The beautiful but misunderstood city that more Britons should visit

zurich weekend break travel city breaks art history tours hedonistic switzerland holidays - Getty
zurich weekend break travel city breaks art history tours hedonistic switzerland holidays - Getty

In Zurich’s medieval Old Town, amid a cluster of cobbled alleys, there is a street called Spiegelgasse which reveals the rebellious hinterland of this sleek and affluent city. On the corner of the street is Cabaret Voltaire, the riotous nightclub that revolutionised modern art, and just around the corner is the house where Lenin planned the Russian Revolution.

Lenin arrived here in February 1916, the same month that Cabaret Voltaire opened, and although there’s no record of him visiting the club (which he surely would have dismissed as the apotheosis of bourgeois decadence), he would have been painfully aware of its existence. Cabaret Voltaire was noisy and chaotic, a place where performers and punters partied late into the night. I like to think of Lenin slaving over his desk into the small hours, plotting the overthrow of the Tsar, trying to ignore the thumping music and shrieks of laughter from the unruly nightspot a few doors away.

Today Lenin’s house is a private residence – a simple plaque outside is the only memento of his brief stay – but Cabaret Voltaire is back in business. Part gallery, part performance space, it’s a reminder that here in Zurich, first impressions can be deceptive. Superficially, the city seems staid and sensible, but you don’t need to dig so deep to discover its wilder side.

Cabaret Voltaire zurich city breaks travel - Getty
Cabaret Voltaire zurich city breaks travel - Getty

People get the wrong idea about Zurich, and I blame Harold Wilson. Back in 1956, the future Prime Minister (then a mere Shadow Chancellor) dubbed Switzerland’s bankers the “gnomes of Zurich”. The name stuck, and ever since Switzerland’s biggest city has been synonymous with high finance – hardly the most alluring advert for a weekend city break.

Like a lot of stereotypes, there’s some truth in this comic caricature – Zurich has always been an important banking centre – but its gnomes keep a low profile, and their financial wizardry is the least visible part of Zurich’s story. Far more prominent is its long history as a cultural hub. James Joyce wrote Ulysses here – he’s buried in the local cemetery. His adopted home has always been a refuge for oddballs, rebels and refuseniks.

An exile in Zurich during the First World War, Joyce went to drink his coffee in Café Odeon – still a lively rendezvous today. His fellow guests included Einstein, Lenin, Trotsky and Mussolini. It’s fun to imagine them together, rubbing shoulders in the same intimate café.

James Joyce Ulysses Zurich Fluntern Cemetery switzerland travel culture - Getty
James Joyce Ulysses Zurich Fluntern Cemetery switzerland travel culture - Getty

A short walk away, on Rämistrasse, is the bookshop where a courageous Swiss couple called Emil and Emmie Oprecht published books that were banned by the Nazis and gave sanctuary to German writers fleeing Hitler. Today it’s a smart art bookshop, run by Swiss dealers Hauser & Wirth. The interior has hardly changed since the 1930s.

However, this isn’t merely a city of cultural relics and curios. Over a century since Cabaret Voltaire turned the art world upside down, introducing Europe to the crazy world of Dada, Zurich is still at the cutting edge. The Kunsthaus, its main gallery, has always been one of Europe’s leading museums, and now a new extension, designed by British starchitect Sir David Chipperfield, has renewed its appeal.

If you fancy something a bit more grungy, Zurich has its rougher edges too. Zurich West used to be the industrial quarter, a wilderness for tourists, but now many of its redundant buildings have been converted into cultural spaces: the old Lowenbrau brewery is now a gallery; the Schiffbau shipyard is now a theatre.

zurich west city breaks district holidays travel - Alamy
zurich west city breaks district holidays travel - Alamy

So why isn’t Zurich swarming with sightseers like Berlin or Barcelona? Largely because of the lousy exchange rate. Forty years ago, on my first trip to Switzerland, a pound bought three Swiss Francs. Now the exchange rate is perilously close to parity. This is partly the fault of the puny British pound, but Continental visitors also complain that Switzerland is pricey, and even the Swiss find Zurich expensive compared to other Swiss cities.

Unless you’re a lot better off than me, this is bound to provide a challenge – but having been back half a dozen times, I think I’ve finally got the hang of it (I’ve outlined a few money-saving tips below). Furthermore, prices are pretty steep, but you get what you pay for. Even in the most basic places, you can be sure of quality – a three-star hotel is more like a four-star in Britain – with no hidden costs or unexpected extras.

