FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

Zürich: Zürich Surprise

May 1, 2011
2011 / May 2011

For years I lived near Stuttgart, Germany — not that far from Zürich, Switzerland’s largest city. But I never had a great desire to visit the city known mainly as a banking center.

A recent visit proved how wrong I had been. Lakeside Zürich is vibrant, exciting and beautiful and offers plenty to see and do. Take a cruise on its lake surrounded by hills and distant peaks. Ride a cable car, then hike atop the nearby Üetliberg mountain. There are 50 museums to visit, super restaurants and a throbbing nightlife, not to mention some of the world’s best chocolate.

I arrived at Switzerland’s largest train station to discover a wonderful, whimsical giant angel in bright colors floating below the ceiling. French artist Niki de Saint Phalle created the “guardian angel” of the station, which is a benevolent and fitting welcome to this fun city.

After checking in at the Hotel Central Plaza, just a few minutes from the station, I set off for a trek down Bahnhofstrasse, a 1.2-km. boulevard which extends from the station to the shores of Lake Zürich and is lined with classy shops. The jewelry store windows are full of gorgeous creations, including all manner of those famous Swiss watches, many diamond-encrusted. Zürich’s noted department stores, Jelmoli and Globus, are also on Bahnhofstrasse.

Near the lake end of the street is the Zeughauskeller, my lunch stop. The building, more than 500 years old, was formerly an armory. A vast hall with a high ceiling of wooden beams is decorated with medieval weapons. In this imposing ambience, I savored a bärlauch (wild garlic) bratwurst — the restaurant offers 15 kinds of sausage — and warm potato salad, washed down with a mug of beer.

I am an Alberto Giacometti fan. Zürich’s Kunsthaus (art museum) has an outstanding collection of this Swiss artist’s skinny sculptures. There is much more to admire: Impressionist and Secessionist paintings, Jugendstil furnishings, Modern masterpieces and mystical Alpine landscapes by another Swiss notable, Ferdinand Hodler.

I did not know about Augusto Giacometti, the uncle of Alberto, the sculptor, but learned that in 1926 he painted the walls and ceiling of Zürich’s police headquarters. It was worth a visit to see his depictions of craftsmen, professors and scientists in vivid hues of orange, rose and beige.

The lake beckoned. Time for a boat ride. I hopped a paddle steamer for a two-hour ride across Lake Zürich to Rapperswill, a tiny medieval village with ancient, picture-perfect houses bordering narrow lanes, as well as a castle and Switzerland’s largest wooden bridge. The cruise offered spectacular views of far-off peaks, cattle grazing on verdant hills and sailboats gliding across the waters.

I am not a vegetarian, but Hiltl, Zürich’s oldest vegetarian restaurant, which gets lots of publicity, was hard to resist. It dates back to 1898, when it was Europe’s first vegetarian restaurant. The bounteous buffet featuring some 100 different non-meat dishes is overwhelming. You pay by the weight of your plate.

During my two-day visit I tracked down more noteworthy art in the Fraumünster, a church which was originally a convent in the ninth century. The attraction is the stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall. It was in the 1960s that officials decided to brighten up the church with colorful windows. Chagall was in town at the time. The powers that be hesitated to ask this renowned artist to take on the task, but they took the plunge, and he accepted.

According to a guide, the spectacular windows, which illustrate Old Testament scenes, the Ten Commandments and other biblical stories, are “one of the most important art masterpieces in Switzerland outside of a museum.” Awesome!

A delightful place for lingering in Zürich is the Lindenhof, a shady park on top of a hill which is said to be the birthplace of the city. In Roman times it was the site of a customs station. When the Romans departed Zürich in the fifth century, along came the Germans. Citizens of Zürich have been speaking German ever since.

I watched locals play oversized chess in the park. At the edge of the hill is a lookout, a popular place where people pose for photos with the city’s river, rooftops and church steeples in the background.

The dominant feature of the skyline is the twin Neo-Gothic towers of the Grossmünster (great cathedral), which has an important place in religious history. In 1519, it was the birthplace of the Reformation in German-speaking Switzerland, led by Huldrych Zwingli. Zürich became Protestant, but strange as it may seem, today the city claims more Catholics than Protestants.

It was fun wandering through the hilly, narrow streets of Zürich’s Old Town. Some of the buildings that date back to the 14th century house intriguing shops, and some are adorned with frescoed paintings. I loved the Schwarzenbach, an old-time gourmet shop in the Niederdorf district, where there is also a schnapps boutique whose windows are filled with vials of the potent brew. Other shops specialize in antiques, wine, handmade jewelry and more.

Not far away is the perfect place for a coffee and cake break, the Felix Café on Bellevue Square. It’s a trendy, new place with an over-the-top old style of golden Baroque décor: putti, garlands of roses, gigantic gilded vases.

The place for hopping nightlife is Zürich West, a former industrial area packed with buzzing bars, clubs and hip venues. I checked out the Schiffbau, a converted shipbuilding factory which is now home to theaters, jazz clubs, bars and restaurants. For a wine break, I stopped at Les Halles, a funky café-bar.

As a foodie, I always like to try the local specialties. In Zürich, that’s Züricher geschnetzeltes, veal in a cream sauce with mushrooms. A delicious version is served at the Zunfthaus zur Waag, Zürich’s oldest guild house.

Then there’s chocolate. For my chocolate fix, I went to Confiserie Sprüngli on Bahnhofstrasse, where I purchased a small bag of the shop’s truffes du jour, chocolate truffles handmade with fresh cream, butter and cocoa. To die for.

What I like most about Zürich is its picture-perfect setting on both a river and a lake with a background of hills and faraway mountains. For my farewell, I rode an elevator to the top of a 10-story tower where the Jules Verne Panorama Bar is located. It was the perfect place to sip a glass of wine and ponder the surrounding beauty.

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FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.

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