Things to do in Zurich (If You Like Being Extremely Relaxed)

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From my bed at the 25hours Hotel Langstrasse, I watch the red-and-white cars of the Swiss national railway adjust their lines and slow on a topography of tracks, more than 20 wide, as they convey commuters into Zurich’s busy Hauptbahnhof station. In less than a minute, their passengers will disembark at the central station, exit hastily down its platforms, consult the ubiquitous Mondaine clocks and proceed promptly to work.

I, on the other hand, will roll over and tuck the cloudlike duvet around me. It’s Friday morning, the start of a lazy weekend in my adopted hometown. Today, Swiss time can wait.

September 2, 2020
25hours Hotel Langstrasse offers a colourful reading room for their guests
25hours Hotel Langstrasse.   Photo: Stephan Lemke

Downstairs I grab a coffee at the Cinchona Bar, a plant-strewn parlour where clusters of leather banquettes are divided by rattan screens. Bordering the city’s red-light district, this design hotel went up in 2017 and is a landmark in its changing neighbourhood. This is not the Zurich you think of, with its buildings out of a Grimm fairy tale and views of Lake Zurich and the Alps. The former industrial slum where 19th-century workers, brought in to assemble ship hulls and turbines, once lived, is now in the midst of a complete transformation and is the city’s buzziest district.

A relaxed and bohemian vibe at the Cinchona Bar
Cinchona Bar.   Photo: Stephan Lemke

At Cinchona Bar, trendy young people of the “agency and start-up” variety are working on their laptops, sipping coffees. I ask the waiter about the mural of pixelated tiles behind the bar.

“You see it better through your camera,” he winks.

When I view it through the camera on my phone, a very racy scene emerges. He tells me that’s the vibe of the ’hood: Business meets bawdy.

I laugh, just as a text comes in from my friend Andrew: “Wanna go for a float?”

A group of people lined up to swim along the Limmat River
Limmat River.   Photo: Zürich Tourism

I meet him twenty minutes later on the Kornhaus Bridge over the Limmat River, a sundress over my bathing suit. It’s hot, a heatwave, and the transparent green-blue water that flows from Lake Zurich beckons. From where we’re standing, we see people already placing their towels on the wooden lounge chairs of the west-bank Flussbad Oberer Letten, a stilted shelter where you can swim in the river, suntan, shower and change. I prefer that side. It’s more subdued.

On the opposite bank, the staff at two bars, Stazione Paradiso, in an old rail car, and Primitivo, in modular trailers, are unpacking lawn chairs and opening parasols to welcome the bronzed, hard-bodied youths who, by midday, will line the eastern platforms in a sea of skin and selfie sticks. It’s people-watching central, but we’re after something tamer, so we make our way north to where a set of stone steps leads to the water. We put our clothes and flip flops in a wassersack, the essential watertight bag that doubles as a flotation device, and step in, letting the current sweep us downstream.

The bustling night scene at bar Primitivo
Primitivo.   Photo: Anja Woischnig

The pull is strong, but the river shallow. We have only to be on the lookout for the odd swan and those pesky gangs of inflatable-boat enthusiasts. Called böötle, the practice consists of rounding up your friends and assembling the most outrageous flotilla possible. Huge rubber duckies, flamingos, unicorns, donuts with sprinkles and desert islands are just some of the vessels you’ll see tethered together, while their occupants crack beers from the coolers floating in tow. A few hours downstream, they’ll land in the city of Dietikon, depressurize and ride the train back.

We swimmers won’t go nearly as far. After a kilometre, we climb out under the weeping willows of Wipkinger Park, and sun ourselves dry before I twist my hair in a headscarf and we slip our clothes back on over our suits. We double back on foot, stopping only to pluck a few wild blackberries from the tangle of bushes along the riverbank.

The front entrance of Im Viadukt
Im Viadukt's garden terrace
Im Viadukt.   Photos: Nelly Rodriguez (left)
    Stella_Giger (right)

Ten minutes later, we arrive at the Im Viadukt. The 53 arches of this working railway bridge were converted in 2010 to restaurants and retail spaces. While bigger brands like Arc’Teryx and Nudie Jeans occupy locations, most of the shops are independents, focused on niche-label clothing and housewares. In the market hall, you can have Campari and fresh pasta at Restaurant Viadukt, sample craft ales and sharp cheddars at the British Cheese Centre or buy Swiss wines and spirits, such as the small-batch Turicum gin, from Berg und Tal.

We follow the Viadukt to its western edge, then take a right up Geroldstrasse, where bars are high in concentration – clubs like Hive and Supermarket that go all night, but also plenty of venues for day drinking. There’s Yonex Badminton Halle where the decor is Japanese, the music country and the theme badminton, played in 45-minute intervals in the back. There’s Frau Gerolds Garten, a humming open-air hangout, built of shipping containers and made lush with plants in recycled receptacles (bathtubs, wine crates, even old Converse high tops). In summer, Gerolds churns out Aperol spritzes by the gallon.

A woman enjoys a cocktail by bar lounge of Urban Surf while a man takes a wave at the surfing wave pool
Urban Surf.   Photo: Robert Hangartner

If there’s one spot where I can easily squander an afternoon, it’s Urban Surf. At this surfing wave pool surrounded by a bar, a few brave souls sign up to surf the curl, while everyone else settles into Fatboy bean bag chairs under umbrellas and sips the cold local Chopfab beer. It’s not long before Andrew and I become quite the armchair experts, groaning when our favourite surfers fall and analysing their form.

A crowded backyard terrace with trees interspersed at Summer Garte
Summer Garte.   Photo: Fabian Fretz

We are without watches, so some time later, I check the celestial clock and see that it’s starting to dip. We’re in the precarious position of being hungry, while still in our bathing suits and holding no dinner reservations. That’s okay. I know where to go. Zurich is full of summertime pop-up restaurants, so we head to nearby Summer Garte, located in the courtyard of the old armoury. It’s little more than a collection of folding tables and a utility trailer for a kitchen, but it serves up a phenomenal fish platter, the whole trout salt crusted and crisped to perfection, with sides of savoury couscous, fresh tomato salad and grilled rustic bread. It’s just the thing for a slow, hot summer night.

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