Zurich: Switzerland’s Downtown

Zurich Switzerland

Not everything you hear about Switzerland is true. The place doesn’t run like a Rolex. Not Zurich, where time has a hitch. The eye-popping beauty freezes time. Like there is no other place in the world. No other time.

The Swiss call Zurich “Downtown Switzerland.” I started coming here years ago. We’d roll off a flight and head downstairs to the rail tracks. No better gateway into the Alps. There isn’t a mountain or ski resort in the country (as well as slopes in France, Austria and Italy) that you can’t get to within an easy day’s journey from Zurich’s Old World train station. Zurich to Zermatt or St. Moritz, for example, is only 3 ½ hours by train.

But Zurich itself is my city of dreams. It contains one incomparable masterpiece, and that is itself. Like New York and Toronto, Zurich is not the capital (that’s Berne), but it is the Big Apple. With its ambrosia of commerce and 60,000 university students, Zurich is alive with culture spanning top-shelf museums, hip and historic watering holes and high-end Swiss cuisine made to taste like farm-kitchen cooking.

Zurich is Europe for Euro-loving Americans. Not like Rome, or Paris, where bored affectation is a personal style. It’s the Europe we imagine, a character in the best city days we’re ever likely to have.

Drinking water flows out of a thousand elaborate fountains scattered in quiet squares around the city. It has slalom courses of sidewalk cafes. Beneath the streets and linked to secret Swiss bank accounts, are vaults filled with gold.

I never tire of Zurich. It’s oldness, its quaintness and overflow of vitality began on the shore of the Limmat River some 2,500 years ago. Most of the prominent architecture is French. The streets are dotted with blue and white trams that slide down between grand houses and imposing edifices.

But it’s a city for walkers, a place to stretch the legs for a day or two after or before a long flight. So we’re not leaving town yet. Let’s take an urban hike with a Swiss acquaintance of mine.

“We have a Mediterranean lifestyle,” Andrea Jacomet says, her yahooing enthusiasm back-dropped by the Alps. “There are more than 2,000 restaurants and bars. A typical traditional meal is veal in mushroom sauce with rösti.”

Around a few corners are some of Europe’s great coffee houses, where intellectuals and artists gathered during the 1920s. “There’s the Café Felix and the Café-Bar Odeon, where James Joyce, Albert Einstein and Lenin gathered,” Andrea says. (Presumably not together. Joyce is in Zurich with a headstone written in German.)

Now we’re pinballing around the narrow, crooked cobblestone alleys of Old Town. The serving window of a bakery grabs us with the scent of fresh bread. It’s been doing that to passers-by for 388 years.

Over there, towering above us, is the Church of St. Peter, the bulk of it built in the 1700s. (They say there are vestiges from the earlier 13th–century church.) If you like trivia, the church’s black clock face is the largest in Europe. (How long is the big hand? Ans. 13 feet.)

And did I mention the shopping? Zurich has miles of major league shopping. The winding stroll called Bahnhofstrasse is where the cream starts to rise and separate. It makes New York City look like Wal-Mart.

What’s new in Zurich? The west side of town that cradled and grew the industrial revolution has replaced its old engine with pistons of nightlife, dining, arts and lofts. You’re cool if you hang at the nightclub called Supermarket.

Well, thank you, Andrea. Zurich is both my pleasure and secret. It begins with beauty and ends with memory. All it needs is time.

The Tarmac’s View: Hotel prices are dear. Here are a couple of nice three-star digs to layover and recover from jet leg, or spend your last night before an early morning flight. Both are walking distance from the rail station – Leonardo Boutique Hotel Rigihof and Hotel Rutli. If you linger, purchase a Zurich Card for 24 or 72 hours ($26 or $52). Get free public transportation (including boats and cable cars), admission to museums and discounts at restaurants, shops and clubs.

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