Brilliant hues of red and yellow blur past me as I pedal my bike along the meandering River Limmat. It’s autumn here in Zürich, and the tall trees lining the gravel path have donned the rich colors of the season. I pass a woman in a buttoned sweater who is sitting in the grass, reading a novel. Then a man in a business suit zooms past on a scooter, a smile on his face as he heads to destinations unknown.
Further down, the gurgle of the river is drowned out by a group of children playing along the river bank. They call to each other in the German dialect that is found here in Zürich, but I struggle to understand their words. Even though I speak German, the Swiss have dozens of dialects and each one is different.
Such distinctive dialects reflect years of isolation. For centuries, the regions of this alpine land were separated from each other — and the world. Although Zürich’s roots go back to 15 BC when the Romans erected a customs station on Lindenhof, one of the town hills, it wasn’t until 1848 that the cantons of Switzerland united in confederation. Even today, there is still a friendly, competitive spirit between the 26 cantons.
Tidy is a word that describes this city in general. Colorful window boxes adorn the brick apartment buildings, while further out in the suburbs, many homes have small gardens out back, with nary a weed or plant out of place. The streets have the usual traffic — after all, with 365,000 residents and almost a million people in the surrounds, Zürich is the country’s biggest city — but there is no honking, and cars stop politely for pedestrians in the crosswalks.
Yet Zürich has grown past Heidi-land clichés into a world-class, international destination. A rich influx of immigration has changed the city face. Locals of all skin tones fill the streets, reflecting rich heritages that stem from all over the world.
Zürich enjoys a beautiful location on the edge of Lake Zürich, with green Alps rising nearby. The River Limmat winds through town, dividing the city in half. Colorful window boxes adorn the brick apartment buildings, while farther out in the suburbs, many homes have small gardens out back, with nary a weed or plant out of place.
With 365,000 residents and almost a million people in the surrounds, Zürich is the country’s biggest city. Although the city’s roots go back to 15 BC, it wasn’t until 1848 that the cantons of Switzerland united in confederation. Today, Zürich is a world-class, international destination. A rich influx of immigration has changed the city’s face. It’s not uncommon to find Chinese or Lebanese cuisine for offer next to a Swiss restaurant selling traditional schnitzel and rösti (hash brown potato cakes).
Once known as a banking and business center, the city has slowly reinvented itself. Evidence of this renaissance is best viewed in Züri West (West Zürich). The once-abandoned structures of this former manufacturing area have been transformed into fashionable restaurants, shops and apartments.
I park my bike at the Schiffbau, a former boat-manufacturing facility that is now one of the hottest spots in town. It’s still early morning, and I wander past La Salle Restaurant, where they are laying fresh white linens on the tables. I peer into Moods, a tiny jazz bar, and into the windows of a theater. From there, I pedal over to the former Löwenbrau brewery plant, which now houses five art galleries and three museums.
Zipping around Zürich by bicycle is enjoyable, and it’s a good idea, since parking spaces are hard to come by. There are numerous bike lanes along the wide, clean streets. For a small deposit, visitors can obtain a bike for free at the bike station behind the Hauptbahnhof (main train station).
The best city transportation value is the Zürich Card, which gives access to all forms of public transport (bus, trams and ferries), as well as free entrance to 43 museums. The card costs about the same as a nice meal out. I’ve also bought Eurail’s Swiss Pass, which allows me to go anywhere in Switzerland during a 7-day time period.
The city’s best shopping can be found south of the train station, on Bahnhofstraße, which offers numerous treasures, from high-end designer clothing to the world’s best watches. Switzerland is not part of the European Union, and it seems to have higher prices than many other places in Europe. At times, the prices can be shocking, such as having to pay US$ 15 for two small bottles of water.
Old Town, a pedestrian-only zone not far from the Hauptbahnhof, is filled with winding cobblestone alleys, ancient churches and centuries of history.
Frescoed paintings adorn many of the 16th- and 17th-century houses. St. Peters Church has one of the biggest clocks in Europe, its tower dating to the 13th century. St. Peterhofstatt, the romantic square in front of the church, is a nice place to relax and people watch ― and if you get thirsty, you can slake your thirst at the nearby fountain. (Zürich has more than 1,100 ornamental fountains, each offering clean drinking water.)
