Think Switzerland, think neutrality, money and chocolate. But the capital of finance is shedding its staid image and embracing a new ethos that celebrates culinary diversity in all its forms, says Anthony Lambert
Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland. Flight time from London is 1.5 hours and the time is one hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the Swiss franc. Get unlimited use of the tram and trolleybus network with a ZurichCARD, which also gives free or discounted admission to most museums and discounts in various stores. In May, the average high temperature is 20C and the average low is 7C.
Swiss is the national carrier and flies from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham and Dublin from £67 one way. swiss.com
easyJet operates daily flights from London Luton and London Gatwick to Zurich Kloten Airport from £68 return. easyjet.com
Switzerland Tourism has details to plan your trip. myswitzerland.com
Zurich Tourism is full of information on the city’s events. zuerick.com
Hausfrau (Random House, £7.99) by Jill Alexander Essbaum tells the story of Anna Benz, a bored housewife whose ‘perfect’ life in Zurich spirals out of control as she yearns to live a life with meaning.
To offset your emissions make a donation at climatecare.org and support environmental projects around the world. Return flights from London produce 0.26 tonnes of CO2, meaning a cost to offset of £3.90.
Sitting at a table among the trees and planters of Frau Gerolds Garten in Zurich-West, I’m surrounded by symbols of change and continuity in Switzerland’s largest city.
Frau Gerold has created an institution by turning a drab industrial space into a garden edged with small shops selling niche products such as organic clothes, Tunisian textiles and electric bikes, plus her own outdoor restaurant, which occupies a gazebo in winter.
High above are two towers. One is a container stack housing Freitag, a now world-famous shop selling bags made of lorry tarps and clothes; the other is Switzerland’s tallest building. Prime Tower (126m) is home to what Zurich has long been associated with: banks.
Prime Tower is only one of the many new office buildings rising from the former industrial quarter, and staff there can enjoy fresh beer in the basement restaurant of craft brewery Steinfels. The young brewmaster Matthias Müller studied the craft in Munich. He relishes the freedom he has to create new seasonal brews as well as the staple lager pils, classic Bavarian wheat beer and a restrained, copper-coloured IPA. For his summer beer, he adds caramalt to Citra and Polaris hops, the latter providing a minty freshness. His beers are only available at restaurants in Zurich – the Metropole, Blue Monkey, Brasserie Louis and Walliserkanne among them. The menu at Steinfels is pan-Pacific, with plates such as Cuban soup with veal, green pepper and garlic, and red Thai chicken curry served with wok-fried vegetables and jasmine rice.
Walking a few steps east, I encounter Im Viadukt, another symbol of the renaissance of Zuri-West, as it’s often abbreviated. Beneath the stone arches of this 1894 railway viaduct, shops selling crafts, new and recycled furniture, bikes, lighting and fashion are interweaved with restaurants and cafés.
Benoit Perler is in charge of gastronomy at Restaurant Viadukt. This is no ordinary restaurant – it’s part of a social project helping young people lacking an apprenticeship or qualifications gain transferable skills. But Benoit wants people to come for the quality of the food, not out of charity, and he achieves that with a menu of intriguing originality. Organic ingredients, many from a farm run by the same foundation, are used in dishes such as chicken stuffed with chestnuts and dried plums, thinly sliced wild venison and mushrooms with quince sauce and quark spätzli (egg noodles), and pine needle ice cream with hazelnut and chocolate pavé.
Switzerland is synonymous with chocolate, and one of the city’s most irresistible displays is at Vollenweider Chocolatier Confiseur at Theaterstrasse near the Opera. Production at this family run company is based in nearby Winterthur, where I meet three of the family preparing a consignment of chocolates for the Middle East.
The company’s chocolates are made only with organic ingredients: cocoa beans from the Dominican Republic and Ecuador, vanilla from Madagascar and Swiss eggs and milk. It also makes delicious macarons and mouthwatering eclairs including flavours such as praline noisette, passion fruit, Tahitian vanilla and 72 per cent Venezuelan chocolate.
Chocolate has played a big part in Zurich’s café culture and its traditions are delightfully upheld at Conditorei Schober in pedestrianised Niederdorf where the upstairs salon is a voluptuous boudoir of gilt furniture and crimson wall panels and upholstery. Sweets and pastries have been sold in the building since the 14th century but the current business was founded by Theodore Schober in 1874. The drinking chocolate is made by Lindt to Schober’s own specification and the chef patissier creates sublime French and Swiss pastries.
Another Zurich institution is located on Bahnhofstrasse, the city’s most luxurious and famous street and the place to go for haute couture, jewellery and watches. Confiserie Sprüngli has been a meeting place for Zurich’s well-to-do since 1859. The upstairs room comes to life over breakfasts of Bircher muesli with berries, smoked salmon and scrambled eggs. Light lunches of salads and cold plates are served but most come for the patisserie, chocolate tarts and signature Luxemburgerli macarons, named after the birthplace of the confectioner who created them.
