Chill in Switzerland's clubbing capital

Bridget Stott does her best to keep up with hip and happening Zurich

Long regarded as a rather staid banking town, Zurich has now joined the fast stream of hip city-break destinations. Recently relaxed licensing laws and a young, entrepreneurial spirit have led to the rise of a vibrant club culture that challenges the buttoned-up values of the city's well-heeled élite. Of course, the essence of old Zurich survives, so if you love picture-postcard scenery, the fine arts, cheese fondues - and dancing all night - Zurich it is.

Long regarded as a rather staid banking town, Zurich has now joined the fast stream of hip city-break destinations. Recently relaxed licensing laws and a young, entrepreneurial spirit have led to the rise of a vibrant club culture that challenges the buttoned-up values of the city's well-heeled élite. Of course, the essence of old Zurich survives, so if you love picture-postcard scenery, the fine arts, cheese fondues - and dancing all night - Zurich it is.

When to go In summer, temperatures never get much above 25C, so sightseeing never gets overheated, although the crowds can. In winter, fun aplenty can be had both indoors and out. Explore the 50 or so museums and galleries, sip hot chocolate in a cool café, or head for the slopes for great skiing and snowboarding.

The Zurich Spring Festival (9-10 April) celebrates the start of spring with guild members leading colourful processions through town, and culminates with the burning of the Boogg, a symbolic snowman-like figure filled with fireworks. From 23 June to 16 July, the Zurich Festival offers a cultural feast of concerts and opera, and the Street Parade (12 August) is Zurich's answer to the Rio carnival, with floats, dancing, throbbing techno music and half a million participants.

Getting thereZurich is one hour and 40 minutes from Heathrow, and the airport is just a 10-minute train ride from the town centre, with departures every 10-15 minutes.

Swissair (tel: 0845 7581333) has nine flights daily from Heathrow from £110 return plus taxes. The airline also offers three flights daily from Manchester, Birmingham and Glasgow, and four from Newcastle. British Airways (tel: 0345 222111) flies from Heathrow from £142 including tax, and from Gatwick from £121 including tax. EasyJet (tel: 0870 600 0000) offers the cheapest seats - from £50 one way - if you book well in advance.

Where to stay Budget accommodation tends to fill up quickly between August and October, so book ahead where possible. Try the popular two-star Zic Zac Rock Hotel, Marktgasse 17, (tel: 0041 1 261 2181), with its individually themed rooms, from £16.50 for a single to £37 for a double.

Alternatively, the friendly City Backpacker/Biber, Niederdorfstrasse 5 (tel: 0041 1 251 9015), has dormitory beds from just £7.50 a night and private double rooms from £22. Women-only hotel, Haus Zur Stauffacherin, Kanzleistrasse 19 (tel: 0041 1 241 6979), has single rooms from £23 a night. Zurich also has several well-run youth hostels. Call the booking office (tel: 0041 1 360 1414) for more information.

More upmarket, Hotel Rutli, Zahringerstrasse 43 (tel: 0041 1 254 5800), is just five minutes' walk from the main railway station. It offers spotless, contemporary-style rooms and a good buffet breakfast, from £35 for a double.

However, if you want to spend a fortune, you've come to the right place. The elegant and deeply romantic four-star Zum Storchen, Am Weinplatz 2 (tel: 0041 1 227 2727), was built in 1535 as a coaching inn on the banks of the river Limmat. A double room costs £112. Alternatively, the five-star Widder, Rennweg 7 (tel: 0041 1 224 2526), stylish double rooms, some with private rooftop terraces, from £142 a night.

What to see and doThe medieval city centre, with its cobbled streets, alleyways, quaint courtyards and squares (all too narrow for cars) is ideal for exploring on foot. It is the prettiest part of town, ending abruptly at the mouth of the river Limmat, which flows into Lake Zürich and splits the old town into two distinct areas.

The east bank offers trendy shops, bars and restaurants along pretty side streets, while the west bank is home to the financial institutions and the elegant Bahnhofstrasse, with its designer boutiques, banks and hotels.

The 13th-century St Peter's church on the west bank boasts the largest clock-face in Europe. The evening we stopped by, an old man was practising his scales on a traditional alphorn while two teenage boys tried out their breakdancing moves near the altar. Nearby, the excavated Roman bathhouse on Thermengasse is also worth a look.

