The largest, most affluent city in Switzerland, Zurich has long ranked among the world's best cities in terms of quality of life. It takes just a day or two of walking the pedestrian-only shopping districts, relaxing at the sidewalk cafes, or getting safely around town on the ubiquitous trams to feel quite at home.
On the surface, Switzerland is quite neatly divided, almost balkanized, into its German, French and Italian pieces. The marriage has it's squabbles, but the Confederation, officially dating from August 1, 1291, endures, and has kept Switzerland in it's mountainous redoubt, out of much of the warfare that ravaged Europe since then. English, as a second language, is spoken by almost everyone.
Much of the city’s relaxed spirit focuses on the water. Zurich is situated on a lake entirely surrounded by lush parks. Fresh, clear water flows into the lake from glaciers in the Alps, which provide a picturesque backdrop to the city. Boats are plentiful. The Limmat, the river that flows from the lake through the historic city centre, is banked by pedestrian promenades with outdoor bars and cafés.
Zürich Airport is one of the busiest in the world. It’s located about 7 miles north of the city. Swiss International Airlines, the national airline, is exactly what you’d expect from its namesake: an efficient and comforting way to make your way across the ocean. Service is meaningfully engaging and details are managed properly. Tyler Brûlé, the gay founder of Wallpaper and Monocle magazines, oversaw the airline’s makeover a few years back
Getting to the center is easy with trains that take ten minutes to travel to Zurich main station, with departures every ten minutes during peak periods. This is the best link for anyone staying at the city center. Inter-city and regional trains connect to all main towns and cities in Switzerland. See SBB, or the airport link, for schedules and information on discount cards if you're planning to travel beyond Zurich. The Glattalbahn tram service (number 10) departs every 7-15 minutes for other surrounding areas, and there are also regional bus services.
ZVV operates the public transit system for Zurich with S-Bahn trains, buses, trams and boats to get you around; even a funicular and cable car. No city in the world, it's said, has as much access to near and frequent rides, wherever and whenever, as here in Zurich. There are many pass plans, from single to six day unlimited, or multiple journey tickets, or group fares, or after-9am rates - with various zone and class upgrades. A 24-hour Zurich Card costs 19 CHF, good for all modes (even a short cruise), and it includes free admission to over 37 museums, and a welcome drink at many restaurants. For 38 CHF you get 72 hours of the same. Use of the nighttime network may require a an extra payment at a ticket machine.
Old Town. Much of Zurich's gay scene is in Altstadt, or Old Town, along and around the picture-postcard cobblestone streets and alleys around Niederdorf Strasse. Situated between Zurich University and the Limmat River, the area is full of cafes, bistros, restaurants, bookstores, and boutiques. It’s a short walk from the Hauptbahnhof, the city’s main train station. Besides being a transportation hub of trains, buses, and trams, this main station has an underground shopping center that's open on Sundays and holidays, when most other shops close.
Langstrasse. Many visitors may never get beyond old town, as there are so many things to see and do there, but a number of other gay businesses can be found around Langstrasse, a short distance from the tourist haunts. Great foreign cuisines and bargain shopping can be found hereabouts too.
What to do
Attractions include the Alter Botanischer Garten, the unique botanical gardens by the university district; the pedestrian-only Bahnoffstrasse, a shopper's heaven; and the Fraumünster Church, with its Chagall windows. See our "Experiences" section for more.
Currency and Money
The Swiss Franc is the local currency for Switzerland (and neighboring Liechtenstein). Many businesses will also accept euros, but don’t count on it. Most US bank debit cards work in most ATMs here, but be sure to inform your bank of your travel plans before leaving home. If you can get a credit card with a chip and PIN number you'll be able to use your card more widely all over Europe - expecially with ticket machines.
Media and Resources
Many local gay magazines have folded recently, but websites such as Swissgay, Gay.ch, HAZ, and Queer.ch, can keep you up-to-date. The social network site gaYmeBoys.com is good for making friends before you arrive.
MySwitzerland.com has a gay pages along with general information in this official Swiss Tourism website.
For locations and website links to businesses listed below, see our Zurich gay map & listings pages.
The gayest hotel is in Old Town, Hotel Goldenes Schwert (Marktgasse 14), a complex of nightclubs and accommodations, 19 modern rooms with bath, three suites, cable TV, wi-fi, phones, mini-bars, breakfast room-service. Hotel guests get free entry to T&M Disco and Club Aaah! Down Niederdorf, their 24-room guesthouse on Spitalgasse, overlooks the Hirschenplatz sidewalk cafes and restaurants. Privacy assured, there's no receptionist to judge the company you keep, once you're checked-in at main office.
Hotel Adler (Rosengasse 10), a charming, comfortable medium-priced 3-star option on Hirschenplatz, free breakfast in their fine restaurant included with room. Each of 52 rooms has wall painting by artist Heinz Blum depicting an interesting corner of Zurich.
