Zurich's natural setting of a large lake, two rivers and tree-covered hills—plus its crisp, clean air—contribute to its excellent quality of life, for residents as well as visitors. Its Old Town is full of churches with tall steeples, medieval guildhalls, cobblestoned alleys and trickling fountains. No wonder the fabled "Gnomes of Zurich" like to do their financial business there.
This lovely Swiss city is more than a conservative banking town, though. It's also a center for contemporary art, alternative youth culture and an energetic party scene. A number of old buildings—including a dairy, brewery and shipbuilding factory—have been converted into more modern uses, such as museums, galleries, restaurants, bars and nightclubs.
Zurich is Switzerland's most cosmopolitan and multicultural city, as more than 30% of its residents are foreigners. It's also consistently named one of the best cities in the world in terms of quality of life—if not the best. Zurich certainly has something for everyone, from banking to the latest in hip-hop and jazz, as well as fine restaurants and haute fashion.
Zurich is at the northern end of Zurichsee (Lake Zurich), and tree-covered hills loosely embrace the city on its three remaining sides. The best strategy in terms of zeroing in on sights and points of interest is to know the location of various neighborhoods and their main streets. The Old Town (Altstadt), which covers ground on both sides of the Limmat River, has most of the city's historical sights. Its northern border is formed by Bahnhofplatz and Bahnhofbrucke, its eastern border by Seilergraben, its southern border by Ramistrasse and Quaibrucke, and its western border by Bahnhofstrasse (the city's most famous street).
On the east bank of the Limmat are two popular neighborhoods: Niederdorf in the north and Oberdorf in the south. Limmatquai runs along the eastern bank of the Limmat River. Running parallel to it a block or two inland are Niederdorfstrasse (in the north) and Oberdorfstrasse (in the south). At the northern end of Niederdorf is a plaza called Central—it's a major tram hub.
The city center continues east of Bahnhofstrasse to the Sihl River. Two neighborhoods east of the Sihl River are nightlife hot spots. Zurich West (known as Zuri West) covers a large area that extends east of the train station, bordered by the rail lines to the south and the Limmat River to the north. The western end of Zurich West is a former industrial quarter where several abandoned factories have been converted into museums, restaurants, nightclubs and bars. South of the rail lines is Aussersihl, another neighborhood with plenty of bars, clubs and restaurants. North of the city center is the suburb of Oerlikon, and a bit farther north is Kloten, where the airport is located.
Zurich also extends along the eastern and western sides of Lake Zurich, with beautiful parks and promenades hugging both shores. At the northern end of the eastern shore are Bellevueplatz and Sechselautenplatz, two main squares. Utoquai runs along the shore and then becomes Bellerivestrasse, which runs inland until it meets a beach area at Zurichhorn, a tip of land that juts out into the lake. Another main north-south thoroughfare there is Seefeldstrasse, which lends its name (Seefeld) to the surrounding neighborhood. Running along the western shore of the lake is Mythenquai. A few blocks inland is Seestrasse. Enge and Wollishofen are neighborhoods on the western shore.
Finally, several nearby hills (small mountains) are important recreation spots. Southwest of the Old Town is Uetliberg, the tallest mountain near Zurich. To the northwest is Kaferberg, to the northeast Zurichberg and to the southeast Adlisberg. The area called Dolder, which is home to a famous hotel of the same name, is on the northwestern edge of Adlisberg.
Human settlements have existed in the area of present-day Zurich since the Bronze Age. Around 15 BC, Rome fortified the area and made it a customs post. However, it wasn't until the 10th century that Zurich began to develop into a significant town and trading center.
The silk and wool trade brought wealth to the city's merchants in the 11th and 12th centuries. In 1336, guilds of artisans and traders took over the town government (they held control until the 19th century). The guilds are still celebrated today in a yearly parade in the spring, Sechselauten, steeped in tradition. In 1351, Zurich joined the Swiss Confederation. In the early 1500s, the city became a center of the Protestant Reformation, spurred on by the preaching of Huldrich Zwingli.
In the 1800s, Zurich began to develop into Switzerland's transportation hub and became an economic powerhouse through banking and manufacturing. Switzerland maintained neutrality during World War I and World War II, and Zurich attracted a good number of dissidents during those years. But the country's, as well as the city's, banks later faced allegations and lawsuits concerning the return of monies stashed there by the Nazis.
In the past several decades, Zurich has grown into a leading financial center, as well as Switzerland's largest city and cultural center.
The Old Town contains almost all of the city's historical sights. Because it's a relatively small and compact area, there's no need to map out an exact route in advance or set a strict timetable—just stroll at your leisure, taking a closer look at the churches, guild houses and squares as you come across them.
The main monuments are churches, and their tall towers serve as handy reference points. The Grossmunster in Oberdorf has twin towers—they resemble asparagus tips. The Fraumunster is opposite the Grossmunster, on the western bank of the Limmat River. It has a single tower that's crowned with a tall green pointed steeple. The visual highlights at both churches are the 20th-century stained-glass windows by Augusto Giacometti and Marc Chagall.
St. Peterskirche, the oldest parish church in the city, is north of the Fraumunster. The large clock faces on all four sides of the tower are its most distinguishing feature. Other architectural standouts include the Rathaus (town hall) and various guild houses, most of which now house restaurants. One exception is Zunfthaus zur Meisen. The Swiss National Museum uses its rococo rooms to display a collection of porcelain and faience pottery.
