Vitra Design Museum, Basel, Switzerland. Photos by Sarah Hartshorne.
Switzerland: Keeping it Classy Since 1848
As an American visiting Switzerland I felt like a teenager visiting my friend with the rich, older parents. The ones with 12 different kinds of pasta in the pantry that kept flowers on the table every day. Everything was just a little bit classier than I was used to.
That’s because Switzerland has an incredibly high standard of living: it was ranked the second happiest country in the world. And despite the high prices and taxes, it’s easy to see why. Everything is beautiful, clean and well planned out. One of their monarchs once said, “Well-fed peasants are peaceful peasants,” and it’s true.
And as my group of fellow journalists and I made our way through Zurich, Bern and Basel, we were well fed and peaceful. It was a whirlwind tour of a country that deserved more time and attention than we were able to give it.
Zurich is the pinnacle of all things Swiss. It’s the largest city, and has the highest standard of living in the world. It is also home to most of Switzerland’s chocolate factories and restaurants. Coincidence? I think not.
Where to eat:
Kunststuben is generally accepted as the best restaurant in Zurich. Unfortunately, I never made it there due to some scheduling snafus but I hear very good things. Where I did end up was the Lake Side Restaurant, which offers traditional Swiss fare and panoramic views of Lake Zurich. For daytime meals, head for the chocolate factories and stores. Teuscher and Sprüngli, both of which are adjacent to the bustling Barnhofstrasse, offer brunch and lunch and are full of both tourists and locals, always a good sign.
Infinity pool at the Zurich Swisshotel.
Where to sleep:
The Swissotel in Zurich is has clean rooms, standard breakfast fare and one thing which really sets it apart: a beautiful spa on the roof, complete with an infinity pool that offers a breathtaking view of the city.
What to see:
Lake Zurich is at the base of the Alps, which makes for a one of a kind view of city, lake, mountains and clouds. I spent a beautiful afternoon walking around the lake, sipping a latte purchased from one of the many cafés and stores dotted along the path that travels alongside the lake near the city center.
The Zurich Botanical Garden offers an alternate, equally beautiful afternoon. There are a number of rare flowers and plants from around the world that are worth a look.
What to do:
The Barnhofstrasse is one of the world’s most famous and expensive shopping avenues. Shopping in Zurich is a bit of a mixed bag, however. With the exception of wine, cheese, and chocolate most luxury goods are more expensive in Switzerland than most anywhere else in the world so, for the most part, clothing isn’t a worthwhile investment. Unless, of course, you like vintage clothes, in which case Zurich is a gold mine. The women of Zurich are exceptionally stylish, and consignment stores are a great way to raid their castoffs. Niederdorf offers designer clothes at a great discount and Boudoir is another, slightly more expensive shop.
Zurich seen from the clean and clear Zurich river.
If shopping doesn’t qualify as a cultural activity for your itinerary, Kunsthaus Zurich is an internationally renowned museum of modern art that boasts pieces from the 1600s on, with permanent and rotating collections from artists like Picasso, Warhol and more. The architecture of the building alone is worth the trip. Kunsthaus is one of dozens of museums in Zurich including but not limited to: a timepiece museum, a concrete museum (the only one in the world!) and a toy museum. In short, if you like it, Zurich probably has a museum for it.
The one thing you’ll find more of than museums in Zurich is chocolate. Zurich is the chocolate capital of Switzerland, and the options can be a bit overwhelming. Enter Kerrin Rousset, who offers a comprehensive chocolate tour. There’s nothing like presenting a loved one with a delicacy recommended by an expert in all things chocolate.
The industrial section of Zurich is the hottest up-and-coming section of the city, and is now home to Thermalbad Spa, which drops visitors into fresh, thermal water on a breathtaking rooftop pool and lets them meander down in pools of various temperatures. Prices are only going to go up, so take advantage of this place now: it’s a once in a lifetime experience.
How to get around:
Jams at the farmers market in Bern.
Public transportation is very popular throughout Switzerland, especially in Zurich. Seventy percent of the city’s population uses the trams and they’re very easy to navigate, which is important, since Swiss tram drivers can be less than helpful in a crisis.