Chocolate had no place at the cabaret that became famous for European counter-culture. Absinthe, beer and sausages were more to the taste of the clientele at Café Voltaire, where Dadaism was born. It was founded in 1916 by Hugo Ball and Emmy Hennings but its best-known member was abstract artist and poet Jean Arp. The deliberately absurd performances of spoken word, dance and music satirised and mocked the established order.
Switzerland has been a place of political and religious exile for centuries and Rapperswil Castle is one of its most tangible legacies. At the far end of Lake Zurich, it can be reached by train or on one of the lake’s steamboats. A tree-shaded promenade leads to the steep slopes of the 12th-centry fort and into the old town.
Between 1870 and 1927 the castle was home to the Polish National Museum, set up by Polish emigrants. A second one was opened there from 1936-48, called the Museum of Contemporary Poland. It was rented by the Swiss Castle Society between 1952 and 1962 and after its interior was remodelled, it once again housed the Polish Museum. The castle has now become a restaurant with views over the lake and Ufenau island nature reserve.
Lake fish feature on the menu at Fischers Fritz, a nearby restaurant at the city’s only camping ground. Depending on the day’s catch, up to eight different species including perch and brown trout may be on offer. They’re either cooked whole or filleted and baked in foil with olives, cherry tomatoes and herbs.
The bus back into the city stops at Bürkliplatz, where Lake Zurich and River Limmat bisect the city. Here you’ll also find a twice-weekly market selling fish, regional cheeses and baked goods. The most historic market site is the Gemüsebrücke (vegetable bridge) where a market has been held since the 14th century. Since 1893 its official name has been Rathausbrücke after the adjacent town hall.
A painting of the bridge in the late Middle Ages, when it was the only one across the River Limmat, can be seen at perhaps the city’s most prominent landmark, the Grossmünster church with its twin towers (Wagner unkindly likened them to pepper grinders). The altarpiece of the Romanesque basilica shows the wooden bridge and earlier town hall. In common with many churches in the Protestant parts of Switzerland, Grossmünster was largely stripped of ornament under the influence of Huldrych Zwingli, the leader of Reformation in the country, whose statue stands on the south side of the nearby Wasserkirche (water church).
The sounding of the second largest bell in the Grossmünster at 6pm on the third Monday of April triggers one of Zurich’s greatest festivals, the Sechseläuten, marking the end of winter. A procession of the city’s 26 trade guilds sees more than 3,000 members march through the streets in traditional attire, followed by the ceremonial burning of an effigy of a snowman called the Böögg.
These guilds have played an important role in the political and social life of Zurich since the 14th century and the guild houses are among its grandest historic buildings. Six of them have become restaurants and it would be a shame not to dine at 17th-century Zunfthaus zur Waag, the guild house of weavers. Overlooking Münsterhof, it’s where Winston Churchill spoke to the city’s university students in 1946 and called for the formation of ‘a kind of United States of Europe’. The honeycomb windows on the elegant first-floor dining-room are lined with the arms of guild families, while historic paintings and prints of the city cover the walls. Paradoxically, it was here that Hugo Ball read out the Dada Manifesto in July 1916 at the Dadaists’ first official soirée.
Menus in the guild restaurants are traditional, and if the city can be said to have a signature dish it would be Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (veal in a creamy sauce with paprika and lemon juice) served with a rösti. Head chef Alain Koenig plates up an astounding 22,000 a year. His other dishes include fillet of pike perch and saffron leeks with lemon potato purée and roasted pheasant breast with a grape sauce.
The guild houses would have been oases of civilisation before the 20th century. The cleanliness for which Switzerland is renowned is only about a century old. In 1838, John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Switzerland warned readers that ‘the inns at Zurich are notoriously dirty,’ yet when Irish writer and poet James Joyce moved to Zurich in 1915, he thought Bahnhofstrasse was so clean that you could eat minestrone soup directly off the street. Today, every one of the city’s 1,200 fountains pours potable water and there is now concern that Lake Zurich is actually too clean for the fish it holds.
It’s worth timing your trip to coincide with Food Zurich, an 11-day festival celebrating the city’s culinary diversity and artisan producers (see left). From freshly made pupusa (Salvadorean corn tortillas) to truffle salami, ceviche and local makers of ginger beer and gin, its vibrancy chimes with the fact that Switzerland was the first country after Italy to form a national Slow Food movement.
Emanuel Lobeck of Slow Food Switzerland tells me: ‘Our projects involve both producers and the public so they feel they’re not passive consumers but coproducers. By buying and eating food that reflects the values of Slow Food, you enable the producer to provide true quality.’
Now as au fait with edible flair as it is finance, Zurich has become a culinary destination worthy of the international travellers who pass through. Drop in and open your account.
