Zurich stands at 409m above sea level on the River Limmat, a tributary of the Rhine, which flows north out of the slender Lake Zurich. With a modest population of 364,000, Zurich is the biggest city in Switzerland. It developed around a Roman customs post named Turicum, established in 15BC on the Lindenhof, a patch of high ground overlooking the river and lake. The Lindenhof still lies at the heart of the old town, which spreads over both banks of the Limmat in an ensemble of cobbled lanes, flower-bedecked squares and tinkling fountains.
Zurich airport, 11km northeast, is comfortably compact. Baggage often turns up at the carousels before you do and you can be heading into the city on a train within half an hour of touching down.
Trains depart roughly every 10 minutes to the main city station, Zurich HB, for a fare of Sfr5.80 (£2.50). This ticket is also valid on trams and buses for one hour, but a better-value option is the ZurichCARD, which gives unlimited journeys on public transport (trains, buses, trams and boats), free entry to all city museums and discounts on other services. It costs Sfr15 (£6.60) for 24 hours or Sfr30 (£13.30) for 72 hours.
The helpful tourist information office is on the concourse of the Zurich HB railway station, open Monday to Saturday 8am to 8.30pm and Sunday 8.30am to 6.30pm (00 41 44 215 4000; www.zuerich.com).
Reflecting Zurich's status as one of Europe's leading design capitals is the sensational Widder Hotel, in the midst of the old town at Rennweg 7 (00 41 44 224 2526; www.widderhotel.ch). Designed by architect Tilla Theus, the hotel sits behind a row of eight medieval townhouse façades, with a cool, contemporary interior of rich woods, polished granite and glass. Every room boasts stone-tiled floors and original beamed ceilings, along with a top-of-the-line Bang & Olufsen stereo and TV. Double rooms start at Sfr665 (£295), including breakfast.
Perched on a hillside high above the city - a 10-minute ride on tram 6 - is the Hotel Zurichberg, Orellistrasse 21 (00 41 44 268 3535; www.zuerichberg.ch). Founded in 1899, this is now a classy four-star hotel with a completely redesigned interior: balconies, terraces and picture windows look out on a spectacular view. Alongside is a low, curved annexe that has attracted much architectural acclaim; it's designed around an airy, three-storey atrium and an elliptical, Guggenheim-style internal ramp. Double rooms start at Sfr270 (£120) including breakfast; a lake view costs a little more.
Staying on the design theme is Lady's First, Mainaustrasse 24 (00 41 44 380 8010; www.ladysfirst.ch), a boutique hotel occupying a 19th-century villa near the opera house and lake. Rooms - with doubles starting from Sfr245 (£109), excluding breakfast - feature contemporary furnishings, parquet floors and high ceilings. The top floors are women only.
But Zurich isn't all high-priced chic. In the heart of the old town is the colourful two-star Hotel Otter (00 41 44 251 2207; www.wueste.ch), featuring plump beds, murals, drapes and plants. Double rooms, for Sfr165 (£73) including breakfast, share a bathroom with the two other rooms on the same level, or you could opt for the top-floor apartment, with all facilities and rooftop views, for Sfr190 (£84).
In the last five years, Zurich has entirely reinvented itself, dropping the tag of buttoned-up business capital and instead generating acclaim as one of Europe's most dynamic cities for design, culture and the arts. You'll find an energy here that belies the placid Swiss stereotype, especially in the lively, multicultural quarter of Zurich West, centred on Langstrasse, a fascinating mile-long strip of designer bars, independent cinemas, chic eateries and clubwear outlets.
More mainstream shopping is to be done on the Bahnhofstrasse, a long, curving boulevard that runs from the station to the lake along the ancient course of the city wall. All of Zurich comes here to walk, snack and shop, whether to browse at the department stores that crowd the first third of the street or to splash out at the boutiques further south. Just across the Limmat bridges is the medieval Niederdorf district, a web of atmospheric cobbled lanes and peaceful squares.
