Zurich is Switzerland’s largest city, and is made of impressive skylines and fancy shop windows. Although it does not boast many landmarks tourists would flock to, it’s a lovely town to spend a few days wandering through medieval streets and enjoying the lake side. From the salt and pepper shaker towers of Grossmünster church to the giant chess boards on the Lindenhof, Zurich is a perfect example of the European way of life in a larger city.
My first week in Zurich wasn’t much to speak of. After years of successfully avoiding it, COVID-19 finally caught up with me somewhere in France and I spent many days in isolation. Luckily, it could have been worse, and my lodgings in Zurich consisted of a massive house right on the lakeshore just ten minutes from the city center. I house-sat for two dogs, a cat, a bearded dragon, and several fish. Despite being ill, I took Paco, the sleek Spanish galgo, to the forest park at Friedhof Zollikon every morning before the summer heat set in, enjoying a long walk and a run through the fields. The network of trails is extremely dog friendly, and has viewpoints out over the valley. On a clear day looking south, you can even see past the sunflower fields to the distant Alps. The woods themselves are magical, and even so close to the city, have a fairytale-like quality about them. Small rivulets intersect with the path at regular intervals, and copses of pine trees give off a soft piney scent. Bunches of purple wisteria are administered to by small butterflies in patches of sunlight that filter in through the canopy. It’s a lovely way to start each morning. Paco, the dog, usually whined at me to walk faster, but in my post-Covid exhaustion, I could only go so fast. Luckily we typically saw his other dog friends, and he would sprint up and down the length of the field to play, leaving every other dog panting in his wake.
Most of my evenings were spent working at home, gazing longingly out the floor-to-ceiling windows at the crystal lake and mountains beyond. Not that I can complain, having such a fantastic job and the ability to travel while I work. It’s a good life, these days.
Of course, I wasn’t always caught between work with animals and work with computers. I did lots of exploring as well. Being Switzerland, public transportation is naturally comprehensive, clean, and precisely on time. Zurich has buses, trams, trains, ferries, bike rentals, scooter rentals, and car sharing. My housesitting host provided me with an electric bike to use, but as I was recovering from such a nasty bout of Covid-19, learning how to ride an eBike was beyond my physical (and mental) capabilities at the time. Public transport it was. As is a common frustration for me in new European cities, I had a difficult time figuring out the best way to pay for my trips on public transport. For the first several trips on a tram, I paid what I believed was an exorbitant fee to just go a few stops, one way. In the end, I sort of just…got on the tram and rode. No one ever checked tickets. I absolutely do not recommend this, but honestly I couldn’t figure out the correct system, and I had no idea how to ask anyone else in German, that’s for certain. I suppose I paid with my fair share of guilt.
Opera House and Square
Valid ticket or no, arriving at Zurich’s Bellevue Square is rather impressive. The square in the city center is enormous, and is hemmed in by the Opera House, the river (right where it meets the lake), and bustling city streets. It’s large enough that fairs and events are held there occasionally, but while I was in Zurich, it was mostly people enjoying the view with a coffee or beer, their children playing in the fountain to beat the heat. Compared to the tight medieval-style streets, the wide open plaza is a refreshing step out into the sunshine. The water of the lake and river is glacially blue, peppered with boats gently bobbing over the waves. More often than not, the sky is piercingly clear, only interrupted by the rooftops and bell towers of the old town. “Bellevue”, or beautiful view, is aptly named.
Right off Bellevue Square you can find the confectionery shop Sprüngli, where you can try the classically Swiss treat, Luxemburgerli. They are remarkably similar to macarons, but they’re smaller, lighter, and if possible, more airy. It goes without saying that they are absolutely delicious, and come in a multitude of flavors from hazelnut to chocolate orange to champagne rose. (Thank you, Europe, for acknowledging that milk chocolate and orange is a match made in heaven). Luxemburgerli are best enjoyed right away, so there is no shame in buying a box, exiting the shop, and immediately cracking it open on a bench in the pleasant park across the street. At least, that’s what I told myself. Multiple times.
In my defense, it’s important to keep your energy up with sweet treats to spend the next several hours window shopping. And if there is one thing that Zurich has, it’s fancy shops. Like, really fancy shops. Like, “can I even afford to walk by this window” kind of shops. And it makes for really, really fun window shopping. The most famous, most luxurious street to walk down is Bahnhofstrasse – what I consider the “Champs-Élysées of Zurich”. The street is wide and stretches across the outskirts of the old town, and the windows are large and immaculately staged to show off wares. You know a shop is expensive for sure when a giant window display only showcases one or two items. There were shops for jewelry, bags, clothing, watches, knives, you name it. Items in the windows were going for tens of thousands of Swiss Francs. It amazes me that people pay these prices. That there are people who shop here, just like the rest of us shop at Target or TJ Maxx, looking out for a good deal. Different worlds. Seeing the polished windows and the clean streets and the prices in the windows, I think back to the slums of Mumbai or the cramped back alleys of Bangkok. It’s a jarring juxtaposition. It’s fun to look at, but I’ll still be purchasing my clothes and accessories at secondhand shops or sustainable sources. My wallet – and hopefully the Earth – will thank me.
