The Gastronomic Allure of Zurich, Switzerland
While we are proudly nocturnal, we nonetheless found ourselves oddly and intoxicatingly energized on a recent morning - well before eight o’clock. Imagine our surprise, but there we were, atop the highest hotel in Zurich, Switzerland, on the 32nd floor - swimming in an infinity pool where the water is always kept at a bathlike temperature of 88 degrees Fahrenheit.
No one else was swimming at that hour - and every time our head came above water, we were nearly overwhelmed by the breathtaking views of Zurich and the snow-crested Swiss Alps. And right then, perhaps more than ever before, we understood why it was that Maria von Trapp broke into song as she crossed the Alps. Sing out, Maria; welcome to Switzerland!
Located in the heart of Europe, on the northern shores of Lake Zurich, Zurich was originally settled during the Neolithic and Bronze Ages - making it more than 7,000 years old. Currently, the largest city in Switzerland (with nearly 400,000 people), Zurich has been designated the city with the best quality of life in the world - for seven years in a row. A world leader in attempting to salvage the global climate, Zurich is also the wealthiest city in Europe - and one of the few world cities where a plurality of its citizens profess no faith or religion.
So there it is then, the recipe for civic happiness: concern for the environment, a healthy skepticism for theology - and money in the pocket.
With over fifty museums and more than 100 art galleries, Zurich is, for many, the cultural capital of Switzerland (discuss this proposition with a citizen of Basel - merely for argument’s sake). The birthplace of the Dada art movement (with its emphasis on anti-war politics), Zurich has been, for centuries, the home for writers, composers, and artists such as Mozart, Goethe, Lenin, and Thomas Mann, all of whom worked and created in Zurich. Currently, Zurich holds one of the world’s largest collections of works of Alberto Giacometti, as well as the well-loved windows by Marc Chagall at the Fraumunster.
Some of Zurich’s historic focus on culture is, no doubt, attributable to the artisans’ guilds that influenced the city’s development from the 14th to the 18th centuries. For more than four hundred years, Zurich was controlled by various professional guilds comprised of vintners, tavern owners, saddlers, painters, and other artisans’ associations. More interesting, at least from a gastronomic perspective, is that many of those guild houses are now restaurants, affording one of the best ways to discover Zurich: through its food.
One afternoon, for example, we stopped by the Confiserie Sprungli on Paradeplatz, where ladies lunch on macaroons in the 175-year-old splendor of this world-known confiserie. Later, we wandered into Cafe Schober, perfect for pastries and coffee on a chilly afternoon - and where the sumptuous rooms beg for a clandestine tryst.
Late in the afternoon, strolling through Old Town Zurich, every shadowy doorway seems a portal into a romantic past - which was a fantasy further fueled by a boat ride on the river Limmat out into Lake Zurich for an idyllic meal at LakeSide on the Gold Coast of the lake.
It is from this picturesque setting that you might consider Zurich and its charms - and better understand why Mozart, Mann, and Goethe succumbed to its salutary pleasures.
For a country roughly the size of the state of Maryland, Switzerland has always held a great deal of allure - and specifically for Americans. Charlie Chaplin settled in Switzerland after being demonized by American demagoguery. And from where we were seated on the summer terrace at LakeSide, we were certain we could make out Tina Turner’s estate on the Gold Coast of Lake Zurich.
Perhaps everyone feels better in Zurich. With more than 40 swimming facilities, Zurich has the highest density of public bathing areas in the world, nearly half of them in the open air, on the lake, or along the river. And the water gushing from Zurich’s more than 1,200 fountains is some of the cleanest in the world - and completely refreshing to drink at any time of year.
All these attributes swam through our head as we churned through the water, swimming our early morning laps atop Zurich’s highest hotel - with the Alps appearing to be but an arm’s length away. And we remembered then how it was to enter Zurich from the airport: we’d boarded a train and, heading into a tunnel toward the city center, we were suddenly greeted by the sound of an ethereal choir piped in on the train’s speakers. We looked around to see who else might be hearing it - and we were not alone. Nor were we alone in smiling when the choir segued into a chorus of cows mooing.
Ah, Switzerland! Ah, Zurich! It’s the land of Heidi, and Swiss bank accounts, and where you eat at the continent’s oldest vegetarian restaurant while listening to Curtis Mayfield singing the theme from "Superfly," and where twenty-one Nobel Prize winners co-exist with goats grazing in a field. What a smorgasbord of life’s bounty: it’s small wonder that people are so happy.
(Feature continues on next pages: What to Do, Where to Drink, Where to Eat, Where to Shop, Where to Stay...)
