It’s not often that you come across a tree made entirely of Swarovski crystals. Or, indeed, one composed of carolling children. But the Swiss capital, Zurich, isn’t your average metropolis. A banking mecca from January to November, come December, it transforms into a little oasis of festive loveliness – and nowhere is more redolent of Nӧel than the impressively large Christmas market. But don’t expect all things twee and gingerbread – as I was to find out, Yule Zurich-style has more than one type of sparkle in its arsenal.
Having armed ourselves with mulled wine and traditional Tirggel (Christmas biscuits made from flour and honey), we wandered along the romantically-lit Bahnhofstrasse with the market in our sights. But it wasn’t long before cutesy tinsel gave way to an altogether more solid brand of bling: dominating the market was a 50ft Swarovski crystal tree surrounded by security guards. But more was to come.
Once past the shimmering fir, a more familiar type of festive sparkle reappeared, draped merrily over the market’s 150 wooden chalets offering a huge range of food and crafts. We took a pit-stop at the Christmas tree concert on Werdmuhleplatz, where you’ll be left boggling at the bizarre sight of a towering fir made up of rows of singing children. Still open-mouthed, we elbowed our way through the crowded thoroughfare to Paradeplatz, once home to an 18th century cattle market and now the HQ of a major Swiss bank. We blew into our hands, waiting for the city’s main Christmas lights to be switched on – an event greeted by raucous cheering – before wandering away from the bustling market to the serene Church of Fraumünster (Minster of Our Lady) that pierces Zurich’s skyline with its slender, blue spire. Inside, we inspected its five magnificent stained glass windows created by Franco-Russian artist Marc Chagall, each depicting a Christian story.
But a festive trip to Zurich isn’t just about exploring the markets, reacquainting yourself with the Nativity story or indeed, admiring the locals’ creative approach to tree decoration. Inside the traditional conditorei (coffee houses), another festive favourite was being prepared. We made a beeline for Schober, an elegant 19th century establishment, which is one of Jay-Z favourites when he’s in town. Located in the old town, time seems to almost stand still while you sit at the cafe’s mahogany tables and tuck into handmade cakes and rich hot chocolate with whipped cream.
Still groaning from our sweet treats, we attempted to work it off the over-indulgence on the steep stairs leading to the Lindenhof Hill, one of the most peaceful spots in Zurich. With glorious views over the River Limmat, the square is home to one the city’s more spectacular 1,200 fountains and serves as a meeting point for passionate chess players. On our way down we stumbled upon Schipfe, where artisans and craftsmen are hard at work.
There we found yet more trees, this time festooned with edible Lindt decorations. We peered into the infamous Cabaret Voltaire, a showcase for creative expression where the avant-garde Dadaist movement began in 1916 before wandering towards dinner at Zunfthaus zur Zimmerleuten on Limmatquai, a medieval guild house with beautiful views on the River Limmat. Its rich history is matched by even richer, delicious traditional Swiss food and we enjoyed firsts and seconds of Zürcher Geschnetzeltes (veal strips served in a creamy sauce with rösti).
The next day, we headed away from medieval Zurich and further up the Limmat, where trendy shops in converted warehouses and loft-style apartments reflect a renewed hub of activity. Perhaps inspired by Berlin’s urban regeneration, Zurich-West’s sprawling industrial districts are helping to melt away traditional formality. We visited the Freitag factory in Oerlikon, a symbol of Swiss innovative enterprise, where recycled truck tarpaulin material becomes fashionable bags, iPhone cases and wallets. A staggering 400,000 products are now produced there every year and one of the original prototypes remains on display at the MOMA in New York. They make for a stocking filler that few with a stylish gene would dislike.
A late lunch at Im Viadukt offered the chance to get to know some of the trendier locals from its cosy location under one of the newly renovated railway arches that house independent shops, restaurants and art galleries. The area feels a little like Shoreditch in the 90s, when student artists Hirst and Emin were searching for cheap studio space but before the dramatic shift from concrete to cool.
Back in the centre, we headed to the Läderach Chocolaterie, where after watching the artisans hard at work producing praline truffles and chocolate Santas, we walked out with almost a kilo of their handmade wares. The shop might not have had the glamour of the market’s Swarovski crystal tree or the eye-catching composition of the choir tree but its cinnamon-flecked scent and richly sweet treats were a festive treat all by themselves. And unlike the trees, I could take them home.
A visit to the legendary Zueghauskeller with its plates of Wiener Schnitzel whizzing past is a real vegetarian’s dystopia but worth the visit if only to see the queues of people trying to get a lunchtime table. Also worth a visit – for the fondue and white wine alone – is Le Dézaley which celebrates the hearty food and traditions of the countryside around Lake Geneva. Proscht!
RIH stayed at the Glockenhof where rooms start at approximately £225 per night. See glockenhof.ch for more information and to book. Swiss offers up to 19 daily flights from London Heathrow, London City, Birmingham and Manchester to Zurich. Fares start from £129 return, including all airport taxes. For reservations call 0845 601 0956 or visit swiss.com. For more information on Switzerland, visit MySwitzerland.com or call the Switzerland Travel Centre on 0800 100 200 30.