48 Hours In: Zürich

Switzerland's financial centre is surrounded by leafy hills and cooled by a network of water. It's also buzzing with chic shops and eclectic entertainment, as Anthony Lambert discovers

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Summer brings out the best in Switzerland's largest city, where prosperity has fuelled vibrant culture and nightlife. Zürich has more than 50 museums and an opera house that has staged the highest number of world premières. It even has 18 sandy beaches on its rivers and Lake Zürich. The annual Street Parade (streetparade.ch) on 14 August has become one of Europe's most colourful and well organised house and techno parties, attracting thousands of dance enthusiasts to the lakeshore setting. Six stages, 30 "love mobiles" and more that 200 DJs pump out music from 1pm to midnight.

Touch down

I travelled with Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com/uk), which flies daily to Zürich from Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow and London City, BMI (0844 8484 888; flybmi.com) from Edinburgh and Manchester, and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com) from Luton.

The train transfer to the railway station (1) costs SFr7 (£4.40) one way. The main tourist information office (00 41 44 215 40 00; zuerich.com; 8am-8.30pm Monday to Saturday, 8.30am-6.30pm Sundays) is in the station; walk straight ahead from the platforms into the restored original train shed and it is on the left.

Three high-speed TGV trains a day reach Zürich from Paris Gare de l'Est, a 10-minute walk from the Eurostar terminus at Gare du Nord; the total journey time from London is under nine hours.

Get your bearings

Zürich is attractively situated around the north end of the lake that shares its name. The city is astride the Sihl and Limmat rivers; water is everywhere, with a profusion of fountains spouting potable water – a good way for visitors to save money, incidentally. Much of the old city is pedestrianised and the public transport is exemplary.

Buy a ZürichCARD at the airport or station. It confers free use of public transport (including airport transfers) and admission to 39 museums, plus discounts and free welcome drinks at 17 restaurants. It costs SFr19 (£12) for 24 hours or SFr38 (£24) for 72 hours.

Check in

Ten minutes' walk from the station (1), Hotel Rütli (2) at Zähringerstrasse 43 (00 41 44 254 58 00; rutli.ch) is freshly modernised and offers doubles from SFr220 (£137) including breakfast.

You can leave the windows wide open and hear nothing but birdsong at Sorell Hotel Zürichberg (3) at Orellistrasse 21 (00 41 44 268 35 35; zurichberg.ch), a five-minute walk from Zoo station at the end of tram line 6. Overlooking fields and the lake with woodland walks on the doorstep, the style is modern in a Victorian carapace. Doubles from SFr347 (£217) including breakfast and use of mountain bikes.

Zürich Youth Hostel (4) at Mutschellenstrasse 114 (00 41 43 399 78 00; youthhostel.ch) has won awards for its conversion from a school and offers doubles with shower from SFr139 (£87) including breakfast. From the central tram interchange (5), on the opposite side of the Limmat from the rail station, take tram line 7 to Morgental (direction Wollishofen).

Day One

Take a hike

Start at the Central tram interchange (5). Take pedestrianised Niederdorfstrasse, intersected by numerous narrow streets and passages, which leads into Münstergasse. On the corner with Spiegelgasse stands Cabaret Voltaire (6), where the anarchic Dada art movement was born in 1916 and which displayed work by Kandinsky, Paul Klee, de Chirico and Max Ernst. After an occupation in protest against plans to redevelop the building, it re-opened in 2004 and is now a café-bar and arts centre. At the end of Münstergasse is the Romanesque Grossmünster (7), the city's largest church where the Protestant reformer Zwingli preached. The choir windows are by Augusto Giacometti. Open 9am–6pm daily.

Cross the river by the Münsterbrücke (8), pausing to admire the views, particularly of the magnificent town hall (9) (Rathaus) built in 1694–8. The bridge takes you to the Münsterhof, overlooked by the Fraumünster (10). Inset into the cobbles of the Münsterhof is a plaque commemorating the famous "Europe, Arise!" speech given by Winston Churchill in Zürich University on 19 September, 1946. Walk gently upwards past the largest clock face in Europe (8.7m) on St Peter's church (11) and sit beneath the linden tree in St Peterhofstatt, gloriously fragrant when in flower. The only sound is often water splashing in the sculptural fountain. Walk along Augustinergasse (12), one of the prettiest streets in the city with painted one or two-storey square bay windows adorning the upper floors of many of the 17th- and 18th-century houses. Bahnhofstrasse leads back to Central (5).

Lunch on the run

Hiltl (13) at Sihlstrasse 28 (00 41 44 227 70 00; hiltl.ch) claims to be Europe's oldest vegetarian restaurant, founded in 1898, with a hot and cold buffet paid for by weight. A la carte dishes include curry specialities: rice with fruit, cashews, mango and mushrooms is SFr23.50 (£14.50); gazpacho is SFr9.50 (£6).

