01/16/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Europe's Best City for Quality of Life? Follow the Google Guys

As more cities around the world look alike, it's a pleasure to spend even a day in one with distinct character. I spent fewer than twenty-four hours in Zurich last week, but experienced a real traveler's high from its pure Zurichness. For a number of years, it's been ranked as "the city with the highest quality of life in the world," according to Mercer ratings. But more telling than a survey may be that Google chose to base its largest engineering office outside the U.S. here.

Okay, it was lightly snowing when I arrived, with flurries evoking a fairytale mindset and casting a softness to the city lights and illuminated medieval church towers. When my cab turned off the fashionable Bahnhofstrasse into the narrow cobblestoned streets of the Old Town, the Catholic Church came into view with a spray of evening stars projected upon its facade, and then around the next corner, we entered a small square dwarfed by a towering Christmas tree strung with lights.

My favorite hotel, the Widder, epitomizes how the city blends old and new in Swiss fashion. A collection of nine historic townhouses in the heart of the Old Town shopping area, it is a masterpiece of preservation and renovation. The sleek, all-glass elevator cabins whir up and down with a wall of windows facing the garden on one side and an exposed medieval wall of piled stones on the other. Some guest rooms feature 16th century frescoes and Mies van der Rohe furniture; others blend Eames chairs and beamed ceilings; the penthouse has a sleek terrace with views of church spires and its own original Robert Rauschenberg. Mine felt like a modernist's attic apartment with steel and glass tables and lamps accenting Biedermeier pieces; a Baroque console fit for an Italian church hid the minibar. Because all the details are genuine, artistic and at home, the mingling of old and new feels considered not contrived--just like the surrounding area.

Widdergasse could contend for one of Europe's most picturesque streets. Centuries-old houses with gables and painted facades, wooden shutters and wrought-iron detailing now contain stylish shops and trendy eateries. At one end sits an ancient square and at the other runs the pedestrian shopping street Rennweg. On the night that I wandered the area, church bells tolled and children played outside of an ancient guild hall turned restaurant, while their parents ate inside. The restaurants and bars were packed, from modern ones, like Munz with its vast glass walls and skinny-legged steel chairs, to the Cantinetta Antinora, a charming building, where diners could be seen in the upstairs windows framed by antique wooden shutters. Lumiere, the French brasserie where I savored coq au vin, felt more authentic than any in Paris, because a Gitanes smoky haze suffused the place (no smoking ban here).

Influences from all its border countries (Italy, Austria, Germany, France) inform Zurich's food and culture. In fact, thirty percent of its 370,000 inhabitants are foreigners, so its melting pot mentality thrives. Zoogle, as the Zurich-based Google is called, arrived four years ago and will soon have a new large (and green) office in the Hurlimann Areal. Its 300 Zooglers (employees) come from more than forty countries, joining the Swiss brigade of workers who walk and bike across the city bridges to work and spend weekends skiing in the Alps in winter and hiking or swimming in summer. Lake Zurich has gone from being too dirty to swim in only a decade ago to being so clean that the tap water served in restaurants consists of 70 percent lake water. The city prides itself on having a greater density of "bathing facilities" (Swiss for places to swim) than anywhere else in the world. So there Sydney, LA and Cape Town. In summer, riverfront lounges buzz all day and evening with patrons taking a plunge before, after--and sometimes midway through--a meal. Water also provides sixty percent of the country's energy, making Switzerland a clean power leader.

Detractors may accuse the Swiss of stubbornly holding on to their traditions, of being conservative about embracing change, but frankly, they seem to know what's worth changing and what's worth holding on to, and that's helped them carve out a city that stands apart. The Paradeplatz, a former pig and cattle market, in the city center has been cleaned up and now lures art lovers and shoppers with new galleries and their neighboring boutiques and cafes. Across the lake, too, landmark buildings have been reinvigorated with elegant restaurants and coffee houses, such as the just-opened Goethe Bar, which sits in the Beaux-Arts building that houses the newspaper Neue Zurcher Zeitung, next to the Opera House.

When I had breakfast at Goethe Bar, a transplant pointed out that he feels the city is emerging as a refuge for people who could live anywhere but want to live in a place that doesn't feel like anywhere else. Just as there's a growing trend in fashion against global homogeneity, so do I think the next decade will see a renewed appreciation for places that revel in their unique cultural identity. Zurich fits that bill.

For my tips on where to eat and stay, visit