It’s Friday night in June, and I’m on the back of a Vespa headed to one of my favorite restaurants, Geeren, located on Zurich’s densely wooded Dübendorf hill. The half-timbered tavern is a hard find in modernist-loving Zurich, known more for its architectural austerity than its coziness. We arrive and enter the dining room, but it’s completely empty. Vintage tile stoves are hung with handmade towels, ceramic milk jugs are stuffed with fresh wildflowers, and tables topped with Aromat and Maggi—two condiments as ubiquitous here as salt and pepper—are deserted. But as we walk through this very Swiss tableau on our way to the beer garden out back, the hallmarks of Zurich summer emerge—the honeyed smell of linden trees, the sky slowly draining of its sapphire light, and women in sleeveless dresses and bespectacled men with sweaters knotted over their shoulders clinking glasses gently and speaking in gloriously whispered tones. This is not a typical beer garden. The scene might sound ordinary, or even prim to some, but I’ve come to recognize it as unique to Zurich, and it’s one of the things I love most about living here: hushed dining.
Eating quietly and discreetly, and doing everything quietly and discreetly, is one of the very basic aspects of life in Zurich. It’s not silent dining, like how the reticent Norwegians seem to eat without speaking. Zurich may be Protestant, but it’s not that Protestant—alcohol, veal, and pork still reign supreme here. Contrary to popular belief, the Swiss are not humorless or repressed. Diners talk and laugh and even gossip; they just turn off the cell phones and lower their voices while doing so. Discretion, I’ve learned, has a way of deepening intimacy and connection.
I’m here at Geeren with my Swiss husband and a group of German and Swiss friends, and we’re about to crack open a bottle of blauburgunder. The wine is made from grapes grown down the hill from us at a vineyard sloping toward the ultramarine Limmat River, which snakes through Zurich. The salads—never an afterthought—arrive in heaps: nüsslisalat (lamb’s lettuce) with minced egg and smoky speck, and kopfsalat (bibb lettuce) piled with julienned nests of beet, carrot, and milky celery root. Next come plates of cordon bleu oozing with Emmental cheese; crispy, egg-topped rösti (hash-browned potatoes); and gooey open-face melted-cheese sandwiches called käseschnitte. The rosy-cheeked waitress brings the food and makes a joke in guttural Züridütsch that even the German can’t understand. She disappears, but not before letting out a jolly, “En guete mitenand!”—the unique Swiss-German phrase that a weekend visitor might translate to mean bon appétit but is more akin to “Dig in, y’all.” Switzerland may be seen as cosmopolitan to many, but I’ve discovered that to other Europeans, and to the Swiss themselves, it’s often viewed as positively country. And Zurich, Switzerland’s largest city and home to 1.9 million residents, is in a constant battle of balancing the efficient, good-natured qualities of the Alps with the complex realities of modern urban life.
I moved to Zurich in 2012, after living in New York City for 10 years. Marrying a Swiss architect gave me an understanding of Zurich’s austere design, not to mention a personal guide for navigating Swiss rules, including everything from hiking etiquette to decoding Switzerland’s three-kiss greetings and farewells. But during the past six years here, I’ve come to realize that everything I previously thought about Zurich, from its enigmatic banking “gnomes” to its homogeneous, type-A Swiss Germans, was not entirely true. Zurich may seem one-dimensional at first glance, but it’s full of secrets that continue to surprise me.
Come to Zurich between December and March, as many visitors do en route to ski holidays in the Alps, and you’ll see why many think of it as a cold northern European city with frozen-over fountains, sharp architectural edges, and a buzz-killing severity that’s heightened by the dismal gray weather. Americans tend to mentally geo-locate Zurich in the north of Europe, but it’s actually more than 350 miles south of Amsterdam and Berlin. Italy is only 100 miles farther south, a trip made even quicker by the Gotthard Base Tunnel, which opened in June 2016, shaving 40 minutes off the train trip. Zurich’s southern European character is best experienced during the summer months, when schools close; banks and tech companies, like Google and UBS, two of the city’s biggest employers, shift into low gear; and lakes and parks swell with locals. Even the city’s cornflower-blue-and-white trams empty out as residents hop on their bicycles and head for a badi (the natural swimming lidos along the lakes and rivers).
Zurich’s transformation from a busy, cold Germanic city to a carefree Italian one happens in early June. Suddenly, canoe polo teams and pop-up volleyball courts appear with buff shirtless dudes and women in bikinis; boats, swimmers, and paddleboards occupy the lake; restaurant tables overflow into plazas; and the bocce-ball court and gelaterie in my residential neighborhood of Idaplatz open for the season. At once, the city’s grays turn pastel and all those Protestant edges soften. The best part: It’s not overrun with tourists like Venice, Barcelona, or our Swiss neighbor Lucerne, just 32 miles southwest.
