Step into a Swiss Christmas in Zurich

It's hard not to feel festive in this city of singing trees and Christkindl, says Adrian Mourby

At this time of year, Zurich Hauptbahnhof starts filling up with British skiers rushing between trains in the hope of getting to the slopes as quickly as possible. But they're missing a lot. Switzerland's biggest city is a great place to get you in the festive mood.

Start in the station lobby which is huge, like the trading floor of a stock exchange. Right now, it's full of Christkindl stalls and an enormous Christmas tree covered in Swarovski crystals. Overhead, Niki de St-Phalle's flamboyant statue, Flying Angel, is suspended from the ceiling. Follow exit signs to Bahnhofstrasse, past the statue of Alfred Escher, a Zuricher who not only set up Swiss railways, but also invented Credit Suisse to pay for them.

Now window-shop your way up Bahnhoftstrasse until you reach the Singing Christmas Tree at the junction with Werdmühleplatz. These steep wooden stands with carolling children taking the place of Christmas decorations have been a feature of festive Zurich since 1998.

Crossing Uraniastrasse, head south along Lindenhofstrasse to Lindenhof for a view over the snowbound city and the Limmat river that divides it in two. Before Zurich broke out of the Roman Empire and became independent, it was ruled from a castle on this square. It was pulled down in the 13th century and no one has been allowed to build here since.

Heading west along Fortunagasse and turning left into Renweg, call in at the Widder Hotel (00 41 44 224 25 26; widderhotel.ch) for coffee. The Widder is a fascinating hotel created out of nine old Zurich houses while retaining all the original floor levels. Inside it's an intriguing three-dimensional jigsaw and very cosy on a chilly day.

From Renweg cross into Glockengasse and look out for Kaiser's Reblaube at number 7 (00 41 44 221 21 20), one of the oldest houses in Zurich. It's now a restaurant and includes the poet Goethe among its satisfied customers. You can dine in the wood-panelled room where he slept in 1799.

Now head up hill – you can't miss the clocktower of Peterskirche (St Peter Hofstatt 6; 00 41 211 25 88; st-peter-zh.ch), which has the biggest face on any church in Europe. The locals claim it's larger than Big Ben.

Dropping down to the river brings you to Weinplatz. Take a look at the lobby of Storchen at number 2 (00 41 44 227 27 00; storchen.ch). This gorgeous hotel overlooks the Limmat and was briefly home to Richard Wagner, the man who never paid his way. As usual, Wagner left in a hurry, his bills unsettled. Make sure you touch the mosaic of a black stork's egg on the lobby floor. It's a good luck custom dating back to the 14th century when it was said that a stork's nest was blown off the building's roof, but a black egg was found safe on the ground. From here cross the Limmat on the broad Rathaus Bridge, taking in the food stalls that have gained it the nickname "Gemüsebrücke" (Veggie Bridge). You can stock up on Christmas gingerbread too.

Now climb up Marktgasse to Rindermarkt, but maybe divert down Niederdorfstrasse on your left to the Old Town Christmas Market on Hirschenplatz. Up ahead, Opfelchammer (Rindermarkt 12; 00 41 044 251 23 36; oepfelchammer.ch) is a well-known student weinstube (tavern) where they serve wine and all manner of warming aperitifs. Ask to see the graffiti on the wooden ceiling – they're 200 years old in places. If you can crawl into the rafters with your drink and consume it without spilling, you may add your name to the roll of honour.

Loop back down Spiegelgasse towards Münstergasse. You'll arrive first in Napfgasse where Péclard at number 4 (00 41 44 251 51 50) is a lovely frilly cake shop and café restored to its glory at the beginning of the 20th century. For fresh coffee, cross the road to Schwarzenbach (Münstergasse 19; 00 41 44 261 13 15) which glories in the title Kolonialwaren Kaffeerösterei (colonial goods/coffee roasters). It's been here since 1864 and also sells 30 kinds of honey and just about every spice you can imagine.

Continue south down Münstergasse until you reach the brooding Gothic Grossmünster (00 41 44 252 59 49; grossmuenster.ch), a twin-towered church founded by Emperor Charlemagne and the starting point of the Swiss Reformation. Down in the crypt there is a statue of him that looks worryingly like a goblin king.

Heading back down towards the river via Kirchgasse, make for the Grand Café Odeon (Limmatquai 2; 00 41 44 251 16 50; odeon.ch) which is ideal if you're thinking of lunch. At different times Lenin, James Joyce and Albert Einstein dined here. Dadaism was invented (so some claim) at the Odeon, as was "cüpli" – the very civilised notion of champagne by the glass.

After lunch head down to the Lake Zurich via Rämistrasse. You've now walked the length of the medieval city, and should be well into the mood for Christmas.

Fresh cuts

The Migros Museum of Contemporary Art (00 41 277 20 50; migrosmuseum.ch) reopened last month after a lengthy refurbishment. Housed in the Löwenbräu art complex, the Migros displays one of Zurich's top collections of contemporary art. Rietberg Museum (00 41 44 206 31 31; rietberg.ch) in the beautiful Wesendonck Villa has just opened an exhibition on the Chavin de Huantar archaeological site in Peru. The Rietberg is Switzerland's only museum devoted entirely to non-European cultures.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) flies to Zurich from Heathrow (from £119 return), London City, Manchester and Birmingham. Other airlines serving the city include BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Heathrow and London City; easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Luton; Helvetic Airways (00 41 44 270 85 00; helvetic.com) from Bristol; BMI Regional (08444 172600; bmiregional.com) from Edinburgh; and Blue Islands (08456 20 21 22; blueislands.com) from Guernsey and Jersey.

Staying there

The Widder Hotel, Rennweg 7, Zurich, Switzerland (00 41 44 224 25 26; widderhotel.ch). Doubles start at Sfr775 (£513),  room only.

More information

myswitzerland.com

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