Zürich, Switzerland: It’s About Time – And Money

At Frau Gerold, the open-air spot for socializing, eating and drinking. The structures are built from shipping containers.

At Frau Gerold, the open-air spot for socializing, eating and drinking. The structures are built from shipping containers.

Some things are simply better the second time around.

Not that Zürich was bad the first go round. It was phenomenal. It’s just that this time around I’m at another point in my life. On every level I am no longer that person who on a whim more than a decade ago booked a flight from Portland, Oregon, where I lived at the time, to Switzerland.

I was single – still am – with a savings account and a salary that allowed me travel in style, afford expensive things, dine at amazing places. For work, I dressed in designer suits and nicely polished shoes. I bought a custom-built car – a BMW – to boot, and flew to Munich to have a look at the process. In short, I had everything I wanted or needed.

Surf bikes on Zurich Lake

Surf bikes on Zürich Lake

Some holdout material things – possessions – as a sign of success. That’s one measure of success, it’s not the whole picture. Today, after grappling with the global economic crisis that first struck the United States, I live a simpler life. It’s a life stuffed into a backpack, wearing the same clothes over and over and one pair of shoes almost all the time. But it’s a less complicated life – and in many ways far less stressful – one in which I do more and learn more and see the world, and love it for what it is, grand, beautiful and wonderful, even if at times shows an ugly side.

Zürich to me punctuates that turning point in my life. Last time I was here, I came and stayed in a relatively nice hotel and didn’t think twice about the expense. This time around, I watch every penny and budget. And I travel – hitchhiking – moving at a slower pace and with more time to go places and go beyond the usual tourist haunts. With the help of friends who live in the city, I peel away at the layers that make up Zürich and I’m able to see whole new sides.

Want beer? Have Swiss bank account?

Want beer? Have Swiss bank account?

I can’t believe it’s been more than a decade since I was last in Zürich, Switzerland‘s largest city. I had come here – you won’t believe this, but recall the person I once was – to buy a watch! That was my main mission. Sightseeing was an afterthought. I did venture out but, mostly I ordered room service and admired my watch.

I remember oh so well when and how Zürich landed on my radar. I was thumbing through a men’s fashion magazine and found myself staring at an ad for a particular Swiss watch. The watch had immediately grabbed my attention and as I turned the pages of the magazine, I kept going back to it. The next day, I picked up the magazine again, had another long look, and went straight to my jeweler – yes, I had a jeweler, but that’s another topic for conversation involving a returned engagement ring and jewelry store credit – and he told me the watch was not yet available in the United States. Then he said the words that would shape my thinking: “You’d have to fly to Switzerland to buy that watch.”

Okay, I thought, I can wait. But how long would I have to wait?

“Don’t know,” he said. “Some months. Maybe a year.”

Well, okay.

When I got home I found myself looking at flights to Zürich – after pinpointing Zürich on a map.

At Summergarte, relatively reasonable by Zürich standards. Now that’s using your head!

Then, after scheduling vacation time, I booked a flight. Three weeks later, I was on a 747 bound for Frankfurt, Germany, with a connection to Zürich.

Soon as I checked into my hotel, I showed concierge the page I had ripped out of the magazine.

“Where can I get this watch?” I asked. He smiled and happily suggested a couple of places, one within walking distance of my hotel. So off I went, the ad folded neatly in my pocket, on a watch quest.

I don’t wear watches any more. I am okay with glancing at my mobile phone for the time. I haven’t worn a watch in years. And I once had a whole bunch of them. I’m usually surprised to see people – especially the iPhone Generation – wearing a watch. The phone not good enough?

When I got to the watch dealer, I took the ad from my pocket and unfolded it. Handed it to the jeweler.

“Ah, yes, of course, we have it” he said with a Swiss German accent. He guided me to the other end of the glass display case, pointed to it and said “This one.”

There it was on my wrist: Cool black band made of steel, shiny black face encircled in bright gold, with gold minute and hour hands. No numbers. In the place of 12, a sparkling diamond. Simple elegance. I smiled and took out the credit card.

Now, I honestly don’t remember how much I paid for that watch. I don’t even know what became of it. Somewhere along the way I lost it, I believe during one of several moves from one apartment or house to another. What I do remember was that it was very nice and I got a lot of compliments for it.

Lake sailing

Lake sailing

I never told anyone – until recently, until now – that I actually flew halfway around the world to buy the watch. Today, to me that sounds like excess run amuck. Doesn’t sound like anybody I know. I backpack. I hitchhike. I sleep on any space strangers and friends provide. I even once slept in a tent in someone’s backyard. And I was perfectly content.

While in Zürich that first time, my focus was to buy a watch. I did get in a bit of sightseeing and even hit a club or two. I enjoyed the city but I didn’t really know anyone in Zürich. Today I do, and with less money in my pocket, I’ve enjoyed the city even more than the first time. I have discovered places known only to locals. Or places that few tourists know. It’s been a blast.

And unlike the first time, I can share with you a few tips:

Yes, what you always hear about Zürich is true: It’s expensive. No, not as expensive as Norway, but pretty expensive compared to other European cities. Sure, you don’t have to have a Swiss bank account to enjoy Zürich, but it certainly helps. Want to drink cheaply? That’s hard to find in the city. I found a Corona beer for $7.50, and that was the cheapest I found. Maybe some of you out there are better bargain hunters, but it was a struggle drinking and eating on the cheap in Zürich.

