Experience Zurich's transformation from industrial to cultural hub
After years as a notoriously known quantity, Zurich is beginning to embrace the new and unknown. With confidence in its financial sector shaken, the city finally seems ready to celebrate other industries, offering a wealth of old and new cultural attractions for visitors.
Major construction projects in Zurich West, the former industrial heart, will come to an end this summer with the completion of Prime Tower, a 126-metre skyscraper rising out of an old cogwheel factory. Switzerland's tallest tower crowns a decade-long renaissance that has transformed the surrounding factories and warehouses, which once helped to make Zurich an economic powerhouse, into the concert halls, studios and art galleries it needs to become a cultural hub. In the adjoining buildings and open spaces, edgy restaurants and clubs cater for the arriving creative class and a growing number of curious visitors.
Die-hard fans need not fret, as the city still offers the glittering jewellery, designer names and private, luxury boltholes with which it is most associated. But for visitors who want to be amused, entertained, shocked or inspired, there has never been a better time to visit.
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A comfortable bed
The five-star Baur au Lac (www.bauraulac.ch; 00 41 44 220 5020), set on two square kilometres of parkland overlooking Lake Zurich, has offered reliable luxury for more than 160 years and shows no sign of changing despite a US$50 million overhaul - prices start from 870 Swiss francs (Dh3,435) per night for a double. For a boutique atmosphere, the Widder Hotel (www.widderhotel.ch; 00 41 44 254 2526) offers 42 rooms inside a converted townhouse. Double rooms from 755 francs (Dh2,980) per night.
The Dolder Grand (www.thedoldergrand.com; 00 41 44 456 6000) is a brisk 40-minute walk down to the centre (very enjoyable on a clear day), but is set into the forest and offers more of a retreat, including a private golf course and tennis courts, one of the city's best restaurants and a 4,000 sq m spa. Double rooms from 540 francs (Dh2,130) per night.
Find your feet
Most visitors arrive at the Hauptbahnhof (main station) in the centre of the city, which serves as an excellent starting point for a circular walking tour of approximately 2.5 km. Leave the south exit of the station, walking down the main shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse, to the upper tip of the crystal-blue Zürichsee before crossing the River Limmat to walk back through the medieval buildings of the Altstadt. End with a stop at Rathaus Café's sunny terrace overlooking the river (www.rathauscafe.ch).
Although the twin towers of the Grossmünster Cathedral in the Altstadt dominate Zurich's skyline, I've always preferred staring through the stunning Marc Chagall-designed stained-glass windows of the Fraumünster on the opposite side of the Limmat.
This tour takes in the traditional sights, but to reach the buzzing creative heart of Zurich West, you'll need to walk the other way out of the Hauptbahnhof and west along Limmatstrasse. After approximately 1.5km, past the Museum of Design and the new art galleries, you'll reach the "Viadukt", a converted railway artery that now supplies creative blood to Zurich West. Nestled underneath 19th-century arches are boutiques and restaurants showcasing Zurich's creative scene, paying rents below the city average to ensure a shopping experience not found elsewhere. A great starting point is the covered Markthalle at the north end, a restaurant and market with a colourful, fresh selection of traditional food alongside delicacies from further afield.
Meet the locals
During summer, skis are swapped for swimsuits as residents dive into Lake Zurich or, more accurately, the roped-off swimming areas along the banks; Seebad Utoquai and Seebad Enge are two of the nicest. Many also offer spas, but on a cloudy day the deliciously warm spring water and rooftop views of the Hürlimann Spa (www.thermalbad-zuerich.ch) can't be beaten. Prices start from 32 francs (Dh126).
In the evening, join the city's music fans for a performance at the Opernhaus, one of Europe's most prestigious classical music venues, or head west again to the Schiffbau. This converted shipyard is now run as an extension of Zurich's influential Schauspielhaus theatre, hosting emerging and experimental performances. True culture vultures should time their visit to coincide with the Zurich Festival (June 17 to July 10), an impressive schedule of music, dance, theatre and art shows across the city's best venues.
The Art-Deco Barfussbar (Bare Foot Bar; www.barfussbar.ch) on the left bank of the Limmat has an evening cultural programme on Wednesday and an open-air disco on Thursday and Sunday nights - as long as you're prepared to take your shoes off. Events are held on the deck of the women's swimming baths but it's open to all from mid-May to mid-September.
Book a table
Head away from the Bahnhofstrasse to avoid the city's exorbitantly priced restaurants, many of which cater almost exclusively to tourists. LaSalle (www.lasalle-restaurant.ch) offers clean lines and simple French- and Italian-inspired cuisine below the high roof of the Schiffbau, with starters around 25 francs (Dh99) and main courses between 35 francs and 45 francs (Dh138 to Dh178). In November, the Dolder Grand Restaurant became Zurich's only eatery with two Michelin stars. A four-course meal here costs from 148 francs (Dh585).
Hiltl (www.hiltl.ch) opened in 1898 as Europe's first vegetarian restaurant and continues to offer a selection of dishes that puts most others to shame, with reasonable prices - main courses are around 20 francs to 30 francs (Dh79 to Dh118).
The best of Zurich's "staple" shops - jewellers, chocolatiers and major fashion houses - are to be found along the Bahnhofstrasse, where windows glint with impossibly priced watches and displays of Switzerland's finest chocolate creations. The street was supposedly modelled on the Champs-Elysées in Paris, although it lacks the architectural splendidness of its French counterpart. A more authentic experience can be had in the hilly streets of the Lindenhof, clustered around St Peter's Church between Bahnhofstrasse and the river, including the historical Schipfe district, home to the city's artisans for hundreds of years.
The Zurich West and Aussersihl districts, which include the Viadukt, are where Zurich's homegrown fashion scene thrives, including boutiques of noted Swiss designers such as Ida Gut, Tran Hin Phu and Freitag. Zurich locals Markus and Daniel Freitag came up with the idea of recycling truck tarpaulin into messenger bags back in 1993 and their products can now be found around the world, displayed nowhere more impressively than in the flagship store, constructed from stacked shipping containers, on Geroldstrasse. It's worth climbing up through the nine containers that form the tower for the view from the top alone.
What to avoid
Zurich is fairly small and boasts a superb public transport network, making the city's expensive taxis unnecessary for the most part.
A spin around Lake Zurich on a Zürichsee ferry is one of the few reasonably priced tourist experiences to be had: the "short" panoramic round trips start from 8.20 francs (Dh32) and last for an hour and a half, although longer day trips to the end of Lake Zurich and the island of Ufenau are also available. Head to Bürkliplatz at the end of Bahnhofstrasse to buy your ticket and board a boat, but get there early if you want a seat on the deck.
Updated: May 20, 2011 04:00 AM