A beautiful city, set astride a river and turned towards a crystal-clear lake and distant snowy peaks, Zürich has plenty to recommend it. Niederdorf’s steep cobbled alleys are great to wander around, with an engaging café culture and a wealth of nightlife, whereas to the northwest of the centre the city’s former industrial quarter, known as “Züri-West”, has become home to many of the city’s trendiest clubs. Whether wandering the streets of the Old Town, window shopping in Bahnhofstrasse or day-tripping to the Rhine Falls, you may end up spending longer here than originally planned.
Across the River Limmat from the station, the narrow lanes of the medieval Niederdorf district stretch south, quiet during the day and bustling after dark. The waterfront is lined with fine Baroque Zunfthäuser (guildhalls), arcaded lower storeys fronting the quayside, now mostly upmarket restaurants. One block in is Niederdorfstrasse, initially tacky, but offering plenty of opportunities to explore atmospheric cobbled side alleys and secluded courtyards: Lenin lived at Spiegelgasse 14 in 1917 (pre-Revolution). Just south is Zürich’s trademark Grossmünster, where Huldrych Zwingli, father of Swiss Protestantism, began preaching the Reformation in 1519. Its exterior is largely fifteenth-century, while its twin towers were topped with distinctive octagonal domes in the seventeenth century. The interior is austere apart from the intensely coloured choir windows (1933) by Augusto Giacometti and the Romanesque crypt which contains an oversized fifteenth-century statue of Charlemagne.
Leading south from the station, Bahnhofstrasse is one of Europe’s most prestigious shopping streets. This is the gateway into the modern city, and where all of Zürich strolls, to browse at the inexpensive department stores that crowd the first third of the street, or to sign away Fr.25,000 on a Rolex watch or a Vuitton bag at the super-chic boutiques further south.
Zürich boasts lively music venues and a booming club scene. The hip quarter around Langstrasse, west of the centre, is full of DJ bars, while the best clubs hide themselves in the former industrial quarter to the northwest. Mid-August sees the Street Parade (street-parade.ch), a hedonistic weekend of techno street dancing. The ZüriTipp (zueritipp.ch) listings magazine is available at the tourist office.
Switzerland’s best gallery, the Kunsthaus, is up the hill from the Grossmünster via several alleys. Some fascinating Gothic paintings are followed by Venetian masters, fine Flemish pieces, and the greatest Swiss artists, Fuseli, Böcklin, Hodler, Segantini, Vallotton and Klee. The collection of international twentieth-century art is also stunning.
Immediately north of Zürich's main station, the Landesmuseum or Federal History Museum gives the definitive account of Switzerland’s tortuous development and its cultural context.
The narrow lanes between Bahnhofstrasse and the river lead up to the Lindenhof, site of a Roman fort that now offers fine views. James Joyce wrote Ulysses in Zürich (1915–19), and the James Joyce Foundation can point you to his various hangouts and his grave. Steps away is St Peterkirche, renowned for its enormous sixteenth-century clock faces – the largest in Europe. Immediately south rises the slender-spired Gothic Fraumünster, which began life as a convent in the ninth century; its spectacular stained glass by Marc Chagall is unmissable.
The west bank is the main commercial district, while further west are the coolest hangouts and the best streetlife. Tram #8 towards Hardplatz will deliver you to relaxed Helvetiaplatz, from where funky Langstrasse heads north – lowlife bars rubbing shoulders with avant-garde galleries, the smells of kebabs and pizza mixing with the aroma of marijuana. This fascinating street is a mixture of styles and cultures – Swiss-German blending with French-African, Turkish, Balkan, East Asian and Latin American.