Perfection comes at a cost, as CLAIRE SPREADBURY discovers on a trip to Switzerland’s scenic financial capital
I’ve been in Zurich for less than an hour and am talking about Tina Turner for the third time. I have so far met three different people, and each and every one of them has told me that the 80-year-singer has a house here, and also apparently goes shopping without bodyguards – because it’s so safe.
Clearly she’s a big deal in these parts, but chatting about Tina isn’t the only thing to surprise me on a weekend break in Switzerland’s largest city.
Sandwiched between Germany, France, Italy and Austria, Switzerland isn’t a place I’ve really thought of coming to before. I thought it was only for skiers and hugely expensive – which it is – but there’s a captivating charm here that’s worth exploring.
Known for being the financial capital, Zurich has a great transport system and is impeccably clean. The city centre’s main shopping street, Bahnhofstrasse, links the train station to beautiful Lake Zurich, where everyone swims in the summer. The closer you are to the lake, the more expensive the shops, and minutes after climbing off the public boat, I suck in the sights of Dolce & Gabbana, Chloe and Tiffany.
But, as you continue into the city, there are designer labels around every twist and turn of the cobbles.
It feels quiet and safe as I explore the views from Lindenhof, a tree-covered park in the city, looking out over the River Limmat. Green spires, church domes and colourful facades flank the double-towered Grossmunster church, the technical school where Einstein studied, and the university.
Quaint shuttered buildings housing extortionate flats lead us back down to the squares in Zurich’s centre. My favourite is Munsterhof, which gets all lit up for a festive market come Christmas, and the beautiful Fraumunster church – with its Chagall and Giacometti stained-glass windows – overlooks a funky double fountain, the smallest of which can be adapted to spurt out free-flowing wine for incredibly important people and parties.
The water here is so clean, you can drink from the lake (though you probably shouldn’t) and there are over 1,000 drinking fountains right across the city, so there’s never a need to buy plastic bottles.
It’s easy to forget how delicious Swiss chocolate is, but Switzerland is, of course, home to Lindt. And the Luxemburgerli mini macarons at Spruengli are simply sublime. Bite-sized and beautiful – though not cheap – they’re the perfect mouthful.
Swanky department store Globus is worth a wander, too. Head down to the food hall and watch the rich do their weekly shop as you ogle glorious displays of fruit and veg – half of which I have never seen before, from all over the world. Homemade pasta, decadent flowers, stunning breads and delicacies are yours if you can afford it.
Art lovers can happily amble around the 100-odd galleries here, and you can even take a seat in Zurich’s first coffee shop in the edgier old town, where you can legally buy cannabis.
It’s here, in Swiss Chuchi, where I taste my first Swiss fondue. Traditional wooden cuckoo clocks coo on the hour, while I’m warned I will both stink and need a lie down once I’ve finished my food.
We opt for the traditional Moitie-Moitie fondue, into which we dunk and swirl chunks of rustic bread and boiled potatoes, and wash it all down with a Turbinen Brau Start – a fresh and zesty wheat beer from Zurich. We should apparently be drinking white wine with it (not red), but the beer is so good here, and I’m heeding my warning about needing a lie down afterwards – wine might just finish me off.
Switzerland breeds outdoorsy types, so around 8km from Zurich city centre, you can head off on a big old hike.
We hop on a cable car and slowly make our way up the mountainside. It only takes about five minutes to Felsenegg and from there, you can walk the trail path to Uetliberg.
There are uphills and downhills, but the track is easy to follow, so everyone from families with tiny children, to solo Nordic walkers, couples, friends, and crazy runners are out and about. It takes around an hour and a half, and at the end you can climb the steep steps and reward yourself with a Swiss beer, a sense of achievement and the most amazing view.
After a day of exploring, the Alex hotel – which opened last summer – makes for a beautifully boutique bolthole. With just 44 rooms, set right on Lake Zurich, it’s 20 minutes from the city centre and an hour from the ski slopes.
The small-but-perfectly-formed spa houses a sauna and steam room, a tiny infinity pool and one treatment room, where therapist Elfie works her magic using local and natural Swiss Line products.
The decor couldn’t be more 2020. Rooms are generously splattered with Pantone’s colour of the year, Cool Blue. Furnishings are art deco, 1920s fabulous, with gold trimmings adorning every bathroom tap and coffee table you see. It’s very beautiful, yet very cool.
The Boat House restaurant is the star of the show, and keen to be a part of the community: it’s open to everyone – not just residents. Floor to ceiling windows invite a view overlooking the lake as diners gaze up at snow-capped mountains.
Breakfast is a relaxed affair, served in the same place. As I spoon off a slab of honeycomb, fresh from the hive, I look out of the enormous windows – the Swiss Alps rising above us one end and Zurich sitting proud at the other. Opposite, mind-bogglingly expensive houses sit like music lovers at a concert, jostling for a view of the lake.
“That’s the Gold Coast,” my waitress tells me. “Tina Turner lives there.”