Zurich's museum landscape is very impressive in terms of the number, variety and quality of collections and exhibitions. The Schweizerisches Landesmuseum grabs your attention with its stately and somewhat imposing architecture—it was built to look like a castle, using salvaged material and copying features of notable buildings all over the country. Its equally ambitious exhibits document the cultural and artistic history of Switzerland.
Zurich's premier fine-arts museum, Kunsthaus, also has a broad and comprehensive scope (from old masters to 20th-century art). Sammlung E.G. Buhrle, on the other hand, reveals a private collector's specialized taste (mostly French impressionist paintings).
Zurich really shines when it comes to contemporary art. Three innovative museums in the Lowenbrau Areal in Zurich West—Migros Museum fur Gegenwartkunst, Daros Exhibitions and Kunsthalle—are very much worth a visit. Helmhaus in Oberdorf has made a name for itself with its innovative temporary exhibitions. Museum Rietberg showcases non-European art and artifacts (mostly Asian) in its three venues.
In 2010, the construction of an underground garage near the Opera House in Zurich's center was halted after the discovery of archaeological artifacts from the Bronze Age. Today, visitors can view a new display of these findings at the Parkhaus Opera.
The city's beautiful setting and abundant natural attractions are sure to lure you outdoors. You will want to admire the crystal clear waters flowing out of Lake Zurich and through the city in the Limmat River. Take a cruise or stroll along the lakeside promenades—preferably, do both. For a more lofty perspective of the city, ride the Polybahn from Central to the Polyterrasse or take the train up to Uetliberg.
A good deal in terms of money and convenience is the Zurich Card, a transportation pass valid on trains, buses, trams, boats and funiculars that also provides reduced or free admission to various sights and most museums. It also includes 10% discounts at selected stores and a 50% discount on the public city tour. The 24-hour pass is 24 Sfr for adults, 16 Sfr for children ages 6-16, and the 72-hour pass is 48 Sfr for adults and 32 Sfr for children ages 6-16 (children younger than 6 ride free). You can purchase either pass at the Zurich Tourism Office in the Hauptbahnhof, at the airport, at the lake ferry ticket office at Burkiplatz, or at local hotels and train stations. The Zurich Card can also be ordered online in advance of your visit, either by email with a voucher to be redeemed at the airport or main train station, or sent by mail. You can also buy it as a mobile ticket on your smart phone. http://www.zuerich.com.
Many of Zurich's nightspots defy classification by being a little bit of everything: bar, lounge, restaurant, dance club, special party venue, chill-out space. On the other hand, clubs with a similar appeal are often grouped close to one another, making it possible to hit several spots in one night, if you choose.
Niederdorf has the most general appeal, with bars and clubs popular among locals as well as some typical tourist haunts. Bars and clubs in the Old Town west of the Limmat River are more upscale and appeal to a middle-class, middle-aged clientele. The hippest and trendiest clubs are found in Zurich West, particularly in the former industrial quarter, and in Aussersihl.
The Schiffbau complex, housed in an old shipbuilding factory in Zurich West, offers restaurants, art galleries, a theater and nightclubs. This complex has given Zurich a much-needed boost in an area that was formerly not tourist-friendly.
Cafes, bars and lounges usually attract an early-evening crowd (as early as 9 pm), although dance clubs don't usually start filling up until midnight or later. A good source for what's happening on the local club, bar and restaurant scene is http://www.zueritipp.ch.
The national cuisine of Switzerland is unpretentious and uses locally sourced foods—particularly meat and dairy products. Raclette, rosti
, polenta and fondue are all simple dishes prepared with easily stored basic food items. The cuisine has absorbed many influences from neighboring countries (Austria, Germany, Italy and France), and other international cuisines have become increasingly popular in larger cities. Outside of the cities, however, dining is almost invariably local dishes only.
Swiss specialties include cheese and meat fondues (called fondue chinois or, a different style, fondue bourguignonne), geschnetzeltes Kalbfleisch nach Zurcherart (veal in a delicious cream and mushroom sauce), air-dried beef (Bundnerfleisch) and rosti (grated and fried potatoes).
Raclette, another specialty, is prepared by melting half a round of semisoft cheese over a fire. The melted cheese is scraped directly onto a plate with a wooden blade and served with new potatoes, gherkins and pickled onions. Game (venison and wild boar, referred to as wild) is also quite popular, particularly in autumn and winter.
In cafes, tearooms and less-expensive restaurants, table sharing is common—if your table has vacant seats, it's customary to allow other diners to use them. Dining out is very popular in Zurich, so it's advisable to make a reservation at the more expensive restaurants—which are the most frequented—or if your party is larger than four people.
Breakfast is generally served 8-11 am, lunch 11 am-2 pm and dinner 6:30-11 pm. Many restaurants stay open till midnight or later, but the kitchens usually close by 10 pm.
Expect to pay within these general guidelines, based on the cost of a three course dinner for one, not including drinks, tax and tip: $ = less than 30 Sfr; $$ = 30 Sfr-50 Sfr; $$$ = 51 Sfr-90 Sfr; $$$$ = more than 90 Sfr.
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