Zürich, which sits astride the Limmat River at the point where it emerges from the Zürichsee (Lake Zürich), is a beautiful city. Its charming Altstadt, which makes up a substantial part of the city center, is full of elegantly restored historic buildings as well as first-rate shopping, both in exclusivity and uniqueness. In the distance, snowy mountains overlook the lake, whose shores are dominated by centuries-old mansions. Few high-rise buildings disturb the skyline, and their heights are modest by U.S. standards.
Zürich was renowned as a center for commerce as early as the 12th century; many of its diligent merchants had made fortunes dealing in silk, wool, linen, and leather goods. By 1336 this privileged class had become too powerful in the view of the newly emerging band of tradesmen and laborers who, allied with a charismatic aristocrat named Rudolf Brun, overthrew the merchants’ town council and established Zürich’s famous trade guilds. Those 13 original guilds didn’t lose power until the French Revolution—and even today they maintain their prestige. Every year Zürich’s leading businessmen dress up in medieval costumes for the guilds’ traditional march through the streets, heading for the magnificent guildhalls.
If the guilds defined Zürich’s commerce, the Reformation defined its soul. From his pulpit in the Grossmünster, Ulrich Zwingli galvanized the region, and he ingrained in Zürichers a devotion to thrift and industriousness so successfully that it ultimately led them into temptation: the temptation to achieve global influence and tremendous wealth. Today the Zürich stock exchange is the fourth largest in the world, after those of New York, London, and Tokyo.
Nevertheless, Zürich is not your typical cold-hearted business center. In 1916 a group of artists and writers rebelling against the restraints of traditional artistic expression—among them Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, and Hugo Ball—founded the avant-garde Dadaist movement here. The fertile atmosphere also attracted Irish author James Joyce, who spent years here while re-creating his native Dublin in Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Today the city’s extraordinary museums and galleries and luxurious shops along Bahnhofstrasse, Zürich’s Fifth Avenue, attest to its position as Switzerland’s cultural—if not political—capital.
In recent years “Züri,” as it’s known by the locals, has won a number of global accolades as one of the most “liveable” cities because of it’s green spaces, efficient and timely transport system, and cleanliness. Swiss precision and eye for detail is visible everywhere, and no district is left untouched or forgotten. Even the so-called rougher areas are well kept by international standards. Zürich is a far cry from what it was thought to be 30 years ago: dull, closed to outsiders, and rigid. Today’s city is a vibrant, multicultural metropolis that maintains the cool, modern, and international elegance that the Swiss pull off with perfection.
POINTS OF INTEREST
The Altstadt is home to several of Zürich’s most important landmarks—the Lindenhof, St. Peter’s, the Fraumünster, and the Stadthaus—as well as the shop-lined Bahnhofstrasse.
As soon as you step off the Quai Bridge on the right bank of the Limmat River, you’ll notice a difference: the atmosphere is more casual. The area is also the center of Zürich’s nightlife—both upscale and down, with the city’s opera house and its historic theater, as well as plenty of bars and clubs. As you explore the area along Münstergasse to Marktgasse, parallel to the river, you’ll notice a less Calvinistic bent. Each of the narrow streets and alleys that shoot east off Marktgasse (which quickly becomes Niederdorfstrasse) offers its own brand of entertainment. Niederdorfstrasse eventually empties onto the Central tram intersection, across the river from the main train station; from there it’s easy to catch a tram along Bahnhofstrasse or the Limmatquai.
Dancing Indian Shivas, contemplative Tibetan thangkas, late-18th-century literary paintings from China, and royal Benin bronzes from Nigeria: these are just a few of the treasures in the prodigious gathering of non-European art on view. This is the only museum of its kind in Switzerland, with the main focus on Asia, Africa, and ancient America. The main collection is on view in the huge underground Smaragd building. The Villa Wesendonck, the famous neoclassical jewel that was once a fabled home to Richard Wagner (it was for the lady of the house that he wrote his Wesendonck Songs) houses objects from India, the pre-Columbian Americas, Australia, and the Pacific Islands; there’s more Indian, Islamic, and Asian art in an adjacent museum, the Park-Villa Rieter. From the city center, follow Seestrasse south about 1¾ km (1 mile) until you see signs for the museum; or take Tram 7 to the Rietberg Museum stop.
Set in West Zürich, this is one of two major modern art venues on the top floors of a former brewery. Renovated in 2012, the gallery hosts exhibitions presenting new local and international artists. Works are always cutting-edge: you can say you saw it here first.
The main repository for Switzerland’s important legacy in graphic design, posters, and applied arts, this vast collection has been recently rehoused in a fully renovated former milk-products factory. The museum was originally envisioned as an academy devoted to design and applied arts. Innovative temporary exhibitions focus on architecture, poster art, graphic design, and photography. The new location also allows visitors, with a reservation, to admire not only the exhibitions but also the museum’s collection of design, graphics, and poster art (500,000 pieces). The core of the collection is in a freestanding high-bay warehouse on two floors, which operates as a display storage area.
Housed in a gargantuan neo-Gothic building dating from 1889, the Swiss National Museum owns an enormous collection of objects dating from the Stone Age to modern times. There are costumes, furniture, early watches, and a great deal of military history, including thousands of toy soldiers reenacting famous battles. In the hall of arms there’s a splendid mural, painted by the late-19th-century Bernese artist Ferdinand Hodler, called The Retreat of the Swiss Confederates at Marignano. The work depicts a defeat in 1515 by the French.
The inimitable Irish author not only lived and wrote in Zürich, but died here as well. The city’s most famous literary resident is buried in the Friedhof Fluntern (Fluntern Cemetery), not far from the Zürich Zoo. Atop his grave sits a contemplative statue of the writer, complete with cigar. A few steps away is the grave of another renowned author, Nobel Prize–winner Elias Canetti. The cemetery is adjacent to the Tram 6 terminus.
This is one of Europe’s outstanding zoos, with more than 1,500 animals, including Asian elephants, black rhinos, seals, and big cats. Two of the more unusual attractions are a huge dome stocked with flora and small free-range fauna you might encounter in a jungle in Madagascar, including lemurs and the endangered Bernier’s teal; and the new elephant park, Kaeng Krachan, which allows you to see the elephants swim underwater. Set in a tree-filled park, the zoo is just east of the city center and easily reached by Trams 5 and 6.