In 1993, two graphic designer brothers were on the lookout for a heavy duty bag which they could use when riding a bike; which would be functional and water repellent. They made a bag out of an old tarpaulin and used the seat belts as straps, inspired by the rumbling lorries on the highway in front of their house. Today these funky ‘Freitag bags' made entirely from recycled material retail all around the world at around 300 shops, at a price of around two hundred Swiss Francs. Their new flagship store in Zurich West is made from recycled materials, too- stacked shipping containers! Zurich consistently tops all ‘ quality of life' surveys. It's a showpiece of Swiss stereotypes —cleanliness, order, clockwork precision and picture postcard views. Cars stop politely for pedestrians; buildings seamlessly merge with glorious nature and the eco-friendly trams and cycle network providing free bikes and well designated bike trails, make a car unnecessary! But the image of Zurich as a boring, staid financial centre and grey bankers has been blown away by a dose of creative flair. Beneath all that urban veneer, is cutting edge innovation and enterprise.

Picturesque

Zurich had its origins as a Roman post, Turicum and its skyline today is dominated by ancient spires as well as modern glitzy buildings. Zurich is situated at one end of the crystal clear lake Zurich sea and is divided by the River Limmat. The city is divided into 12 districts or kreis in German. Kreis 1 or Olazd Town is where we spend several hours. There are old guild halls here, baroque facades and cobblestone alleys corkscrewing in different directions and even remains of Roman Baths. Today most of the old guild halls have been converted into atmospheric restaurants with high ceilings and the coat of arms still intact. If there is just one thing that you have to see in Zurich, then it has to be Marc Chagall's stained glass windows at the Fraumunster church. Fraumunster was a convent for female members of the aristocracy until 1524.

Close by is the biggest clock face in Europe, in St Peter's Church. Zurich has always been the refuge of avante garde writers and artists. For a dose of history and old world charm we visit the Cafe Odeon which has attracted notables like James Joyce, Herman Hesse and even Lenin! Across the river are Niederdorf and the other distinctive landmark of the city- the Grossmunster dedicated to the patron saints of the city. Its interiors are austere and bare but this was where the Protestant movement under Zwingli started. Zwingli was a radical and cleansed the city of images and relics. This is medieval Zurich at its best and the atmospheric streets here have historical craftsman's houses, old courtyards, fountains and statues. Antique book shops, galleries and cafes in hidden inner courts- this is the place to get lost in! Close by is Cabaret Voltaire the birthplace of the Dada art movement (which used puns and humour) and today the venue for quirky theatre productions.

Zurich is a favoured destination for study and research because of its top- quality infrastructure. We drive past the hillside campus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology which has produced some of the brightest minds and many Nobel Prize winners— Albert Einstein was professor of Physics here. Our guide tells us that James Joyce penned ‘Ulysses' in a small garret behind the University!

The Swiss national Museum built like a French Renaissance Chateau, offers a fascinating glimpse into Swiss history and has reconstructed rooms from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Our Zurich card entitles us to a cruise on Lake Zurich from Burkliplatz where we get our wide angle views of the mountains. Swans glide past the homes of the rich and famous in the distance. For a great view of the city, Lindenhof is our pick— there are old timers who play chess here on a giant chessboard. There is a statue here that commemorates that day in 1292 when the women of Zurich saved it from the Hapsburgs! The story goes that the city was on the brink of defeat, when the women donned armour and marched to the Lindenhof. The aggressors thought that they were faced with another army and beat a retreat!

Bahnofstrasse is the ritzy ‘style mile'— a catwalk of top brands; this is the place that you can window shop for a Rolex or a Louis Vuitton with the sobering thought there is a mile of gold bullion in vaults under the streets! Paradeplatz is the place where all the serious money begins: it has the biggest Swiss banks like UBS and Credit Suisse as well as insurance companies housed in 18th and 19th century buildings.

We have our ‘Willy Wonka' moment here! Confiserie Srungli on bustling Paradeplatz is home to melt-in-your-mouth chocolates, tarts, cakes, cookies, truffles most of which are still made by hand. We are wowed by our first taste of the delicate little macaroons with a creamy filling called Luxemburgerli, inspired by bite sized macaroons which were a craze in 19th century Paris. The up market Teuscher Chocolatier has a roll call of celebrity clients and is famous for its champagne truffles with yes, actual Dom Perignon champagne in the centre!

This cosmopolitan city has more than two thousand restaurants and bars and a gamut of gourmet experiences. Near Bahnoffstrasse, is Europe's oldest vegetarian restaurant, Hitl where we gorge on a buffet of curries and salads, even vegetable samosas and pay after weighing our plate at the cashier's counter. You can also sit in complete darkness and enjoy the pleasures of the palate in Blinde Kuh, the world's first restaurant run by the visually challenged or dine beneath original Picassos and Chagalls at Kronenhalle, with Hollywood stars for company. For a different experience a Swiss meal of rösti or raclette (with yodel pop in the background) at the zany Crazy Cow restaurant is enjoyable- the food is served in troughs and pails and the décor is quirky. This is also a city that has over a hundred art galleries and fifty museums. On the day designated as the ‘Long night of the Museums', museums stay open from 7 pm. to 2a.m. with the ticket including free transport too! Culture vultures usually make for Kunsthaus, home to the greatest art collections- from medieval to contemporary-Cubism, pop art or Fauvism; you can take your pick here.

More than history

Zurich has a high concentration of art galleries- the most famous being the Ramistrasse art mile. The world famous auction houses like Christie's and Sotheby's have their branches here as well. This city is not all art and history! We hear about the Street parade, one of the largest house and techno parties in the world when thousands of energetic youngsters dance in pubs and clubs, and floats promoting the values of love and tolerance make their way through the city. Another quirky sight is the city's riverside and lake lidos or bath houses. During the daytime they are used for swimming by the public; at night they are transformed into bars with DJs! For a taste of this hedonistic world we visit Zurich-West or Kreis 5, a down and out industrial district with wasteland, factory chimneys and foundries transformed into a trendy, vibrant area full of exuberance attracting hipsters, students, artists and designers. This is the party zone of the city-with giant dance floors and eclectic music. We see old industrial warehouses and pumping stations that have been converted into bars, cafes and boutiques. Schiffbau, an erstwhile steamboat factory is a glitzy complex with a popular jazz club, roof terrace bar and a theatre playing host to fashion shows A railway viaduct has been transformed into a covered food market. There are design galleries and bookshops all exuding a certain buzz. The geographical location of Zurich gives people the chance to escape to the mountains, lakes or the forests. The Rhine Falls is just a day's trip away and with the excellent Swiss trains, you can visit any of the Swiss cities in a day. If you can tear yourself away from Zurich, that is…

The author is a Japanese language specialist and travel writer based in Chennai

TOP 5 ZURICH MUSEUMS

MUSEUM REITBERG: This presents an outstanding collection of Asian, African and other Non- European art in buildings around the Reiter Park. Japanese Noh masks, carpets from Armenia or Chinese Bodhisattvas, take your pick!

KUNSTHAUS ZURICH: Europe's largest privately funded museum has collections from old masters to contemporary art. Gauguin, Van Gogh, Chagall, Picasso, Renoir, the list is endless.

SWISS NATIONAL MUSEUM: This is housed in a Renaissance style building and showcases Swiss history and culture with centuries old artefacts.

JOHANN JACOBS MUSEUM: An offbeat museum on the history of coffee

MUSEUM OF DESIGN: If you like Graphic design, this is for you. There are revolving exhibitions here- like posters, photographs or furniture with an underlying theme.

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