A day in Zürich

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Zürich.  I don’t really spend much time here, to be honest.  Switzerland’s largest city has the exciting reputation as the “banking capital” of Switzerland. Well, what’s not to like?  My advice on Zürich has always been to not mark it as a place to spend a lot of time in, but at the same time, if you end up there for a day or two, it has some charm.  The old town downtown is a maze of narrow, cobblestoned roads lined with restaurants and expensive shops, is very walkable and has a lot of character.  There’s a river and an attractive lake, a few museums, and a couple big churches… plenty of sights to interest anyone for a day.  And of course, the airport is a major entry and exit point, so there’s a good chance you’re going to spend a night in Zürich if you’re coming to Switzerland anyway.

So we book a night or two for lot of people in Zürich, and I need to know it reasonably well.  This year, I decided to stay the night on arrival instead of heading straight to the mountains.  I felt like our info on Zürich was getting a bit stale and could use some updating.  We also have a hotel that I like to book clients at, the charming Hotel Kindli, that I’d never stayed at personally, so that was my stop for the night.

I love how small and easy the airport is.  It took me just 28 minutes from stepping off the plane to getting onto a train to downtown.  I wasn’t really trying to rush, but that’s pretty fast.  I bought a 24 hr Zürich Card from the ticket machine (good for museums and local transport), hopped the next train downtown, then a short tram ride and a 5-minute walk brought me to the Hotel Kindli.

The Hotel Kindli has been hosting guests since 1474, so needless to say, it’s in the historical heart of the old town.  The location, while not the most convenient to get to (think heavy luggage bumping over wet cobblestones), is just perfect for enjoying the ambiance and the ease of taking in the downtown sights, and with just 20 rooms, it’s a small and intimate hotel.  The Kindli has also been honored as one of Switzerland’s friendliest hotels, and my reception completely agreed with that.  The owner, Gisele, and manager, Roman, also sought me out to personally welcome me to Zürich.  The rooms are small and a little old, but nice with some thoughtful touches, and it’s a comfortable and classy spot in a prime location.  I checked in, called home, checked email for a bit then headed out for dinner.

A single room at the Hotel Kindli in Zurich's old town

The Hiltl restaurant is practically a Zürich institution.  One of the top-reviewed restaurants in Zürich, it also bills itself as the World’s first vegetarian restaurant.  I’m a bit skeptical of that claim, and the Swiss have a special place in their hearts for rather meaningless superlatives (highest revolving restaurant in Central Switzerland, anyone?), but I’m not going to bother looking it up, and we’ll just go with it.  It’s been around for a long time.  Besides, I just want to know if it’s any good.  We have a lot of vegetarians on our tours, and there’s already plenty of sausage and cheese in this country… even meat-eaters appreciate a good salad now and then.  It’s a 5 minute walk from the Kindli, and wow, it was plenty busy on this Tuesday night.  A large buffet with lots of salads, Indian dishes, and seitan-and-mushroom takes on Swiss specialties, among other things, gives you plenty to choose from.  Plenty of seating, a bit of a scene, and not too expensive (for Zürich).  I think it’s nice, and it was a great choice for a quick and somewhat light post-flight meal.  Afterwards I strolled the city, checking out (but not eating at) a number of other restaurants I was curious about.

The World's first vegetarian restaurant does a pretty lively business in Zurich.

The next morning, I wanted to check out Uetliberg, Zürich’s local “mountain”.  I set my alarm for 7, so I wouldn’t sleep in too late, then promptly woke up at 4:30 (don’t we all love jet lag!).  It was raining, which made me lose heart for a bit, but it wasn’t raining that hard, and after awhile I went out anyway for a quick tram ride followed by a steep run on the wooded trail up to Uetliberg.

It was still early when I got back, and the Sprüngli cafe is another of the classic Zürich stops on my list.  This is one of Switzerland’s pioneering chocolate shops, producing chocolate since 1845, and in their current location since 1859.  With a popular cafe upstairs and a dangerous store downstairs filled with decadent sweets, they’re also known for their macaroon-like Luxemburgerli cookies.  I popped in to buy a few treats to share with friends later.  (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Swiss money looks a little bit like monopoly money.  It’s better and more enjoyable to think of it that way anyway, especially in Zürich… and I was just buying chocolate!)

Inside the Sprüngli chocolate shop on Zürich's Paradeplatz.

Happily it had stopped raining by now, and I’d planned a quick stop to the Swiss National Museum, billed as a museum about Switzerland’s history and culture (“Switzerland’s most frequently visited museum of cultural history” in fact, in case you were wondering).  Somehow, I’d never been to it, and I love historical Swiss artifacts.  The Ballenberg outdoor museum in the Bernese Oberland is a particular favorite. Unfortunately, I got there only to find out that one of the primary Swiss history wings is closed!  Until fall!!  That’s too bad.  The History of Religious Life and the Swiss Homes and Furnishings wings were open, so I’d get to see those.  My goal here is to see if this museum is worth recommending, rather than really trying to take in every detail, and well, I’m not super-impressed.  Many, many of the displays are labelled in German and French only, and while I can read German, that doesn’t exactly help most of my clients.  It’s a minor disappointment.  I think this falls into that category of, if you have time and a museum pass already, you might want to check this out.

Landesmuseum ticket
Lastly, I wander over to Paradeplatz (which I learn used to be called Saumarkt, or Pig Market) to join a Zürich walking tour.  These are offered daily by Free Walk Zürich, and are just that… free, English-language tours by a Zürich native.  There were just over 20 of us that showed up for this tour, and we spent an hour and a half walking around Zürich, learning some of their stories and historical legends, seeing the colorful Marc Chagall windows at the Fraumünster church, remains of old Roman baths, quirky things about their church clock-faces and other various stories.  It’s a nice way to get oriented in this city and learn some Swiss trivia at the same time.

So how was the stay?  Do I need to push Zürich a little more?  Probably not, although this stay reinforced my belief that it really is nicer to stay in town than out by the airport.  I still like Lucerne a lot more from a tourist perspective, and I still think people coming to Switzerland should spend most of their time in the mountains.  But Zürich has charm – some great hotels, fantastic restaurants, plenty of window-shopping and nice outings.

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