On a lake-bound ferry

On a lake-bound ferry

At a very cool outdoor spot frequented by locals – Frau Gerold – right in the shadow of Switzerland’s tallest building, I bought an iced tea and a slice of lemon pound cake. Total cost? $10. If you break it down right down the middle, that iced tea cost $5 and that lemon pound cake cost $5. Think about that for a minute. Five dollars for a very small piece of cake and another $5 for an iced tea.

I’m constantly told the Swiss get paid high salaries so they may afford the high cost of living, but you may come across some who get defensive about how expensive their city is. They like to point elsewhere, and Norway is their favorite punching bag. The reality is, you can’t be from certain countries and be able to afford Switzerland at the going currency exchange rates. Polish people, for instance, stay clear of Switzerland as a vacation destination. So do many other countries whose currency are no match for the mightier Swiss Franc. If you are from the United States and are making a decent salary, you can probably visit Zürich and not take a beating, but it will be a far more expensive vacation than, say, vacation anywhere in Latin America, Eastern Europe or Africa.

It being said, Zürich is a fantastic city! So much going in and so much going for it, in summer or winter. In Summer, city streets are alive with sidewalk cafes and restaurants, with tourists and locals mixing in the Old Town, which is a must-see. Take a stroll through its cobblestone streets and narrow passages. If you decide you want to stay in the Old Town you will find many smaller but good hotels along Zahringerstrasse. There are many hotels in the center. For a central location which

Rivers and lakes are all part of the city

STILL IN THE CITY: Rivers and lakes are all part of  Zürich

 enables you to walk to most of the sights and restaurants, expect to pay a minimum of $150 a night. There are cheaper alternatives outside of the center, such as a bed and breakfast with shared bath for $60 for a single room to $109 for a double. I like this latter option because truth is many of these places are not that far from the center and allow you to stay in neighborhoods where locals actually live. I had coffee at one of them – Zum Guten Gluck – and asked to see the rooms and they were more than adequate – and affordable. The shared baths were spotless, and the location in a desirable neighborhood. It’s located at Stationstrasse 7.

Other hotels I peeped in on include the Central Plaza (pricey!); the Marta, Zahringerstrasse 36; Hotel Rutli, Zahringerstrasse 43; and Hotel Scheuble, Muhlegasse 17. Except for the Central Plaza, they are all three stars. (A word of warning: ladies of the evening do come out in the evening and you will find them in just about every European city standing on the street corners trying to entice. Zürich is no exception and these women seem to congregate in greater numbers on Zahringerstrasse, as well as other neighborhood streets. Just say no or ignore them. They’ll leave you alone. If you are easily offended by the presence of street prostitutes, maybe you shouldn’t come to Europe 🙂

If you intend to visit museums and take public transportation I strongly suggest you buy a two or three-day Zürich Card, which gives you unlimited access to all buses, trains, trams, ferries and even all museums. The three-day pass costs $48, but it’s worth it in the long run with the savings for transportation and museums.

Speaking of museums, there are many, and some are more interesting than others. I went to the Swiss National Museum which “offers fascinating insights into Swiss history from the beginning to the 21st Century” but I found the museum rather boring. Yes, there are a lot of old and historic things on display, but they aren’t presented as interestingly as they could be. One problem is that they display some historic items or photos, paintings of historic figures and you have no clue what you are looking at because someone decided not to give the English description. Some items are explained in English and others are not. It’s a mystery. Yes, if you have a smart phone you can download the museum app that will help with a guided tour, but you must have a smart phone. One person in the museum downloaded the app and had trouble getting it to work. So if archaeological discoveries and medieval weaponry or Switzerland through the ages is not your thing, skip this one.

A really nice cup of coffeee at Summergarte

A really nice cup of coffee at Summergarte

I found the Zürich Museum of Design far more interesting. Currently on exhibit are works by Martin Parr, the renown English photographer. Titled “Souvenir”, Parr’s photos explore people who travel, their impact; consumerism, and how the wealthy show off their money, among other subjects. It’s a great collection. And everything is well-displayed and properly explained.

On Zahringerstrasse, they only come out at night.

They only come out at night, on Zahringerstrasse

I tried a third museum, the Migros Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, located in a former brewery which also houses several galleries, but so many of the items on display are head-scratching. I love modern art, but I don’t get much of it. I mean, can you duct tape a bed foam to one of the building’s support columns and call it art? Some “artist” did exactly that, and the museum went a step further by trying to justify it, with a small plaque explaining what the “artist” was trying to do. Oh-kay.

Anyway, if you go, prepare yourself for weirdness.

Let’s leave the museums for a moment and go to Summergart, a food truck parked permanently at the edge of a small grassy park at im Zeughaushof/Kasernenareal. By Zürich standards, it’s cheap – $16 for a tuna burger, $4 for a good cup of coffee; $14 for a burger. I liked this place in a relaxed, park-like setting.

Best advice I can give you is ask a local. They will tell you where they go – and tourists don’t – which often means a better time and cheaper fare.

I love Zürich.  How could I not a city in which people greet each other with three kisses? 🙂 And nice to be in any city where locals stop what they’re doing to ask a wayward stranger: “Can I help you find something?”  It’s a great city with so much going on. Just wish it weren’t so expensive.

Floating umbrellas at a bar

Floating umbrellas at a bar

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