Where to Stay
25hours Hotel Stylish hotel with 126 rooms in three categories. The interiors are entirely the concept of the Zurich-based Argentinian Alfredo Häberli, who created everything from the carpets and furniture to the cutlery and coat hooks. The Neni restaurant is part of the open-plan ground floor. Free bike hire for guests. Doubles from £117. Pfingstweidstrasse 102, 00 41 44 577 2525, 25hours-hotels.com
Marktgasse Hotel his boutique townhouse in the pedestrianised old town has been an inn since the 15th century but its 39 guest bedrooms are contemporary. It has an exceptionally good café for breakfast plus the Baltho restaurant and cocktail bar with some original creations. Doubles from £194. Marktgasse 17, 00 41 44 266 1010, marktgassehotel.ch
Sorell Hotel Zurichberg You can leave the windows wide open and hear nothing but birdsong at this hotel near the city’s zoo. Rooms are designed using a combination of light and art. Doubles from £134. Orellistrasse 21, 00 41 44 268 3535, zuerichberg.ch
Where to Eat
Prices are per person for two courses, including a glass of wine, unless otherwise stated.
Baltho Küche & Bari Expect a relaxed atmosphere with seasonal and regional dishes such as quinoa salad with tofu tempura and cod with ginger, miso mayonnaise, pak choi and noodles. From £80. Marktgasse 17, 00 41 44 266 1014, balthokuechebar.ch
Fischers Fritz A nautical-themed restaurant that offers panoramic views along Lake Zurich. Bibs are provided to stop any of the delicious fish – taken direct from the lake – from ruining your clothes. The non-fish speciality here is heisser stein (hot stone). A piece of fillet or entrecôte steak comes out next to a searingly hot rectangle of smooth granite on a wooden board so you can cook it to your taste From £38. Seestrasse 559, 00 41 44 480 1340, fraugerold.ch
Haus Hiltl This pioneering restaurant opened in 1898. It serves up mouthwatering vegetarian cuisine from many countries, including France, Greece, Italy, India, Lebanon and Thailand. There’s also a buffet with more than 100 dishes priced at £4 per 100g. From £34. Sihlstrasse 28, 00 41 44 227 7000, hiltl.ch
Restaurant Viadukt Set in a stone-walled railway arch, ingredients here are from the restaurant foundation’s own farm or local suppliers. Dishes include Belper Knolle cheese in a salad of raw pumpkin and pear wedges with rosehip dressing. From £35. Im Viadukt 8+9, 00 41 43 204 1899, restaurant-viadukt.ch
Spitz You’ll find this restaurant in the Swiss National Museum building opposite the main train station. The lunch menu is simpler than the dinner offerings: expect risotto with fried courgette and curd cheese. In the evening your order might include wild venison in black pudding with liver sausage wrapped in cabbage decorated with kale and apple purée. From £45. Museumstrasse 2, 00 41 44 221 9477, restaurantspitz.ch
SteinfelsCopper tanks in the glass-walled microbrewery occupy one corner of this modern bar and restaurant, brightened by orange, purple and lime decor. Five beers are available on tap, just feet away from the place they were made, and the menu is dominated by plates with Californian, Mediterranean and Asian influences. From £41. Heinrichstrasse 267, 00 41 44 271 1030, steinfels-zuerich.ch
Zunfthaus zur WaagThis former guild house in a pedestrian square with views of the Fraumünster is a favourite place for private suppers, as well as being one of the best places for traditional Zurich fare with dishes such as sliced veal in a creamy sauce with a potato rösti. Münsterhof 8, 00 41 44 216 9966, zunfthaus-zur-waag.ch
- Bircher muesli: Found all over Switzerland, this breakfast staple was created by Zurich-domiciled nutritionist Dr Maximilian Oskar Bircher- Benner. Dry-rolled or wholegrain oats are soaked overnight in water or fruit juice with grated or chopped fresh fruit, milk, yoghurt, cream, ground nuts, seeds, cinnamon or honey
- Chriesitotsch: Zurich’s traditional baked cherry pie
- Offleten: Disc-shaped biscuits made of a brittle, extremely thin pastry
- Tirggel: Dry honey biscuits, baked in special picture moulds, are available in Zurich around Christmas time
- Zürcher Eintopf: Hot pot Zurich-style, made with pork, onions, cabbage, potatoes and carrots cooked in white wine
- Zuger Kirschtorte: An elegant cherry cake that’s made without cherries. Its name comes from the kirsch-flavoured buttercream. Its sponge cake centre is sandwiched between two almond meringues.
- Zürcher Geschnetzeltes: Veal cooked with mushrooms, onions, wine and cream and usually eaten with rösti, noodles or rice.
Anthony Lambert and Gary Latham travelled to Zurich courtesy of Zurich Tourism, the city’s tourist office. zuerich.com
This article was published on 10th May 2017 so certain details may not be up to date.