Zurich is safe, sparkling clean and compact, making Switzerland's premier town easy to enjoy, or to use as a base to explore surrounding alpine sights. Beyond its sedate reputation for banking and urban organisation, however, you'll find revitalised inner-city suburbs, Switzerland's best nightlife, quirky boutique shopping and a tradition of avant-garde art and architecture. In summer, the city's mountain vistas, lakeshore and old-town cafes that spill across cobblestones make for fine outdoor lingering.
Stroll posh, pedestrian Bahnhofstrasse (top property on the Swiss Monopoly board) for boutiques, departments stores and chocolate shops before exploring the austere old town, which is particularly atmospheric in winter, when lights twinkle and Christmas markets flourish. Then check out top-notch museums, such as the painting-stuffed Kunsthaus (kunsthaus.ch), the Impressionist beauties at Stiftung Sammlung E.G. Buhrle (buehrle.ch) or the eclectic knick-knacks of the Swiss National Museum (nationalmuseum.ch), which covers the history and culture of Switzerland.
If you have a liking for drama as well as great food, don't miss Restaurant Razzia (razzia-zuerich.ch), housed in a spectacularly restored 1920s cinema complete with chandeliers, ceiling frescos and a life-size plush giraffe. In the old town, wood-panelled Kaiser's Reblaube (kaisers-reblaube.ch) serves old-time Swiss dishes such as veal strips in cream with rosti. For afternoon indulgence, Cafe Schober (conditorei-cafe-schober.ch) has decadent pastries and rooms that might have been designed for a Baz Luhrmann movie.
Downtown Zurich hugs the Limmat River, and it's easy to overlook its lake. A summer stroll along marigold-studded promenades provides lovely alpine views, however. Along Utoquai Centre Le Corbusier (stadt-zuerich.ch) is a fine example of the influential Swiss architect's style in steel and coloured enamel. Take a lake steamer (zsg.ch) for a mountain-draped float to the castle-topped town of Rapperswil-Jona (vvrj.ch) at the lake's southern end; it's a pleasant half-day out.
Inner-city Zurich West – formerly a rundown industrial and blue-collar immigrant district – is Zurich's latest hip destination, with warehouses and factories transformed into art galleries, experimental cinemas, designer hotels, eateries and nightclubs. It's also a good place to trawl boutique stores for Swiss fashions from the likes of Erfolg (erfolg-label.ch) for colourful, simple-line shirts and woollens, Einzigart (einzigart.ch) for home ware, or oh-so-hot Freitag (freitag.ch) for bags made from recycled tarpaulin.
Careful restoration has preserved architectural features in the 13th-century building that houses Marktgasse Hotel (marktgassehotel.ch), but an urban-chic vibe prevails in this old-town getaway. There's little to fault, from the suave service to the simple but design-thoughtful decor that recalls Scandinavian minimalism. Snuggle-worthy doonas and pillows that provide marshmallow comfort ensure peaceful slumbers. It's worth lunching on contemporary Swiss dishes at the hotel's Baltho Restaurant; Delish Cafe has cinnamon buns to provoke wild gluttony in the morning.
Zurich is easily navigated on foot or by tram, but you can rent bicycles at the railway station (sbb.ch/en/rentabike), or use free city bikes (zuerich.com) for a 20-franc refundable deposit. Cycle paths lead along the lake and into the countryside.