The boat slices through the glassy turquoise depths, its prow pointing towards the jagged, snow-topped horizon in the distance. Behind us, the spires of Zürich decorate the skyline. To our left, wooded hillsides sweep to shores dappled with manorial villas, all shutters and lawns tumbling to boat houses. On the opposite flank, Uetliberg mountain rises to a wild white ridgeline. The sun, uninhibited by cloud, smudges precision from the scene in a shiver of gold.
It’s not so serene on board. Jangling, joyful music emerges from the upper deck, where a group of rosy-faced musicians in fancy dress are clattering and banging on drums and bells in a riotous celebration of carnival season. My dad and I have struck it lucky in catching the same boat as this troop of ‘Guggenmusiker’ – but Zürich, the Swiss city that tends to be associated with the banking industry, is never short of surprises.
I have spent a lot of time here, and have found that you never know what you are going to get – withstanding of course the pristine appearance of the streets and the reliability of the public transport – both stereotypes that run true.
Today’s exploration started in Niederdorf, the old town on the eastern bank of the River Limmat that splices the city. Here, Zürich is a tangle of narrow, undulating alleyways lined with pastel-toned medieval townhouses. Weekday business was in full swing: the scent of roasting coffee emerged from one café, its windows flung open to the crisp day. Handmade violins dangled behind the glass façade of a music shop.
On one corner, we came across Cabaret Voltaire, where the Dada movement was founded in 1916. Intellectuals, poets and artists from Germany, Romania and Austria, who had fled to Switzerland to seek peace in a world at war, gathered at the tavern for its popular soirées to make the music and art that became Dada.
Downhill from there, we joined the riverside promenade and were granted a marvellous view of the Fraumünster’s sharp green spire, delicate as a pinprick against the pale winter sky. Soon afterwards, we passed Haus zum Rüden, a waterside guildhall. Founded in the 1300s, guilds are still active in Zürich: every April they hold the Sechseläuten festival to drive out winter, setting alight a firecracker-filled snowman, or Böögg, to the jeers of the crowd. The tradition goes that the faster its head explodes, the finer the summer will be.
Over the river via Gemüsebrücke, where a nice farmers’ market is held on Saturdays, we ambled up into the opposite flank of the old town. We passed St. Peter’s Church, a graceful structure with an enormous clock face – with a diameter of 8.7 metres, it is the largest in Europe – and crossed cobbled squares where locals sat enjoying morning coffees.
A meandering cluster of designer façades brought us onto Rennweg, where the aroma of roast beef emerged from AuGust, a member of the butcher’s guild and one of Zürich’s best-loved meat restaurants. The street eventually spills out at Bahnhofstrasse, but we first took a side street and climbed to Lindenhof, where the Romans created a customs post in the first century BC and named Zürich ‘Turicum’.
This leafy terrace high above the river is an excellent vantage point over Niederdorf and the twin white towers of the Grossmünster, where Huldrych Zwingli started the Swiss-German Reformation in the early 16th century. We settled on the wall for a moment to watch a group playing a lively game of boules, and each selected a chocolate truffle from the box that we bought earlier from Sprüngli, Zürich’s iconic confiserie.
As the chill of the February day gnawed at our fingertips, we meandered onward to the so-called “Fröschengraben”, a filled-in moat where Bahnhofstrasse now follows the course of the ancient city wall, connecting the main station and the lake. The famous street was a hub of activity. Blue-and-white trams glided past the tall grey turn-of-the-century façades, smart business people hurried between office buildings and elegantly clad shoppers browsed designer labels – the street is one of the most expensive in the world.
It eventually brought us out at leafy Bürkliplatz on the northern shore of the lake, where you can board boat trips. This afternoon we plan to climb the Grossmünster for a different angle on Zürich; we might even attempt the sledge run on Uetliberg tomorrow. But for now, we’re going to recline and watch the city’s outskirts roll past while we savour the rest of our chocolate truffles to the tune of ‘Guggenmusik’.