Switzerland’s largest city and its cultural and commercial capital, Zurich is to some extent a victim of Swiss efficiency when it comes to being a tourist destination. The main hub for travel in and out of the country, with its airport connected to the mainline railway system, many visitors merely transit through Zurich on the way to other towns such as Lucerne and Interlaken, which are much more touristy but only a few hours away at most. This is great for the visitors that do stay - they get to experience Zurich’s pretty lakeside setting and glorious old town without too many crowds. Though a banking centre, it’s a much more attractive city than Geneva, which is bland and grey in comparison. It’s cosmopolitan enough to have an edge, especially when you look at the huge, creative expanses of Zurich West, now described as “Little Berlin”, but retains a quintessentially Swiss small- town charm in the centre.
There are some general parallels between Switzerland and the UAE, which may make Gulf visitors feel surprisingly at home. At around eight million, both countries have similar populations, large expatriate workforces, wealth and an open attitude while being robustly protective of their culture, language and passports; there is also safety and cleanliness, something that makes it particularly attractive as a summer base. Much of the city is walkable, but the tram system is something of a miracle, whisking you to virtually anywhere you want to go in just a few minutes (download the iPhone app to really feel at home). The old town, much of which dates from medieval times, is pedestrianised, and has been sensitively restored: while some parts are more commercialised than others, there are old guildhouses, shops, squares and churches, with the Limmat River running right through it. There is also the lake, Zürichsee, and nearby mountains, which bring fresh air, and a relaxed, quiet atmosphere without it being stultifying. Numerous universities and a semi-industrial outer edge make it a magnet for the young and talented, who don’t take themselves too seriously and head for the mountains at weekends – both in the winter and summer.
A comfortable bed
The Park Hyatt Zurich (zurich.park.hyatt.com; 0041 43 883 1234) is on the western side of the city centre, a few hundred metres from Zürichsee. Its boxy design contrasts nicely with luxurious interiors and its downstairs lounge manages to be both dynamic and rarefied (staff greet me gently in Swiss-German rather than English, even though I think I look like a tourist); there's no better place to retreat to at the end of a long day of work or sightseeing. Double rooms cost from 580 Swiss francs (Dh2,150) per night, including taxes.
If you've been to Zurich before and want to explore a new area, the B2 Boutique Hotel + Spa (b2boutiquehotels.com; 0041 44 567 6767) in the business district of Hürlimann-Areal makes for a fascinating stop. Right next to the expansive offices of Google Zurich, the four-star boutique hotel is situated in a former brewery and has an impressive rooftop pool and basement thermal baths built into the 100-year-old vaults. Double rooms are from 310 Swiss francs (Dh1,222) per night including taxes and breakfast.
Find your feet
Part of the joy of the old town is getting lost, but aim to do a circuit either clockwise or anti-clockwise, starting from the lakeside promenade (from where you can also take a ferry ride around the lake; more sensible in spring and summer rather than winter). Head up Limmatquai on the eastern flank of the Limmat River and work your way up into the old streets behind Grossmünster and the Rathaus. Stop for a hot chocolate at Conditorei Schober (conditorei-cafe-schober.ch; 0041 44 251 5150), one of the city's oldest coffeehouses in a corner called Napfgasse (arrive early on weekends to avoid queues). There is no mobile signal available, as the cafe "wants you to talk to each other". For the less traditionally-inclined, Cabaret Voltaire (cabaretvoltaire.ch; 0041 43 268 5720) is just around the corner on Spiegelgasse. This is where the anarchic Dada art movement was founded in 1916. It is still a centre for Dadaist-inspired gatherings, but functions mainly as a cafe-bar and event space. Continue up and down the small streets sloping uphill, before crossing the bridge to the western side of the old city; the area around Augustinergasse, home to the James Joyce Foundation (joycefoundation.ch; 0041 44 211 8301), is charming.
Two kilometres north-west of the city centre, Zurich West offers a completely different experience. Start at Hardbrücke station and explore acres of industrial architecture including former factories housing chic new restaurants, art galleries, shops and restaurants. For more information visit Switzerland Tourism (myswitzerland.com) and Visit Zurich (zuerich.com).
Meet the locals
The usually reserved Swiss love "wellness" – take the train up to Uetliberg mountain and walk around and you'll be greeted warmly by other walkers and diners. Visit the Thermalbad & Spa (thermalbad-zuerich.ch) and you'll find groups and couples, young and old, embracing the healing waters; swimsuits are worn but men and women share the same spaces. Coffee shops, which are often so crowded that conversation with your neighbour is inevitable, are also a good bet. Try the various branches of Sprüngli (spruengli.ch) and their attached shops to taste and enthuse on their favourite local specialities, such as the Luxemburgerli, a puffier, softer version of the macaroon.