Bern means ‘bear’ in Swiss German and the legend goes that the city’s founder, Duke Berchthold von Zähringen, killed two bears and named the city in their honor. Another, juicier historical rumor is that Berchthold was shortsighted and actually killed a large dog, and his minions were too obliging to burst his bubble.
Where to eat:
There are farmers’ markets throughout the city every weekend that offer flowers, vegetables, meat and, best of all, cheese. Mike Glauser’s Jumi stall in particular offers a great selection of artisanal and very Swiss cheese. Everyone is generous with samples, so it’s a good, cheap way to snack your way through the city. If you’re looking for something classier, (or if you’re too shy to pilfer from innocent farmers) The Bellevue Hotel offers a five-star dining experience at its restaurant, La Terrasse, complete with iPads that are equipped with a live action video feed of the kitchen. For something a little more affordable, Schwellenmätteliand Rosengarten offer beautiful views of the river and the botanical gardens respectively, and have great brunch spreads.
Bern Bear Pits, no longer open.
After hours, Kornhauskeller is the place to go. Housed in Bern’s historical corn cellar, it’s a majestic building with arched ceilings and a bar overlooking the spacious dining room. The restaurant offers moderate-high priced menu items including some Swiss standards. The bar is trendy and offers absinthe and attractive waitresses. A good time to be had by all.
Where to sleep:
The Hotel Bellevue is a newly renovated, top-of-the-line hotel that has housed presidents, kings and all manner of celebrity. To paint you a picture: their fitness center is prettier than most hotel lobbies. Unfortunately, they have the sky-high rates to prove it. The Hotel Allegro is a more affordable but still luxurious option. Comfortable rooms, nice bar, and a good breakfast spread.
What to see:
Whether or not Berhthold killed one or not, it would be a shame not to see Bern’s namesake at the Dählhölzli Zoo, formerly known as the Bear Pits. Open April through September, this zoo offers an intimate look at three large, brown bears.
As beloved city icons go, the Bear Pits are second only to the clock tower. Built in the 13th century, this clock tower still runs on its original mechanics, which are fascinating and available for viewing inside the tower. There are even helpful placards and displays, but if those aren’t enough, tours are available throughout the day.
View from the clocktower, Bern
Other attractions in Bern include the Houses of Parliament, and the Munster Cathedral, both of which offer tours Monday through Friday. The Houses of Parliament are particularly exciting because it’s possible to view parliamentary sessions from a distance, and the tours offer an excellent overview of how the government works.
For the scientifically minded, there’s an old apartment that belonged to the young Einstein, where he developed the theory of relativity.
What to do:
In a word, swim. Not only is there a plentitude of beautiful public fountains for drinking out of, but this city is also home to a beautiful river, and everyone you talk to will boast about how clean it is: “You could drink out of it!” they say. In the summers, the Marzili, a large public bathing facility, is teeming with Swiss bathers. Just be sure and follow the instructions on the signs, since the current is strong and can sweep away inexperienced swimmers.
Brunch at Teuschers, Zurich.
How to get around:
There are buses and trolleys, of course, but we were treated to a much more interesting option: scooter tours. Surprisingly fast and easier than bikes, these scooters offered a unique way to see the city. Bern is a hilly city, though, so be prepared for a bit of a workout.
On first sight, Basel is the ugly stepsister of Swiss cities. Being the business capital has led to a less glamorous skyline than its older sisters but its proximity to the French and German borders does more than bring capital to the city. All of Switzerland sometimes feels like the lovechild of its Franco-Germanic neighbors, but Basel is the real nexus of their influence, especially when it comes to food.
Where to eat:
Basel is home to the trendy Kohlmann’s, whose specialty is also the signature dish of Basel: feuerkuchen, which translates to “Fire Cake”. It’s a flatbread grilled with cream cheese and toppings. It’s very distinct from pizza, and I recommend the classic, which is topped with bacon and onion.
For something a little more modern, Acqua Osteria is a former garage turned trendy restaurant that offers unique culinary interpretations of traditional Swiss dishes.