Back in the beer garden, we finish our meals and a third bottle of wine. When the bill comes, it’s “only 130 francs” per person, a price that would have irritated the New York me, but Swiss sticker shock fades fast when you live here. It also didn’t shock me when the waitress informed us they only accepted cash, which none of us had—even, uncharacteristically, my husband, Ralph, who, like most Zurichers, won’t run to the corner store without a 200 Swiss franc bill “safety” in his wallet. What did surprise me was that she immediately agreed to mail us an invoice for the bill. There was no suspicion or ID exchanged. Ralph’s business card and his fluency in Swiss German were credentials enough for us to walk away from a $500 meal.
My American friends assume Switzerland is a neutral, Nazi-gold-hoarding cocoon of chocolate-and-cheese-eating yodelers. Or, as my friend in Ecuador calls it, “rich, white Europe.” But surprisingly, Zurich has a high foreign-born population, about 33 percent, a figure that’s slightly less than London’s and New York City’s, with sizable Portuguese, Ethiopian, Balkan, Thai, and Sri Lankan communities. What’s more, at last count, a staggering 62 percent of Zurich residents have immigrant parents. These secondos, as they’re called locally, are great examples of how non-Swiss can successfully integrate, constantly adding layers to the city’s identity. Add to that a typical unskilled-labor wage of about 5,000 Swiss francs a month, and you have a diverse city that’s a magnet for ambitious immigrants.
That said, Zurich has always been a difficult place to navigate, with almost comically crooked streets and countless mazelike alleys. Even the tram lines here zigzag. Right before the No. 14 approaches Zürich Hauptbahnhof, it turns swiftly to the right, diverting the station before circling back to it two stops later. Five years in, I still, embarrassingly, get lost in my own neighborhood, bereft of 90-degree-angled streets.
Fortunately, many a weg, via, and strasse are designed for walking, not driving. Footpaths and ancient desire lines from the Celtic-Roman era are still intact, since the city was built around them, not over them; and Zurich has been admired by urban planners for not trying to widen roads and highways. Instead, it allocates those funds to public art and other infrastructure. In recent years, the city, along with individuals and corporations from the private sector, spent 206 million Swiss francs on a new wing of the Kunsthaus Zürich, designed by David Chipperfield’s Berlin office, to be opened in 2020. Zurich airport’s forthcoming megaproject The Circle, a billion–Swiss franc retail–and–medical tourism complex, is slated for completion in 2019. Another 26 million Swiss francs were spent to install the new Sechseläutenplatz, a spacious lakefront plaza made with slabs of sparkling Vals quartzite. Additional projects include Im Viadukt, an active train viaduct converted into a public market and retail hub; and two shuttered breweries transformed into mixed-use spaces—one into Löwenbräukunst, an art complex housing power galleries like Hauser & Wirth and the Kunsthalle Zürich, and the other into Thermalbad & Spa Zürich, a multilevel spa offering casklike soaking tubs and killer rooftop sunset views. Tram and train lines are constantly expanding. But new roads for cars? Virtually none.
One of the city’s newest developments is the Europaallee, an urban corridor connecting the train station to louche Langstrasse, a district that embodies the scruffy Europe your mom warned you about—home to secondo hipsters, prostitutes (legal), and marijuana dealers (tolerated). In the past year, shops and restaurants opened in what was fast becoming a derelict area. A stroll from the Hauptbahnhof along Europaallee to Langstrasse encompasses all that is new Zurich, bypassing pop-up design shops and new hotels like 25hours, a high-style, low-budget property, as well as Fat Tony, a new pizza lounge with pink velvet banquettes and taxidermy flamingos.
While I may have traded my morning bagel for a butterbrezel—soft pretzel bread stuffed with Swiss butter thick enough to show your teeth marks—adjusting to Zurich’s dining scene was the hardest part of relocating. Zurich had several Michelin stars but lacked New York’s cheap and cheery ethnic spots like my Boerum Hill banh mi shop and my ramen go-to in the East Village. Back in 2012, non-European food was seen as inferior and conversations with Swiss about it revealed a glaring regional chauvinism.
Fortunately, that has changed dramatically. Zurich’s secondo millennials, who’ve traveled extensively and were not raised solely on melted cheese, began opening restaurants and importing new food concepts. In 2014, a street-food market debuted, followed by an explosion of casual midrange ethnic places, with decor ambient enough for a first date. The refugee crisis in Europe also facilitated discussions about food and nationality. In the past two years, three Japanese izakaya have opened. Korean burger shacks, Ethiopian beer gardens, poke joints, and cult pho spots became the new norm. Even the city’s Wienachtsdorf Christmas market started serving Venezuelan tequeños alongside venerated raclette, fondue, and glühwein.