What to Do:
Huerlimann Aeral Thermalbad & Spa, Zurich: For a country not generally recognized for its athletic prowess, Switzerland has an active physio-therapeutic culture - and the brand-new Thermal Baths & Spa Zurich is a testament to the country’s belief that well-being stems from within.
Located within the vast Huerlimann Aeral office complex in what was once the Hurlimann Brewery, the Thermal Baths & Spa is an immersion in sybaritic rituals, where relaxation is celebrated as the peak of human existence.
Start at the open-air rooftop pool, where you are greeted with awe-inspiring, panoramic vistas of Zurich. This is unmitigated joy: the snow-capped Alps in the distance, the sun on your face - and you in the bubbling water, pummeled into submission.
Downstairs, a labyrinth of hydrotherapeutic pleasures awaits you. Swim through the stone vaults of the brewery or immerse yourself in the meditation pool, where music plays underwater. Take the Irish-Roman spa cure - and be grateful to the ancients who taught us how to cleanse and relax. Toast to your inner peace - and to Zurich and the Swiss.
The water, which hovers between 95 and 106 degrees Fahrenheit, is loaded with valuable minerals from Zurich’s "Aqui" source.
Be forewarned: once you leave Huerlimann Aeral Thermalbad & Spa, you’ll be putty in the hands of anyone - and you might acquiesce to anything.
LINK: Huerlimann Aeral Thermalbad & Spa
Walking tour of the Viadukt: In a building called the Container Tower, the flagship Freitag store looms over the neighborhood like a Cubist Michelin man. Globally recognized for its messenger bags made from recycled truck tarpaulins, Freitag is equally celebrated for its tower made of stacked shipping containers, which is an architectural landmark in Zurich-West.
Previously an industrial district, Zurich-West has been reclaimed by local artisans, many of whom sell contemporary wares from high-concept boutiques located under the arches of the Viadukt. A neighborhood as much as it is a marketplace, the Viadukt is analogous to New York’s Meatpacking District, albeit more conducive to residential life. There’s even an elevated park, similar to New York’s High Line (minus the flora) that’s popular for jogging and walking.
A large market hall, filled with local produce and artisanal chocolates and gourmet treats, makes for a perfect pit stop while shopping. It’s very easy to spend an entire afternoon here, slipping easily into the mellow atmosphere.
LINK: the Viadukt
Climb the Uetilberg: For the most spectacular views of Zurich, you must head to the Uetilberg, which is Zurich’s local mountain. At half a mile high, the Uetilberg is best approached on the S10 Uetilberg Bahn railway, Europe’s steepest adhesion railway. Don’t look down. Once you’re at the rail station atop the mountain, there’s still a ten-minute walk to the summit. And then, for more thrills, climb the tower that is atop the mountain - and once you’re at the top, you’re all about knocking on heaven’s door.
Gaze outward. There, spread out before you in all its confectionery colors, is the splendor of Zurich, with Lake Zurich a brilliant azure, and in the distance the Alps. Let go of your resistance - and be awed.
In the winter, the mountain has sledding runs, and in the summer, hikers wander along woodland paths, cowbells ringing in the distance, while goats graze at the roadside. Artesian wells offer some of the freshest, coldest water on the planet - and as you sip from cupped hands, you might believe you’ve found paradise.
LINK: Climb the Uetilberg
Zurich Sweets Tour: Switzerland is synonymous with chocolate - and a sweets tour is almost mandatory. Kerrin Rousset, a dedicated devotee of all things chocolate, provides an informed tour of Zurich’s most popular confiseries, while also insuring that you’re exposed to those local chocolate purveyors that only the most serious chocoholics know about. From Schober to Sprungli and Läderach, Rousset makes it clear that when you’re in Zurich, you’re in chocolate paradise.
LINK: Sweet Zurich
(Feature continues on next pages: Where to Drink, Where to Eat, Where to Shop, Where to Stay...)
Where to Drink:
Bar Hotel Schweizerhof: A stunning wedding cake of a Beaux-Arts structure, the Hotel Schweizerhof might well have been one of the models for "Grand Hotel."
Perfectly situated across from Zurich’s main rail station, the Schweizerhof is perfectly positioned for a perfect cocktail upon entering or exiting the city. Enter on the corner of Lintheschergasse into the cozy and compact Schweizerhof Bar and order a martini while awaiting the arrival of your illicit romantic partner. This is where Cary Grant might have waited for Deborah Kerr - or where Harry Lime ducked into a doorway. Linger awhile and see what happens to you.
LINK: Bar Hotel Schweizerhof
Weinschenke zum Hirschen, Hotel Hirschen: The 11th-century building housing the Hotel Hirschen has been entertaining guests since at least 1599 - and once you step into the historic wine cave, you’ll better understand the allure of one of Zurich’s oldest hotels. A subterranean refuge from city heat and tension, the Weinschenke zum Hirschen is an oenophile’s sanctuary.
