Until I visited Zurich, I free associated the city with just one thing: high finance. But after my journey to a city of just under 400,000 inhabitants, I left with a new appreciation of how the old and new as well as the top and bottom of this historical city (that pre-dates Roman times) are blended nicely like the ingredients of a fine Swiss chocolate bar.
Chocolate ambrosia in Zurich’s Old Town
A few blocks south of Zurich’s train station, the city’s Old Town section covers scores of narrow, hilly, and winding streets. This area is neatly sliced by the Limmat River leading to Lake Zurich, which made for a fine walk and tram riding adventure via my Swiss Pass (or Zurich Card) that gave me free access to public transportation. Even a cold autumn day didn’t dampen the bustling yet peaceful vibes, where I found many locals walking their doggies or transporting their bundled up babies on the well-worn but sturdy cobblestone walkways where bikes aplenty are chained up to the curbside posts. Old Town includes the seventh most expensive shopping street in the world, the Bahnhofstrasse (rents average $685 per square foot annually).
Because the Swiss are known for their quality chocolate making, and combined with my passion for the confection, it was on my agenda to check out some of the shops, which were nestled amongst many other outlets selling high line fashions, watches, jewelry, etc. Two such chocolate shops, Confiserie Sprungli and Teuscher, produced a hearty scent of cocoa that pleasantly flowed through my nostrils. There was quite a chocolate feast for my eyes, as meticulously hand-made items with such names like Pariser-Konfekt and Gianduia-Rustica lined the shelves of the stores. Even though the high quality chocolate prices can range around $50 a pound, one can keep things more budget-friendly by purchasing the treats in 100 gram increments (around 3.5 oz).
Roman ruins at the “bottom” of Old Town
Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world to visit, but ironically, Zurich gives away one of the most important staples of life: water, via its 1,200 public fountains that dispense the crystal clear liquid (which my taste buds noticed had no chemical taste) from unique statues that have needles on top of them so as to keep pigeons away.
After partaking of the refreshment, I couldn’t help but notice St. Peter’s church, one of Zurich’s conspicuous landmarks, for its 28 foot (in diameter) clockface is of the largest in Europe. I wanted a nice vantage point of the Old City, and got it a few blocks north at the Lindenhof. It’s called that because of the Linden trees that dominate the park area that overlooks the river, offering great views. It’s the highest point of the Old City that dates back to pre-Roman times, when the Celtic Helvetti resided here. Across the river, I spotted the double towers of the Grossmunster, which dates back to the 12th century, where the Protestant Reformation began in Switzerland.
As my walk proceeded in this snug little slice of Zurich, whose building exteriors were multi-colored in various pastel-like colors of peach, pink, gray, blue, etc., I came across the remains of some old Roman baths from circa 200 A.D. on a street called Thermegasse (a couple of blocks from St. Peter’s). I walked down flights of stairs to the excavated remains of the bath’s heating system. I could see the “down” side of Zurich because the walkway itself is a see-through steel mesh. The walls in front of me had pictorial exhibits whose English texts spoke of Zurich’s Roman roots as a town and fort.
Stunning views from Uetliberg, Zurich´s “top”
The beauty of a place truly shows through, not when the weather is picture perfect with a blazing sun, but when the weather isn’t ideal, as was the case with my ascent to Uetliberg to get a bird’s eye view of the area. Once again, with my Swiss Pass, I was able to take about a 25 minute commuter train ride from the Hauptbahnhof (from Tracks 1 or 2) to the base, taking in chalet homes, green soccer pitches, and Switzerland’s own brand of autumn foliage that complimented the greenway paths along the tracks. From the station above, I proceed upwards for about ten minutes on dirt paths “beautifully-littered” with fallen red, green, brown, orange, and yellow foliage. As I ascended the mountain top, I noticed tall giraffe-like figurines whose antlers serve as lights. There are numerous hiking and biking paths that cut through the lush greenery which makes getting lost a pleasant experience.
At the summit, the fog tried to hog my shots of Zurich and Lake Zurich, but it only added to the ambience of the panoramic view of the area, including smaller villages and farmland. Here, people don’t mind the blustery and gray skies in 40 degree temperatures. Scores of children and their attending adults were having fun in the midst of campfires and picnics. I didn’t climb the 72 meter high platform tower, as I was content with my views of well over 2,500 feet above sea level, taking in the best that Mother Nature has to offer.
Zurich West: The “new” bursting out of the past
Even though Zurich West is a just a few minutes away from the Haptbahnhof by numerous S-Bahnen commuter trains to Hardbrucke station (like the S9) or around ten minutes by tram, it was as if I stepped out into a totally different world soon after noticing the close to 415 foot high modern skyscraper called the Prime Tower. Zurich West is a cross between post-modernism and old Communist-style edifices mixed uniquely with new ideas in design that cherishes the old remnants of Zurich’s past going back two centuries. The west end was once made up of factories and foundries that produced soap, various mechanical parts, etc. In the early 1990s, Zurich West began to revitalize itself, using the skeletons of its industrial past as a basis for what it is today, a bustling multi-cultural melting pot containing trendy clubs and bars with names like “Supermarket”, retail and second hand shops (there’s a nicely stocked Salvation Army thrift store that’s called “Heils-Armee”), and offices full of white collar workers glued to their laptops.
As I walked on the wide walkways noticing the structures, I took in such bizarre sights like the Freitag shop, which uses 19 old shipping crates stacked nine stories high to sell handbags and wallets made out of recycled industrial components. And down the street, the outlets in a strip mall called Im Viadukt are nestled inside the arches of a railroad bridge that was built in the late 1800s.
I literally got a taste of Zurich West when I had dinner at Gnuesserei, located in a former foundry. The place still retains the fixtures of generations past, where steel covers are used to house the menus and cast iron pots keep appetizers warm, like my really creamy, vinegary hazelnut soup with mushrooms. The darkish brown, black, and orange motif of Gneusserei in low lighting and ceilings reinforced the autumn season outside. While the dining establishment is considered medium to high priced in Zurich (entrees currently range in price from 23.50 to 78.50, the latter for Swedish Moose Fillet), you’ll get more than your money’s worth if you’re into atmosphere. The owner, Andrea Hirsiger, is in the wine business, and if you ask him nicely, he may just show you two of his prized possessions: a 1900 bottle of Armagnac, which goes for 49,000 Euros, and some whiskey in a Sterling silver flask that goes for 14,000 Euros. I snacked on some steamed trout filets and steamed vegetables, as I wasn’t very hungry. But if you’re hungry enough to eat a horse, well, you can request their grilled horse fillet. Horsemeat in Switzerland is a delicacy.
I stayed at the Hotel Schweizerhof, which is directly across the street from the train station. The adjustable beds are really comfortable, and there’s a large work desk plus free internet for guests. I noticed how quiet my room was, learning that the glass is triple-paned to drown out the city noise. Guests can use the 24/7 business center with PCs, internet, and free printing. I enjoyed their included full breakfasts (at the onsite La Soupiere) that come with fruit, oatmeal, breads, eggs, various Swiss cheeses and meat amidst surroundings inspired by classic French architectural design. The hotel is so proud of their tap water, it provides the water report by your water heater!
Disclosure: The writer attended a press trip sponsored by Switzerland Tourism, but what he wrote are his own impressions and without any vetting by the sponsor.
Biography: Roy A. Barnes has contributed several articles to Bootsnall’s Traveler Articles series, writing from southeastern Wyoming.