From my home base in Freiburg, I’ve visited the following cities in the past month: Berlin, Prague, Colmar (France), Strasbourg, Lucerne, and Zurich. Zurich is my favorite, so I’ll share a few thoughts.
I spent two days in there, one of which in nearby Lucerne. The area is breathtaking, but the highlight is still the city. Zurich is old, but every building is well-maintained; you can’t say the same for Prague. The downtown area wraps around a river, which leads to Lake Zurich in a twenty-minute walk from the center of town. I lived in the east bank, close to the Grossmünster.
Here are some short, scattered thoughts of what I saw, with a few pictures thrown in between.
Zurich as a perfect city. Every one of the centuries-old buildings are well-kept; it does brisk trade with people near and far; it has so many opportunities for culture; and it’s on a lake that leads into the mountains. The people who live there are sophisticated, serene, and enjoy the highest standards of living on earth. They are nature-loving, live routinized lives, and they’ve built hidden defenses throughout the whole country, ever ready to be used against an invading army. Don’t you see? The Swiss are the elves of modern day. Has it been documented yet that Zurich was Tolkien’s inspiration for Rivendell?
Zurich is expensive. Going to Zurich as a student is the easiest way to feel indignant towards the rich, Piketty-style. It’s a place where a cup of coffee costs around $5, where a slice of pizza costs around $15, and pasta around $30. No, you can’t find cheaper options if you look in a different part of town. When you walk around a big city and can’t find a lunch option for less than $15, you start to despair. How are prices driven this high?
That said, the best parts of my trip were the cheapest. The three things I most enjoyed: First walking around, which of course is free. Second going to the Swiss National Museum, which has cheap student tickets. And finally going to the Zurich Opera for Tristan. Last-minute tickets cost $17, for a splendid production. Who else offers Wagner of this quality for the same price as a slice of pizza would cost?
More people should be let in. Zurich has a high number of foreigners, but these are mostly already talented people from other developed countries. We all know that the Swiss are highly restrictive with granting residency and citizenship. When you walk around Zurich you can’t help but feel that this place could absorb a good deal more people from poorer places. Zurich gets more diversity and lower labor costs, and of course the migrants benefit a great deal. There’s so much space; it shouldn’t be enjoyed only by rich foreigners and generations-old Swiss.
Swiss historical importance… I don’t know enough European history, but let me present a hypothesis. Zwingli did his most important work in Zurich, which makes it not just an important site for the Reformation but also the Counter-Reformation. The Swiss has either sent mercenaries or used its diplomatic position to influence every war in Europe. Pretty soon after it industrialized, it exported more per capita than any other country. If you want to learn a general history of Europe by studying a single country, perhaps it should be Switzerland.
So much culture… I’m glad that such a good production of Tristan could be my first live German opera experience. The Swiss National Museum had fantastic displays, at just the right level of detail. The not-far Basel Kunstmuseum has an amazing collection. Swiss culture is splendid, and kept cheap. Tyler of course has a theory about this.
Little historical shame, but should there be more? You can’t walk two blocks in Berlin without being reminded of some terrible episode in German history. That’s not the case in Zurich. But Swiss history is by no means all nice. Some examples follow. Although Switzerland never permitted slavery, many families made great wealth from the slave trade. Although it never established colonies, it profited a great deal from colonialism. Although it doesn’t provoke conflict, it has sent mercenaries to fight in most major European wars. It has managed to make money from many of the terrible things done by Europe. You can argue in all sorts of ways that neutrality is not always morally justified. Maybe Berlin goes too far in the other direction, but shouldn’t Zurich be commemorating more?
Languages spoken in the street… On the weekend I heard slightly more Chinese than English in the streets, and hardly any German. I wasn’t just only in the shopping district on the west bank; it was the same around the Grossmünster and Kunsthaus area too. The Chinese I heard spoke Mandarin, mostly in dialects from the northeast.
Every shop is closed on Sunday. Nearly two million live around the Zurich area, the city is a major business center, and it attracts many tourists who come here specifically to shop. So it’s mystifying why no store is open on Sunday. The only place open is a mall area under the main train station. Again Tyler has written on this.
Visit Zurich. It’s an aesthetic experience, and I don’t just mean that it’s nice to see pretty buildings. Just make sure to bring your wallet.
Added, 2/28: Here’s a sign that would have made no sense just a few weeks ago. I took this from the downtown shopping area. Apparently this chain store has these signs all over Switzerland, including in Geneva.