St. Peter’s Church overlooks the cobblestone streets of Zurich
Storybook villages, rolling hills and a 17-mile long sparkling lake. Are you really landing near Zurich, the largest city in Switzerland; the economic and cultural heart of the country?
Words: Chantal Panozzo | Photography: Brian Opyd
Yes. It may be hard to believe from the cows you see near the otherwise modern and sleek Zurich Airport, but then again, Zurich itself is hard to believe. Almost too perfect to be real-at least based on its prim, proper (and shiny) exterior-Zurich resembles a small village with the culture of a city twice its size. But if you're small, you have to be great. And Zurich is. Ranked second among world cities as having the best quality of life, Zurich's standard of living puts it on par with Vienna as a world lifestyle leader. With over 50 museums and 100 galleries, Zurich is easily Switzerland's most sophisticated city.
Zurich is a place where the cobblestone streets are cleaned as diligently as the shop windows filled with expensive watches, tempting chocolates, and designer clothing on the city's famous shopping street, the Bahnhofstrasse. It's a place where lawyers and insurance agents moonlight as alphorn players. But it's also a place where city life is integrated with nature, where one can escape the city without ever leaving it. Whether through a theatrical performance at the renowned Schauspielhaus or on one of the hundreds of hiking trails, Zurich is a wonderful place to get lost; it's so small, you almost always find your way back to the 2,000 year old heart of the old Town. And if not-well, you're never far from a tram, train, boat or bus, all of which will eventually make you regret your tardiness.
Partly because of its lack of skyscrapers and due to its small population relative to other cities (383,565), to visitors from abroad, Zurich feels quaint. The city skyline is comprised of church steeples, as no building within the heart of the city is allowed to rise above its religious landmarks. But in Zurich, even the churches are cultural institutions. At the Fraumünster Abbey, for instance, there are glass windows by Chagall, which are as famous as the church itself.
The word "large" in Zurich really means "manageable". And Zurich's largest art museum, the Kunsthaus, is just that. In true Zurich style, one can go from the 15th century to today in just a couple of hours.
There are many reasons for Zurich's high quality of life. But since this is Switzerland, let's start with dessert first: chocolate. Zurich's 175 year-old chocolate tradition began at Sprüngli, which is famous not only for its truffles but also for its Luxemburgerli - colorful, small macaroons in flavors like chocolate and raspberry. Another place to become intimate with Switzerland's most famous export is at Conditorei Schober, where you can drink its legendary hot chocolate.
To redeem yourself from the indulgence, Zurich is also home to Hiltl, the oldest vegetarian restaurant in Europe, which was around well before it was stylish to eat grass. Once considered eccentric, Hiltl is now one of the most popular restaurants in the city. Whether in the low-key bar or in the restaurant filled with white tablecloths, diners enjoy specialties like asparagus mango salad and wild mushroom penne, all made with seasonal, fresh ingredients. One of its menu developers admits he gets most of his inspiration from meat, but this has only helped Hiltl continue to create innovative vegetarian dishes that even carnivores can enjoy.
After you've devoured dinner, hurry over to catch a performance at the Zurich Opera House. Don't worry; the largest clock face in Europe on St. Peter's Church will remind you that being late is not an option in Switzerland.
At the Zurich Opera House, which hosts more than 340 performances a year, including 37 different operas, you'll notice that its small auditorium means even those in the upper balcony can get intimate with the performers. A Zurich resident herself, you may even be fortunate enough to catch a performance from the famous mezzo-soprano Cecilia Bartoli.
If the show ends early enough, you could head out to another famous Zurich institution, the Barfussbar, or barefoot bar. Women's swimming pool by day, co-ed bar by night, leave your shoes at the door, and relax with a glass of Zurich wine, like a Räuschling, and watch the swans swim by as you admire the Alps in the distance. In the summer, the sun doesn't set until 9:30 p.m.
Zurich's 175 year-old chocolate tradition began at Sprüngli, which is famous not only for its truffles but also for its Luxemburgerli...
As you wander the city, or enjoy its many bars, restaurants, or cultural institutions, you'll probably hear a mixture of German, Swiss German, English, French, and Italian. Yes, this is typical Switzerland. In addition to being a part of a country that has four official languages, the city of Zurich also hosts a significant foreign population. So even as a visitor, you'll probably feel something the Swiss do: right at home.