Flying into Zürich through an early autumn sunrise is a bedeviling encounter. The sun throws a long flame through the terraced clouds. The atmosphere above the city is brilliant as a persimmon–charged with violent orange light. A tall plume of steam rising from a power plant stands watch like a burning sentinel. Yet when you break through the cloud cover, the ground below is serene and ordered–genteel ranks of trees, well-kept greens, and the tunneling banks of fog that line the floors of small valleys and ravines.
Despite the dramatic descent into Zürich, the most striking aspect of the city is its humble scale and lack of ostentation. The trains, trams, and buses run with clockwork regularity, but no excess of agitation–there are no bustling crowds or speeding trains to obstruct the wandering of a curious guest to the city. The combination of rampant new construction with stately old homes can seem almost Eastern European at times, as can the appearance of stands of fruit trees. On the quieter side streets of Zurich it’s not rare to find quince, apple, and even fig trees overspilling the fences of someone’s home.
Swiss food gets a bad rap in America, as does much of central and eastern European food. But as with all conceptions (mis and pre), these things can always stand a little added scrutiny. Of course the idea of pots of melted cheese and doughy dumplings can seem unappetizing from a distance, but there is an elevating effect to eating things where they are done best and first.
And best and first of all in Switzerland are the cheeses. Coming from America, where even the best-stocked cheese sellers tend to carry only hard, “mountain-style,” Swiss cheeses, the cheese case at Tritt Käse (located in an old viaduct that now houses food courts and retail spaces) is an unexpected spectacle–filled with crumbling mold-shot goat cheeses, ripe and pliable raw milk cheeses, and even the expected Gruyère, Appenzeller, and Emmentaler–though even these come in rare variations, aged to extreme degrees, or made to exacting specifications.
And while you’re in the Viadukt (the space is called, simply “Im Viadukt”), don’t miss Südhang, a wine store with a tidy selection of Swiss wines and a smart collection of European wines. The perfect place for us to pick out a pinot noir from LüthiWeinbau (AOC Zürichsee–something you don’t really see in the US very often), and an “assemblage blanc” made from Riesling, Sylvaner, Solaris, and Chardonnay. And wine and cheese tend to be priced a little more gently than a lot of things in Zürich, so make sure to indulge abundantly.
The restaurant scene, however, though burgeoning and increasingly varied, can be intimidatingly expensive for tourists not accustomed to the high cost of living in Zürich. Still, I’d recommend trying at least a couple of the newer restaurants that are trying to shake things up in the city–two of my favourites were Italia, which prides itself on its refined versions of regional Italian food, and Vereinigung, which serves well-made traditional Swiss dishes in a cozy inn setting. There are several more, too, which just a little online research will yield up. And if you find your wallet a little deflated from too much fine dining, take heart: a wurst und bürli is never too far away!
And while it’s true that you don’t see the same crowded abundance of great food just by walking around Zürich as you might in some cities, it’s the little, rare treats, that can make the hunt worthwhile. The farmers’ markets are worth a stroll, especially in late summer, when they’re filled with the last of the tomatoes and prune plums (or Zwetschgen, in German) as well as the first squashes and apples of the fall.
In its own, quiet way, Zürich can be quite provident for a resourceful traveller. One of the things I’ll probably miss most about the city are the home-cooked meals we had there. From our rather elaborate Tiffin Club dinner, with beautiful local egli, foraged red oxalis and mint, and fragrant porcini mushrooms–to our simple breakfasts of cheese, bread, and motley accoutrements, merely assembled at home, but emblematic of the things that the Swiss do so well. Waking up to a fresh, homemade cappuccino, a handsome board of swiss cheeses, homemade preserves, and an impressive wedge of Zopf–a challah-like Swiss bread that should be required eating for anyone visiting the country: one could certainly do worse.
And when you’ve had your fill of eating, there’s always something going on–perhaps a tasting of biodynamic wines from the excellent Maison Libre at a local community center, or a visit to the flea markets and thrift stores. Or, at day’s end, tired from walking, you can join the small groups assembled along the Limmat to watch the sky turn red with the sunset. Or, if you feel like it, you can jump in for a swim–the water is clear and swift and there’s no better way to build up an appetite for dinner.