The key to enjoying Zurich is to choose a hotel that is centrally located in or right next to the Old Town. A simple one will do nicely, though there are several swank and wonderful places to stay if a splurge is in order. Then revel in the fact that every type of urban pleasure the world has to offer is close by. Forget about fondue and yodeling - the food here is diverse and delicious, and the music scene is raucous, not pastoral, catering to the 24,000 university students who give Zurich its youthful flair. Even the Zoo Zürich is unconventional. Imaginative zookeepers have re-created a Masoala rain forest inside a domed building constructed in what was an empty pasture adjacent to the rest of the zoo, giving visitors a chance to experience the heat, vegetation, humidity, and wildlife of an actual rain forest. I found it exhilarating to step across the threshold and into a completely different environment, one in which I was able to see and hear and breathe the tropics while at the edge of the Alps. The moisture in the air was intoxicating. The waterfalls, the exuberant plants, and the sight of the lizards and birds transported me to a faraway place. And the rain forest restaurant - with a giant plate-glass window offering a Garden of Eden-like view of a tropical paradise - is, without a doubt, the most beautiful zoo restaurant I've ever seen.
If You Go...For listings of Zurich hotels, restaurants, and tours, and for information about the ZürichCard travel card used for the streetcars, boats, and other attractions, visit the excellent website Zuerich.com. (To read everything in English, just click the "English" button on the homepage.)
Many of the major hotel chains have outposts in Zurich, and a number of boutique hotels have opened recently. There are many smaller hotels in the Old Town, including the Sorell Hotel Rutli (011-41-44-254-5800, www.rutli.ch) and, in the newer part of the Old Town adjacent to the central train station, the elegant Hotel Schweizerhof (011-41-44-218-8888, www.hotelschweizerhof.com). Rooms in midpriced hotels will likely seem small to visitors accustomed to American hotels.
My favorite part of town is the oldest part of the Old Town, where some of the buildings date back to the fourteenth century. It is a pleasure to see how cities were formed back then, around town squares and clock towers that must have seemed huge at the time but that by today's standards seem positively petite. Chain stores and international luxury houses have not yet discovered this part of town. It's a pedestrian zone filled with one-of-a-kind jewelry shops and galleries. The Old Town is the place to buy beautiful music boxes and lovely umbrellas printed with scenes from Renoir paintings, evoking the era of the impressionists.
And, oh, the delicious specialty-food stores in the Old Town. I couldn't help sampling the fare at Bodega Gorgot and Bodega Española, a Spanish bodega and restaurant set up in 1874 and stocked with fine rioja and excellent chorizo and calamari. I also couldn't resist the offerings at H. Schwarzenbach, an aromatic food emporium laden with spices, teas, coffee, meats, and wines that can match anything New York and Paris have to offer. The sweets department even offers handmade marzipan shaped like Snow White and the seven dwarfs - not to my taste, but I knew my daughter would love them, so I plunked down the necessary Swiss francs.
The Old Town is particularly moody at night, when the old-fashioned gaslights come on and the medieval streets are filled with modern-day revelers. The absence of harsh, modern anticrime lighting gives everything a mellow look. I enjoyed just wandering around and drifting back in time, stopping at a few places for red wine before I went home for the evening.
The Old Town is, thankfully, not entirely sanitized. This is the part of Zurich where eccentrics are welcome, including people like Frankie B., the grizzled proprietor of Coiffeur du Théatre, a hair salon where every customer is invited to share a beer and is given a chance to enjoy the hundreds of black-and-white rock-and-roll photos and other eclectic decorations. When I stopped in, a Buddy Guy video was playing, so the shop was filled with the sweet sound of Chicago blues. In the summertime, Frankie moves his operation to the street to escape the heat in his shop. He welcomes new customers but warned me to try to book appointments before noon, because the beer drinking takes its toll on him: "After that, the barber is drunk," he admitted. I checked my watch - it was 3:30 in the afternoon - and decided to move on without getting a trim.
At the far end of the Old Town is Zurich's truly great art museum, the Kunsthaus Zürich. I love paintings, but I've never been a big fan of museums. In fact, I've been to Paris dozens of times but have never gazed at the Mona Lisa - I just can't face the lines. So, for me, the Kunsthaus Zürich was perfect. This is the museum for people who don't like museums - it's set up to be enjoyed, not revered. I could see the art up close, without the crowds or the waiting time. Even on a busy weekend afternoon, I found myself alone here, in a room with Monet's oversize water-lily paintings exhibited in a strange but stunning juxtaposition with classical sculptures by Rodin. In adjoining rooms, I saw major works by Van Gogh, Picasso, Matisse, and Cézanne, which were easy to enjoy since I didn't have to face the throngs common to most museums. Surrealism, Dada, and modern art are represented, as well, as are the old masters; it was easy to become drenched in the images of a Europe gone by. And I was knocked out by the Edvard Munch collection - I knew him mainly from The Scream, which I've always found disorienting and painful, but some of his works at the Kunsthaus Zürich are filled with an almost psychedelic beauty and repose.
After being immersed in the world of art, I felt like doing some serious window-shopping, so I walked across the river to the younger, ritzier part of the Old Town, where the buildings are only a few hundred years old. Some of the city's finest hotels and tearooms are in this part of town. The brands in the boutiques along the Bahnhofstrasse will be familiar - Prada, Valentino, and the like - but the setting is far more congenial than those of the congested major fashion cities like Milan and London. Shopping here is less hassle and more fun. Traffic is light, the streets are free of litter, and from every vantage point, you can see church spires and the foothills. Many of the specialty shops are worth a visit; you'll find beautifully crafted wooden toys and lovingly made Swiss chocolates. My favorites were the watch stores, which have extensive collections of top-quality Swiss watches (like those by Patek Philippe and Breguet) on display. I like to try on $35,000 watches even though I know I won't be buying them. Other visitors might prefer the Montblanc fountain pens or the beautiful Hermès scarves.