Image about Zurich

You may think you know Zurich, the buttoned-down stronghold of the banking and insurance worlds, but you're in for a surprise.

Some places get pigeonholed. They change dramatically over time but are still saddled with a reputation that is no longer deserved. Such is the case with Zurich. Its image has long been one of a somber, sober, well-ordered city that is primarily a center for banking and insurance. In reality, it has evolved into a hedonistic place, bursting at the seams with things to do and to see, and is home to a frenzied club scene that rocks from night till dawn.

I had the stereotype of Zurich in mind when I went there to find out why a British firm - the Mercer Human Resource Consulting group - has for five years running named it the most desirable city in the world to live in. Why not Paris, Hong Kong, or San Francisco? I wondered. I thought the answer would be suitably mundane - say, a mixture of good health care, high wages, and the appeal of the famously clean streets.

I'm no stranger to European cities and their desirability. I've lived in Europe for over a decade, mainly because I love the way its cities are constructed. I miss America, particularly the baseball stadiums and the music and the wide open spaces, but I can't give up Europe's courtyards and town squares. I've been spoiled by places like Strasbourg and Prague. There is nothing so grand as to take a room in a city-center hotel and have hundreds of restaurants, shops, museums, and beautiful sights like rivers and cathedrals within a 15-minute walk. I don't need a car, never run out of things to do, and often sense that something surprising is just around the corner. Somehow, in spite of the 10-plus years I've been in Europe, I never realized that Zurich is the ideal place for people who delight in the style and ease of European cities. It is compact and perfectly­ proportioned, and almost everything I need is within strolling distance of my hotel room in the Old Town. The few places that are farther afield are quickly reached by the city's aging but easy-to-use streetcar system, which can actually be used for sightseeing as well. But more important than its convenience is Zurich's breathtaking beauty. In fact, I'm not sure those are strong-enough words. Stunning? Gorgeous? Nothing seems sufficient.

The city's allure nailed me the first time I walked across the Munster Bridge, which links the two parts of Zurich's Old Town. Everywhere I looked, I saw postcard-worthy vistas. First, the old churches, gently lit in the fading evening light; then, the simple three- and four-story medieval buildings in the Old Town that are separated by cobbled lanes; and finally, the rushing glory of the Limmat River, which leads to Lake Zurich and the Alps beyond. Few cities have such a glorious setting. But there was more than just a historic backdrop - movement and action were everywhere.

This, I thought, is the perfect city: true to its past, quite alive today, and sparkling with invitation.

Zurich is Europe's little secret, often visited for a day or two by those en route to nearby ski resorts and mountain retreats. But it's rewarding as a destination on its own and is perfect as a base for exploring the nearby mountains and lakes. I found lots of little human (and canine) touches - including the city's more than 1,200 water fountains, many of which are fed with fresh springwater and most of which are equipped with bowls at street level so that dogs can take a drink. Plenty of cities have rivers running through them, but few besides Zurich have built lidos along the water, used for swimming and sunbathing by day and transformed into open-air bars during the long summer nights. It is a tradition that goes back more than a century and still provides relief during the surprising midsummer heat.