If you're into James Joyce, visit the centre on one of its reading nights and converse in English with a group of local enthusiasts and Fritz Senn, who runs the place. The centrally located Kaufleuten (kaufleuten.ch) on Pelikanstrasse is a historic restaurant, club and theatre venue; the restaurant serves food such as Wiener schnitzel with food sourced mainly from organic farms. The events change regularly but vary between classical music to hip-hop. A younger crowd heads to Lagerstrasse, near Zurich Hauptbahnhof, where there is a string of bars and nightclubs.
Book a table
Switzerland isn't a foodie destination like France or Italy; think instead of Germany – veal sausages, fries and simple salads for an idea of the fare usually on offer. However, the food scene has improved vastly in the past 10 years, with a focus on local, organic produce and an increase in the amount of Asian and Arabic food available. Hiltl, at Sihlstrasse 28 (hiltl.ch/en/), which has been in business since 1898, claims to be the world's oldest vegetarian restaurant, and is surprisingly chic. It has a very popular giant hot and cold lunch and weekend brunch buffet of more than 100 homemade specialities, where you pay according to the weight of your plate (4.9 Swiss francs [Dh19] per 100g, a piled-high plate can set you back 30 Swiss francs [Dh118]; and a small salad is 12 Swiss francs [Dh47]). They also have an à la carte menu and a downstairs cafe.
At Clouds, located on the 35th floor of the new Prime Tower in Zurich West (clouds.ch), you can enjoy terrific views of the city as well as fine dining, for a reasonable price. Its weekly three-course lunch menu, for 25 Swiss francs (Dh98) per person, is available from 11.30am until 2.30pm. I tried a delicious modern presentation of the city's signature dish, the Zürcher geschnetzeltes – cooked, sliced veal in a creamy mushroom sauce, served with a potato rosti – and it is delicious.
At the Park Hyatt, The Lounge has a "Beauty, Brain and Moodfood menu," which is a luxuriously decadent take on healthy eating. Only the best ingredients are used, the benefits of which are described underneath each dish. To drink, its 500ml smoothies cost from 14 Swiss francs (Dh55) and range from "anti jet lag" – kale, carrot, apple and pumpkin seeds – to "care" – strawberries, raspberries, peaches, soya milk, almonds and aloe vera. For food, there is a choice of around 20 dishes, such as pumpkin soup with marinated pumpkin and roasted seeds (13 Swiss francs; Dh51), mille-feuille of smoked halibut, pancakes, herb salad and tomato chutney (32 Swiss francs; Dh126) and pan-fried cod fillet with spicy pumpkin and potato mash and herb sauce (39 Swiss francs; Dh153). For a traditional Swiss fondue at altitude, try Chasalp, set in a collection of old farm buildings on Tobelhofstrasse (chaesalp.ch/welcome.html). One house fondue set with bread and potatoes costs 23 Swiss francs (Dh90) and is enough for two to share.
If like me you don't have the stamina for shopping in huge cities, you'll enjoy browsing the small shops of the old town which are relaxed and uncrowded. Most of the city's luxury stores and international brands are found along Bahnhofstrasse, which is very central and only about 1.5km long. The department stores Jelmoli (jelmoli.ch) and Globus (globus.ch) are historic and civilised, and offer personal shopping services. Avoid Sundays, as most shops are closed all day.
In Zurich West, there are hundreds of one-off shops and studios selling items including furniture, jewellery, clothing and art. One of the most famous Swiss brands is the bag manufacturer Freitag (freitag.ch), which makes items from recycled tarpaulins. Its shop is set in a container yard which backs on to Frau Gerolds Garten (fraugerold.ch), a pleasant cluster of small shops and cafes.
What to avoid
The Kunsthaus, or Museum of Fine Arts (kunsthaus.ch), has a good collection of art from the Middle Ages through to the present day, but there is no English explanation to the exhibits and the building is dreary. If you want world-class art brilliantly presented, go to Vienna.
The lake. On a clear day the view of the mountains is exquisite, with no hiking required.
Swiss (swiss.com) flies direct from Dubai to Zurich in seven hours. Return economy-class fares cost from Dh2,475 and business-class fares from Dh11,895, both including taxes.