Weinschenke zum Hirschen serves more than 20 wines by the glass (selected by the sommelier) in a candlelit setting that evokes the classical world of Mozart - and indeed, it’s not at all difficult to imagine Wolfgang sipping wine while furiously scribbling his plangent scores.
The wine cave was granted status in January of 2009 as an official wedding venue in the city of Zurich - and it’s equally easy to envision a euphoric LGBT wedding in this vinous space.
LINK: Weinschenke zum Hirschen, Hotel Hirschen
Where to Eat:
Hin & Weg Comptoir: "Comptoir" is the French word for "counter," as in take-out, but Hin & Weg is more like a complete package of stylish design married to gourmet food with a healthy dose of home cooking and complete sincerity. The concept is thorough and thoughtful, from the sustainable packaging to the nutritional content of the beautifully prepared food.
Hin & Weg is a Swiss German double entendre, a double meaning, which is apt, given that this comptoir is comprehensive in its desire to feed you well. Everything has been carefully considered - and everything you eat is delicious. There’s an extraordinary attention to detail, which should satisfy every design queen who is fortunate enough to cross this eatery’s threshold. One meal at Hin & Weg - and it’s likely that you’ll be inquiring about them catering your wedding reception.
LINK: Hin & Weg Comptoir
Hiltl: With a name like Ambrosius, it might have been expected that Ambrosius Hiltl would become a restaurateur - but who could have imagined that he would open what has become the oldest vegetarian restaurant in all of Europe. As his grandson, Heinz Hiltl, recalls, "My grandfather was an open-minded man with many interests. He enjoyed travelling and created an atmosphere in which artists, politicians, and intellectuals in particular felt both relaxed and inspired."
Haus Hiltl dominates its downtown corner location, with a sleek, three-story restaurant and outdoor terrace. At lunch, people from the neighborhood congregate with tourists from around the world to partake in more than one hundred homemade specialties at the copious buffet. In an open kitchen, thirty chefs and assistants work with regional, seasonal produce to create food that is as loved by omnivores and carnivores as it is by vegetarians.
For more than a century, since 1898, Hiltl has been serving food that has nothing to do with dead animals - and during that time, Hiltl has become so beloved by Zurich’s populace that Haus Hiltl also contains a cooking school, as well as a bar, lounge, and late-night club. Thirty wines are offered by the glass and over thirty international vodkas in the bar/lounge - and later at night, Club Hiltl’s deejays attract a crowd of music-lovers who groove to house, disco, mash-up - and live drummers.
The popularity of Hiltl has produced an offshoot called tibits, with several locations around Switzerland - thereby enabling you to have your Hiltl fix even when away from Zurich.
This is food that makes you feel - and look - good, served at a place that makes you very happy.
Les Halles: What looks like a garage from the outside is actually one of Zurich’s more colorful and popular restaurants, and specifically for its moules et frites. Les Halles, a former warehouse, offers mostly organic food from a French Mediterranean menu in a tatterdemalion setting that combines Sixties French pop art with flea market finds, automotive parts, bicycles, and vintage ephemera on every wall.
At lunch, Les Halles is packed with businesspeople who whip off their ties and tear into a bucket of moules - and to dine at Les Halles is to feel that you, too, are a part of the real Zurich. Loud and fun, you want to return for dinner.
LINK: Les Halles
LakeSide: Sometimes half the fun is getting there - and in the case of LakeSide, the getting there by boat is most definitely part of the entire experience. This beloved Zurich restaurant is located right on Lake Zurich, with a summer terrace and summer lounge, both of which afford magnificent views of what locals call the "Gold Coast."
At gloaming, as the sun goes down on Lake Zurich, the hills are bathed in liquid gold - and if you are seated at LakeSide, with a Bellini, let’s say, there is nothing to do but to toast to the good life in Zurich.
As might be expected, LakeSide is expensive (with an absurd policy of not allowing you to order only starters - unless you want a surcharge for "table setting") - but sometimes it’s worth it to pay for the seat and soak up the golden ambience. Bring your camera - not only for the view, but to preserve a photograph of you when you were living la dolce vita.
Tao’s Restaurant, Bar, and Lounge: Located on what is quite possibly the most pristine and romantic street in Zurich’s Old Town, Augustinergasse, Tao’s Restaurant ups the ante with a beautiful garden terrace. To find yourself in this setting on a balmy spring evening is close to joy. All the better then if you’re dining here on an expense account or with a silver daddy, for the restaurant is very overpriced - and particularly for its menu of Thai, Italian, and Japanese fusion cuisine. The atmosphere can be slightly stuffy, thanks to the business crowd, as well as borderline raucous, due to the downstairs club. Your best bet is to dine al fresco, relax into your chair, and breathe in the fresh air.