Nearby, Fraumünster on the Münsterhofplatz, a 13th-century church, is best known for its stained-glass windows that were designed by Russian artist Marc Chagall in 1970. The panels depict the lives of the prophets and Biblical stories.
Not far from there is a well-known Swiss temptation ― decadent chocolates and other sweets, sold at the Café Conditorei Schober on Münstergasse 22.
There are other temptations in Zürich as well; the city has a hopping night life. Most of the action can be found across the River Limmat in Niederdorf, where the narrow streets are filled with bars, clubs, restaurants and cinemas. Those wishing to relax with a drink can choose from wine bars to bierhallen(beer halls). The Swiss drink more wine than beer, since local wines are excellent.
Later, I board a refurbished paddle boat for a two-hour ride across Lake Zürich to the resort village of Rapperswill. Lunch is served onboard, and as I eat my brot und tomatensuppe (thick bread and tomato soup), I enjoy the view of cattle grazing on the verdant hills and sailboats scudding across the lake.
The small, medieval village looks like it hasn’t changed much over the centuries. It’s filled with beautifully kept homes that date to the Middle Ages. Large stones line the narrow lanes, and a castle with a tower perches on the hill.
Rapperwill is often called the “City of Roses,” as more than 1,600 blooms perfume the air from May through October. I see plenty of the flowers climbing up the buildings as I wander through town. There is a music festival going on this evening, and the haunting sounds of a solo saxophone echo in the streets as I explore the winding alleys.
As I climb the hill to the castle, the sun is beginning to set. When I reach the peak, it casts its last rays across the valley below, stretching to the Glarner Alps and across to the Zürich highlands. I climb up onto the stone wall and sit, taking in the peaceful view. Then, slowly, I make my way down the lanes of Rapperswill, my shoes clicking on the ancient walkways.
If You Go
Where to Stay
Once home to a German-speaking theater, the Hotel du Théâtre (Seilergraben 69; + 41 1 267 267 0; www.hotel-du-theatre.ch) is now a lovely boutique hotel. Located just a five-minute walk from the main train station, the hotel has chic décor; the price includes a sizeable breakfast. Doubles start at CHF 195 (US$ 156).
The Hotel zum Storchen (Am Weinplatz 2; + 41 1 227 2727; www.storchen.ch) is located on the River Limmat, just a few minutes walk to the financial district and the famous Bahnhofstraße. Doubles start around CHF 550 (US$ 440).
For those on a budget, the Hotel Adler (Rosengasse 10, + 41 1 266 96 96; www.hotel-adler.ch) is a good bet. Located in a 14th-century building in Old Town, the hotel was renovated in 1997. The Swiss Chuchi, the hotel restaurant, offers excellent fondue. Doubles start at CHF 190 (around US$ 152).
Where to Eat
Hiltl Restaurant (Sihlstraße 28; + 41 44 227 70 00, www.hiltl.ch) is the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Zürich, dating back to 1898. There is a huge buffet, and you simply pay by the weight of your plate. They specialize in all kinds of juice drinks. Dinner averages CHF 31 (US$ 25) per person, without wine.
Oliver Twist Pub (Rindermarkt 6; www.pickwick.ch/zuerich/events.html; + 41 44 – 252 47 10) is a popular British-style pub where local Irish and English ex-pats like to hang out. A fun place to kick back with a cold one. Dinners start around CHF 15 (US$ 12).
The Zeughauskeller (Bahnhofstraße 28, + 41 01 211 26 90; www.zeughauskeller.ch) is a traditional Swiss restaurant with a long history. (It was built in 1487.) The Zeughauskeller serves hearty dishes in large portions at reasonable prices. Dinners start around CHF 22 (US$ 18).
La Salle (Schiffbaustraße 4, +41 44 258 70 71; www.lasalle-restaurant.ch) is an upscale restaurant located in a former shipbuilding plant in West Zürich. Although the décor is reminiscent of the factory’s former days, the atmosphere is very modern. Main courses start around CHF 27 (US$ 21). After dinner, head over to Moods for live jazz.