Across the river, visit the 13th-century Fraumünster church, with its eight more recent stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall, and the Grossmünster cathedral, on Zwingliplatz, where the Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli preached in the 16th century.

The Ceramics Museum, Münsterhof 20, is housed in a guildhall which dates from 1750. The museum has fine pieces from the now-defunct Zurich porcelain factory, and also contains original 16th- century Kachelofen stoves, still in use today. Admission is free.

The Kunsthaus or Museum of Fine Arts, Heimplatz 1, is arguably Zurich's most renowned museum. Look out for the Marc Chagall room, the section devoted to Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti, and the important collection of works by Fussli and Hodler. Entry is £2, with free admission on Wednesday nights and all day Sunday.

For open spaces and alpine views, head to Lake Zürich. The eastern shore features a long promenade and sculpture park. Le Corbusier's last building, the Heidi Weber House, is just off the main path.

If you want to get out on the water, an armada of pleasure craft and steamers line the lakeside quay and offer a plethora of excursion deals from April to October. During the summer, it's also possible to swim in the lake. Look out for the ornate 19th-century swimming clubs and bathhouses.

No trip to Zurich would be complete without visiting Confiserie Schober at Napfgasse 4. The café, decorated with vast bunches of plastic flowers, serves great hot chocolate, while the shop sells everything from champagne truffles to chocolate stem-ginger cake.

The city's most famous chocolate landmark, the Sprungli bakery, Bahnhofstrasse 12, has a fabulous range of decadent indulgences.

Food and drink Zurich has hundreds of restaurants serving local and international cuisine in every price range. For a feast, head for one of the ancient guildhouses. The Ivy-style Zunyhaus zur Schmiden, Marktgasse 20, serves modern Italian dishes from £30 for two, without wine. For an immense fondue or raclette in suitably kitsch surroundings, head for Adler's Swiss Chuchi, Rosengasse 10. About £30 for two with wine.

For budget dining, try the Brasserie Lipp, Uraniastrasse 9, with Parisian belle époque-style decor and French dishes to match from £5-£10. The vegetarian café Bona Dea, Bahnhofplatz 15, offers buffet-style meals from £8.50, and cheap eats can also be found at beerhalls around town. The Rheinfelder Bierhalle, Niederdorfstrasse 76, serves simple dishes from £3, and you can eat at the self-service Mensa Polyterrace, Leonhardstrasse 34, from £2.60.

If you're heading to the clubs and bars of the red-light district, try Lily's Stomach Supply, Langstrasse 197, which offers a good Pan-Asian menu from around £7.

NightlifeMuch of the club scene can be found around the Langstrasse, where plenty of new bars and clubs stay open until dawn. The Klinik on Freigutstrauss pulls a crowd of young artists, designers and filmmakers, while Inkognito at Hardturmstrasse 122, and gay club, Labyrinth, Pfingstweidstrasse 70, are popular with the young office and student crowd.

For one-off party-night forecasts, consult www.pulp.ch and www.partysan.ch. Most late-night bars and clubs are clustered around the Niederdorfstrasse. The stylish Kaufleuten, Pelikanstrasse 18, benefits from Zurich's recent all-night licensing laws, as does Hotel Seehof's minimalist bar on Seehofstrasse 11.

Out of townEngleberg is the nearest winter-sports resort. A one-day ski and rail pass can be picked up at the Zurich railway station for around £23.50. The train journey takes about two hours, passing through stunning mountain scenery, and ski and board hire is available from the Salomon Station, next to the cable car. Ask about ski lessons for beginners and group deals for four or more at the Engleberg Tourist Office (tel: 041 637 3040).

Deals and packages Thomson Breakaway (tel: 0870 550 2555); Travelscene (tel: 020 8427 4445); Creative Tours (tel: 020 7495 1779); Thomas Cook (tel: 01733 563 200); and Cresta Holidays (tel: 0870 161 0900) all offer packages to Zurich, flying with Swissair. British Airways (tel: 0870 24 24 243) offers weekend breaks at the three-star Hotel Bristol from £235 per person based on two sharing.

Further information The Tourist Office is at Zurich central railway station (tel: 01 215 4000; net: www.zurichtourism.ch).In the UK, contact Switzerland Travel Centre, Leicester Square, London W1 (tel: 020-7734 1921).

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