Zürich: There's more to it than finance

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The Independent Travel

If cash has a home town, it is probably Zürich - abode of the gnomic bankers, who for centuries have stood for financial stability and durability. Yet there is far more to Switzerland's largest city than mere money, and happily you can enjoy the place without spending a fortune.

Zürich is one of Europe's most accessible city-break destinations: from the airport, a direct train to the handsome Hauptbahnhof takes just 10 minutes. The main station has an excellent tourist office (00 41 44 215 40 04; www.zuerich.com), which opens 8.30am-7pm daily (Sundays 9am-6.30pm) - and even longer in summer. The terminus is on the west bank of the Limmat river, the shining artery that confers a constant tranquillity on the city.

The core of the city, founded by the Romans as a customs post named Turicum, spreads south from here on the west (left) bank, but the urban huddle on the opposite shore is almost as venerable. The city centre ends where Lake Zürich begins. In the summer, there are plenty of opportunities to swim in its clean, clear waters (and then to enjoy the hospitality of the many bars at its shore).

Accommodation

Zürich has plenty of good hotels that offer bargain stays at weekends. For example, the stylish Hotel zum Storchen, located right on the river at Am Weinplatz 2 (00 41 44 227 27 27; www.storchen.ch), often has specials that reduce its standard rate of around Sfr600 (£267) for a double, including breakfast, by around a third.

Hotel du Theatre at Seilergraben 69 (00 41 44 267 2670; www.hotel-du-theatre.ch) is converted from a former theatre in a quirky location, close to the station. Well-equipped double rooms cost Sfr185 (£82). The dramatic, modern Youth Hostel at Mutschellenstrasse 114 (00 41 43 399 7800; www.youthhostel.ch/zuerich) is a 20-minute walk from the centre. The nightly rate is Sfr37.50 (£17) per person, including a mammoth breakfast.

Hotels can be booked at Zürich Tourism, which has just launched an offer in which a dozen hotels are taking part - a "pay for two nights, stay for three" scheme. Click the "ZürichBREAK" link on the www.zuerich.com website for more details.

Culture

The Kunsthaus - the city's dramatic art museum on Heimplatz (00 41 44 253 8484; www.kunsthaus.ch) - is simply stunning. Renovations have just been completed, with the muscular Jugendstil (German art nouveau) origins preserved intact. The permanent collection lives up to its surroundings: Flemish and Venetian masters, French impressionists, Swiss art from the past two centuries (including a strong showing of Albert Giacometti) and works by leading 20th-century artists from Picasso to Chagall. The opening hours are 10am-8pm from Tuesday to Thursday, 10am-5pm from Fridays to Sundays, admission Sfr10 (£4).

Zürich West is the coolest place to be this summer, and before you consider which cutting-edge bars or restaurants to visit you should get a cultural appetiser at one of the five galleries and three museums in the former Löwenbräu brewery. Try Galerie Bob van Orsouw at Limmatstrasse 270 (00 41 44 273 1100; www.bobvanorsouw.ch) for the biggest names in contemporary art.

Eating and drinking

Both sides of the river have excellent dining opportunities, though I tend to gravitate to the west bank. One of my favourites, Hiltl, has moved into a temporary home in the old stock exchange at Bleicherweg 5 (00 41 44 227 7000; www.hiltl.ch). It's a big, theatrical but relaxed venue for some top-class vegetarian cuisine.

Uraniastrasse has plenty of choices, including the über-modern, e-café urania (00 41 44 210 3311; www.e-cafe.ch) and the stylish, airy Brasserie Lipp (00 41 43 888 6666; www.brasserie-lipp.ch) which offers the chance to drink in the city skyline from the Jules Verne Panorama Bar. Do not leave without following in the footsteps of Lenin and James Joyce to the Café Odeon at Am Bellevue (00 41 44 251 1650), a cosy venue to start or end an evening.

Shopping

For clothes, furniture and hair-styling in a single venue, visit Time Tunnel at Stussihofstatt 7 (00 41 44 261 4224; www.timetunnel.ch).

At the fascinating flea market west of the Hauptbahnhof at Kanzlei ( www.flohmarktkanzlei.ch), any Saturday between 8am and 4pm, you might get lucky with retro clothes, books or records.

Bahnhofstrasse is lined with designer boutiques and large department stores selling everything from Swiss Army knives to haute couture. At number 67, Sprungli is one of the busiest shops in town - no surprise, given its mouth-watering displays of truffles and chocolate almonds.

Events

23-24 April: Sechseläuten - the traditional festival to welcome in spring. The city's guilds take part in a procession, which culminates in the incineration of the Böögg - a straw figure filled with fireworks.

9-11 June: The gay and lesbian community celebrates Christopher Street Day (which originated in San Francisco).

16 June-9 July: The Zürich Festival will be celebrating its 10th annicersary. Highlights of the Festival will include the continuation of the Shostakovich cycle at the Tonhalle concert hall.

12 August: over one million people take part in the Zürich Street Parade.

2-16 November: Expovina attracts wine merchants from two dozen countries, who offer tastings aboard boats moored on the river.

December: the Hauptbahnhof becomes Europe's largest indoor Christmas market.

For more information, contact Zürich Tourism (00 41 44 215 40 04; leisure@zuerich.com)

Park life

By European standards, Zürich is a small city. It has the good fortune to be surrounded by spectacular land and serene water. All the more surprising, then, that so much of the metropolis should be devoted to green space.

The parkland begins as soon as you arrive at the Hauptbahnhof. Just north of the main railway station, and beyond the Swiss National Museum, the Platz-promenade tapers to a point at the confluence of the Sihl river with the Limmat. The corresponding open space on the southern edge of the city centre is the Arboretum; even if the trees fail to inspire, the fine views across the lake and to the mountains beyond is one of Europe's best urban prospects. You could continue south to the Belvoir-Park (which also lives up to its panoramic name), but facing it across the lake is the China Garten: prim lawns, venerable trees and dazzling pagodas. For the best Alpine views, aim for Zürichorn, also on the lake.

Even within the heart of the old town some open space has been preserved: aim for the Lindenhof on the west bank of the Limmat.

To find out more about the flora, head for the Botanical Gardens, where greenhouses defy Zürich's brisk winters. One final dimension of park life: if you are travelling with youngsters, they may be delighted to learn that the largest indoor water park in Switzerland can be found on the shores of Lake Zürich.

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