Nothing expresses summer in Zürich better than swimming at a badi. And nothing softens the disciplined Zuricher’s hard shell more. Most are full-service affairs with cafés, bars, lockers, kayak rentals, first-aid stations, and hot showers. In summer, they’re perfect for an apéro during the city’s sacred cocktail hour. Seebad Utoquai, a personal favorite, is a wooden bathhouse built in 1890. It’s an ideal spot to do a few swan-dodging laps in the emerald lake, followed by an espresso and a fortifying Birchermüesli. Across the lake is the Seebad Enge, home to a floating sauna and morning yoga classes. The Frauenbad Stadthausquai, in the heart of old Zurich on the Limmat, is a female-only badi that turns into a unisex riverside lounge come evening. At Männerbad Schanzengraben, a male-only bath located on the Schanzengraben moat under the Old Botanical Garden, Zurich’s Hasidic men and executives in $5,000 suits strip down for a few laps during lunch hour, called the mittagspause, or “midday pause.”
Another place to experience Zurich’s summer is at its cemeteries, the resting places of former residents like James Joyce and Carl Jung, and home to Zurich’s schrebergärtens, community gardens sporting chaletlike sheds that become summer venues for intimate bratwurst grills. My favorite is Friedhof Sihlfeld, the city’s largest, offering uninterrupted views of Uetliberg Mountain. In winter, it’s a gloomy sprawl with cawing crows, neoclassical crematoriums, and ivy-covered obelisks, befitting an Edward Gorey illustration. But each May its trees burst with pink flowers, the lawns become grounds for picnics, and the benches are hitched with honor-system library boxes. While bird watching here I’ve spotted more than 25 species among its centuries-old oaks and evergreens.
Friends who visit complain about the shops (and many restaurants) being closed on Sundays, which annoyed me during my first years too. But the city always insists on surprising its critics. Walk its empty streets on a Sunday morning and you’ll hear church bells echo in a near sadistic cacophony of carillon chimes, as if all of Zurich’s pent-up Protestantism were being released at once. At the city’s parks and thermal baths, young couples snog so hard you’d think you were in Italy or France on Valentine’s Day. And sometimes, while walking through the city’s gray concrete labyrinth, I turn a new corner and come face-to-face with an arresting view of the dreamy green and glacier-clogged Alps in the distance. It’s a sobering reality check about the powerful nature that gave rise to this city, and an apt reminder that for every hard surface, there are hundreds of hidden soft spots.
The city—trisected by two rivers and a moat—sits at the top of Lake Zurich and brackets both sides of it. Here are the neighborhoods to check out.
Old Town, the Lake, and the Limmat River The cobblestoned center hugs the lake’s eastern shore and both banks of the Limmat. Here you’ll find the 14th-century Storchen Zürich hotel, a banker’s hideaway during Switzerland’s tax-shelter days, planted on the river’s car-free western quay. Its recent refurb includes a cozy lobby with a marble fireplace and leather sofas that overlooks the Limmat. Next door is Chocolat Dieter Meier, making excellent chocolates that are putting Switzerland back on the cacao map. Adjacent is the female-only Frauenbad Stadthausquai badi. Seebad Enge, a badi next to the Arboretum, is on the opposite shore from Seebad Utoquai and the Pavillon Le Corbusier, a museum honoring the Swiss architect. Zürich Kunsthaus and the Sechseläutenplatz are both walkable. A short taxi ride to the east is the restaurant Geeren, offering Swiss specialties and warm hospitality.
The Sihl River and Wiedikon Venture west from Old Town, crossing the Sihl River, and you’ll hit more residential neighborhoods, where homes of architects and writers dot tree-lined plazas. The boutique-y 19th-century Hotel Helvetia, on the Sihl, is a go-to for gallerists en route to Art Basel. Next door is the Old Botanical Garden, which overlooks the popular Männerbad Schanzengraben moat badi. There’s been an explosion of ethnic restaurants here, like the izakaya Ooki. But you can still find hushed outdoor dining at spots like Piazza in Idaplatz, a plaza with a bocce-ball court and the new Gelateria di Berna. Also here is Helvetiaplatz, home to a farmers’ market, the brasserie Volkshaus, and Bank, a bakery and weekend brunch favorite located in an old bank.
Europaallee, Hauptbahnhof, and Zurich West Night owls should stay on Europaallee at the 25hours Hotel Langstrasse with its bustling bar and quiet rooms. Flussbad Oberer Letten is the sceniest of the badis, and in July the lawns and BBQ areas are packed. Metzg, a restaurant and butcher with tables spilling onto scruffy Langstrasse, is decidedly more adult, spotlighting local meat and small-production Swiss wines. Fat Tony, a hipster pizza spot, is a must for late-night slices. Kosmos, a bookstore–arts venue, is also worth a stop, as are the Löwenbräukunst, a brewery turned art complex, and Im Viadukt, a train viaduct converted to a public market and retail hub. A.H.G.