Since I’m in my 40s, I gravitate more toward relaxed bars and cafés where I’ve perfected the art of the apéro—pre-dinner drinks with nibbles—that Zurichers are obsessed with. There’s no shortage of snug places to duck into for a quick quaff, like Piazza in residential Idaplatz, where the patrons say prostli (“cheers”) and en guete (“bon appétit”) over glasses of local riesling and plates of cheese.
But my favorite restaurants tend to be some of the best tried-and-true bargains in town. There’s Chez Nhan, a cozy Vietnamese spot that makes a mean mi xao gion and has a lovely secret garden of linden trees out back. Or I might grab a butterbrezel—salt-spiked pretzel bread stuffed with a slab of butter—at the Stadelmann
bakery in Goldbrunnenplatz; it’s hands-down the best in town, especially when washed down with a flat white from ViCafe right next door. And for a quick bite in Old Town, I prefer the takeaway window at Brasserie Louis to the much-hyped Sternen Grill. Sternen’s wurst are okay, but the steak sandwiches at Louis are probably the spiciest you’ll find in Zurich, stacked with sautéed veggies and smothered in a zesty cream sauce and packed inside a perfectly crunchy baguette.
When out to impress, however, I take visitors to the bar at Restaurant Kronenhalle, an institution since the 1920s known as much for its classic Swiss food as for its collection of Picassos, Mirós, and Chagalls. The bar is more modern, with a svelte 1965 design from Zurich architects Trix and Robert Haussmann that remains a fabulous setting for sipping martinis with Zurich’s chic set.
Zurich’s continual development (and redevelopment) ensures its plethora of architects and designers are kept busy. In the last five years, a wave of architectural conversions took advantage of a civic shuffle: two old breweries were repurposed, one into the Thermalbad & Spa (which comes complete with a rooftop thermal pool), and the other, in Zurich West, into Löwenbräukunst, a contemporary-art hub that’s home to some of the city’s most prestigious galleries, including Hauser & Wirth and Kunsthalle Zürich. Not to be outdone, Zurich’s iconic Kunsthaus fine-arts museum in the more genteel Altstadt area has begun work on a new annex by British architect David Chipperfield, slated for completion in 2020.
Though still gritty, Zurich West, whose factories and mills shut down with the death of local industry in the 1980s, is something of a poster-child for urban redevelopment. Some trace the area’s renaissance back to the 2000 opening of the Shiffbau, an ingenious trio of performance spaces set in a former factory that once churned out boilers and steamships. Since then, Zurich West has emerged as the most forward-looking part of town. Apart from Löwenbräukunst and the unmissable, Lego-like stack of shipping containers that is the flagship store of Swiss bag-maker Freitag, there’s Im Viadukt, a 19th-century train viaduct that now hosts a food market and retail space. Trains still zoom across the tracks above, but below, the stone railway arches are inhabited by a produce market and dozens of shops and eateries, including Zurich’s best Japanese-run udon stand (Tokyo Tapas), a British cheese vendor, a vintage clothing store, and homeware and furniture outlets. The last two years have seen new tram lines and bike lanes make the district more accessible.
Over in central Zurich, meanwhile, the city’s main train station, the Hauptbahnhof, has welcomed a weekly farmers’ market and opened an entire new lower level of shops. But the latest expansion is Europaallee, a massive complex devoted to indie boutiques and pop-ups stretching from the station all the way to Langstrasse. Tenants include haute Swiss outdoor brand Kevin in the Woods, apparel and homewares boutique Jo Brauer, and Opia, which stocks Isaac Reina bags alongside men’s wear from local designer Julian Zigerli and minimalistic jewelry by Felix Doll. Just Another Pop Up features Swiss brands like Taucherli, which produces chocolate bars spiked with Swiss malt, salt, and barley. There are new brunch spots and shops throwing open their doors seemingly every week.
“As a wealthy city, Zurich should be an idea lab for the rest of the world,” says Ralph Meury of Meury Architektur, one of the architects behind Kloten Airport’s The Circle, a US$1.1 billion retail complex and medical-tourism facility slated for completion in 2019. “We Swiss are great at solving problems and we can afford to experiment a little bit here. If an idea can work in Zurich, it can work anywhere.”
One idea that works very well in Zurich is not a new one at all, but a longstanding tradition that helps to make this city such an agreeable place to live and visit, especially in the summer. Called badi, these full-service swimming areas (equipped with hot showers and food and wine vendors) line the city’s rivers, canals and lakesides, softening Zurich’s austere edges. The Männerbad sits on the ancient Schanzengraben moat, flowing with clear lake water. By day, it’s male-only and sees suited UBS bankers strip for a lunchtime dip, but by evening it turns into Rimini, a splashy unisex party. The 19th-century Frauenbad on the Limmat River in Altstadt is female-only, but at sunset it turns into Bar Fuss and lets in the men. Some, like the floating Engebadi on Lake Zurich, stay open all winter, converting to a sauna where locals regularly plunge nude into the lake. But catch it on a warm, sunny Saturday in August when a mix of skimpily dressed thirtysomethings sun themselves in view of the snow-capped Alps, and you’ll understand the pull of this unique city too.
Langstrasse 10; 41-43/317-9474
Niederdorfstrasse 10; 41-44/250-7680
Rämistrasse 4; 41-44/262-9900
Hopfenstrasse 2; 41-44/462-0101
Kalkbreitestrasse 138; 41-44/462-1319
Lagerstrasse 92; 41-44/501-1749
Thermalbad & Spa Zürich
Brandschenkestrasse 150; 41-44/205-9650
Limmatstrasse 270; 41-44/272-1515
This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Other Side of Zurich”).