In association with Switzerland Tourism
Outside the University of Zurich, a short walk from the city centre, there’s a mural of a mermaid which sums up Zurich’s turbulent relationship with modern art. It was painted in 1978 by Harald Näegeli, the so-called ‘sprayer of Zurich’. He sprayed hundreds of murals around the city, but only a few survive. Most were removed by the authorities, who fined him 206,000 Swiss francs and sentenced him to nine months in prison. Today this mural is a protected monument. It shows how attitudes have changed.
I never would have found this mural if it wasn’t for Rea Eggli, who brought me here. Rea lives in Zurich and her enthusiasm for her hometown is infectious. She’s the founder of a start-up called #Letsmuseeum, which provides guided tours around a side of Zurich the coach parties never see.
We walk back into town, and stop off for a drink at the Kronenhalle. It’s one of Zurich’s best restaurants, but if you don’t have time for a sit-down meal you’re welcome to prop up the bar. You’ll be in good company if you do. The Kronenhalle has been a rendezvous for some of the world’s greatest artists, and it’s acquired a fine selection of their paintings. Originals by Braque, Chagall, Matisse and Miro adorn the walls of this suave hideaway.
Zurich has always been a city of art and artists, as well as banks and bankers. During the first world war, in a backstreet bar in the medieval Altstadt — Old Town — German poet Hugo Ball founded Cabaret Voltaire, the nightclub that launched Dada and spawned surrealism. A century later this daft, eccentric venue is still a forum for all sorts of iconoclastic performance art.
For a taste of literary Zurich, check out the Café Odeon, an art nouveau relic on the waterfront. The guest list reads like a who’s who of 20th century letters: James Joyce, Somerset Maugham, Frank Wedekind, Stefan Zweig… Einstein came here too. So did Lenin, Trotsky and Mussolini. What a great movie it’d make. Imagine the conversations they might have had.
For fine art, head for the Kunsthaus. It boasts the largest Munch collection outside Norway, and the world’s finest collection of Giacometti. And look out for the dreamlike paintings of Ferdinand Hodler. Little known in Britain, he’s revered in Switzerland — and quite right too. This grand old gallery boasts a splendid selection of his work, plus loads of other European masters from the middle ages to today. It’s a delightful place to fritter away a few hours, and it’ll be even better when David Chipperfield’s new extension opens next year. In the meantime, architecture buffs shouldn’t miss the Pavillon Le Corbusier (open from 11 May), the Swiss architect’s last building, made entirely from glass and steel (rather than his beloved concrete) in a stunning location on the lakeside.
Zurich isn’t just a city of artistic relics. It’s full of contemporary art. Formerly an industrial zone, Zurich West is renowned for lively galleries such as Hauser & Wirth, and performance spaces including the Schiffbau — once a shipyard, now a spectacular theatre. To soak up the atmosphere, stay at 25 hours Zurich West, a funky, affordable hotel with a rooftop sauna and table tennis in the lobby. It’s a few miles from the city centre but the tram stops right outside.
My favourite piece of public art is best seen from the railway. You’ll pass it if you take the train into town from the airport, so keep your eyes peeled. It’s a mural called ‘How to Work Better’, by Peter Fischli and David Weiss. It’s a list of simple rules which will make you more effective: know the problem; learn to listen; say it simple; accept change… for me, it’s a perfect symbol for this businesslike, creative city. Zurich may look neat and tidy, but it’s really rather groovy — and every time I come here, the more avant-garde it seems.