Zurich's natural setting is one of its leading assets: the city is spread around the northern tip of Lake Zurich, a lake so crystal-clear the Swiss authorities have certified its water safe to drink, with uninterrupted views southwards to the snowy Alps. The cool pine forests of the Zurichberg and Uetliberg are only a 15-minute tram or train ride from the city centre.
A good way to get a handle on the city is to join one of the guided walking tours of the old town, which start from the tourist office in the station daily at 3pm (on Saturdays and Sundays also at 11am). They last two hours and cost Sfr20 (£8.80).
In the 16th century, Zurich was at the forefront of social change as the city's spiritual father, Huldrych Zwingli, preached the Reformation in the central Grossmünster. The cathedral's twin spires still rise above the old town and the bare, lofty interior (daily 9am-6pm) stands as a striking counterpoint to the frantic consumerism of the nearby streets. A short walk away is the graceful, 13th-century Fraumünster, (Mon-Sat 9am-6pm) which boasts one of Switzerland's artistic highlights - a set of ethereally beautiful stained-glass windows in the Romanesque choir, which were designed in 1967 by the artist Marc Chagall.
After the abolition of the Catholic Mass in 1525, Zurich attracted dissident intellectuals from all over Europe and the trend continued into the 20th century. At one point in 1916, Zurich was home to Lenin, mulling over the future Russian Revolution; James Joyce, who was writing Ulysses; and a band of emigré artists calling themselves "Dada", who spent their evenings lampooning Western culture at the Cabaret Voltaire café. Dada went on to become a significant movement in Western art and the site of the original Cabaret Voltaire, at Spiegelgasse 1, has now been revamped as a trendy café-bar and gallery. Joyce died in Zurich in 1941 and is buried in Zurich's Fluntern cemetery.
The city's excellent Kunsthaus gallery, at Heimplatz 1 ( www.kunsthaus.ch), is unmissable. It is open Tuesday to Thursday 10am-9pm and Friday to Sunday 10am-5pm. Admission is Sfr6 (£2.60). An exhibit drawing parallels between the work of Alberto Giacometti and Henri Cartier-Bresson runs from 13 May to 7 August.
FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK
For a dining experience like no other, book for the Blinde Kuh, at Mühlebachstrasse 148 (00 41 44 421 5050; www.blindekuh.ch). The name translates as "Blind Cow" - the German equivalent of "Blind Man's Bluff". All the staff here (apart from the head chef) are blind and the restaurant aims to give sighted people an idea of what life is like without eyes. From the foyer, you are led through heavy curtains into complete darkness: you literally can't see anything and you eat in the pitch dark, amid the hubbub of other diners. It's a unique set-up: staff are genial and the food is good - it just takes some concentration not to spill anything!
Nearby is Yooji's, at Seefeldstrasse 115 (00 41 44 383 9292; www.yoojis.ch), a hip new addition to Zurich's excellent Japanese dining scene. The decor is warm and simple and the food superb, with a wide range of authentic dishes from soup to sashimi.
Just off the Bahnhofstrasse is Hiltl, Sihlstrasse 28 (00 41 44 227 7000, www.hiltl.ch), a Zurich institution for over 100 years, updated with bright decor, calm, friendly service and excellent vegetarian food. Choose from à la carte dishes such as Moroccan couscous or vegetable jalfrezi, or opt for the expansive hot and cold buffet, sold by weight - around Sfr5.50 (£2.40) per 100g.
In the old town lanes is Adler's Swiss Chuchi, Rosengasse 10 (00 41 44 266 9696; www.hotel-adler.ch), the best place in town for a slap-up Swiss feast, whether a bubbling cheese fondue or the local speciality of Züri Gschnetzlets - diced veal in a creamy mushroom sauce, served with potato rösti.
