Switzerland's largest city works hard and knows how to appreciate life.
My favorite place in Zürich is not one of its museums, parks or churches. When I visit, I head straight to Confiserie Sprüngli for a chocolate fix. There's nothing quite like Sprüngli's truffes du jour - melt-in-yourmouth chocolates made from fresh cream, butter and cocoa, never more than 24 hours old. They should be eaten within three days.
The famous chocolate company, which dates to 1836, is a Swiss favorite and now has eight outlets in the country. I frequent the original shop, which is also a café and bakery, on Zürich's renowned Bahnhofstrasse. Switzerland is, after all, about chocolate, cheese, watches and banks.
As for banks, Zürich - Switzerland's largest city, with a population of 380,000 - has its share of financial temples. But the city is far from a staid business metropolis. It's picturesque, lively and fun. A wealth of water - the River Limmat, Lake Zürich and some 1,200 fountains - gives the city an aquatic charm.
Zürich is a very nice city. We have the lake, the river, a Mediterranean influence, said Rolf Hiltl, owner of a famous vegetarian restaurant that bears his name. People go out a lot here. They know how to appreciate life. For seven years in a row (2002-2008) Zürich was voted the best place to live in the world by Mercer Human Resources Consulting, a British firm. This year Zürich came in second after Vienna.
The living standard is very high here, noted Sepp Wimmer, an Austrian who moved to Zürich years ago and now runs the Zunfthaus zur Waag restaurant. People earn a lot of money. Public transportation is very good. The airport is only 10 minutes away. There's no criminal activity, and the city is very clean. The city is not so big, yet you can find everything here.
I did not need convincing. I've always enjoyed Zürich, and it's easy to explore on foot - and if your feet complain, just jump on a tram.
Zürich's main train station, Switzerland's largest, is a hub of activity in the city center with some 150,000 passengers passing through daily. The huge main hall is the scene of a lively market every Wednesday from 11 a.m. until 8 p.m., and the lower level is a shopping center with more than 100 stores. A wonderful, whimsical, giant angel in bright colors floats from the high ceiling in the station hall - a creation by French artist Niki de Saint Phalle.
Several sacred destinations merit a visit. St. Peter's is Zürich's oldest parish church, with Europe's largest clock face on its steeple and remarkable Gothic choir stalls. The Fraumünster dates to the ninth century, when it was a Benedictine convent. Now it's a mecca for art fans who come to admire Marc Chagall's fabulous stained-glass windows. A guide called them one of the most important art masterpieces in Switzerland outside of a museum.
Zürich's Grossmünster (great cathedral) played an important role in religious history. The church, first consecrated in the 12th century, was the birthplace of the Reformation in German-speaking Switzerland, led by Huldrych Zwingli in the 1520s. Zürich became Protestant and had no Catholic churches until the mid-19th century.
The Grossmünster's twin Neo-Gothic towers dominate the Zürich skyline. You can climb the spires for superb views of the city, the lake and distant mountains.
Another lovely view of the city is from the Lindenhof, a hill known as the birthplace of the city. In Roman times, it was the site of a customs station. Today it's a pleasant, leafy park where locals gather to play oversized chess, stroll with their children and admire the rooftops of the Old Town.
To admire the city from the water, take a boat ride on Lake Zürich. Ferries that link Zürich to lakeside towns operate yearround. There are also paddle-steamers offering an excursion to medieval Rapperswil, a charming town on the lake.
Switzerland's finest art collection is in Zürich's Kunsthaus. In addition to contemporary, Impressionist and Secessionist paintings and Jugendstil furnishings, the museum presents an engrossing survey of Swiss works.
For nighttime action, visit Niederhof, a district bordering the river with lots of restaurants, clubs and bars. Trendy Zürich West, a once-decaying, nearly abandoned industrial area, is now in, offering warehouse-sized bars and restaurants. Clubs here rock until the wee hours.
Zürich abounds in tasty eateries, boasting one restaurant for every 180 inhabitants. Try the city specialty, Zürcher geschnetzeltes, usually veal in a cream sauce with mushrooms. However, according to Wimmer at Zunfthaus zur Waag, the genuine version is made with kidneys. It is offered either way at the Zunfthaus, although Americans always say 'no kidneys,' noted Wimmer.
And don't forget the chocolate. Confiserie Sprüngli has shops at the airport and train station. Before leaving the city, pick up a few exquisite truffles to savor during your journey.
Info To Go
Zürich Airport (ZRH), Switzerland's largest international gateway, is six miles north of the city. Trains depart from the lower level to city center every 10 minutes for the 10-minute journey. A 15-minute taxi ride to city center costs about $46. Bus service is also available. Car rentals are available in Car Park 2. Visit www.zuerich.com