Shrugging off its reputation as a boring capital of finance and fondue, Zurich is actually—gasp!—becoming cool with plenty of things to see and do. In Zurich-West, the former no-go industrial area of District 5 is now the epicentre for everything trendy in the city, with a food hall, hip boutiques, and a cutting-edge gallery scene. Public art is everywhere, popping up in parks, beneath train tracks, and even along the pricey shopping thoroughfare Bahnhofstrasse. And while Zurich will never be cheap, there are plenty of ways to save your Swiss Francs, from free bike rentals to gratis galleries to wallet-friendly sausages.
Tucked beneath the brick arches of a century-old railway viaduct in Zurich-West’s redeveloped District 5, Im Viadukt is packed with cool restaurants, cafes and shops. At its heart is the indoor market, where around 20 vendors sell everything from produce to pasta to pastries, and of course, a huge variety of Swiss cheese. Much of what you’ll find here is sourced in Switzerland, and it’s easy to assemble a hyper-local picnic lunch. Get some sliced meat or charcuterie at Südhang miniMetzg, specialty cheese at Tritt-Käse, freshly baked bread at St. Jakob Beck and a bottle of reasonably priced wine at Südhang. If you want a ready-made meal, St. Jakob Beck has excellent sandwiches and The Pie Shop offers traditional English-style pies (meat, veg and sweet) to go, plus homemade sausage rolls on Friday and Saturday.
Retro signs, vintage bikes, quirky curios, and a foosball table create an eclectic backdrop for excellent moules et frites at nearby Les Halles. This casual bar/restaurant inside a former industrial warehouse is a local favourite, not only because of its laid back atmosphere but also thanks to its palatable prices. A small mussels and fries runs you 23CHF, a large 29CHF (about 22€ and 27€, respectively) and a glass of beer or wine is around 6CHF (5.60€). Note that there’s no table service; order and pay for your food and drinks at the counter and wait for them to be delivered.
Day or night, there’s always a queue at Sternen Grill, a Zurich institution located near the city’s theater district. It’s justly famous for its bratwurst—snappy on the outside and juicy on the inside—served on a crusty roll and topped with its own brand of fiery, sinus-clearing mustard. Add to your hearty snack a side of crispy fries or zippy, mustardy potato salad. There’s a full, seated restaurant one floor up with lake views, but you’ll pay almost twice as much for the privilege. Most take their sausage to go, enjoying it al fresco on a bench at Sechseläutenplatz, a picturesque square dominated by the grand neo-classical Zurich Opera House.
The quickest way to explore Zurich on a city break is on two wheels and fortunately, bikes are free to rent in the city. All you need is a valid ID and a deposit of 20CHF; rent them at the Velostation at main train station at Europaplatz year-round, or at three other locations in the city from May to October. Bike lanes are well marked, though be aware that the city is slightly hilly and there are lots of cobblestones in the Old Town.
A whopping 1,300 works of public art dot the city—from historic frescoes by Giacometti to contemporary pieces by emerging artists—and all of them are free to see, so get pedaling! One of the most famous is Jean Tinguely’s 1967 sculpture “Heureka,” set in Zürichhorn park on the scenic banks of Lake Zurich. The large kinetic sculpture, an assemblage of scrap metal, pipes, tubes, wheels, and electric motors, still functions, running three times daily from April to October.
Along the downtown’s bustling Bahnhofstrasse, Julian Opie’s giant, 164-square-foot LED artwork of people walking echoes the real-life shoppers on the pavement below. Look for it on the facade of the fancy PKZ Women flagship, at Bahnhofstrasse 88. Nearby, walk in, under and around the 63 polished granite blocks that form “Pavillon-Skulptur,” created by one of Switzerland’s top artists, Max Bill.
Cross the river to Zurich-West and head to Hardaupark, where you’ll easily spot the towering, 50-foot-high “Y” sculpture by Kosovo artist Sislej Xhafa. Resembling a slingshot, the sculpture functions as a huge swing and is a favorite of neighbourhood children and, naturally, Instagrammers.
Zurich West’s District 5 is chock-full of contemporary art, both outdoors and in. Installed beneath the overpass on Escher-Wyss-Platz is an homage to the area’s industrial past: “Towers,” by the Cuban artist duo Los Carpinteros, is two monumental red-brick sculptures fashioned in the shape of drill bits. A short walk away is the art hub Löwenbräukunst, a repurposed Löwenbräu factory that’s home to seven galleries—including leading international gallery Hauser & Wirth—and two of the city’s top contemporary art museums: Kunsthalle Zürich and the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art. Visiting the galleries is free, and while the museums have entry fees, both offer free admission on Thursdays from 5 p.m.–8 p.m.
Nearby are more world-class galleries, including Galerie Eva Presenhuber, which represents the likes of Doug Aitken and Trisha Donnelly, and Galerie Peter Kilchmann, which has mounted exhibitions by Francis Alÿs.
Not only does the area have a great art scene, it’s also home to some excellent indie shopping. Under the brick arches of Im Viadukt are dozens of fashionable boutiques, including the concept store BIG Mode Werkstat, which presents up-and-coming designers; BrankoB, stocking upscale international menswear brands; erfolg for organic, sustainable T-shirts and knitwear, and vintage treasures at Caritas Secondhand. Nearby, you can’t miss the FREITAG flagship—set inside a stack of 19 shipping containers rising 85 feet. Here you’ll find four floors of merch, including hundreds of colors and styles of the brand’s cult messenger bag.
Set in the trendy district of the same name, 25hours Hotel Zürich West fits right in with its artsy, creative surroundings. Inside the glassy new-build hotel you’ll find riotously colourful interiors punctuated with groovy tubular light installations, quirky artwork and bright contemporary furnishings. The lobby restaurant, Ribelli, serves up excellent Middle Eastern cuisine and amenities include a sauna with panoramic city views. It’s also free to hire the hotel-branded Mini car (upon availability). You’re 10 minutes by foot to Im Viadukt, in the heart of the industrial district. Just out front, Tram 4 gets you close to Hardbrücke train station in less than 10 minutes where there are links to the airport and the city centre.