Travelling to Zurich, Switzerland

Go West to find the stylish side of Zurich, Switzerland's largest city.

Credit: Martin Rütschi

The Freitag Shop will soon be the tallest
in Zurich, Switzerland.

When you’re travelling to Switzerland, it pays to go beyond the good looks 
of old-town Zurich

Zigzagging around a turreted old-town area that feels like a film-set version of a medieval hamlet, I’ve fallen for Zurich faster than a cuckoo clock marks the hours. 
But while Switzerland’s largest city also offers crenellated Alpine vistas, charming trundling trams and a dangerous surfeit of chocolate shops, I can’t help feeling there must be more to this place than well-preserved good looks. 

Fortunately, the other side of the tracks isn’t far away. Zurich West – a former industrial quarter where everything from boats to beer was once busily manufactured – has abandoned its gritty past to become the city’s new cool-ville. And while not every derelict factory is now a swanky bar, the presence of young, Macbook-wielding locals echoes Vancouver’s hipster-hugging SoMa area.

I start my rainy, late-afternoon exploration with some chin-stroking contemplation at the Museum of Design, a repurposed concrete block where silent student types are milling around looking intense. There’s a fascinating branding exhibit here showing how Swiss products are marketed globally: the owners of Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate, for example, dropped the Sprüngli moniker overseas because it’s too hard for lazy foreigners to pronounce.

WEATHER Showery. Springtime Zurich averages 10 degrees Celsius but umbrellas are handy on most days.

CAN’T MISS Lake Zurich. Hang with the locals here on sunny days or take a boat trip from Burkliplatz.

BEST BED Quiet and relaxed, Hotel Engimatt is a mid-range business hotel on the No. 13 tram route.

COOL EATS Puls 5’s Gnüsserei is a stylish gourmet restaurant that serves some regional dishes and intriguing Swiss wines.

An under-construction highway overpass here acts like the old town’s Limmat River as a handy navigational tool. Keeping it in view, I duck into cavernous former factories such as Schiffbau and Puls 5, now colonized by restaurants and theatres; peer at a half-built, 126-metre glass tower that will be Zurich’s tallest when it’s eventually finished; and peruse a string of yet-to-open indie shops being socked into the arches of a lofty railway viaduct. There’s also some admirable graffiti, including a creepy Nosferatu stencil that calls my camera from its bag.

But the best symbol of Zurich West’s post-industrial esthetic lies just around the corner. Occupying a narrow stack of 17 rusty-looking shipping containers artfully meshed together with a steel staircase, the Freitag store is a mecca for global coolsters. Launched in 1993 by two graphic-designer brothers, the company hand-makes messenger bags from recycled truck tarps. Waterproof and virtually indestructible, they’re also achingly hip; if you stroll Main Street with one of these, salivating locals will follow you for miles.

Since my coolness quotient is routinely compromised by budgetary realities, I resist the urge to splash $250 on a bag – although I briefly examine one to see if a laptop might fit inside without crushing my chocolate stash. Instead, I hike to the store’s top floor for a panoramic cityscape view from the windswept deck. Despite growing gentrification, Zurich West is still in transition, and I spot several crumbling factory plots waiting patiently for their industrial-chic makeover.

Back at ground level, it’s a short stroll to a former soap factory that’s now home to a large cinema, several trendy eateries and a modish brew pub called Steinfels. Sliding into a ’60s-style easy chair under a tangerine-hued lampshade, I sip on a hoppy house lager and peruse a candlelit scene of pixie-cute young women and their studious-looking 20-something boyfriends. With heavy nighttime rain now lashing the windows, it looks like the perfect spot to carefully taste test the entire drinks list.