Hotel Alden (Splügenstrasse 2), smallest, most intimate 5-star-boutique hotel in Zurich, building under heritage protection, dates to 1895. Completely refurbished to restore original splendor, combines fin-de-siècle elegance with high-tech comforts in 22 rooms and suites.
The Park Hyatt Zurich (Beethoven-Strasse 21), surrounded by major financial houses around Paradeplatz Square, steps from fashionable boutiques of Bahnhofstrasse. 142 rooms and suites, spectacular views of Zurich, tech-smart facilities, 5-star pampering.
The Platzhirsch Hotel & Bar (Spitalgasse 3), opened recently on Hirschenplatz where the Lobby Bar was; stylishly modern, rooms ranging from superior to economy, and lounge bar with smoking area and WiFi.
For those on a budget City Backpacker / Hotel Biber (Niederdorfstrasse 5) offer good Swiss traditions at great prices, at heart of Old Town. Dorm beds as low as CHF35 per night, single rooms from CHF73. Reserve in advance with credit card. Dorm rooms are mixed gender - showers are not.
Out in Old Town
Barfüsser (Spitalgasse 14, Hirschenplatz), outdoor seating for early, mixed crowd. One of Europe's oldest gay bars, once a monastery, hence the name and wandering (barefoot) monk sign. Redesigned, bright, modern bar, sushi restaurant, lounge with DJ. Gayest Friday and Saturday nights, a popular place to meet before the dance clubs.
Cafe Odeon (Limmatquai 2), chic young, artsy mixed crowd, sidewalk tables near the river, inside ambience of more elegant era. Wrought metal, old wood, high ceilings and walls of mirrors give it a spacious feel. Beverages hot and cold, small plates, savory masterpieces, tiny sweet delights on silver desert trays.
Carousel Bar (Zähringerstrasse 33) behind Restaurant Johaniter, is a place to engage an "enterprising" young man for the evening.
Cranberry (Metzgergasse 3, alley off Limmatquai), stylish, classy bar/cocktail lounge, cheery staff converses in many languages. Urbane, cosmopolitan customers, young and old, are friendly/easily met. Upstairs comfy lounge sofas to sprawl or make out, pool tables. Warm evenings outdoor patio.
Dynasty Club (Zähringerstrasse 11), party bar has easy to meet guys at street level, and a quieter upstairs lounge.
G-Colors Complex (Marktgasse 14), in the rainbow flag-bedecked Hotel Goldenes Schwert building on Niederdorf: AAAH every night dancing until 4am, men-only dark rooms and cabins; T&M Disco drag performances, cabaret shows, DJs and dancing, young, energetic, mostly male crowd. Hotel guests enter without charge.
Marion Restaurant (Mühlegasse 22), good enough to veer off the main drag one block, from those many other Niederdorf dining options.
Paragonya Wellness (Mühlegasse 11), comfortable saunas, busy all day, every day, 11:30am to 11pm. Good-looking, friendly young men, large lounge with bar, bio-sauna with piped music and spectrum lighting. Also Jacuzzi, steamroom, whirlpool, cabins, dark room, intimate TV area, and labyrinth.
Pigalle (Marktgasse 14), street-level pub in G-Colors building, small but lively, early opening hours, jukebox, outdoor tables to watch Niederdorf passers-by.
Predigerhof (Mühlegasse 15), long-time neighborhood bar, food and drinks at corner with Zähringerstrasse.
Rathaus Café (Limmatquai 61) within sight of Cranberry, on Limmat banks, huge outdoor seating area, mixed and trendy clientele. People-watching during afternoon lunch or tea; happy-hour drinks to late martinis (until midnight). Also morning coffee and the paper, opening weekdays at 7am.
Tip Top Bar (Seilergraben 13), welcoming local "schlager" party bar with Swiss and German music at the top of the hill.
Beyond Old Town
Gay Aqua (Hertistrasse 24), in Wallisellen, on the northeast outskirts, small gay men's sauna with bar, sling & cross, videos, dark room, massage. Off our map, see link here.
Magnusbar (Magnusstrasse 29), men-only bar, dark room, naked and jackoff parties, special fetish events -- open Thursday through Sunday.
Moustache Relax Club (Badenerstrasse 156), sauna with bar, steam, Finnish and bio-saunas, dark room, private cabins. Closed for renovations "until fall 2011."
Near Langstrasse, Reno's Relax Club Sauna (Kernstrasse 57) has fantasy dark room, lounge, TV rooms, all the steamy amenities -- the only sauna in town with Friday and Saturday overnight hours (until 7am).
Rage (Wagistrasse 13), about 3 kilometers out Badenerstrasse, large cruise zone, dark rooms and maze, Wednesday through Sunday nights. Regular schedule of leather / rubber / uniform fetish events and naked parties -- open Saturdays until 5am. They also have a dance floor for ongoing parties.
