Cheap summer fun in Zurich

This weekend we grabbed our perpetually-packed suitcases and headed to Zurich to visit friends. The weather was what most people call “gorgeous”, and we made the most of it by spending time in and around the lake (and on the roof deck).

Lake Zurich is the part of Zurich I miss most, especially during the summer. The view is unbeatable (Zurich’s charming skyline in one direction, snow-capped Alps in the other), and the water is so clean and clear it begs you to get in and swim around. The lake is surrounded by badis, areas where one can swim, sun, drink crappy beer, etc. for around a CHF 6 entrance fee. But if that’s too steep for you (and you can live without a changing room), you can also just jump into the lake for free in many areas.

And if you’re looking for more free fun in this ridiculously expensive city, this summer you can wander around admiring its latest city art display: painted plant pots. In the same spirit that brought cows to Chicago* and Mr. Potato Heads to Providence, Zurich has decided that this year, giant pots were the way to go. At first I didn’t like them very much, but they grew on me over the course of the weekend. I think the penguin one was my favorite.**

And now, after five back-to-back trips, I think I’ll stay home for awhile. I’ve been missing Munich.

* Actually Zurich did the cows before Chicago did. Zurich also did teddy bears a few years back.
** Notice how all the penguins are wearing suits, except for one with a mohawk and a t-shirt that says “Lech mich”.

Toasting Obama in Zurich

I’m a little behind on my travel blogging here… the day after the election I crawled out of bed and hopped on a train to Zurich. It’s always a treat to see my Zurich-based friends, but this particular trip was even more joyful than usual. The election results had us all in a fabulous mood. Heck, even the roasted chestnut sellers were excited.

Zurich itself seemed largely unchanged. The city felt clean and safe and was bustling with shoppers. The usually crazies were out: Alle Tot guy and the Scientologists. It was as if I had never left.

Notice the tent to the left in the top photo? That’s Zurich’s version of Oktoberfest, going on now. Although we are familiar with the tent from past years, this was the first time it registered what beer was being served inside – Feldschlossen. What’s the point of a beer festival with undrinkable beer? But it wasn’t all bad – across the way floated the wine boats, which host Zurich’s regular wine tasting extravaganzas. Those brought back fond memories.

Although I don’t think back on Zurich and remember it for its culinary greatness, we were able to think of plenty of things we wanted to eat this trip. Mostly it involved chocolate and melted cheese. The trip also involved an obligatory dinner at Hiltl, my favorite restaurant in Zurich. Insanely delicious as usual.

It has been a year since we moved away from Zurich. Three years since we left Milan. Over four years since packing up and saying goodbye to New York. One of the cool things about moving so often is getting to go back to our former hometowns and walk around like we own the place. Get off the train or the plane and know exactly where we’re going and how we’re getting there. I definitely enjoyed that feeling on this trip to Zurich. I wonder how long before all this stored city knowledge wears off.

Not going home to Zurich

After over a month of sleeping in my own bed (for a change), it was time to move around a little bit. So last week I hopped on a train and headed back to Zurich for a quick visit.

It’s always strange to go back to a former home city for the first time. It’s like talking to a former boyfriend you haven’t seen since the break-up. There’s so much familiarity, but you know your relationship as you knew it was over. You’re not sure how it will play out from here. Shut up, I never said I was good at metaphors.

Zurich is more familiar than Munich, but I don’t live there any more. I’m also not Swiss, and I’m not from Zurich, so what is our relationship? Do we mean anything at all to each other now? Am I just a tourist when I go there now?

Despite my best efforts to temporarily un-degrüezi-fy my vocabulary, I seemed to be tossing around “Gruβ Gott!” left and right. I’m tempted to drop all regional greetings from my vocabulary entirely and reverting to the textbook “Guten Tag” no matter where I am…

Naturally I fit in a trip to Sprüngli to pick up some Valentine’s Day truffles for my husband (hey, I’m a good wife), but the highlight of the trip was definitely seeing my Zurich-based friends. I miss them!

