Not what it seems
Forget your preconceived notions of ‘all business’ Zurich.
Zurich is a thrifty, hard-working city famous for banking and business, but beneath its tidy surface you’ll find anti-establishment attitudes and quirky pleasures.
4 July, 2019
Wealth whispers on the Bahnhofstrasse, incidentally the most expensive property on the Swiss Monopoly board
Amble down Zurich’s most famous street and you get a lesson in Swiss understatement. You’re literally walking over gold here – the street lies on top of bullion vaults – and yet bank facades have the look of modest nineteenth-century townhouses. Shopfronts are elegantly understated behind plane trees, yet glitter with Cartier watches and Fabergé antiques. Trams swoosh past with barely a noise, monitored by ultrasound to ensure punctuality.
Wealth whispers on the Bahnhofstrasse, incidentally the most expensive property on the Swiss Monopoly board. You’d hardly realise Zurich is home to one of the world’s largest stock markets and precious-metal exchanges, and generates a fifth of Switzerland’s considerable fortunes. Its residents are the living embodiment of the Swiss stereotype: tactful, thrifty, unostentatious and hardworking.
Don’t let that put you off a visit to Zurich, however. These days Zurich is compared to Berlin for its heady mixture of experimental creativity, trendy bars, ultra-chic restaurants and refreshing urban ideas. Want to ride a public bike? Fell free. Care to rest on a bench in the shape of a cow, bathtub or something so abstract it takes moments to work out where to place your behind? Why not. Then listen to avant-garde music in pubs, or hit the bars and clubs of Niederodorf, which keep going until the early hours, at least in summer.
You only need cross the railway tracks from the Bahnhofstrasse to find yourself in working-class, multiethnic Zurich West, seemingly another city entirely. A decade or so ago this was a decaying inner-city industrial area. Now it’s one of the most happening parts of the city, with factories transformed into outrageous art galleries or chic restaurants haunted by Zurich artists and journalists. A former brewery has become an arts centre, a shipbuilding enterprise that once built lake steamers has been recycled into a restaurant complex, and an oh-so-hip hotel brings Zen-like luxe to what was a multi-storey car park. It seems a long way from the stereotype of staid, traditional Zurich.
These days Zurich is compared to Berlin for its heady mixture of experimental creativity, trendy bars, ultra-chic restaurants and refreshing urban ideas
In fact, canny commerce and liberal thinking have long existed side by side in this curiously Jekyll-and-Hyde city
In fact, canny commerce and liberal thinking have long existed side by side in this curiously Jekyll-and-Hyde city. Take in the staid side of Switzerland at the Swiss National Museum, housed in a rambling castle behind the train station. Here you can browse amid medieval silverware, armour, eighteenth-century doll’s houses and period furniture. Some of the exhibits – such as one on the history of clock making – are fascinating, and present a Zurich of bourgeois common sense.
In contrast, hop over to the city’s other must-see museum, the Kunsthaus, whose art includes works by the Dada school, founded in Zurich in 1916. Precursors of surrealism, the Dadaists once outraged Zurich society. Linger in the room devoted to J.H. Füssli, where dark, grotesque canvasses provide a compelling glimpse into the Swiss alter-ego. The anti-bourgeois, almost anarchic Dada art movement went on to influence pop art and punk rock – surely not quite what you’d expect to emerge from this supposedly conservative banking city.
Despite its modest size, Zurich has some 20-odd museums. The other must-see is the Stiftung Sammlung E.G. Bührle, put together in the 1950s by a local industrialist. He clearly had a fine eye: the Manets, Monets, Cézannes and other nineteenth-century French canvasses that adorn his villa are among the best on the continent.
Businessmen in this town have always made money while revolutionary artists and thinkers such as Carl Jung, James Joyce, Thomas Mann, Marc Chagall and pioneering Swiss architect Le Corbusier made history. The medieval Fraumünster church is adorned with stunning modern stained-glass in glowing colours designed by Chagall when he was in his eighties, proving the artist had lost none of his dazzling talent in old age.
The rest of the church has little embellishment. Nor has the entire old town, except on the guildhalls of former wine merchants, hat makers and linen weavers. Adorned with coats-of-arms, leaded glass windows and lofty ceilings, many of these guildhalls are now restaurants dishing up hearty Zurich veal pieces in cream sauce, or sausages the length of a forearm.
Deeply influenced by the puritan mindset of the Reformation, Zurich’s town centre is simple to the point of plainness. The severity seems almost modern. The interior of the cathedral is almost stripped bare thanks to zealous Protestant reformer Zwingli. It may well be one of the world’s ugliest cathedrals, although its bulbous twin towers are a Zurich landmark. Curiously, though, a riverside statue of Zwingli is rather swashbuckling. Green with age, it shows an Arthurian figure gracefully draped in robes, a sword plunged into the ground between his feet.
The medieval Fraumünster church is adorned with stunning modern stained-glass in glowing colours designed by Chagall
Zurich’s architecture is restrained, but locals make up for it with their art and their flowers, which decorate the city in waves of psychedelic colour
Zurich’s architecture is restrained, but locals make up for it with their art and their flowers, which decorate the city in waves of psychedelic colour. Stroll the city’s riverside and lakeshore quays and you’re surrounded by a madness of marigolds and riot of roses. Limmatquai in the city centre starts near the train station and heads past the cream-cake facade of the Town Hall along the Limmat River. Myhtenquai takes you right out along the western shores of the lake and into wooded countryside. You can also take a cruise by steamer onto Lake Zurich and admire views towards the snow-capped Alps. It’s a gloriously baroque landscape for such an understated town, and just another of the contrasts that makes Zurich so appealing.
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