Insider's walk though old town Zurich, Switzerland: Unlocking Europe's hidden city

Care for a delightful insider's walk around Zurich's old town? Start off on the right (east) bank of the river, which splits the old town in two, in a quiet residential square just behind busy Münstergasse, which leads from the cathedral. The square doesn't have a name, but is sandwiched between Leuengasse and Spiegelgasse. It has lovely old buildings, one of which housed Lenin as he plotted revolution in exile.

Particularly striking is the façade of fashion boutique Thelma Collection (16 Spiegelgasse; themaselection.ch). It was once a butcher's shop, and the ornate façade is decorated with hatchets. Look through the plate glass and you'll see a splendid beamed ceiling, or head inside and plunder the racks for clothes from Zurich designer Sissi Zoebeli, who has been at the forefront of Zurich's alternative culture since the 1970s. It's a sign of things to come, because this walk leads through an old part of the city crammed with contemporary shops and eateries.

It can all be discovered on foot. Head downhill along Spiegelgasse, which narrows between medieval houses, and look up through the first-floor windows of number 26, where you'll see another gorgeously painted, beamed ceiling dating back to medieval times, when the building was the house of a wealthy merchant. Further along are the cantonal archives (4 Spiegelgasse; stadt-zuerich.ch), housed in a fine building that once belonging to a prominent Zurich family, and which has an exterior decorated with sixteenth-century frescoes.

Step through the main door and into the hallway. The window and door on your right (behind the row of modern letterboxes) date back to the twelfth century and are among the oldest architectural remnants in Zurich. The building's courtyard, which is now glassed in, has ornate medieval balconies and staircases. In a room on the far side of the courtyard is a small exhibition with dioramas of the city as it looked at various times in history.

Now turn right where Spiegelgasse ends and head a few steps down Neumarkt before pausing and looking back over your shoulder. You'll see a stone tower rising up above the rooftops that's something of a Zurich landmark. Grimmenturm, now owned by the canton and containing rental apartments, was built by a thirteenth-century merchant family; such towers are characteristic across the German-speaking world and gave rise to the German expression "stone rich" for the well-heeled. Later it became a monastic hospital, then a granary and vicarage. It's one of the very few left of the 30-odd residential towers that once adorned the old town, and has Gothic pointed-arch windows and a large clock.

In the twelfth century this 'new market' was the latest Zurich suburb and still features some impressive medieval guild houses. Call in at Neu Markt furniture store (17 Neumarkt; neumarkt17.ch), which has a confusing number of levels and rooms linked together across three medieval buildings; at the back, a metal mesh floor looks down on to a swimming pool, remnant from a time when this was a swimming school. It's a fabulous clash of old and contemporary architecture. The suave furniture from some of Europe's top designers is also well worth a stickybeak, even if you'll never get any of it into your suitcase.

The furniture store sits at the corner of Neumarkt and Predigergasse. Turn down this narrow alley for a great flavour of back-street Zurich. Though the passageway looks scarcely changed in centuries, you'll come across an outlet of local fashion brand Basman (4 Predigergasse; basman.ch), whose top-quality clothing is still manufactured in Zurich. Further on is an outlier of the Neu Markt furniture store (14 Predigergasse; neumarkt17.ch). At the back of the courtyard here you'll see a multi-storey mini-staircase built for cats, which winds around a drainpipe and into an upper-floor window.

In between, at 8 Predigergasse, is a small courtyard and adjacent room that has been converted into a flea market: look for odd items such as a toy policeman and a sailing ship wedged into the branches of the courtyard's tree. Further along is the delightful Blue Topas jewellery store (17 Predigergasse), which incorporates an old town well into its décor in another example of the centuries-old architectural jumble that characterises Zurich's old town.