Window-shopping

Shops are generally open from 9am–5.30pm on Saturdays. The narrow pedestrian streets flanking the Limmat have successfully defied takeover by chain retailers and form an idiosyncratic collection of galleries and shops selling paintings, prints, antiques, old and new books, toys, musical instruments, collectors' comics, home furnishings and fashion.

At Spiegelgasse 16, behind a historic façade, is Thema Selection (14), selling Swiss-designed and made women's clothes.

Irresistible for foodies are the café and shop of H Schwarzenbach (15) at Münstergasse 19 where coffee, dried fruit, herbs, oils, spices, teas and honeys from all over the world are displayed behind a period shop front reflecting its 146 years in business.

On 4 September, a new market hall Im Viadukt (16) off Viaduktstrasse (tram stop Dammweg on lines 4 and 13) is opening under a railway viaduct in the trendy Zürich-West district, joining 36 other shops, restaurants and galleries in adjacent arches. It will be open 8am–8pm daily except Sunday.

An apéritif

Opened in 1911, the Jugendstil Café Odeon (17) at Limmatquai 2 (00 41 44 251 16 50; odeon.ch) attracted Lenin, Trotsky, James Joyce, Hermann Hesse and Mata Hari as patrons. Einstein gave lectures here. It remains a café where regulars meet; open 7am until 2am Sunday to Thursday and until 4am on Friday and Saturday.

Dining with locals

On balmy evenings, diners at Restaurant Neumarkt (18) (00 41 44 252 79 39; wirtschaft-neumarkt.ch) eat in a quiet, tree-shaded garden and gravelled court behind pedestrian streets. Traditional Swiss dishes include cold cucumber soup with peppermint (SFr10.50/£6.50), organic bratwurst with home-made mustard (SFr29.50/ £18.50) and Valais apricot compôte with sour cream ice cream (SFr11.50/£7).

Day Two

Sunday morning: go to church

The ancient Fraumünster (10) on Münsterhof has some superb modern stained glass, including "Heavenly Paradise" by Augusto Giacometti and five windows by Marc Chagall. Open 10am–6pm daily.

Take a ride

Cross Münsterbrücke and board trams 3, 8 or 15, direction Klusplatz, to Römerhof tram stop (19). Take the cog-wheel Dolderbahn to the terrace of Dolder Grand Hotel (00 41 44 456 60 00; thedoldergrand .com), with splendid views of the lake and the Alps. From the top station take a woodland stroll or a dip in the hillside swimming pool.

Out to brunch

Brunch at the Dolder (11.30am-2pm) costs SFr85 (£53); for something more affordable, head for the Kunsthaus (20) (00 41 44 251 53 53; kunsthausrestaurant.ch), which offers a spectacular Sunday brunch from 9am to 2pm for SFr36.50 (£23).

Cultural afternoon

From 15 October until 30 January 2011 the Kunsthaus (20) (00 41 44 253 84 84; kunsthaus.ch) will replicate Picasso's first museum exhibition, which he personally curated in 1932 at the Kunsthaus, with more than 70 pictures from public and private collections. It opens 10am–6pm Saturday, Sunday and Tuesday, 10am–8pm Wednesday to Friday, admission SFr22 (£14) including audio guide.

The Swiss National Museum (21) at Museumstrasse 2 (00 41 44 218 65 11; musee-suisse.ch) includes a fascinating story of Switzerland and the Swiss people from pre-history to banking. There are themed exhibitions on home design, clothing and arms and armour, and a section contains reconstructed rooms from the 15th to 19th centuries. Most have wood panelling with some astonishingly elaborate carving. There's also an intricate diorama of the battle of Murten in 1476. It opens 10am–5pm daily except Monday, SFr10 (£6).

A walk in the park

The Old Botanical Garden (22), west of Talstrasse, is built on rising ground above old fortifications. There's a small palm house on top of the hill.

The University Botanical Garden (23) occupies a larger area at Zollikerstrasse 107, reached by trams 2 and 4 to Höschgasse (direction Tiefenbrunnen). Three geodesic domes with different microclimates host largely wild species rather than hybrids. Open 7am–7pm Monday to Friday, 8am–6pm weekends.

Icing on the cake

The ZurichCARD entitles you to a 90-minute round trip on the lake from Bürkliplatz (24), reached by trams 2, 5, 8, 9 and 11. You can disembark at any of the piers and take a later boat back. Near the pier at Kilchberg Bendlikon is the famous Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate factory (open 10am–5pm but not at weekends). There are lovely wooded walks beside the River Dorfbach from the pier at Küsnacht.

Anthony Lambert is author of 'Switzerland Without a Car' (Bradt, £14.99)

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