Definitive proof of Bavaria’s culinary dominance over Zurich

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you… the cheesy pretzel.

First, Zurich’s version:

A dry, almost stale pretzel which has been sliced opened, buttered, and filled with a couple of cold slices of cheese (which, as you’ll notice, are nowhere near pretzel-shaped, leaving one with many bites that include only cheese or buttered cheese).

And now the Bavarian version:

A giant, fresh pretzel with… you’ll never believe this was possible… cheese MELTED ON TOP OF IT! All I can say is yum yum yum yum yum yum yum. I know what I’ll be living off of for the next year.

You might also notice that this Bavarian giant cheesy pretzel costs less than the regular-sized Swiss cheesy pretzel, proving that this amazing technology isn’t even cost-prohibitive. I’m considering offering a scholarship to some Swiss bakers to come up here and study the top-secret cheesy pretzel methods of the Bavarians. Any takers?

Posted from Munich.

Me and the chocolate factory

After two years here, I finally made it to the Lindt & Sprüngli chocolate factory in Kilchberg, just outside of Zurich. You can’t actually go inside the factory (which may or may not be run by Oompa Loompas), but you can (1) walk by it and breathe in its insanely chocolaty smells, and (2) visit the factory outlet chocolate shop.

30 minutes later, and all my Christmas shopping was done.

The factory shop has limited opening hours, so check the schedule before you go. To get there, take bus 165 from Bürkliplatz to the Schooren stop, about 10 minutes away. The bus runs as infrequently as every half hour during the day; check out for specific schedule info.

Posted from Thalwil.

And you thought the White Man’s Overbite was an American thing

As it turns out, the Swiss are pretty good at it, too.

So tonight we went to a Wir Sind Helden concert. Now don’t get me wrong – Wir Sind Helden is definitely one of my all-time favorite German-singing bands. Right up there with Xavier Naidoo and the late great Falco. But I’m not such a fan of standing in a smoke-filled crowded room listening to really loud live music while drinking 7-franc Miller Genuine Draft (an atrocity which I’m sure would never happen in Germany, but the Swiss’ taste in beer is a story for another post). At least I had the good sense to hit up the coat check counter at the beginning of the encore, thus saving us an hour-long wait…

Mmmm…. winter

When we weren’t pulling our hair out trying to plan travel this weekend, we were off enjoying some lovely winter-like activities. Zurich is a fabulous place to be in the winter, assuming you like, um, winter. I am sorry we will be leaving before the real winter starts, but at least we are getting a little tease now.

Fondue season was declared officially open on Saturday. I think raclette season is right around the corner. Sure we’ll be bringing our fondue pot and raclette grill with us to our next home, but what if these treats don’t taste as good when you’re not physically located in Switzerland? Best to eat as much melted cheese as physically possible while we’re still in the country, just to be safe.

On Sunday morning we woke up early and went ice skating at Dolder. Environmentalists are unhappy with the fact that Zurich’s outdoor rinks have opened despite unseasonably warm weather, since it’s awfully inefficient to make all that ice. But if Al Gore can travel by private jet, I certainly get to take a little spin around the ice every once in a while. It was glorious. The rink was pretty deserted for a weekend, with the exception of some intense curling (matches? games?) going on in a roped-off section of ice. Given that it was before noon, we resisted the Gluehwein on offer in the snack bar, but it was tempting…

The wintery weekend was topped off with some roasted chestnuts. Now I’m just crossing my fingers that Coop will start selling Zimtsterne before we move away. Sometimes it doesn’t take very much at all to make me happy.

