Switzerland’s largest city may not have the glamour of Paris, the hedonistic party persona of Berlin, nor the streetwise credibility of London, but the City of Gnomes – to borrow the popular nickname for Swiss bankers – has hidden depths.
Did you know, for example, that Zürich hosts Europe’s largest outdoor techno party? Did you know that Zürich was the birthplace of the weird and wacky Dada art movement? Have you heard that Zürich has as many public baths as Istanbul? Were you aware that Lake Zürich is one of the top spots in Europe for skinny-dipping?
Having sown the seeds of doubt in your mind, it’s time to debunk a few Swiss myths.
Myth: Zürich is dull
Join the one million revellers who throng the city streets for the Street Parade every August and you may think otherwise. Initiated by a group of 1000 ravers in 1992, this vast celebration of all things techno has grown into Europe’s largest open-air dance party. Conceived as a ‘Demonstration for Love, Peace, Liberty, Generosity and Tolerance’, Street Parade has evolved into a Bacchanalian celebration of boisterous beats. Expect ground-shaking sound systems, foam parties and dance outfits that wouldn’t look out of place in an S&M dungeon – all-over Lycra body suits were de rigueur for Street Parade in 2013.
Myth: there’s nothing to do in Zürich
Locals don’t agree. During the short Swiss summer, Zürich residents swap suits for swimming costumes and plunge into the cooling waters of Lake Zürich and the River Limmat. More than 25 badis (public swimming baths) line the lakeshore and riverbanks, from streetwise hangouts like Flussbad Oberer Letten, where the hot, young and hip come to cool down, to the elegant Frauenbadi, a graceful women-only bathing pool founded in 1888. If skinny-dipping is your bag, head to Strandbad Tiefenbrunnen and seek out the area signposted ‘FKK’, short for Freikörperkultur (free body culture).
Myth: Zürich has no must-see sights
OK, there’s nothing on the level of the Louvre or the Vatican Museums, but the city is still packed with stuff to see. For a dose of fine art, the Kunsthaus art museum is crammed with works by Rodin, Turner, Monet, Manet, Van Gogh, Picasso, Edvard Munch, Mondrian and Matisse, as well as contemporary local talent. For the very latest Swiss art statements, check out the Migros Museum, housed in the old Löwenbräu brewery, whose exhibitions explore concepts of space and society. Alternatively, take things down a notch and admire the work of master stained-glass window painter Augusto Giacometti in the Fraumünster and Grossmünster churches.
Myth: Zürich is straight-laced
Yes, Zürich is super clean, the trains run on time and the streets are almost litter free, but that doesn’t mean the city doesn’t have a rebellious side. Take the local attitude to graffiti – rather than being persecuted, graffiti artists are invited to showcase their talents at legal graffiti walls such as the one at Rote Fabrik, a former silk mill turned artists’ collective on the west shore of Lake Zürich. For another hidden side to the city, drop into the curious Kriminalmuseum, dedicated to the history of policing in Zürich, complete with cracked and exploded safes from raids on the city’s banking houses.
Myth: Zürich nightlife has no atmosphere
Sink a few glasses of dry Fendant wine in trendy Züri-West (Zürich West) and you’ll wonder why you ever thought so. This former industrial neighbourhood has traded overalls for glad rags, and the city’s sleekest bars and clubs are housed in the shells of once-derelict shipyards and factories. Think of it as Zürich’s answer to New York’s Meatpacking District. Or go left-field with a cocktail in the original Cabaret Voltaire, whose zany cabaret evenings inspired the Dada art movement. Saved from obscurity by a new generation of art pioneers, the cabaret is once again a hotbed of creative talent, with a provocative program of cabaret, movies and stage shows.
Myth: everyone eats fondue in Zürich
Fondue does appear on a lot of menus, but there are plenty of chips in London and nobody says that’s a dull place to dine. With the enviable earnings accrued by Zürich’s bankers comes an enviable lifestyle, and well-heeled travellers can feast like a financier in the city’s Michelin-starred restaurants. In 2013, the once-great Mesa was demoted to ‘nul points’ with the departure of head chef Marcus Lindner, but The Restaurant at the Dolder Grand has taken over the two-star crown, and newly starred Clouds (www.clouds.ch) offers epic views to match its stellar cuisine. For more chefs with stars, head to Münsterhof (www.muensterhof.com), Spice at Restaurant Rigiblick (www.restaurantrigiblick.ch/spice-2) and Sein (www.zuerichsein.ch).
This feature originally appeared in Lonely Planet.