Basel is also one of the best cities to partake in Switzerland’s most famous dish: fondue, but only during winter. Apparently, it is trés gauche to serve it any other time of year. My host issued a warning: “if you see fondue on the menu in summer, it’s not a real Swiss restaurant.”
For those who love cheese but can’t stomach the cold, there’s raclette, an equally cheese-heavy dish that is served with grilled meats in the summer.
Where to sleep:
I am a huge fan of boutique hotels, so it takes a rare chain hotel to catch my fancy. The Radisson in Basel is a rare chain. The service was outstanding, the Internet fast, and the food delicious. The club on the top floor is a typical sticky-floored, trendily lit, Euro-pop club, but it does have a great cocktail selection.
Of course, if boutique is really your style, the Hotel Vorfahn offers rooms each designed by a different Swiss artist and a trendy restaurant called Atelier with 5-star and 5-course meals.
Glasswear in the Vitra Design Museum, Basel.
What to see:
Basel is a bus ride away from Vitra Design Museum, a world famous design and architecture museum that feels more like a working, breathing factory. As someone with limited interest in design, I didn’t expect to enjoy this but the buildings and sculptures are beautiful and the tours were fascinating, if a little long.
As is so often the case, the journey to the museum was just as exciting as the destination. Vitra Design Museum is just over the border in Germany, and the border and the surrounding countryside is beautiful.
Basel is divided into two sections by the river: the new half and the old half. The old half is home to beautiful churches, a lovely city square with farmer’s markets and lots of antique homes and it’s worth a tour.
What to do:
Basel boasts the largest Christmas store in the world which, in turn, boasts the longest name in the world: Weihnachtsbaumschmuckausstattungsspezialgeschaeft. Owned by the inimitable Johann Wanner, who is a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and Santa Claus, the store and the adjacent factory is a blur of glitter, tinsel and vintage cards. Even I, a stalwart cynic and Christmas Grinch found myself giggling over some of the ornaments (an owl on a motorcycle, for example). The ornaments are a bit over-priced but it’s still worth a look.
Fountain in Zurich.
How to get around:
We were treated to a tour of Basel by segue, which was overshadowed by the Bern scooter tour. Segues are great fun, but they’re also expensive, hard on the back and required too much of our attention to let us take in the sights. As with all Swiss cities, public transportation is plentiful and easy to navigate. Most of the restaurants and museums are also walking distance from each other.
Before going to Switzerland I was warned that Swiss people were aloof and a little rude. But that’s not quite the case. It would be more accurate to say that the Swiss are very independent, and careful never to impose on others. That means, for most people, that while asking for directions isn’t something they would ever do, they’ll certainly help out a needy tourist.
And while wait staff may be surprised if you ask to substitute something, they’ll do their best to accommodate. Switzerland is a great place for women to travel alone, if you don’t mind actually being alone. No one catcalls or bothers a woman walking alone, nor will they approach her at a bar. It simply isn’t Swiss to do so.
In fact, everyone was polite and modest to a fault. When we expressed admiration for their female president, everyone was quick to point out that Switzerland didn’t allow women to vote until 1970. And when we praised the cleanliness of their cities, they brought up the high taxes. As one of our tour guides (who happened to be German) pointed out, “Swiss will never brag about what they have… but they definitely have it.”
Useful Swiss Cities websites for the discerning traveler:
The Bern Parliament building.
Hotel Ramada Plaza Basel
Vitra Design Museum
Restaurant Acqua Osteria
Segue Tours: Rolf Egg, +41-848-72-36-42
8005 Zurich, 044-273-11-25
Kerrin Rousset (chocolate tour) www.sweetzurich.ch, www.mykugelhopf.ch
Thermalbad & Spa Zurich
Boudoir Shoes and Clothes
Read more GoNOMAD stories by Sarah Banks Hartshorne:
A New York Fashionista Discovers Luxury in the Granite State
Querétaro, Mexico: Living, Breathing History
Lafayette, Baton Rouge and New Orleans: Great Art, Great Food, Great Music
Port Antonio, Jamaica: Not Your Typical Seaside Town
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