Ex-industrial buildings give art and culture a home in Switzerland's Zurich

I don't know who Frau Gerold is, but she knows how to throw a garden party.

Frau Gerold's Garden in the ZUrich West district of Switzerland's largest city is a very cool space, an urban oasis lined by bars and shops. In this mellow garden you can hang out with a drink, buy food from a barbecue outlet within a shipping container and browse shops selling fashion and handcrafted items.

In the open area next to the shops are shrubs, trees and  garden seating, filled with locals having a beer on this sunny day.

If you have a vision of Zurich as an uptight, over-regulated place, the laid-back charm of Zurich West will knock that on the head. For decades this neighbourhood was an industrial hub, with vast factories turning out manufactured goods. As industry retreated in the 1970s, it became a wasteland of empty spaces – perfect homes for illegal nightclubs.

"Before 2000, nightlife in Zurich after midnight was non-existent," says local guide Elisabeth. A hunger for fun led to a surge in late-night entertainment venues in this off-the-grid zone. The city then had a place where the young could party in a thoroughly unapproved fashion. "It was really wild," she says.

Regulation eventually caught up with Zurich West, but in a way that's reinforced its happy-go-lucky reputation. Now the bars and clubs are legal, and they've steadily been joined by restaurants, cinemas and other purveyors of enjoyment.

One of these venues is the Schiffbau, a former shipbuilding factory which is now an arts centre staging theatre and live music. During the day its lofty interior is quiet but spectacular; its gritty past is evident in the steel girders high above its bar and restaurant.

The opening of this arts hub in 2000 was the catalyst for hotels and restaurants to bloom, says Elisabeth. Across Hardstrasse, where an old washing powder factory once stood, is the Abaton Cinemas complex with cinemas, food outlets and a pool hall. One of the resident eateries, Steinfels, brews its own beer.

Another of Zurich West's major roads, Pfingstweidstrasse, is home to cultural institutions including the Museum of Digital Art, located inside a former supermarket warehouse. On the day I visit, it's exhibiting the art of New York  artist Zach Lieberman. A key work on display is Sound AR, wherein an iPad suspended from a dangling pole turns noises into three-dimensional shapes.

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Another nearby museum is an outpost of the Museum for Design, that has an exhibition of Swiss shoemaker Bally's shoes. But Elisabeth and I are headed to the annual Street Food Festival (this year's is scheduled for 8 May to 7 June). On a sprawling vacant lot that's earmarked to host a stadium, this event is dominated by a colourful circus tent. Inside are dozens of stalls, serving food from a diverse range of cuisines – Argentinean, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Hungarian and vegan dishes. Between the stalls are wooden tables with chequered tablecloths, beneath strings of lights and decorative lanterns.

For all the bustle it's a relaxed space, with a bar at one end offering sofa seating. I sense that Zurich West is where the Swiss come to let their hair down after a busy day in finance, or whatever else they might wrangle in their office jobs.

After a coffee in the bistro atop the Prime Tower, the city's tallest building and a local landmark, we head to the eastern end of the 'hood. Here the former Lowenbrau Brewery houses two contemporary art museums, the Migros Museum and the Kunsthalle, with ever-changing exhibitions.

Across the road is Markthalle, an indoor food market wedged beneath a railway viaduct where there's an array of treats including Switzerland's famous cheeses, chocolates and a bar.

It seems the perfect place to conclude my exploration of the pleasures of Zurich West.

THE DETAILS

MORE

traveller.com.au/switzerland

zuerich.com

myswitzerland.com

FLY

Emirates flies to Zurich via Dubai. See emirates.com

STAY

B2 Boutique Hotel is located in a former brewery and has a thermal spa. From CHF330 a night. See b2boutiquehotels.com

TOUR

The Zurich Food Tour explores the city's food culture and industrial history via a walk through Zurich West. Every Friday, CHF85. See zuerich.com/en/visit/tours-excursions/zurich-food-tour

Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Switzerland Tourism and travelled via the Swiss Travel Pass.

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