Predigergasse eventually coughs you up into a large square dominated by a Dominican church. Turn left for Leder Ruffner (32 Predigerplatz), a fabulously old-fashioned leather store teetering with piles of bags. Then make your way along Brunngasse – a popular hangout spot for university students in the evening – and turn right into Froschaugasse. Here you'll find the pleasant tavern, Wystube Isebaehnli (26 Froschaugasse; isebaehnli.com), a good place to pause and try some of Switzerland's little known but surprisingly pleasant white wines, such as a sauvignon blanc from Domaine Louis Bovard on the shores of Lake Geneva.

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The wine bar also carries an extensive range of international reserves, some rather rare, stored in the building's 800-year-old cellar. Perhaps surprisingly, Wystube Isebaehnli's owner is Turkish immigrant Yücel Ersan, at the helm in the adjoining restaurant, turning out impressive dishes such as tagliarini with white truffle, or morel mushrooms with foie gras, peas and coffee foam.

Further along the street is Comics Shop (7 Froschaugasse; comics-shop.ch), which houses an impressive range of old cartoon series, manga and classic French comics. But don't get too distracted by its windows. Zurich's old alleys are like Russian dolls, opening up into each other and getting smaller as they go. Watch carefully for folded-back green wooden doors on your left, because they lead into an even more hidden alley, Synagogengasse, that was once the centre of Zurich's tiny medieval Jewish quarter.

It looks like a dead end, but actually has a sharp right-hand turn that leads to the cobbled courtyard of Restaurant Neumarkt (5 Neumakrt; wirtschaft-neumarkt.ch), which is very popular with locals – no doubt because only locals could ever find it. You could return here in the evening to try classic Swiss dishes such as bratwurst, veal in cream sauce, or (on particularly balmy summer nights) cold cucumber soup. On the other side of the alley, meanwhile, is Anna Saarinen Textile Manufacturer (18 Synagogengasse; annasaarinen.ch), where you might spot Anna at her loom, creating mohair blankets or Nordic-influenced rugs.

As you pop out of the end of the alleyway, you're back on Neumarkt, but this time you'll want to head uphill, where the street turns into Rindermarkt, the meat market of the Middle Ages. Take a right where the street ends, and then first left into Stüssihofstatt, a square with a fine Renaissance fountain topped by a figure of fifteenth-century Zurich mayor Rudolf Stüssi. There are some pleasant outdoor eateries here and, in December, the square hosts the city's oldest Christmas market. It has just a few stalls, but is always busy with locals stopping for a drink on the way home from work or shopping.

Back out of the square, head down Niederdorfstrasse, the area's main thoroughfare, even if it is still a cobbled, pedestrian street. The unfortunately named Äss Bar (6 Niederdorfstrasse) trails an interesting concept that has proved hugely popular: it sells yesterday's leftover bread and pastries from bakeries around the city at prices that suit students, and is just the place to pick up a chocolate croissant or lemon tart. Down the side of the shop is a passageway, lit with coloured neon tubes, that leads to another courtyard, where the spiral staircase of a 1612 house is worth admiring.

Almost on the opposite side of Niederdorfstrasse, finish your walk at Rosenhof, a square with restaurant terraces popular during summer. In winter, Christmas stalls appear under lights strung up in the denuded trees, providing a pretty ending to your walk.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

www.myswitzerland.com

www.zuerich.ch

GETTING THERE

Cathay Pacific has over 70 flights a week to Hong Kong from six Australian cities including Sydney (9hr) and Melbourne (9hr) with onward daily connections to Zurich (11.5 hr). Phone 131 747, see cathaypacific.com.au

STAYING THERE

Marktgasse Hotel provides an impressive minimalist, contemporary redesign to a thirteenth-century building in the old town and has supremely comfortable beds. Baltho Restaurant tempts with fine Swiss cuisine. Rooms for two from SFR 249 ($350) including taxes. Phone +41 44 266 1010, see marktgassehotel.ch

Brian Johnston was a guest of Cathay Pacific, Rail Europe and Switzerland Tourism.

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