Insider Guide: Best of Zurich
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Visitors arriving in Zurich can be forgiven for wondering where the city is.
Church steeples dominate the skyline. Shoes stay clean on century-old cobblestones. And lawyers and bankers jump into the Limmat to swim with the swans during lunchtime.
Which begs the question: Is there any other financial capital in the world where the river is considered fit for water sports?
Something to think about while sitting back, relaxing, and enjoying some cheese and chocolate, along with a few other pleasant surprises that push Zurich to the top of the list when it comes to quality of life.
To begin with, it’s easy to get around.
The entire city is walkable, but this didn’t stop Zurich’s transportation system from building a network of trains, buses, trams, funiculars, and boats to get people exactly where they want to be more efficiently.
Naturally, the transport system connects to the rest of the country too. How could it not when the Alps, visible from across Lake Zurich, are begging to be explored?
The efficiency and beauty of the city come at an expense that, unlike the city itself, is quite large -- no matter how village-like Zurich may seem, it remains Switzerland’s capital of banks and francs.
Please note: Prices listed are for a double room.
The Dolder Grand
Some say the Swiss invented luxury.
These people most likely stayed at The Dolder Grand, where towering turrets and cool glass and steel combine with warm Swiss hospitality for the ultimate first-class experience.
Guests can relax at the 4,000 square-meter spa, dine in several gourmet restaurants, or enjoy a gorgeous view of Zurich followed by walk in the surrounding woods.
Downtown is just a funicular (or limo) ride away and in winter there’s also an ice rink nearby.
The Dolder Grand, Kurhausstrasse 65; +41 44 456 60 00; from SF 700 ($770) per night
There’s only one hotel in Zurich with its own mooring and Storchen Zurich is it.
Located on the banks of the Limmat River, Storchen is a 650-year-old hotel in the heart of the old town.
Only a couple of minutes walk from most of Zurich’s main attractions, all rooms come with Wi-Fi, a regional breakfast, and an esteemed list of former guests. Richard Wagner stayed here. Grimmelshausen stayed here. And John Irving wrote about the hotel in both “A Son of the Circus” and “A Widow for One Year.”
The Storchen’s dining room has possibly the best view of Zurich. Guests can enjoy lobster bisque and Zurich-style veal with potatoes while taking in a view of the swans and steeples framed by geraniums.
Storchen Zurich, Weinplatz 2; +41 44 227 27 27; from SF 600 ($660) per night
B2 Boutique Hotel & Spa
Sleep in a brewery. Then bathe in one.
The B2 Boutique Hotel & Spa was once a place where yeast fermented sugars to release CO2 and ethyl alcohol. Something to raise a glass to in the hotel’s library lounge.
Sitting amongst 33,000 books, guests can drink the very Hurlimann beer that used to be brewed right here before retiring to their converted cold store or mash house now masquerading as a suite or hotel room.
The B2 Boutique Hotel & Spa lives up to its name – guests also receive access to the Thermal Bath & Spa Zurich. The rooftop bar has sprawling views across the city and is a great place to watch the sunset.
B2 Boutique Hotel & Spa, Brandschenkestrasse 152; + 41 44 567 67 67; from SF 370 ($407) per night
Part hotel, part museum, Hotel Helmhaus, which is named after the nearby Helmhaus Art Museum, features a collection of paintings by Swiss artist Gisele Mengis along with a lot of history.
Dating back to 1356, the guesthouse is one of the oldest in Zurich.
Thanks to a five-star location and three-star prices, a steady stream of guests have slept right here for over 650 years.
In the shadow of the Grossmunster Church, with its famous twin steeples, the hotel is within walking distance to almost anything.
For those that prefer a tram tour, Zurich has a solution for that -- the nearest stop is only a few steps away.
Hotel Helmhaus, Schifflande 30; +41 44 266 95 95; from SF 270 ($297) per night
High altitudes and low prices (for Zurich) make Uto Kulm worthy of any traveler’s consideration.
Located at the “Top of Zurich,” in other words, on Zurich’s Uetliberg Mountain, the hotel is a quiet place, not least because its views inspire speechlessness.
Surrounded by nothing but nature but only 30 minutes from the city center, Uto Kulm is a great place to experience how quickly one can go from the center of Zurich to the middle of nowhere.