Old town and Lindenhof
Léo came to visit for the weekend from Lyon. We spent the day walking the dogs, window shopping, and ultimately, spending far too long searching for something to eat for dinner. I wanted something traditionally Swiss, but not really knowing what that was except for fondue (which it was far too hot to commit to), meant a lot of trial and error looking at menus. We were also surprised at just how many Italian restaurants there were, but in retrospect, considering how close Italy is to Zurich, it makes sense. Finally, we found a lovely restaurant that served flammkuchen, a sort of thinner pizza that can have different toppings. Most traditional is flammkuchen with crème fraîche, bacon, and onions, so naturally we got one of those along with a vegetarian option. On Sunday, we finally gave in to the plethora of Italian joints and got a table at a gorgeous Italian restaurant with a patio covered in ivy and fairy lights, overlooking a small courtyard where we had stumbled upon an artisanal market the previous day.
After our rather large Sunday supper consisting of many small plates and more than a few glasses of delicious red, Léo and I worked off the richness by strolling through the old town. There are far fewer people walking the streets at dusk, and the pastel-colored buildings take on a soft hue in the setting sun. Although shops are closed, the window displays are still brightly lit, providing a feast for the eyes as distant church bells provide a gentle soundtrack. We climbed back up to Lindenhof, the old Roman fort that is now a popular viewing platform for the city. It was mostly empty, though there were occasional groups of friends or lovers strolling through the square. One of the three giant chess boards was available, and as the sun set, we played a match with the oversized wooden chess pieces worn down by the caresses of many hands over the years. We added our fingerprints to the pieces and played a match in the light of the setting sun.
Several days later, I ventured out to explore Im Viadukt, a series of market stalls and shops nestled into the arches underneath train tracks in the Western part of the city. Unsurprisingly, the shops are all rather high-end. It’s Zurich, after all. I spent a morning browsing shelves upon shelves of delicacies from all over Europe. Fine olive oils, pungent spices, glistening pastries, creamy cheeses. Not just food, either. Many of the shops sell clothes, shoes, kitchenware, and gifts. There were even some interior design studios. Although the storefronts all advertised massive sales and discounts, I was blown away by the prices of the clothes. Simple shirts were over $150, and simple dresses closer to $300. And these were the sale prices. I suppose in a city as well-dressed and chic as Zurich, that fashion comes at a price.
Although I felt I should purchase traditional Swiss fare, I was drawn to jars of quince jelly and Branston pickle. I’m not so easily rid of the cravings of the United Kingdom, after all. I did manage to ask a vendor what a very traditional Swiss sweet would be, and he pointed me in the direction of “leckerli”. They’re little cakes made with honey, almonds, and orange peels, and delicately spiced. I got the ones dipped in chocolate. You can never have enough Swiss chocolate.
Lindt Home of Chocolate
Ah, Swiss chocolate. How has it been this far along in the post without me waxing poetic on Swiss chocolate? And let me tell you, the chocolate is indeed poetic. Perhaps it’s the Alps in the distance, the fresh mountain air, or a nice view of the old town skyline, but biting into a piece of Swiss chocolate and letting it melt on your tongue is a divine experience. So what better way to spend a morning than visiting the Lindt Home of Chocolate, located just southwest of the city center.
I could smell the chocolate from the parking garage. The air was thick with it, just as the air was thick with the scent of sweet rum in Martinique, or mouth-puckering citrus in Sicily. The lobby was enormous and coated in marble, feeling more like a palace to chocolate than an exhibit. In the center of the floor was a fountain – a massive whisk pouring forth endless amounts of chocolate. Real chocolate. Talk about decadent. The exhibit fee was 15 CHF, and included an audio guide and an exorbitant amount of tastings. I found the exhibit to be informative, if a little text heavy. It covered the production of chocolate from cacao seedling to product packaging. It was well done, but I did wish that there was more tasting or information about how chocolate used to be. It was delightful to put your hand under one of the many samplers and have a piece of chocolate spat out, for you to determine what flavor it was. Or to put your spoon under a spigot and enjoy white, dark, or milk chocolate. Or to grab a handful of the iconic Lindt spherical chocolates out of large barrels. But what about how the upper class used to drink chocolate in Victorian times? Or how the Mayans enjoyed it? That would have added a nice dimension. After the informational exhibit, there was a passing attempt at addressing the future of chocolate while taking globalization and climate change into account (personally, given the issues we face, I found it to be rather halfhearted). Then there was a mini-production line that I was lucky enough to see in action. It was mesmerizing to watch the machinery work so smoothly. Chocolate poured into molds, chilled then heated at different times to allow for setting and then finishing with different fillings or designs. A very highly technical process. I found myself thinking of the cacao plantation I saw in Panama, and how the farmer had created his own cacao roasting tools with bits and pieces of vacuum cleaners and other such tools he found laying around. Worlds away.
In all, Zurich is a fun city. Great for window shopping, exploring medieval streets, and ultimately, spending money. It’s pricey and chic, but hey, sometimes, it’s nice to feel fancy. In any case, that’s Zurich checked off the list. Next time in Switzerland, perhaps the rugged wilderness to the South (or at least, as “rugged” as Switzerland can be). Until next time, la Suisse!