48 Hours In: Zurich

Far from being an enclave of buttoned-up reserve, this lakeside Swiss city dazzles in summer with cultural events and water-based activity.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Switzerland's largest city has shaken off its former image of prim reserve. Expensive it may be – the Swiss franc remains strong, at less than 1.5 to the pound – but the payback comes when you spend time roaming.

This is a surprisingly jovial city, with an engaging mix of areas and boundless creativity. Next weekend, Caliente! (6-8 July; caliente.ch) forms a mini-carnival of Latin and Caribbean culture, while Art and the City (until 23 Sept; artandthecity.ch) presents 40 works in public areas by artists including Ai Weiwei.

Touchdown

I travelled with Railbookers (020-3327 2439; railbookers.com) on a flexible rail/flight package, which included flight out, train back and two nights' B&B; similar deals cost from £425 per person.

The train journey from London is straightforward. After the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, take RER line D to the Gare de Lyon, from where high-speed TGVs depart for Zurich.

Alternatively, Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) flies to Zurich from Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) flies from Heathrow and London City.

Other options include easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Luton and Gatwick; Helvetic (00 41 44 270 8500; helvetic.com) from Cardiff, Bristol and Inverness; and BMI (0844 848 4888; flybmi.com) from Edinburgh.

At the airport buy a ZurichCARD to cover public transport, museums, retail discounts and more (Sfr20/£13 for 24 hours, or Sfr40/£26 for 72 hours). With it, the train to Zurich HB ("Main Station") (1) or slower tram 10 to the city square known as Central (2) are free.

Get your bearings

Zurich drapes around the neck of slender Lake Zurich, where the River Limmat exits northwards. Its medieval old town flanks the river. The left bank is upmarket shopping territory corralled by the curving Bahnhofstrasse. The right bank, known as Niederdorf, is a busy little tangle of bars, old-fashioned shops and traditional restaurants.

A five-minute tram ride takes you into the livelier ethnic and social mix of Zurich West, centred on honky-tonk Langstrasse and the chic boutiques in reclaimed warehouses and railway arches behind Limmatplatz.

On the concourse of the main station (1), the tourist office (00 41 44 215 4000; zuerich.com) opens Monday to Saturday 8am to 8.30pm, Sunday 8.30am to 6.30pm.

Check in

The B2 hotel (3) at Brandschenkestrasse 152 (00 41 44 567 6767; b2boutiquehotels. com) opened in March in old brewery. Cachet comes from modern-styled rooms with open bathrooms, acres of parquet floor and a post-industrial setting amid shops and restaurants. Doubles from Sfr290 (£190), with breakfast.

Steps from Central, Hotel du Théâtre (4), Seilergraben 69 (00 41 44 267 2670; hotel-du- theatre.ch) has every room designed individually evoking the building's past as a theatre and cinema. It's a lovely friendly three-star with character and doubles from Sfr205 (£133), room only.

If you're after budget soul, go for the easy-going Hotel Otter (5), Oberdorfstrasse 7 (00 41 44 251 2207; hotelotter.ch), an old-town building with arty rooms and shared bathrooms above a street-level café. Doubles from Sfr155 (£100), including breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

From the main station (1) stroll south past the department stores and terrace cafés of ritzy Bahnhofstrasse. Turn off at Uraniastrasse, beneath the domed tower of the 105-year-old observatory (6) (urania-sternwarte.ch), then cut right along Schipfe, a riverside lane that conceals a number of artists' workshops. Climb to the Lindenhof (7), the former site of a Roman customs post, now grassy and quiet. Behind the owlish clock face adorning St Peter's church (8) soars the elegantly spired Fraumünster (9) (open daily from 10am to 6pm), a 13th-century church featuring some exquisite stained glass by Marc Chagall. A plaque set into the cobbled square alongside commemorates Winston Churchill's speech calling for a United States of Europe, delivered here in 1946.

Cross the river at Münsterbrücke (10), with views of the 17th-century Rathaus (town hall) (11), then pick any alley to plunge you into the old town. Turn left on to cobbled Niederdorfstrasse, jumbled with design shops, medieval fountains and beer halls. Once past the corner with Spiegelgasse – marked by the Cabaret Voltaire (12) arts venue, on the site of a bar where the Dada art movement was founded back in 1916 – and you emerge at tram-packed Central (2).

