Zurich: Financial Centre with an Edge

Limmat River cuts through Zurich and is crisscrossed by many bridges. You can see the twin towers of the Grossmünster church on the right, and the tower of St. Peterskirche on the left, which boasts the largest church clock face in Europe.

Let’s throw this out there first: Zurich is expensive. And not in the same way as other purportedly expensive cities I have traveled in (Tokyo, NYC), where there is a large range in prices, and some goods are nosebleeding pricey but you can find deals if you look in the right places. Instead, Zurich seems to have uniformly leveled all of its prices about $10-20 up from what you might expect. Strolling through downtown Zurich, it is usual to see coffee for CHF 7 and Chinese take-out for CHF 16. (Right now, CHF 1 = $0.96.) Even the “dollar” menu at McDonald’s has been replaced with burgers for CHF 2.50 and a side salad for CHF 3. A small size meal with an “NYC Crispy” burger costs CHF 12.30. An 800 meter cab ride from the main train station sets you back CHF 26 and dinner at an average restaurant runs about CHF 35. Even Swiss products that I have bought in the US (Victorinox knives, Sigg water bottles) cost more in Switzerland. I am scratching my head as to why there isn’t more cross-border arbitrage.

Once you get used to the sticker shock (and start packing cheap lunches from Coop or Migros take-out), Zurich turns out to be a pretty charming, livable city. It is divided into 12 kreis districts, and is highly walkable (we didn’t take a tram the entire time). Most of the touristy sights in the old town are located in kreis 1. If you have additional time, be sure to explore kreis 4 (akin to the Lower East Side) and kreis 5 (home of the city’s nightclub scene).

Handsdown, the best guide to Zurich that I found was a map of 81 insider tips by young locals, given out by our hostel. This includes places like Cabaret Voltaire, the birthplace of the Dada art movement, Rote Fabrik, the heart of Zurich’s alternative cultural scene located in a former phone factory, where to find Zuri Rollt stations for free bike rental (with a CHF 20 deposit), and Happy Beck, a bakery that is open all night long whose owner is rumored to sleep on a mattress inside. Unfortunately, the website seems to be “in progress,” but there is a scan of the map here, albeit in Italian. This is another good guide to Zurich written by Design*Sponge.

Promenading around downtown Zurich on a sunny Sunday morning, we were a bit puzzled about where all the people were. Granted, almost all shops (aside from those located in the main train station) are closed on Sundays, and many were also closed for summer holiday in August. As it turns out, all the people were hanging out by Lake Zurich. Switzerland has a very strong lakeside badi culture, where you hang out by the water for sunbathing, swimming, grilling, cycling and tightrope walking (we saw two tightropes set up between trees). Families gather around the lake but younger people flock to Oberer Letten, a public river bath near kreis 5. The atmosphere here is similar to North Ave Beach in Chicago, only with considerably less noise and more mellow.

Overall, Swiss people are not too boisterous and are rather quiet. Much to the chagrin of the British sword juggler street performer who was trying to encourage people to cheer and make noise, the crowd simply applauded weakly at his performance.

If you go further down the lake on the eastern side, you will find the Chinese Garden, a gift from the city of Kunming in 1993, in exchange for help in developing Kunming’s drinking water and municipal sewage systems. As described in the brochure, “the wall separates the outside, profane world from the artistic microcosm within.” Admission is CHF 4.

Just north of the Chinese Garden is the Centre Le Corbusier, the last building designed by the Swiss-French architect. It includes exhibits of his designs, furniture and architectural achievements.

Swiss National Day (August 1) was taking place, so the city was decked out with flags and the popping of fireworks was ubiquitous. A short parade took place that morning, and featured military brass bands, traditional Swiss costumes, alpine horn players, flag twirlers, and finally, cowbells. The cowbells might make a mellifluous sound when heard alone, but in combination with a couple dozen other cowbells, the ensuing racket was migraine-inducing.

Assuming that you can afford to live there, Zurich is a well-run city with lots of cultural activities and natural beauty surrounding it. Don’t forget to pick up a St. Galler Wurst with spicy mustard and a roll (CHF 6.50) from Vorderer Sternen while you’re there.

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