Uto Kulm, 8143 Uetliberg/Zurich; +41 44 457 66 66; from SF 242 ($266) per night
Is it possible to stay in one of the world’s wealthiest cities without paying high prices?
Hotel Arlette makes it possible.
What it lacks in snob appeal it makes up for with friendly service and a convenient location only 200 meters from Zurich’s main train station.
Hotel Arlette, Stampfenbachstrasse 26; +41 44 252 00 32; from SF 175 ($192) per night
Eating out in Zurich is pricey.
However, it’s worth keeping in mind that service and tax are already included in the price. Those who would like to tip a bit extra, can round up to the nearest franc, but more is not expected.
The best time to get a good deal is at lunch, when many restaurants offer a “menu” or two. This usually means an entree plus soup or salad for one set price.
Zurichers eat lunch exactly at noon; so grabbing the first table involves arriving at 11:59 a.m.
In 1898, when Hiltl opened, vegetarians were regarded as grass eaters.
Luckily the world’s first vegetarian restaurant ignored the carnivore naysayers and proved that “grass” can be great.
With its innovative buffet inspired by palates from Asia, India, the Middle East, and more, Hiltl has become one of the trendiest places to eat in Zurich.
Guests young and old gather to eat jeera dal, barely risotto, and Arab bamja. Free water (which is unusual in Zurich) will save diners about $6.
Next door to the restaurant is the first vegetarian butchery in Switzerland -- selling vegetarian sausages and other non-meat treats.
Haus Hiltl, Sihlstrasse 28; +41 44 227 70 00; moderate
What happens when you move furnishings from Dublin’s Jury’s Hotel to Zurich?
Dine or drink at the James Joyce to find out.
Named in honor of Joyce, who also moved from Dublin to Zurich, the pub offers classics like fish & chips, club sandwiches, and burgers with a Swiss twist (Raclette cheese), as well as the unique opportunity to return to 19th century Ireland in modern-day Switzerland.
James Joyce, Pelikanstrasse 8; +41 44 221 18 28; closed Sunday; moderate
Asia meets Zurich at Tiffins, where keng luang gai, Szechuan shrimp, and tofu masak manis are served with daily drink specials of both the non-alcoholic and alcoholic variety.
Located just a few blocks from the lake, the restaurant is popular with the business crowd at lunchtime, which takes its food to go (for better than average Zurich prices) and enjoys the festive atmosphere along the lake.
Tiffins, Seefeldstrasse 61; +41 44 382 18 88; budget (take away), moderate (dine in)
This restaurant hits all the high notes when it comes to Swiss cuisine, which isn’t surprising considering its location in the Zurich Opera House.
The large glass windows allow for views of both the lake and of the newly redesigned Sechselautenplatz.
The meals are inspiring too. Think Zuri Gschnatzlets (Zurich veal speciality) served with Rosti, fresh Swiss trout cooked in fresh herbs, and a tartare duet where beef and salmon are served together.
Restaurant Belcanto, Sechselautenplatz 1; +41 44 268 64 64; moderate-expensive
This restaurant, which claims to be the first to pioneer the idea of dining in pitch darkness, offers meals that awaken the senses.
Diners can try a three-course surprise menu based on fresh, seasonal ingredients and enjoy it with something other than their eyes. Reservations are essential.
Blinde Kuh, Muhlebachstrasse 148; +41 44 421 50 50; moderate-expensive
Here diners can eat where Goethe slept at Kaiser’s Reblaube, a frescoed medieval building on a cobblestoned street in the heart of the old town.
The roof once was home to a tiny vineyard and the restaurant’s wine tavern honors this history.
There’s a comprehensive wine selection to pair with any meal—whether fruit minestrone with peppermint sorbet and pine seeds, a violet artichoke tarte tatin, or veal fillet with ratatouille.
Reservations are recommended.
Kaiser’s Reblaube, Glockengasse 7; +41 44 221 21 20; closed Sunday and Monday; moderate-expensive
Holy Cow claims it’s revolutionizing fast food and it’s hard to argue with that.
This Lausanne-based burger restaurant, which also opened in Zurich last year, uses local Swiss ingredients, brews its own beer, and cooks every meal to order.