Lunch on the run

Adler's Swiss Chuchi (13), Rosengasse 10 (00 41 44 266 9696; hotel-adler.ch), is a favoured spot in the Niederdorf lanes. Try the daily changing set menu (Sfr17/£11) – steak, veal, rösti and the like – or opt for an aromatic cheese fondue (Sfr29/£19).

Take a ride

Trams 2, 5, 8, 9 and 11 all serve Bürkliplatz (14), from where boats head out around the lake. The ZurichCARD is valid for the 90-minute "Short Round Trip", which departs every half-hour. You can get out anywhere along the way – perhaps at Küsnacht, for ice cream in the lakeside garden of Romantik Hotel Sonne opposite the landing stage (00 41 44 914 1818; sonne.ch) – and take a later boat back.

An aperitif

In lively Zurich West, La Salle (15) sits in a huge glass cube within the Schiffbau – a former shipbuilder's yard – at Schiffbaustrasse 4 (00 41 44 258 7071; lasalle-restau rant.ch; open daily until midnight). It's a classy spot in which to sink a glass of Turbinen Bräu (Sfr5/£3), brewed a mile or so down the road.

Dining with the locals

In between Zurich West's industrial-chic bars and streetwear outlets stands Lily's Stomach Supply (16), Langstrasse 197 (00 41 44 440 1885; lilys.ch), a fast-paced hideaway dishing up Asian nosh to diners seated at long benches – anything from Tamil chicken curry to pad Thai or Vietnamese beef salad (all roughly Sfr22/£14), washed down with Tsingtao beer (Sfr6.50/£4).

Meanwhile, a more refined watering-hole can be found at Helvetia (17), Stauffacherquai 1 (00 41 44 297 9999; hotel-helve tia.ch), which has long been a refuge for political types to meet and discuss the issues of the day. Graze in the wood‑panelled bar, or book for the tasteful upstairs restaurant serving classic dishes such as Züri-Geschnetzeltes, sliced veal in mushroom cream sauce (Sfr42/£27).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

With its twin pepperpot towers dominating riverside views, the Grossmünster (18), or Great Minster, was begun around 1100. Stripped of decoration in the 1520s during the Reformation, it retains an austere serenity, lifted by Augusto Giacometti's dazzlingly colourful windows. Don't miss the huge statue of Charlemagne in the crypt (open daily 9am to 6pm; grossmuenster.ch).

Out to brunch

Switzerland's tallest building is the 35-storey Prime Tower, completed in December, its glass façades looming 126m above the train tracks. It is mostly offices, but take the lift to the top floor for Clouds (19) (00 41 44 404 3000; clouds.ch), a suave lounge-bar and restaurant with panoramic views and a rather nouvelle-cuisine take on Sunday brunch.

Expect artful mini-portions of cold meats, smoked fish, homemade pasta, sweet mousses and sorbets, and a bill above Sfr75 (£50) per head (open Sundays from 10am, daily for lunch and dinner, no Sat lunch).

Cultural afternoon

After last month's furore surrounding The Scream, sold at auction for a record US$120m (£80m), see more of Munch at the Kunsthaus (20), Heimplatz 1 (00 41 44 253 8484; kunsthaus.ch), which has the largest collection of his works outside Scandinavia. Dip, too, into Monet, Picasso, Rothko and Warhol and a comprehensive array of Alberto Giacometti's spindly sculptures.

The innovative show Riotous Baroque (until 2 September) highlights themes of life and lust from the 17th century to today (open daily 10am to 6pm, Wed-Fri until 8pm, closed Mon). Admission with ZurichCARD is Sfr20/£13, or free if you exclude the Baroque exhibition.

A walk in the park

On the lake's east shore, reached by boat or tram numbers 2 and 4, the Zurichhorn park conceals a pretty Chinese Garden (21), a gift from Zurich's twin city of Kunming. It has a willow-fringed lakelet, arched bridge, pagodas and pavilions (open daily 11am-5pm, entry Sfr4/£2.50).

The icing on the cake

Tram 6 climbs to the Zoo (22), Zurichbergstrasse 221 (00 41 44 254 2505; zoo.ch), which has more than 300 species in large, well-maintained facilities including the Masoala Rainforest dome, a steamy slice of Madagascan jungle.

Walk on paths amid ferns and giant bamboo, spot geckos, red-ruffed lemurs and tropical frogs. Profits support conservation, healthcare and sustainable farming in Madagascar (open daily 9am to 6pm, entry with ZurichCARD is Sfr20/£13).

Far from being an enclave of buttoned-up reserve, this lakeside Swiss city dazzles in summer with cultural events and water-based activity.

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