In this week’s guest post, Denise of Travel with Den Den takes us for a walk around her adopted home city of Zurich to prove that this Swiss metropolis isn’t as dull as many claim. Enjoy the Zurich walkabout!
I can’t stand the way that guidebooks and travel websites describe Zurich. You cannot see this written black on white but when you sift through the little information provided about the city, you are left with the feeling that Zurich is not particularly exciting, if not plain dull. I once came across a forum thread entitled ‘Zurich is boring’, written by expats and running on for several pages with the occasional local intervention which fervently defended the city’s charm and appeal. Though I never made a written contribution to that forum, I must admit that for many months, I was one of those people who found Zurich uninspiring. It was until I realised that, for better or worse, it was my home now. Since it would be so for a while, I could at least make an effort to love it. The moment I stopped comparing it to other cities I had been to – that is, those with a bigger in-your-face factor – and when I finally fine-tuned my perception to that of the locals, it suddenly hit me. Zurich is beautiful and fulfilling in its own way.
Since I live on the outskirts of the city, my arrival in Zurich is always from one of the underground platforms at the Zurich Main Station. From there, a flight of stairs takes me a floor up into a (still underground) labyrinthine system of shops, formally known as ShopVille. A look around quickly shows that anything you might wish for shopping-wise is right here before even having stepped out into Zurich: little outlets selling fresh bread and pastries; fine hand-made Swiss chocolate; designer clothing outlets and obscure cheap ones; a solarium; pretty flower stores with immaculately arrange shop windows; and my personal favourite, a large stationary specialising in an endless range of postcards of every size, shape and theme imaginable.
When I make it onto the ground level of the station, the network of interconnected passageways gives way to an impressive hall the size of a football field. First opened in 1871, it has been protected since 1976 by the Swiss heritage society, which states that it should stay free for at least half of the year. During the rest of the time, it is a beautiful venue for all sorts of exhibitions and events, probably the most notable of which is the delightful Christmas Market. If you visit when the market is there, upon entering the hall you will be greeted by the sight of a giant Christmas tree almost touching the ceiling, decorated with hundreds of Swarovski crystals that create an enchanted mood when night falls. Filling the hall and spilling out onto the passageways around the station are little stalls selling novelty items ideal for a non-conventional Christmas gift.
As I make it out of the station, I don’t bother with Bahnhofstrasse, which, despite being mentioned in every guidebook and website about Zurich, merely sets an international shopping scenario to be found in any major metropolis around the world. Instead, I head to the Old Town stretching from the eastern side of the Limmat across parts of the west further down. Once again, I ignore the commonplace stores and seedy fast food outlets and look for those little gems which reflect the Swiss standards of aesthetics, quality and perfection, set against a backdrop of wonderfully preserved medieval buildings. Two of my favourites are Tabak-Ladeli (Storchengasse 19) with its eye-catching front window, selling premium cigars, hand-made Danish pipes and numerous tobacco house-blends (with, I must add, a distinct touch of class) and the chocolate and sweets displays of Honold Confectionary (Rennweg 53) which make you want to lick the window itself if you happen to see them when the shop is closed.
Soon, I reach the beginning of the Zurich Lake signalled by Quaibrucke. In winter, street stalls sell roasted maroni (chestnuts) and mulled wine, perfect for those days when temperatures drop below zero. In summer, the lake promenade, bordered by large leafy trees, comes to life with buskers and people walking, biking, swimming and generally enjoying a relaxed time, especially on Sundays when shops are typically closed and most of Zurich turns into a strange ghost town. On clear days, the view extends across the clean blue water of the lake to a horizon dominated by a row of snow-covered mountains, which while looking tantalisingly close, are a couple of hours away. From Quaibrucke, a pleasant walk of about 4 km along the west bank takes me to the quiet Chinese gardens, a gift from Zurich’s sister city Kunming, complete with a pond and Coy fish. Less than a kilometre down the eastern bank leads me to an arboretum by the lake where people lay their towels and soak up the sun during the short summer period. An aviary boasting some 150 species is right by.
While the eastern ridge of Uetliberg is constantly recommended for a short trip beyond Zurich, I personally prefer the western ridge. After getting myself to Romerhof Platz, I take the funicular known as Dolderbahn up to Zurichberg. The last stop of the funicular drops me off at the Dolder Grand Hotel. From there, a short walk leads to a recreational area with activities to match every season. In winter, the open-air Dolder ice rink provides a perfect retreat from the city; in summer the Dolder outdoor swimming pool is a tranquil place to sunbathe and unwind in a setting of lush forest and clear blue skies. On the same hill but further north, the Masoala Rainforest enclosure at the Zurich Zoo completes the search for a surreal retreat. Here I walk under giant fern trees and hear monkeys hooting above me. From behind the large glass panes of the cafe built by its side, I am treated to a one-way view over the rainforest as I sip a hot chocolate and watch a cattle egret wade across the enclosure pond.
When I’ve had my fill of the pleasures of Zurich, I return to the main station to catch my train home, but not before finding the little Buffet Express stand in the main hall selling spicy bratwurst (sausage) accompanied by a bun of dark crusty bread that I consume as I wait for my train, which, in true Swiss manner, consistently arrives on time, if not a few minutes early.