LINK: Tao’s Restaurant, Bar, and Lounge
(Feature continues on next page: Where to Shop, Where to Stay, Getting There, Tourist Information...)
Where to Shop:
Walter: Located in Zurich-West (where all the cool people hang out), there’s an unassuming vintage furniture and accessories boutique with some of the most chic and clever merch in all of Europe. As much a gallery as a store, the items on sale have been carefully curated, and provided with provenance, so that a wander through Walter feels akin to a cultural outing. This is shopping as art - and your home will look better for it. Ask for Bettina, the owner, who is as enthusiastic as she is visionary.
Confiserie Café Sprungli: Paradeplatz was once the pig market of Zurich and is now, perhaps, best known for all the piggy people who convene at one of the most celebrated confiseries in the world: Sprungli. Celebrating 175 years, Sprungli has survived by focusing on what it does best: sweets. The daily truffles are made from milk that was in the udder earlier in the morning. Ladies who lunch - and their pretty boytoys - love the salon for lingering long over Luxemburgerli macaroons. After an all-nighter, another kind of boytoy comes here for Birchermuesli with cream. Fortify yourself with decadent sweets - and buy something indulgent for your sweetie back home.
LINK: Confiserie Café Sprungli
Where to Stay:
Swissôtel Zurich: Located in Oerlikon, a five-minute train ride from Zurich’s city center, Swissôtel Zurich is a splendid retreat. Recently renovated, the hotel’s 347 luxury rooms and suites are furnished in contemporary style - and feature superb views of Zurich and the Alps. All rooms are non-smoking, but even better, all feature Nespresso/Lavazzza tea and coffee machines, which make espresso at the drop of a lever. (So delicious is the result that we inadvertently walked in on our chambermaid sipping an espresso, which we kept between us, until now.)
But best of all is the pillow menu. One night we ordered a spelt pillow, filled with organic spelt, which is reputed to relieve neck tension - and in the morning, we felt as we’d received a neck massage. The next night, we slept on a Swiss stone pine pillow, filled with pine shavings so resinous as to make us feel we were sleeping in an enchanted forest. As delicious as the pillows are is the manner in which they are hand-delivered by the staff - as if they were treasures from the three magi. Bliss.
While the bathrooms are the size of a New York closet, a stay at Swissôtel Zurich affords access to the Amrita Spa & Fitness Center atop Zurich’s tallest hotel where the infinity pool on the 32nd floor offers breathtaking views of the Alps. The water is kept at 88 degrees Fahrenheit, while the whirlpool’s temperature corresponds exactly to your core body temperature.
Once you’ve completed your morning swim, enjoy the copious breakfast buffet downstairs at Restaurant Szenario with its summer terrace. The hotel’s rooftop garden provides the seasonal herbs. There’s also an in-house Starbucks for those who need an American fix - but the truth is, Swissôtel Zurich celebrates all good things Swiss.
Get into it - and live like a happy Swiss at Swissôtel Zurich.
LINK: Swissôtel Zurich
Swiss Air: One of the nicest ways to fly across the pond from New York is Swiss Air’s Business Jet. All 56 passengers on the Boeing B737-800 are Business Class, making the entire eight-hour experience akin to flying on a private jet. Even with sleeper seats that recline into beds, you’ll be tempted to remain awake for much of the journey, thanks to the surfeit of culinary offerings. Delicious meals and a wide array of in-flight entertainment on your own DVD player make the entire flight equivalent to a flying hotel. Warning: you’ll be spoiled.
Zurich’s international airport has connections to more than 180 destinations - and is but a ten-minute train ride to Zurich’s main railway station (a ride that commences with the sounds of an ethereal choir - before segueing into the mooing of cows as the train heads into the tunnel.)
LINK: Swiss Air
Swiss Pass: As soon as you land in Switzerland, you’re going to want to ride the trains and the trams. Taxis in Switzerland are prohibitively expensive - and besides, the trains and trams are as punctual as a Swiss watch. Furthermore, you’ve never been on such clean trains. Sit back and relax - and marvel at the beauty of the Swiss countryside as you travel from city to city. Rail Europe allows you to purchase your tickets online, in advance of your trip, thereby saving you money.
LINK: Swiss Pass
Zürich Tourism, Tourist Service in the Main Station, CH-8021 Zürich
Tel. +41 44 215 40 00; Fax +41 44 215 40 44
Zürich Tourism: General Information
Tel. +41 44 215 40 40; Fax +41 44 215 40 44
Zürich Tourism: Hotel Information
PHOTO LINK: Capturing Switzerland’s Charms in Photos
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