But the best things about Zurich are absolutely free. It’s a pleasure to explore on foot, from the alleyways of the Altstadt (Old Town) to the broad, tree-lined boulevards of the Neustadt (New Town) down below. Zurich’s greatest glory is the Zürichsee, its vast and lovely lake, and a lot of the waterfront is walkable. Twenty-five miles long and two miles wide, it does wonders for the air quality and the climate – you can swim in the lake in summertime, and in winter it’s a lot milder on the lakeside than in the hills above.

zurich travel holidays - Getty
zurich travel holidays - Getty

Wherever you are in Zurich, you’re never far from the water – and the nicest way to see it is on one of the ferries that criss-cross the lake. There are plenty of international passengers on these boat trips, but there are lots of locals too. If you’re not in a hurry, it’s a good way to get around. From the water, you get a great view of Zurich’s main landmarks, including the bold and colourful Pavillon Le Corbusier, one of the modernist architect’s most beautiful buildings – far more attractive than his brutalist tower blocks.

The reason I keep coming back to Zurich is because I always run out of time – and money – before I run out of things to see and do. This time, I went along to the glitzy FIFA Museum (Zurich has been the headquarters of football’s world governing body since 1934). The permanent exhibition is a time tunnel through 150 years of soccer history, festooned with footballing memorabilia – every kind of artefact you can think of, and quite a few you can’t.

I searched in vain for proper critical analysis of some of the more contentious World Cup Finals – not just Qatar this year, but also Argentina in 1978 and Italy in 1934. However, despite the dearth of social criticism, it’s a spectacular display, and football fans of all ages (especially the younger ones) will relish it. Just don’t expect much historical context, that’s all.

My favourite attractions in Zurich are a lot more understated. As befits a Protestant city, Zurich’s two main churches, the Fraumunster and the Grossmünster, look austere and imposing from the outside, but inside are some of the most exquisite stained-glass windows I’ve ever seen. The Marc Chagall windows in the Fraumunster draw the crowds, but the ones that really move me are the abstract designs by Sigmar Polke in the Grossmünster. For me, they symbolise the quiet radicalism that lurks beneath Zurich’s respectable surface, and its endless capacity to surprise.

Grossmünster zurich churches culture architect art - Alamy
Grossmünster zurich churches culture architect art - Alamy

Where to stay

For those with money to burn, Zurich’s finest city centre hotel is the historic Baur au Lac. Founded in 1844 by Austrian hotelier Johannes Baur, it’s still in the Baur family today. The house style is supremely opulent, yet the service is subtle and discreet. The delicate tasting menu in its two-Michelin-star Pavillon Restaurant is one of the city’s culinary highlights.

The 25hours Hotel Langstrasse is a funky and far more affordable contemporary hideaway in a new tower block on the edge of Zurich West, the city’s most happening neighbourhood. The ambience is laid back and the décor is jokey and informal: lots of groovy knick-knacks in the bedrooms (they even leave a Polaroid camera for you to play around with) and a Space Invaders machine in the lobby. Europa Allee, Zurich’s most fashionable shopping street, is right next door.

hotels zurich 25hours Hotel Langstrasse - 25hours Hotel Langstrasse
hotels zurich 25hours Hotel Langstrasse - 25hours Hotel Langstrasse

Where to eat and drink

My favourite spot is the Restaurant Alpenrose, which serves up homely unpretentious Swiss cuisine in a cosy traditional setting. The menu varies daily – always a good sign – but the Hackbraten (meat loaf) and Spätzle (Alpine noodles) is a house speciality.

Bierwerk Züri is a thriving microbrewery run by three hip young locals (Italian-Swiss sisters Lidia and Valeria, and Max, from Bavaria – where they know a thing or two about beer). The building is brand new but it’s full of atmosphere. When I dropped in on a weekday evening the place was packed.

Money-saving tips

Buying a Zürich Card will save you a packet. This pass provides unlimited public transport across the city and the metropolitan area that surrounds it, including shorter cruises on the lake. It also buys you free or reduced admission to a huge range of attractions, from museums to nightlife, from excursions to shopping. A 24-hour pass costs CHF 27 (about £24); a 72-hour pass costs CHF 53.

Fraumunster zurich tourism cafe culture - Getty
Fraumunster zurich tourism cafe culture - Getty

For free activities, walk the Path of the Planets on Uetliberg Mountain, visit the Botanical Gardens, the Zoological Museum or the Langenberg Wildlife Park. If you need to go shopping for a picnic lunch, Swiss supermarket Migros sells good quality food at reasonable prices.

Getting there

Swiss (swiss.com) flies to Zurich from Heathrow, London City and Manchester; British Airways (ba.com) from Heathrow and London City; easyJet (easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Luton. The city can be reached by train from London in a little over seven hours with a change in Paris.

Have you visited Zurich recently? We'd love to hear your travel tips – please share them in the comments below