Wandering the cobbled streets of Old Zurich, lined with ninth-century buildings, it feels like I've been dropped into a fairy tale. I venture up stone stairways and enter walled courtyards plastered with pretty frescoes and ornate face carvings staring out from the stonework. Even the area's few chain stores are inside gorgeous monumental buildings. I hop on the clunking Polybahn, a historic funicular railway, to ascend from Central Square to the hilltop campus of ETH Zürich. It's the perfect vantage point to look out over the historic centre and snap a few photos.
Set on opposite sides of the Limmat River, Grossmünster and Fraumünster churches dominate the skyline and are essential stops when walking the Old Town. Dating to 1100, the ancient architecture of Grossmünster inspires silent awe, while Fraumünster—named for its location on the site of a medieval abbey—features several spectacular windows crafted by modern master Marc Chagall.
Along the banks of the Limmat, swans glide under bridges, locals sip beer on terraces and charming shops reveal just how expensive cuckoo clocks can be. I also spot plentiful places to kick back with a warm drink and some cake. The Swiss are exceptionally good at making sweet treats, and the boozy hot chocolate at the baroque, circa-1842 café Conditorei Schober is dreamy.
Dedicating a day to culture and history, I spend the morning at Kunsthaus Zürich, one of Europe's finest museums. With a collection spanning eight centuries, there are rooms filled with religious art from the Middle Ages—the gilding is so bright that it's hard to believe how old it is—and halls lined with modern works by Picasso, Matisse, Mondrian and Warhol. Over at Landesmuseum (a.k.a. the Swiss National Museum), I learn about everything from banking to watches to the many fascinating aspects of Swiss life, including traditional costume, religion and women's rights.
For a current take on Swiss culture, leave the Old Town and explore—an easy feat, thanks to the highly efficient tram system. In Zurich-West, the city's design district, the Museum of Design showcases industrial fabrication, visual communication, architecture and crafts. (There's a great gift shop selling cool posters and nifty objects.)
The district also houses Im Viadukt, a collection of indie boutiques, art spaces, restaurants and a farmers' market, all contained under 36 historic railway arches. Nearby Frau Gerolds Garten is a community garden surrounded by bars and cafés. And atop Prime Tower—Zurich's tallest building at 126 metres—grab a table at Clouds restaurant for coffee and incredible views of the city.
For nightlife and a little alternative culture, Langstrasse is the place to be. Once considered the city's red light district, the neighbourhood has blossomed into Zurich's most diverse and hippest area. I pull up a stool at Olé-Olé-Bar, a well-loved local watering hole, and strike up a conversation with some affable Zürchers. They invite me to a gig by Brit rocker Noel Gallagher, but by the time I arrive at the über-cool Volkshaus nightclub, the band has left the building.
Zurich is such a vibrant city; even on this second trip, I feel like I've only scratched the surface. Though I missed seeing a rock star, my Swiss sojourn has provided stunning sights, relaxing rooftop moments, marvellous modern art—and plenty of crispy potatoes.