Yes, this fairy tale-looking city on the Limmat River remains one of the priciest in the world, where a cup of coffee can run you over 8 Euro, but all that talk of Zurich being unexciting and staid is starting to dwindle.
The city’s downtown (around the iconic Bahnhofstrasse)—where big-time luxury brands share the street with the headquarters of companies like UBS and Credit Suisse—remains the commercial heart of Zurich. And it’s here and in its immediate surroundings that you can find classic, postcard-perfect Zurich — here is the ideal starting point for exploration.
Bahnhofstrasse is lined with the world’s biggest fashion labels. Break for a coffee and snacks at Sprüngli, a historic, family-owned chocolate manufacturer that’s been indulging enthusiasts since 1836. There’s a variety of fine treats at Bahnofstrasse, but opt for a Luxemburgerli, which is essentially a local, lighter take on French macarons. It received its name from Luxembourgian confectioner Camille Studer, who took the original recipe from France and tweaked it to not only make it smaller but also to give it a distinctly airier texture.
Neighborhoods on both sides of the river make up the Altstadt with its narrow, spiraling streets and centuries-old buildings including authentic, ornate guildhalls. There are a lot of upscale boutiques here, too, but with the atmospheric medieval architecture all around, it is surely one of Europe’s prettiest shopping districts. Although you can certainly while away an afternoon in luxury brands such as Mulberry and Fendi, there are lesser-known but equally fabulous finds hidden away in these alleys like Le Majordome, a bespoke shoe store founded by two brothers. They focus on one-of-a-kind leather brogues, boots, and oxfords crafted by master artisans, who create each pair based on the exact specifications of their client’s feet.
The double towers of the Grossmünster is an iconic local sight; while across the water is the incredibly pointy Fraumünster (its origins date back to the ninth century), known for its stunning stained-glass artworks. Five large windows in the abbey’s choir were installed in the 1970s featuring designs by Marc Chagall; each window glimmers vibrantly in a single color. Art is surprisingly rich in this part of town, where many contemporary galleries can be found. Minutes away from the Fraumünster is the Zurich address of Galerie Gmurzynska, which has two other locations in Switzerland. The dramatic, white-walled showcase on Paradeplatz is a major destination for sought-after pieces, from the likes of Joan Miró, Fernando Botero, and Richard Meier.
Nearby, at Zunfthaus Zur Waag, a high-end restaurant that focuses on hearty Swiss classics, it’s all about a great meal — there’s nothing excessive or unnecessary about owner Sepp Wimmer’s operations. The beautiful dining room is bright and sophisticated, a great setting for a stick-to-your-bones feast, so come hungry. Chef Alain Koenig’s style is an elevated spin on traditional national recipes. His kitchen prepares one of the best plates of Kalbsgeschnetzeltes, a Zurich specialty of finely sliced veal slathered with cream of mushroom sauce and paired with crisped rösti (a Swiss dish consisting mainly of potatoes). Other menu items feature the unexpected such as a corn soup with pieces of scalloped and crunchy popcorn.
If the Altstadt is all about classic Zurich, you can look to the rest of the city for contemporary adventures. Everything is especially buzzy in the western neighborhoods: Kreis 4 and Kreis 5. Unlike the Altstadt, the urban planning in western Zurich is more evenly spread out so having a car could be helpful in navigating the area. The most popular after-work and weekend hangout among the creative class is Frau Gerolds Garten. At its core it’s an urban garden, where community members can grow their own vegetables using easy-to-move crates. But it’s also a wildly social complex that features outdoor restaurants and hipster boutiques. In the winter, parts of the garden are transformed into cozy fondue huts. Shipping containers make up most of Frau Gerolds Garten, which perfectly suits West Zurich’s industrial vibe. In fact, a lot of the old buildings here have been cleverly transformed into trend-making hotspots. Another perfect example is Im Viadukt. The spaces under its arches now house fashion boutiques, cheese shops, cafés, food markets, and more.
Kreis 4 and 5 are also heaven for fabulous design. This is where you will find cutting-edge studios and ateliers, but not all of them are open for public visits. Obbjekt packs in restored antique furniture made with the highest quality material (think of old barbershop chairs in supple, aged leather). Make an appointment at Nico Heilmann Lichtobjekte, a showroom for the designer’s out-of-this-world light fixtures, whether it’s a shell shaped lamp or a Medusa-inspired chandelier or visit Juwelier Lesunja to collaborate on one-of-a-kind jewelry made of gold and raw diamonds. For art, Galerie Museum Baviera also impresses with its abstract paintings from an international cadre of modern-day artists.
Even farther away from the city center is the magical elegance of the legendary Dolder Grand Hotel. No trip to Zurich is complete without a visit here. If you’re not staying in any of its sophisticated, roomy suites, a dinner reservation at The Restaurant is a must. Heiko Nieder’s refined-but-playful cooking style (spherified wasabi, anyone?) has won his dining room many fans and two coveted Michelin stars. When it comes to food, there really isn’t a kitchen more emblematic of the city: the food is simple, upscale, and full of mind-blowing surprises.