Zurich: A Big Swiss City With Small City Charms

Feb 18, 2014 | Updated Apr 22, 2014

Make sure you arrive in Zurich on a sunny day. I did not, and its charms eluded me under a nasty gray, drizzling sky. The Linmat River was gray, the buildings were gray, the people were gray, and my mood was brightened only when I arrived at my hotel, the Baur au Lac, where everything was bright, cheery and as hospitable as the ever attentive Swiss can make it.


The next day, however, Zurich was at its sunny finest -- the same broad river was as blue as the sky, the buildings took on colors of tan, white, brown and pink and the people of the city were out and about, smiling with relief that the cold, wet winter of yesterday had changed into the kind of day that showed off the city at its most alluring.

Zurich is, as everything else in Switzerland, a city that runs so efficiently that you don't really need a watch. The trains and trams I took in and out of the city left with the precision of an Olympic finish, within a split second of their posted schedule. The streets were impeccably clean, winding up the boutique- and café-lined hillsides of the central historic district, bound by Lake Zurich itself, whose size has magnificence rare in European inland waters.


More than one survey ranks Zurich as a city with the best quality of life in the world -- its current unemployment rate is only 3.2 percent -- as well as being the wealthiest in Europe. Believe me, the two go hand in hand. Zurich is very, very expensive. A ten-minute taxi ride can easily cost 20 Euros (about $27), although it is so easy to walk around the city center that they are hardly necessary, and the trams are so dependable.

The hotel I stayed at, the Baur au Lac (below), is considered Zurich's grandest hotel, dating back to 1844 and still owned by the original family, so you can imagine the international celebrities -- from Sophia Loren to Marc Chagall, from Alfred Hitchcock to Brigitte Bardot -- who have stayed there, along with all those bankers and money men who provide the city with its enormous wealth. (Stores of gold bullion lie underneath the streets.)


The 120-room hotel is just a block from the river, and its terrace rooms offer a glorious view of the city that shows how expansive it has grown over the past decade. Rooms are wonderfully spacious, there is comfort in every bed, sofa and bath, and, after a recent $50 million renovation, it is as ideally lighted and decorated as five-star hotels need to be in a highly competitive market for tourism and business clients.

The concierges respond -- in several languages -- to whatever large or small request you can come up with, and it would be considered a serious transgression if a staff member failed to open a door or lead you to the restaurant. In-room WiFi leaves a lot to be desired, however.

The hotel has three restaurants: the Pavillon, proudly sporting a new Michelin star; the Terrasse for outdoor dining; and a casual, seductively lighted spot named Rive Gauche. I dined exceptionally well at the elegantly appointed Pavillon (below), including the lavish breakfast set out for guests each morning. At dinner I enjoyed the restrained modernity of a menu balanced between European tradition and novel ideas like the caramelized langoustine with salsify, honey, lemon and vanilla and a foie gras terrine with a cherry "Pop Tart" pastry. The desserts are made with the hotel's own chocolate, including its signature Chocolat 1844 -- a crunchy pie with chocolate mousse, plum spirit and chocolate chips -- and chocolates are placed in your room at all hours of the day. The wine list is solid, though I was surprised at the meager number of Swiss wines in its pages.


The menu at the shadowy Rive Gauche runs from a "Smashing Pumpkins" pumpkin cream soup to "Stingy lamb" chops (the name refers to the English rock star, not the size of the portion). And the bartenders take cocktail culture very seriously indeed.

Over two days in Zurich I crisscrossed the Linmat to visit the monuments and museums, which include the hodgepodge Romanesque-Gothic-Baroque St. Peter, with the largest clock face in Europe; the Zürich Museum of Art, whose collections are principally modern; and the Uhrenmuseum Beyer, which aptly documents the history of timekeeping and timekeepers. Spires and steeples abound, giving the skyline a pretty punctuation.


Seeking a traditional Swiss restaurant, I was told more than a few times that it is essential to eat at Kronenhalle, which dates back to 1924, when Hulda and Gottlieb Zumsteg took over the premises. Today, with an astonishing amount of modern art -- including works by Picasso, Giacometti, Chagall, Bonnard and many others hung nonchalantly on the walls -- Kronenhalle looks very much like a chic pre-war brasserie, with shiny brass, glowing crystal chandeliers, polished mahogany and crisp napery. That Kronenhalle (below) has been fashionable for nearly a century is evidenced by a guest book with the names of Coco Chanel and Yves Saint Laurent; James Joyce lived and died in Zurich and dined here as well. John Irving set scenes in the restaurant in his novel Until I Find You.

I joined a friend for a late lunch and we were seated in the main downstairs dining room at a table beneath a Georges Braque Cubist painting. As is the tradition in Swiss restaurants, a waitress pulled up a serving table next to ours, took our order and brought us steins of Swiss beer. And then we enjoyed the very best Wiener Schnitzel I've ever had -- huge and overlapping the plate, buttery, crisp as a potato chip, with tender, browned roesti potatoes. Also superb was a lavish portion of pink calf's liver on a bed of sweet, caramelized onions. It was one of those perfect meals that met every expectation, and the atmosphere had a timelessness I just sank into.


That day the sun still shone and the city's vitality was visible everywhere along the riverside. And though Zurich is Switzerland's largest city, it has the cast of a much smaller one that bears walking through very old streets, circling back and around, always back to the river and the lake. Just pray for sunshine.