Zurich: Visiting museums in the rain

The Grossmunster towers over the river

We’d hoped to see Zurich draped in snow, looking romantic and seasonal, during a January city break but a warm winter at home and abroad meant we were destined to be disappointed.

When we arrived on the first day of the new year, it was dark, damp and mild, with not a flake of snow in sight. The early evening flight from London City Airport was uneventful, the welcome at the Hotel Europe warm and friendly. Our base was handy too, just a few minutes from Stadelhofen station and the direct S16 train to the airport. Part of a grand mansion, the hotel has chandeliers, high ceilings and Victorian style, with a French brasserie and 4-star comfort. We dumped our bags, went out into the old town and found ourselves in an eerily silent city. Perhaps the locals were too busy nursing hangovers to be out and about on New Year’s Day…

The Opera House
The Opera House

Niederdorfstrasse and Munsterstrasse are the main drags through the old town’s right bank – cobbled, pedestrianised, narrow. The area reminded me of Salzburg. The shops were closed but the window displays were more than smart, stuffed with the sort of luxury goods that I fully expected to see in this moneyed city. Amid the galleries, florists and homeware stores were shops selling Swiss staples such as chocolate and watches.

The district is known for its bars and restaurants but while some were closed, others were difficult to judge. For some bizarre reason I have a mortal fear of going into a place if I can’t see through the windows, and the area had a good few of those.

Zurich old town across the River Limmat
Zurich old town across the River Limmat

We landed at Carazon, a spacious bar with good beer and a crowd that grew as the evening wore on. Stuffed from our British Airways in-flight meal, we opted for cheese, ham and olives as a light alternative.

We slept late, both of us struggling with minor colds, ate a light continental breakfast and began our day of exploring in a light drizzle. Mist hung low over the hills and sapped colour from the city. Few people were about but Lake Zurich was alive with gulls and swans.

We crossed the Limmat River to the western half of the old town, just as hilly and just as charming as the right bank with its narrow streets and luxury boutiques. We couldn’t miss the impressive church spires and the towers of the cathedral, the Grossmunster, that so dominate this part of Zurich. Water spouted from an endless number of fountains, some small, some grand.

The old town
The old town

The Bahnhofstrasse – the city’s famous main shopping street – went from designer stores to global chains and we could’ve been in any number of cities. Bloody Starbucks had branches everywhere.

We stopped at the Swiss National Museum, housed in a confection that mixes castle and country house, but that was also something of a building site. The museum tells the story of the nation from its earliest days through to the 21st century confederation and financial powerhouse. As with any such museum, some of it is incredibly dull and incomprehensible but parts are fascinating. It’s modern and there’s plenty of information in English.

This wheel in the museum showcases many things Switzerland is famous for
This wheel in the museum showcases many things Switzerland is famous for

So in between the tedious religious art, the stories of people we’d never heard of and endless documents, there were some interesting bits to explore: a display of handsome watches, historic photos of the land and its people, stories of Switzerland’s dubious neutrality in World War Two, some fine glass and silver and the story of how the nation came to be.

But the best part for us was the collection of historic rooms transplanted from buildings in and around Zurich, dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. That was followed by displays of furniture reflecting design through the centuries, including some stylish mid-20th century pieces.

It was raining heavily when we emerged into daylight and the city was a lot busier, but our options in the weather were limited. So we stopped for a beer and then plumped for a visit to the Tram Museum, jumping on modern tram 11 for the short trip out to the historic depot at Burgweis. Our journey became mildly diverting thanks to a topless man with his arse hanging out, searching on board for the remainder of his clothes. And you don’t see that too often.

An historic tram
An historic tram

The museum was pretty basic, very much for the enthusiast and with all the documentation in German, so it was tough learning anything about the exhibits. But the oldest of the trams dated from the late 19th century and many of them had been restored very well indeed. We climbed in and out of the coaches, admired the workmanship and listened to kids clanging bells endlessly on the model trams. If nothing else, it passed an hour…

We ended up at a bar near our hotel, The Studio, where we drank beer and listened to the NRJ Radio DJ, whose studio in the bar/cafe obviously gave the place its name.

In the evening we ate at Le Dézaley, a busy restaurant in the old town famous for its Vaudoise style of cooking and fondues. The smell of boiling cheese and stale feet hung in the air, a smell that would’ve made me gag if I’d been suffering from a hangover. But we persevered and I had a very tasty veal cordon bleu while Graham opted for Swiss sausage. The place was packed with locals, ex-pats, tourists and drunks.

We stopped off at a dreadfully chavvy bar called Double U but left promptly after one beer and landed at the much trendier Henrici, where the folk were handsome and the beer excellent. Perfect…