We debunk the myth that Zurich is a poor man’s Berlin.
Zurich is one of the travel industry’s greatest paradoxes: a vibrant, beautiful city break destination that many regard (without actually visiting) as incredibly boring. And so while Barcelona, Paris and Amsterdam are all bucket list destinations, Zurich is usually relegated to a last resort option, a city apparently so full of bankers, clocks and chocolate shops that you cannot move.
However, I can assure you that this prosaic image Zurich commands is totally unfair, for Zurich has enough bars, restaurants and cultural attractions to keep anyone happy. Moreover, the so called industrial quarter outside the centre has become a magnate in recent years for nightclub owners, who have wasted no time in turning former warehouses and factories into massive dance clubs and some more risqué venues exist, in case you were wondering.
Yet, the beauty of Zurich is that it can be sedate or edgy, depending on where you go, what you are after and who you are with. But trust me, night owls are well catered for, as are culture vultures and outdoor pursuits fanatics.
As for high-class accommodation, again, you are really spoilt for choice. We spent our first night at The Widder hotel in central Zurich, which truly is a five-star hotel in every sense of the word. Not only is the service impeccable in an extremely modest, friendly and subtle way but each of the Widder’s rooms tells a story, rich in history and intrigue.
This boutique hotel is a collection of nine former townhouses that date back over 700 years that have been lovingly and painstakingly restored to their former glory, albeit with beautiful modern and stylish interiors. Add into the mix a central location and excellent facilities and you have all the ingredients for an enduring love affair.
“You have all the ingredients for an enduring love affair”
Actually, boutique is probably an insult to the hotel, hamlet would be a better description. The Widder has a mere 35 rooms and 14 suites – no two rooms are alike and all are decorated and furnished to the highest degree.
The ethos at the Widder is never, ever cut corners, especially not on guest rooms, service and amenities. Chairs and beds by Le Corbusier, works of art, Bang and Olufsen stereos in each room, wood and stone seamlessly integrated with a host of modern amenities, they make it look so easy. The individual design and extremely private nature of each room, not to mention the artworks that adorn the hotel’s public rooms, make you feel like a guest in an opulent home rather than a hotel.
Which is precisely how the hotel management want you to feel, nothing is too much trouble here but staff are friendly, courteous and relaxed as opposed to formal, stuffy and/or obsequious depending on who you are. Moreover, the hotel benefits from a near-perfect location, nestled in the heart of medieval Zurich, surrounded by classic Swiss townhouses and scores of groovy boutiques.
As it happened, I was not really in the mood for shopping that weekend, but in Zurich that is no problem because there is a host of other things to do. The city’s compact old town is a delight simply to stroll around and take a coffee, although the main shopping avenue Bahnhofstrasse is just a few minutes’ walk if you have a craving for designer goods.
If the sun shines then I would recommend a boat trip on the lake, boats leave regularly from the dock at the Mythenquai, and for around £10 a head you can enjoy a leisurely boat trip. Lake Zurich is truly stunning in the late afternoon sun, snow-capped mountains in the distance seemed so stereotypically Swiss but enchanting nonetheless.
Dinner was at the hotel’s excellent gourmet restaurant, an intimate and quiet space that serves such delicacies as lemon sole paired with Risina, artichoke and chorizo, and dry aged beef fillet accompanied by exquisite chanterelles and a date and wine reduction. The service was similarly spot-on, as you would expect at the Widder and the wine matching was also particularly well thought out; the glass of Krug to start was a lovely touch.
Afterwards, we imbibed several excellent bespoke cocktails at the Widder’s incredible jazz bar. And as bars go, this one’s pretty damn special: there are over 500 types of drink available, including one of the biggest whiskey collections in the world, a beautiful lounge area, live music and dangerously friendly and talented staff. Their head barman Dirk Hany is always winning awards for his cocktail making, so even if you do not stay at the Widder you must try at least one of his Manhattans. The atmosphere will entice you to stay for more.
The following morning, we departed for our second destination, The Dolder Grand, Zurich’s most famous address. It stands in complete juxtaposition to The Widder – The Dolder is large, majestic and commanding, a historic hotel (dating back to 1899) with a large spa complex adjoining the main building. In contrast the Widder is personal, bijou and bespoke. And so rather than competing, they complement each other perfectly.
