In association with Switzerland Tourism
Arriving in Winterthur on a commuter train from Zurich, you’d never guess this compact city is one of Switzerland’s cultural hotspots. Only 20 minutes from Zurich (and 13 minutes from Zurich airport), during the morning rush hour its central station is crowded with workers making the short trip to Switzerland’s largest city. However, if you venture a few blocks beyond the station you realise Winterthur is a world away from Zurich. It’s less international, more welcoming — more Swiss.
Savvy visitors tend to stay in Winterthur if they’ve got work to do in Zurich. The hotels and restaurants are cheaper, but there’s more to it than that. Winterthur has never been overrun with tourists, and it probably never will be. You feel like a traveller here, not a sightseer. This is the real Switzerland.
Some 10,000 of Winterthur’s 110,000 inhabitants are students, and the university gives the city a relaxed and youthful air. The attractive Altstadt, or old town, has plenty of unpretentious places to eat and drink. I’ve never eaten better rösti than at the homely Restaurant zur Sonne (the beer’s good, too).
Winterthur was a sleepy place until the beginning of the 19th century, when the industrial revolution turned it into one of Switzerland’s biggest cities. By the end of the 20th century, those old industries had gone bust — but rather than bulldozing its derelict mills and factories, Winterthur has turned them into bars, cinemas, concert halls and skate parks. Once a post-industrial wasteland, the industrial quarter of Sulzerareal is now the most happening part of town, a place where locals come to hang out.
In the 19th century those mills and factories made some local businessmen very wealthy, and one of the wealthiest was Theodor Reinhart, who made a fortune importing cotton. Theodor also built up a substantial art collection, and when he died, in 1919, the family business and art collection passed into the hands of his son, Oskar. Oskar was even more passionate about art than Theodor. Within a few years of his father’s death he stepped back from the business and devoted the rest of his life to art.
Oskar died in 1965 and left his art collection to his hometown. The Kunst Museum Winterthur I Reinhart am Stadtgarten, in the city centre, displays German, Austrian and Swiss art, including masterpieces by Caspar David Friedrich and Ferdinand Hodler. The Oskar Reinhart Collection «Am Römerholz» is even better. A mile from the city centre, this hilltop villa was Reinhart’s home for the last 40 years of his life, and today it’s an atmospheric gallery, with one of the best collections of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings in the world. All the big names are here: Manet, Cezanne, Renoir, Van Gogh…
Back in the city centre, the Kunst Museum Winterthur I Beim Stadthaus shows American and European contemporary art, plus modern masters such as Monet and Picasso. Next door is the Musikkollegium, Winterthur’s symphony orchestra, housed in a flamboyant building by the great German architect Gottfried Semper. Under the direction of its chief conductor, Thomas Zehetmair, the Musikkollegium recorded recently all four Symphonies of Johannes Brahms who visited Winterthur several times. These symphonies will be performed together with other Brahms masterpieces as the Deutsche Requiem during the Brahms Festival at the end of May.
Some visitors come to Winterthur specifically to see these masterpieces. Others stumble upon them quite by chance. ‘They’re completely flabbergasted,’ says Bitterli, as he shows me round the Kunst Museum.
The reason local businessmen such as Theodor Reinhart built up such great collections was because they were also traders. Their work took them all around the world, and they brought the best paintings home. These Swiss traders competed with each other to assemble the best collections — and Oskar Reinhart was the greatest collector of them all. ‘He was a very careful collector, he took his time,’ says Bitterli. ‘He had a clear vision of what he was aiming at — and he had the money to make it possible.’
Seeing these paintings here in Winterthur feels far more intimate than seeing them in a big, crowded gallery in Paris or Berlin. Here you can linger over each one, rather than rushing past. You have a one-to-one relationship with every artwork. ‘You can really take your time, and I think that’s what art asks for — that you take your time,’ says Bitterli. And he’s right.