The Old Town of Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city, perfectly symbolizes a nation built on its reputation of discrete banking and dependable watches. In this old neighbourhood, one can easily spend days roaming the cobblestone lanes, learning about the city’s long history, catching some upscale shopping and indulging in traditional Swiss cuisine. Conventional, solid and understated.
But then there’s Zurich’s West Quarter, a former industrial ship-building part of the city which in recent years has morphed into a trendy district filled with contemporary art, progressive designers and happening restaurants and clubs. Modern, upbeat and avant-garde.
To get the full flavour of Zurich, no visit is complete without a trip to both of these districts.
Get steeped in tradition in die Altstadt
Start with a free walking tour through the oldest sections of the medieval city. A guide will fill you in on the history dating back to Roman times as you wind through the alleyways of Niederdorf, now filled with small hotels, cafés and boutiques, and over to the rathaus (city hall) opened in 1698 on the edge of the River Limmat. Just up the steps is the Romanesque Grossmunster, a Protestant church built in the 12 century on the old site of a church originally commissioned by Charlemagne, a Zurich landmark with its twin towers.
Across the Munsterbrucke bridge is the west bank of old town and St. Peter’s Church which boasts the largest clock face in Europe (one minute moves the clock hand an amazing half a metre) and Fraumunster Church, another Zurich landmark, sure to impress with its beautiful Chagall windows and green steeple.
Outdoor café culture is alive and well in Zurich and the plaza by the Fraumunster is the perfect place to do some people-watching as you sip a coffee and enjoy the surrounding historical ambiance at ViCafe. They roast their own coffee beans, but ViCafe’s other claim-to-fame is that in 2008 they revived the Swiss’ beloved Vivi Kola, the country’s own cola beverage founded in 1938.
Zurich’s main downtown street, Bahnhofstrasse, is one of the world’s most expensive and exclusive shopping avenues. Bahnhofstrasse stretches for 1.4 kilometres from the main train station to Lake Zurich, through the Paradeplatz (the Swiss banking centre), and past famous chocolate shops, luxury timepiece stores and upscale clothing boutiques.
At the end of the Bahnhofstrasse, is the Burkliplatz pier where you can board a boat cruise and order a refreshing Swiss favourite, an aperol spritz, before you settle back and enjoy the view of cute villages, the iconic Sprlungli chocolate factory and Alps in the distance. The east shore of the lake, also known as the Gold Coast, is dotted with gently rolling vineyards and the stately mansions of the rich and famous.
Of course, Old Town Zurich is the place to try traditional Swiss foods. Just off the Bahnhofstrasse at Alplerstube, you will feel like you’re in a hut high up in the Alps as you dip chunks of heavy Swiss bread and potatoes into bubbling cheese fondue. Or at Restaurant Kantorei in Neumarkt Platz, try hearty wiener schnitzel, or the house specialty, Zurich geschnetzeltes, sliced veal with mushroom cream sauce and a rosti (potato pancake).
Cutting-edge innovation in Zurich's trendy districts
A short train ride from Old Town brings you to another world, modern Zurich West, where a whole new neighbourhood has sprung up under the 36 old stone arches of a century-old viaduct rail system. Old factories have been turned into innovative new spaces housing start-up tech companies, cool restaurants and hip theatres and art galleries.
In Zurich West, boutiques featuring new designers with small, trendy fashion labels are plentiful. One of the most notable is Freitag, who makes trendy designer bags (everybody in Zurich under 40 has one) from re-cycled truck tarps. Freitag's 2006 flagship store is innovative in itself, built from 19 stacked shipping containers.
Also under the arches, you will find Im Viadukt, Zurich’s first covered market opened in 2010, filled with vendors selling farm fresh food and wines. At the end of the building is Markthalle, a restaurant that puts a new spin on classic ingredients (think cauliflower puff pastry with black truffle or grilled octopus with sepia gnocchi) using ingredients from the market.
Right next door is Frau Gerold’s Garten, an urban island of greenery that started in 2012 as a pop-up beer and kitchen garden in summer, and a fondue hut in the winter, but with its massive popularity, it operates year-round. Get there early to beat the crowds of locals to snag a seat on one of the patios where you can watch the trains rumble past.
When the sun starts to set, walk the Viadukt path south across the Amperesteg pedestrian bridge onto Kloster Fahr Weg, a riverside trail dotted with lively open-air cocktail bars, where it feels like you’re no longer in the city. It’s also on the Kloster Fahr Weg that you can find a Zurich summer phenomenon, thermal baths, where people sun tan and bathe in the river during the day, but when the sun goes down, it’s a party venue (check out Flussbad Oberer Letten, which turns into Pier West by night).
Feel like dancing the night away? Hit Club Supermarket a renovated car garage in Zurich West that rocks a brick-walled, concrete floor vibe. Supermarket may have opened in 1998, but it’s still influencing the Zurich club scene with its house, techno and electronica music. Guaranteed that you’ll discover that Zurich is not so conventional after all.
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