After a quick and painless check-in, we proceeded to our room, located in the newer wing of the hotel that was reopened in 2008 after a four-year renovation project, spearheaded by London architects Foster and Partners.
Only a total cynic could fail to be impressed by the views afforded by our spacious bedroom, complete with an insanely comfortable king-sized bed and strong minimalist overtones. Facing lake Zurich and its majestic surrounding peaks, it is truly awe-inspiring. An apology for the cliché, but no adjective really does the vista justice. It is something you have to appreciate first-hand.
In total, The Dolder boasts 175 bedrooms and suites, complemented by a deluxe spa and gym, a 2-Michelin star restaurant, a stylish lobby bar, the more informal Saltz restaurant and basement Dolder bar/lounge. Dating back to the 19th century, the hotel’s main buildings have been completely updated and modernised to the highest standards, including over 100 striking pieces of artwork, the standout piece being Andy Warhol’s Big Retrospective Painting, which spans 11 metres and stands proudly above the reception desk.
And so The Dolder’s grandiose public spaces, complete with high ceilings and no more than a whisper from its inhabitants lend it a distinctly Agatha Christie air. The atmosphere was one of tranquil elegance – ideal for those with high blood pressure.
“An apology for the cliché, but no adjective really does the vista justice”
Dinner that evening was at the newly opened Saltz restaurant, Dolder’s less formal offering to the culinary world. The décor is strikingly modern, materials such as salt, rock and felt are used in the interior, combined with a blue, red and grey colour scheme. There is even a 500kg rock from the Swiss Alps that hangs from the ceiling on a red climbing rope.
However, all this pizazz could not distract from substandard food, but I am happy to report that Saltz does not just get by on aesthetics alone. The dishes on offer are eclectic mix of fusion cuisine and classical choices such as steaks, salt-baked seabass, saffron ravioli and slow-cooked black cod with miso and pak choi.
Feeling carnivorous, we went for rib-eye steaks, which were both excellent, rightly heavily seasoned and accompanied by a moreish selection of triple cooked chips and green beans sautéed in olive oil, rosemary and thyme. The restaurant’s wine list is also suitably extensive, over 200 different wines are up for grabs, including both the grand and relatively affordable.
The following morning called for an intense workout to offset the guilt of yesterday’s indulgences. Then came the real reason I had travelled to The Dolder – a leisurely day at the much-lauded spa. It is simply one of Europe’s finest, both in terms of the amenities on offer and the level of service from its very professional staff.
It boasts a generously sized indoor pool, indoor whirlpool, steam bath and relaxation area, in addition to a separate ladies and gentlemen’s spa zone, with a panoply of options that include aroma pools, Kotatsu footbaths and saunas. But the star attraction is the open-air heated whirlpool, where I spent many hours lazing on bubbling waterbeds gazing at Lake Zurich. I have been privileged to visit many spas over the years, but I cannot imagine many finer than the one housed at The Dolder.
As you would expect, the spa offers its guests a plethora of treatments, I settled for a heavenly Swedish massage, using massage oil made from local Alpine plants. Laid on my front, enjoying my masseur’s hands was so relaxing and pleasurable, that I almost fell asleep through the treatment!
And here lies The Dolder’s biggest strength; it is simply the most perfect hotel for guests in desperate need of rest, exercise and rejuvenation.
Of course, both The Dolder and Zurich are not for everyone: the city admittedly cannot compete with Berlin or Madrid on the nightlife front, and the cost of living is high.
But then, Zurich offers so much in return for a weekend visit, not least the relative lack of tourists compared to other European cities, and a very friendly, safe environment in which to relax, shop, eat and drink. There are plenty of other hectic and more crowded weekend destinations that can cater to the Stag and Hen Party set. I hope Zurich’s ethos never moves an inch.
The Widder Hotel
Rennweg 7, CH – 8001 Zurich,
The Dolder Grand
Kurhausstrasse 65, 8032, Zürich
Transfers to London Heathrow were supported by Great Western Railway – gwr.com
Singles are available for under £35 each way.
I flew with Swiss International Airlines to Zurich
SWISS offers up to 115 weekly flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich. Fares include all airport taxes: one piece hold luggage and free ski carriage (excluding Economy Light fare). Fares start from £71* one-way (Economy Light fare) and from £86* one-way (Economy Classic fare)
For reservations call 0345 990 9161 or visit: swiss.com