Finally, don't leave Zurich without visiting Schober, Napfgasse 4 (00 41 44 251 8060), a confectioners and café serving the best mug of hot chocolate in Switzerland.
It's an easy 20-minute train ride from Zurich to Winterthur, a hardworking industrial city set in rolling countryside 25km northeast of its grander neighbour. The pedestrianised old town streets spread out directly in front of the train station; amid the lanes rises the elegant medieval Stadtkirche, worth a look for its kitschy, modern murals.
Winterthur is best-known for its clutch of world-class museums, principally the collection of medieval and modern art amassed during the first half of last century by Oskar Reinhart, a local tycoon. The Oskar Reinhart Collection "Am Römerholz", housed in Reinhart's villa, is an idiosyncratic mingling of paintings of various styles and periods. There are works by 15th- and 16th-century German masters, including Matthias Grünewald, pieces by El Greco and Goya, and an outstanding section of Dutch/Flemish painting. Works by French Baroque, Neoclassical and Romantic artists - including some of Delacroix's best portraits - lead to Reinhart's magnificent Impressionist collection.
Winterthur's Kunstmuseum has a spectacular collection covering international art over the last century or so, including paintings by Van Gogh and Monet and sculpture by Picasso and Rodin. The Villa Flora - another private collection - houses a small but high-quality selection of French Post-Impressionism.
The critic Paul Graham has called Winterthur's Fotomuseum "the most beautiful museum of photography in Europe". Its major forthcoming event is the Robert Frank homage Storylines, run in conjunction with Tate Modern. Following its London run, the show opens in Winterthur this September.
Oskar Reinhart Collection "Am Römerholz", Haldenstrasse 95 ( www.roemerholz.ch). Daily except Monday, 10am-5pm (Wednesdays until 8pm); Sfr8 (£3.60). Kunstmuseum, Museumstrasse 52 (00 41 52 267 5800; www.kmw.ch). Daily except Monday 10am-5pm, Tuesdays to 8pm; Sfr10 (£4.50). Villa Flora, Tösstalstrasse 44 (00 41 52 212 9966; www.villaflora.ch). Tuesday to Saturday 2-5pm, Sunday 11am-3pm; Sfr10 (£4.50). Fotomuseum, Grüzenstrasse 44 (00 41 52 234 1060; www.fotomuseum.ch). Daily, except Monday, 11am-6pm (Wed until 8pm); Sfr13 (£5.90).
Zurich and Winterthur stand on the edge of the rural Ostschweiz region of Eastern Switzerland, which covers a varied chunk of territory from the shores of Lake Constance to the mountainous principality of Liechtenstein. The regional capital, an hour from Zurich by train, is St Gallen, an easygoing manufacturing city that grew wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries on the fashion for embroidery. St Gallen embroidery - still chiefly done by hand - is now a luxury commodity, with small companies supplying haute couture fashion houses around the world.
St Gallen's old quarter is dominated by the Baroque, twin-towered cathedral. The church's white interior is dazzling, with its fanciful light-green stucco, elaborate frescoes and columns of black marble trimmed in gold. The abbey library alongside, is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites, acclaimed as one of Europe's finest secular Rococo interiors. The library's collection is extraordinary - there are more medieval Irish manuscripts in St Gallen than there are in Dublin - but it's the interior that impresses most, with its highly polished inlaid wooden floor that reflect the trompe l'oeil ceiling frescoes. Aside from the 140,000 volumes arranged on the beautifully carved shelves all around, the library also holds a wealth of cultural treasures - an astronomical textbook written in 300BC and the oldest surviving book written in German, from the 8th century.
Cathedral open 9am-6pm daily (Sunday from noon), free. Abbey Library, Klosterhof 6D (00 41 71 227 3416; www.stibi.ch). Open 10am-5pm daily (Sunday to 4pm), Sfr7 (£3.20).
Matthew Teller is the author of the 'Rough Guide to Switzerland' (£12.99)Reuse content