It’s Swiss quality and efficiency at its finest–without the typical Swiss price tag. And the French fries are possibly the best to be found in Switzerland.
Holy Cow, Zahringerstrasse 28; closed Sunday; budget
Movenpick Wine Bar
Two hundred and fifty well-aged wines plus one newly renovated space make for a happy evening, especially since the bartenders seem to like their jobs.
Filled with well-dressed locals, the Movenpick Wine Bar is especially happening (and happy) on Tuesdays and Saturdays when guests can drink as much Premium Pol Roger Champagne as they’d like for SF 35 ($38).
Movenpick Wine Bar, Nuschelerstrasse 1; + 41 44 211 91 39; closed Sunday; moderate-expensive
It might be hard to come back to earth again after a night at Clouds, where cocktails mix with prime views and a sophisticated crowd.
There’s house-made gin and views that only Zurich’s tallest building, the Prime Tower, can provide.
Clouds, Maagplatz 5; +41 44 404 30 00, closed Sunday and Monday; expensive
There’s a relaxed dress code at the Barfussbar (Barefoot Bar), located on the wooden planks of one of Zurich’s famous “badis” or swim areas.
During the summers here, women bathe topless by day and men and women mingle without shoes on at night.
Many evenings feature live music.
Barfussbar, Stadhausquai 12; +41 44 251 33 31; Mid-May until Mid-September, Wednesday-Thursday 8 p.m. until midnight; Sunday 8 p.m. until midnight; moderate
The only bar that offers the chance to enjoy an absinthe in the birthplace of Dada.
Cabaret Voltaire is home to the original hall where the avant-garde movement was founded in 1916.
The Cabaret also includes the Cafebar duDA, a creative meeting place where one can read, think, and mingle.
The cafe encourages guests to “let themselves go” -- just as the original Dadaists did about 100 years ago – with drinks that include pastis, basil smashes, or Italian slings.
Cabaret Voltaire, Spiegelgasse 1; +41 43 268 57 20; budget-moderate
Bling bling isn't obligatory at Club Bellevue, a small venue with a big Void sound system that has hosted DJs like Todd Terry, Noir, Lexer, and more.
Electronic music reigns in this retro space, soundtracking evenings of pure nightlife with deep house, tech house and old school house.
Club Bellevue, Ramistrasse 6; +41 44 251 33 40; Friday and Saturday from 11 p.m. onwards; moderate
Paris, London, and Milan may hog the limelight but extraordinary fashion also exists in Zurich thanks to Asandri, a new Swiss design label for women.
Asandri’s luxurious but easy-to-care for clothing can flit between conference room and cocktail party, and the store’s location allows shoppers to discover other independently owned and creative boutiques in the Im Viadukt area.
Asandri Studio, Josefstrasse 45; +41 79 432 24 06; Wednesday-Friday 12 p.m.-6:30 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; expensive
Burkliplatz Flea Market
Bargains can be hard to come by in Zurich, even at the flea market -- but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a visit.
Even if the women selling those old earrings wants SF 300 ($330) for them and the man with the garden gnome won’t part with it for less than SF 50 ($55).
Finding a deal here requires commitment, but that’s what makes grabbing a bargain all the more rewarding.
Burkliplatz Flea Market, Burkliplatz; Saturdays from May to October, 6 a.m. until 4 p.m.; budget-moderate
Forget Prada, to be cool in Zurich, all that's really needed is a heavy-duty, water resistant rubber Freitag messenger bag.
Old truck tarpaulin, a second-hand car seatbelt’s webbing, and an old bicycle inner tube are the ingredients of of this pinnacle of Zurich fashion.
As far as the Swiss are concerned, there’s nothing better than recycled rubber reincarnated.
The flagship store is even located in a set of -- what else? -- recycled rail cars.
Freitag, Geroldstrasse 17; +41 43 366 95 20; closed Sunday; moderate
This is a Swiss souvenir shopper's dream store.
Handmade wooden trains. Mondaine clocks and watches.
And fondue pots so beautiful (and pricey) it’s a wonder they’re not in a museum.
