so seamlessly.
WHERE TO STAY
Hotel Baur au Lac As you sip a glass of chilled Swiss white on the terrace, one word that will come to mind is civilized. The people-watching is always fun, and the steak tartare is top quality.
DOUBLES FROM $550
1 TALSTRASSE; 41-44/220-5020
Park Hyatt ZürichThe Park Hyatt is the most recent five-star addition to the city's landscape, and the most modern. On the plus side, it's as full-service as they come; on the downside, it's not quite on a par with its cousin in Tokyo.
DOUBLES FROM $420
21 BEETHOVENSTRASSE; 888/591-1234 OR 41-43/883-1234
Hotel Rössli Rössli, in the heart of the Old Town, has one of the best rooms in the city. Atop the annex building across from the main hotel is a penthouse apartment with a wonderful terrace. The place is perfect for two traveling couples or for families, and with your own keys you can come and go as you please.
DOUBLES FROM $215; PENTHOUSE FROM $500
7 RÖSSLIGASSE; 41-44/256-7050
Hotel Seehof From the same owners as the Rössli, the Seehof is everything a hotel should be —with no silly extras. There's a lovely bar in the lobby, the rooms are simple and modern, , and after 11 P.M. you let yourself in.
DOUBLES FROM $215
11 SEEHOFSTRASSE; 41-44/254-5757
WHERE TO EAT
Bürgli Just down the coast of the lake , Bürgli has a beautiful garden, , chirpy staff, does a wonderful entrecôte with Café de Paris sauce , and has a well-chosen wine list .
DINNER FOR TWO $80
15 KILCHBERGSTRASSE; 41-44/482-8100
Café Schober You'll be hard pressed to decide whether Schober is cozy or just camp. Every season this café quite literally goes crazy with decorations. At Christmas, large stuffed bears climb trees; at Easter, there's a riot of bunnies, eggs, and chicks suspended from the ceiling. Get in early for breakfast and order a hot chocolate.
BREAKFAST FOR TWO $10
Emilio This Spanish restaurant offers a range of things on its menu, but excels in one dish—roast chicken and chips.
DINNER FOR TWO $55
9 ZWEIERSTRASSE; 41-44/241-8321
Manta Bar Attached to the side of a men's store, Manta Bar is an ideal pit stop for those who've headed to Zurich for a spot of watch shopping. It's just down the street from Bucherer—the place to buy a Rolex.
42 BAHNHOFSTRASSE; 41-43/344-8500
Restaurant Kronenhalle It really doesn't get any better.
DINNER FOR TWO $115
Restaurant Sonnenberg Have a drink and a snack next door to the world headquarters of the Fédération Internationale de Football Association and take note of what the gardeners have done with the shape of the shrubs.
Vorderer Sternen Grill Anytime you feel a little peckish, you can find perfectly cooked sausages, rustic rolls, and mustard at this busy stand . Don't be put off by the queue.
22 THEATERSTRASSE; 41-44/251-4949
WHERE TO SHOP
Brunos Italian men's wear, including a large selection of hats.
44 BAHNHOFSTRASSE; 41-44/211-029
Confiserie Sprüngli Paris has Ladurée and its macaroons; Zurich has Sprüngli and its hamburger shaped Luxemburgerli . The macaroons-in-miniature are packed in iconic little blue-and-white boxes.
21 BAHNHOFSTRASSE; 41-44/224-4711
Elastique Good furniture dealers. Trades in Swiss classics and interesting one-offs .
19 GRÜNGASSE; www.elastique.ch
Fidelio If you need a quick fashion fix, Fidelio covers all the bases —Helmut Lang and the like—and also throws in some surprises.
1 MÜNZPLATZ; 41-44/211-1311
Globus AG Bellevue The original Globus, tucked just off the Bahnhofstrasse, has undergone a massive renovation and is also worth a look, but at its subterranean Bellevue location the retailer has taken its food hall to new heights, or depths. The perfect place to pull together a picnic for an afternoon by the lake.
12 THEATERSTRASSE; 41-44/266-1616
Orell Füssli A temple for books on art and architecture. The range is challenging—even exhausting—and always perfectly curated.
70 BAHNHOFSTRASSE; 41-44/211-0444
Pastorini Spielzeug This toy store specializes in wooden playthings and is the last of its kind in Switzerland.
3 WEINPLATZ; 41-44/228-7070
Rämistrasse Best side street for a quick hit of stationery, meat, or odd Swiss orthopedic footwear.
SteinhauerUp the road from Kronenhalle, Steinhauer prides itself on offering a highly edited, top-quality mix of housewares and fashion basics. Here you can get anything from Italian glassware and Tidstrand blankers from Verbier to superiors underwear from Swiss brand Zimmerli.
27 RÄMISTRASSE; 41-44/252-6661
What to Do
Seebad Enge A nice bikini or pair of trunks, two towels, and a few francs are all you need to have one of the best days Europe affords. This low-slung bathing pavilion has both women-only and mixed sides, is built out over the lake, and provides rafts for sunbathing and catching your breath. Arrive early for a cappuccino and a bowl of homemade Birchermuesli, and apply your Piz Buin liberally . 1 MYTHENQUAI; 41-44/201-3889
Spend the morning hours swimming, stand-up paddle-boarding, and yoga-ing at this seasonal bath by Lake Zurich. At night, the bathing facilities transform into a bar and revelers continue the fun. There are also outdoor acoustic concerts, live readings, and parties. Fortunately, you don't have to be traveling to Zurich in the summer to enjoy Seebad Enge: the sauna is open year-round.
Globus AG Bellevue
Create a lunch to go at this specialty grocer with an excellent wine cellar, a vast gourmet deli, and artful displays of jams, honeys, and chocolates.
Sprüngli serves its iconic hamburger shaped Luxemburgerli. The shop also has one of the best deals in Zurich, 10 truffles for $7.
Hotel Seehof, Zurich
Park Hyatt Zürich
Well positioned within Zurich, Park Hyatt is a modern take on city luxury, and offers plush accomodations for those seeking modernity and a high quality level of service.