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Zurich: efficient and eccentric

Jennifer Choi scratches the chocolatey surface, waltzes at a train station and finds a surprising secret history in a WWII bunker.

Published on August 11th 2010.


Zurich: efficient and eccentric

Zürich. You know about their banks, chocolates and watches. Businessmen and post-grad students arrive for the prestigious education and even more prestigious jobs, trekkers stop over on their way to Interlaken, skiers fly in for the Alps.

Here the Zürich demographics are laid bare: bankers chilling, ladies of leisure laden with shopping bags, and streams of Japanese tourists either lingered or rushed by while I sipped a rich yet tangy hot chocolate and nibbled on impossibly dainty edible crafts.

As far as us British tourists are concerned, Switzerland’s financial hub remains an unknown quantity.

First impressions are not great as it’s dull and grey when I arrive, but the stereotypically precise transport schedules take me straight into town, in under 20 minutes and with minimum exposure to the elements.

Unlike many world class capitals, Zürich maintains a poised, verging on serious exterior. All along Benhofstrasse we see luxury shops and the trams gliding smoothly (and punctually) past, and sure, the view over the River Limmat may make for pleasant afternoon stroll, but you can’t do the city justice without digging deeper.

Elisabeth Brem, from Zürich tourism, takes me around the Old Town and the regenerated Zürich-West (Kreis 5). An ex-flight-attendant and a citizen of the world, she peppers the tour with architectural and historical tidbits, and happily answers endless questions from the city’s demographic to recommended nightlight hotspots.

She tells me about Zwingli, a pastor who rose to power to lead the reformation of Switzerland in the 16th century. A radical in Zürich’s history, he ‘cleansed’ the city of organs, images, relics and religious houses.

The Grossmünster cathedral, a barren interior stripped of its statutes and paintings after the rejection of the veneration of images, bears witness to most of Zwingli’s denouncements. But besides being a sad historical reminder, the cathedral’s landscape-dominating twin spires, a mixture of Roman and Gothic architectural details and some striking stained glass windows (added after Zwingli’s demise) are worth a visit.

We walk to Lindenhof, a Roman and medieval fortress, then royal residence subsequently demolished after the civil war. It now offers a panoramic view over the old town. For 20 CHF (Swiss Francs) you are treated to much more than your average tour, gaining insights both geographically and culturally, and it’s a great way to get your bearings.

Hopping on the metro to Zürich-West, I find myself in a stylish glass cube call LaSelle, feasting on carpaccio, horse and Spätzle (traditional little dumplings). This cube, all glass, girders and Venetian chandeliers, is in turn housed in the iconic Schiffbau building.

Schiffbau (literally the ‘Shipbuilding’) was converted from an enormous steamboat factory, and LaSalle shares it with the Moods jazz club, the new Schauspielhaus theatres (which plays host to regular fashion and award shows) and a roof terrace bar (the Nietturm).

Thanks to the excellent design, much of the old architectural features are still visible. In the moneyed, trendy atmosphere you forget the economic downturn plaguing every other nation.

Indeed, Elisabeth confirms that the country, which came out of both world wars not only unscathed but arguably richer, is relatively immune to the effects of a global recession.

Kreis-5 district is full of subtly transformed buildings put to imaginative use. Puls 5 is a preserved foundry-hall cum village square turned festival, fashion, art and luxury car show destination. One-off events such as Night Tennis abound.

In fact, quirky events seem to abound throughout Zürich. One evening saw me waltzing to a Viennese orchestra at the HB train station’s Sommer-Nachts-ball, an annual event to kickstart the Zürcher Festspiele. The next saw me camped in the courtyard of the Swiss National Museum, watching the England v Algeria game. The only non-disappointment of the evening came with the delicious vegetarian catering from Hiltl.

Despite such fluid juxtaposition of spaces, two landmarks remain immovable and unforgettable for very different reasons - Confiserie Sprüngli and Festung Fürigen.

The former, in that renowned flagship tea room on Banhofstrasse, makes for excellent people watching. Here the Zürich demographics are laid bare: bankers chilling, ladies of leisure laden with shopping bags, and streams of Japanese tourists either lingered or rushed by while I sipped a rich yet tangy hot chocolate and nibbled on impossibly dainty edible crafts.

Motta and Schober, distinctly different yet delightful in equal measures, should be on the visit list for cafe-lovers.

The Festung Fürigen, just an hour from Zürich, was an equally impressive but little-known gem. Lying under a cliff on a winding lakeside road, behind what looks to be a salt or mineral depot, it is a 200m long bunker built in the middle of World War Two.

The only one of 20,000 shelters dug into the sides of the Alps open to the public, it’s an atmospheric (if damp) adventure.

I don’t know to what extent Switzerland seriously believed it could defend against the Third Reich, nor am I a particularly keen GI Jane, but don an original Swiss Army coat, an iPod guide and the experience comes to life – the artillery, the atomic filter chamber, and the radio room with their detailed maps.

The Swiss prepare for war. And we thought they were just those peace loving folk who loved handling large sums of money for us.

FACTBOX

LaSalle, Schiffbaustrasse 4 Zuri-West +41 (0) 44 258 70 71
Swiss National Museum, Museumstrasse 2 Zürich +41 (0) 44 218 65 11
Hiltl Sihlstrasse 28, Zürich +41 (0) 44 227 70 00
Sprungli, Bahnhofstrasse 21, Zürich +41 (0) 44 224 47 11
Motta Cafe, Limmat-Quai 66 Zürich +41 (0) 44 252 31 19
Schober Cafe, Napfgasse 4 Zürich +41 (0) 44 251 80 60
Festung Fürigen, Kehrsitenstrasse Stansstad 6372 +41 (0) 618 73 40
Kaufleuten, Pelikanstrasse 18 Zürich +41 (0) 44 225 33 00

Accommodation was provided courtesy of LateRooms.com. Jennifer Choi stayed at California House Asylstrasse 125 Zürich 8032 +44 (0) 79 422 44 65 Doubles from £115, book on LateRooms.com

Jennifer Choi flew from Manchester to Zurich with EasyJet. EasyJet currently operates a six-times weekly service. Fares start from £26.99 one way including all taxes. Visit www.easyJet.com to book or for more information

Zuerich Tourist Service offers tours and excursions in and around Zurich for groups and individuals. Reservations can be made in their main office in Zurich main train station, or by calling +41 44 215 40 00. For a wealth of detailed information on all aspects of visiting the city, visit zuerich.com

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