So you want to move to Zurich? Have I got some tips for you

Midsummer Night’s Knitter asked me a while ago if I had any advice for someone moving to Zurich. While I certainly don’t feel like an expert on the subject, I suppose I might have some useful things to suggest after 2 years here. At least I should, shouldn’t I? I mean, it would be pretty pathetic if I had spent all this time here and not learned anything useful. So here’s what I came up with:

Read Living and Working in Switzerland: A Survival Handbook. It has its faults (like how it perpetuates scary myths about Swiss apartment house rules) but overall it’s pretty useful info to help you feel more prepared.

If you plan on exploring Switzerland by train (which I highly recommend), consider getting a GA card. This is something I wish we had done, but we didn’t consider it soon enough. It’s an investment, but it pays for itself if you’re a frequent traveler. Plus the money goes to a good cause (Swiss public transportation counts as a good cause in my book – I love it so much I once wrote a poem about it). Plus no buying tickets. Plus when you know the trip is already paid for, you’re more likely to jump off the couch and go get to know a new city or Alp on any given day. If you don’t get a GA, definitely get a half-fare card. These things pay for themselves with one or two trips.

Random grocery advice: sign up for a Migros card right away (they send you coupons for free money!); get outside the big chain supermarkets some and shop at the outdoor markets, your local Reformhaus, and specialty shops such as Asian groceries and El Maiz.

Zurich things to see/do at least once: Street Parade, Sechseläuten, a movie on the lake, the Kunsthaus, the food basement at Globus (the cheese counter has cheddar), the Limmat Swim, the Uetliberg, the zoo, the Christkindli Markt, ice skating, swimming in the lake, a Laughing Lemon class, museum night, the Blinde Kuh, Expovina, an evening stroll down Langstrasse.

Things to see/do on day or weekend trips from Zurich: a cow parade, Murren, Fribourg, Lucerne, Bern, sledding, skiing, Basel, Art Basel, the Matterhorn, Bellinzona, Lugano, Rapperswil, Milan, Strasbourg, Colmar.

Jugendstil, Qi-Gong, and the world’s worst muffin

On Saturday night, Zurich’s museums opened their doors for the Lange Nacht der Museen, an annual affair that involves late-night openings and special events all over the city (with, of course, extremely efficient all-night public transportation connecting it all). We visited an impressive eight museums (out of 40) over the course of the evening, definitely getting our money’s worth out of the CHF 25 admission fee.

We started out at the Museum Rietberg, where we took in some Asian sculpture. Then it was across town to the Botanical Garden, which lured us in with its Slow Food exhibit. Given that we were hungry for actual food, we kind of hurried through the exhibit (stopping to sample many varieties of tomatoes at one display on the way) and headed to our next stop, the Museum Bellerive. In addition to a lovely Jugendstil exhibit inside, the courtyard of the museum was turned into a Bavarian beer garden for the evening. We filled up on pretzels, salads, sausages, and beer, took a quick spin around the inside of the museum, and then wandered towards the Chinagarten. A gift from one of Zurich’s sister cities, the Chinagarten is a lovely little oasis hidden behind a big brick wall. There we watched some martial arts demonstrations before moving on yet again.

Next up was the Johann Jacobs Museum, a tiny place where you can learn all about coffee. Well, a little about coffee. A short tram ride later and we were at the Mühlerama, a popular destination featuring a (disappointing) chocolate fountain, baked goods, and an exhibition about fat in all its incarnations. After reading about America’s contribution to the fat world (olestra, which according to the display causes one to lose control over a certain vital bodily function) and daring each other to go listen to what the beer belly had to say, we decided we’d had enough fat education for one evening.

Next it was on to the NONAM, or Native American museum (who knew Zurich had such a thing?), which I will now always remember for (1) the hideously acted old western film they were showing in the courtyard, and (2) the hideous-tasting pumpkin muffin that we made the mistake of purchasing there. The evening’s grand finale (for us, anyway) took place at the Kunsthaus, Zurich’s main art museum. We took in the current exhibit and checked out the tragically hip disco before yawning our way home to bed. Zurich’s museum night gets my full endorsement – fun stuff!

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