Schweizer Heimatwerk, Uraniastrasse 1 & Bahnhofstrasse 2; +41 44 222 19 55; closed Sunday; moderate-expensive
Zurich’s most famous 1.2-kilometer shopping street may be a cliche, but it’s still a very pleasant cliche lined with linden trees.
Those that can’t afford to drop a few hundred thousand on a Swiss watch can gawp as someone else does.
Either way, Zurich’s pedestrian shopping street will be an experience.
Bahnhofstrasse; +41 43 243 90 00; shops closed on Sundays; moderate-expensive
The Marc Chagall windows in the Romanesque choir loft of the Fraumunster are a highlight of this Zurich landmark – a church with a steeple that’s a major part of the city skyline.
Alberto Giacometti’s cousin, Augusto, created the window in the north transept in 1930.
Fraumunster, Munsterhof 2; +41 44 221 20 63; free
This is the place to play chess or bocce ball with the locals, or just admire this elevated square’s big view of the little city.
Once home to a Roman fortress, the area is now a quiet place for contemplation under the linden trees.
The 1912 fountain celebrates the day in 1292 when the women of Zurich defended the city from the Habsburgs.
Lindenhof; +41 44 215 40 00; free
Zurich’s best art museum is large enough to be worthwhile but small enough to allow visitors to appreciate its entire collection.
Well-represented artists include Munch, Picasso, Klee, Degas, Chagall, and many more.
Kunsthaus Zurich, Heimplatz 1; +41 44 253 84 84; closed Mondays; SF 15 ($16)
In April 2014, Zurich Opera was named “Opera House of the Year” at the International Opera Awards, beating out New York City’s Metropolitan Opera.
Credited with keeping opera relevant with innovative programs like live broadcast and special productions for children, Zurich Opera brings big stars like Cecilia Bartoli, Bryn Terfel, and Anna Netrebko to its intimate theater, where even a back row seat puts audience members relatively close to the stage.
Zurich Opera, Falkenstrasse 1; +41 44 268 66 66; season runs from September until July; moderate-expensive
Swiss National Museum
Castle? Museum? Castle?
Whatever it is, the Swiss National Museum, housed in a neo-Gothic building next to Zurich’s main train station, impresses both inside and out.
Featuring the largest collection of historical objects in the country, including furniture, early watches, and costumes, there’s no better place to go to understand Swiss history and culture.
Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum Zurich), Museumstrasse 2; +41 44 218 65 11; closed Monday; SF 10 ($11)
Alpine scenery and one of Switzerland’s most beautiful lakes, the Walensee, is less than an hour from Zurich.
Trains run from the main station to Unterterzen via Ziegelbruke, where passengers can hop onto the cable car.
From Tannenboden station options include hiking, biking, paragliding, riding toboggans or just enjoying the scenery with a cup of coffee and an ice cream.
It’s worth asking for cream at the Molseralp restaurant -- it comes directly from the cow that’s probably munching grass in the field directly opposite. In the winter, Flumserberg is also a popular place for Alpine skiing and other winter sports.
Flumserberg; +41 81 720 18 18; Heidi Cable Car Pass SF 28 ($31); about an hour from Zurich
Nicknamed “The City of Roses,” Rapperswil is a beautiful village on the opposite end of Lake Zurich that’s home to four rose gardens, a 13th century castle, a beautiful lakeside promenade and swim area, and a children’s zoo.
The Knies Kinderzoo belongs to the family Knie, which owns the Swiss National Circus.
This explains the overabundance of elephants, ponies, and zebras.
Trains and boats connect Rapperswil to Zurich.
Rapperswil; +41 55 220 57 57; 36 minutes from Zurich by train
The water roars, the spray rains down on faces.
Anyone admiring Europe’s largest waterfall, located near Schaffhausen on the Rhine River, is advised to look upwards to where a castle watches over the entire watercolor-worthy scene.
There’s a closer view of the action on boats that visit the rock in the middle of the waterfall.
Stroll along the trails on both sides of the Rhine are also recommended.
Rheinfall, Rheinfallquai 32, Neuhausen am Rheinfall; about an hour from Zurich by train
Chicago-born Chantal Panozzo is a writer in Switzerland and the author of Swiss Life: 30 Things I Wish I’d Known.