The gay Zurich circuit dance scene changes constantly, moving around to various venues. Check local press and flyers for what's on when you arrive.
AAAH (Marktgasse 14), dance club open every night of the year until 4am; men-only dark rooms and cabins for carnal relaxation between dances. Above Hotel Goldenes Schwert, where guests enter without charge.
Angels (Angels.ch) produces the annual White and Black circuit parties at Volkshaus (Stauffacherstrasse 60), also Folies au Lac, an open-air party each year in late July at Badi Tiefenbrunnen, on the shores of Lake Zurich. See the website for dates.
Behave (anything but straight) at ReVier Club (Hohlstrasse 18), small but lively gay/straight-friendly Tech-House, Deep-House and Electro dance parties.
entreNous, at Club Silbando (Förrlibuckstrasse 62), T-Dance, second Sundays each month, ballroom dancing, Tango, Waltz, Latin style.
Exil (Hardstrasse 245), dance party venue for several roving gay circuit parties and pride events.
Heldenbar at Provitreff (Sihlquai 240), mid-week queer, non-profit, live music space, party nights, hang-out for mixed group of gay/les/bi/hetero, mostly young people. Find it upriver from Hauptbahnhof.
T&M Disco (Marktgasse 14), first-rate drag performances, cabaret shows, DJs and dancing, young, energetic, mostly male crowd, Wednesday through Saturday above Hotel Goldenes Schwert.
X-Tra (Limmatstrasse 118), three dance floor party venue, home for the Wonderland Pride bash.
The Labyrinth parties, most recently held at Lotus Club, have been suspended, with no word on future plans. Likewise Testosterone at the now defunct Xces Club.
Erotik Factory (Badenerstrasse 254), gay and straight video/DVD sales and rentals, basement level of private gay video cabins.
An Old Town store of gay interest, Macho City Shop (Häringstrasse 16), porn emporium has DVDs, magazines, books and toys.
Männerzone & RoB Zurich (Kernstrasse 57) combination leather and fetish store; plus Friday and Saturday night industrial-ambiance bar for men-only.
Ministry of Kink (Engelstrasse 62), "the gay lifestyle company" has clothing, leather, rubber, army gear, toys, and DVDs for all interests. Also a wide variety of piercing jewelry, books, and magazines.
*** The following artlcle appeared in the July 2011 print edition of Guide Magazine:
Switzerland's Capital Cool
By David Walberg
I must be dreaming. I'm in a German city where everyone speaks German, as one would expect. And yet they all seem so French, preoccupied as they are with sensual pleasures and relaxation.
These so-called Germans savor food and drink at a languorous pace on sprawling outdoor patios. In the French fashion, the wines are dry and the breads are sweet. In Germany, as everyone knows, it's the wines that are sweet and the breads, so very dry.
True, the city is squeaky clean in the German tradition, and the trams and trains run on time, down to the second. But something is amiss. The real giveaway that I am in Zurich, Switzerland's largest city, lies in a detail that would seem unforgivably foreign in the fatherland: everyone smiles.
On the surface, Switzerland is quite neatly divided, almost balkanized, into its German, French and Italian pieces. Most Swiss Germans don't speak much French, although I'm told this is sometimes merely an affectation. Stereotypes are not far below the surface for both groups. The French accuse the Germans of being serious and dull. The Germans will sometimes say the French are lazy: the industrious Germans earn all the money for the Swiss, they say, but the French, with their addiction to elaborate social schemes, are quick to spend it.
Still, the cultures have lent more to one another than some Swiss would like to admit. This seems most evident in Zurich, the country's most cosmopolitan city, where Swiss Germans have developed their own style, one that owes plenty to their Latin confreres. It's a combination perhaps best expressed in Switzerland's most celebrated crafts: the precision of clockmakers meets the gourmet concerns of cheesemakers and the decadence of the chocolatiers. Zurich may have a reputation as a highly efficient financial hub, but the city is also a sensualist's playground.
Much of the city's relaxed spirit finds its focus on the water. Zurich is situated on a lake entirely surrounded by lush parks. Fresh, clear water flows into the lake from glaciers in the Alps, which provide a picturesque backdrop to the city. Boats are plentiful. The Limmat, the river that flows from the lake through the historic city centre, is banked by pedestrian promenades and outdoor bars and cafes.
Lakeside, people sprawl on the expansive lawns or the huge square docks built out into the water. The docks, like picture frames, surround swimming pool-sized holes, making it easy to take a refreshing dip. There are several of these pools, including one each for gay men (at Tiefenbrunnen) and bare-breasted lesbians (on the Limmat). At night, DJs set up booths and the docks transform into outdoor nightclubs.
Zurich is a party destination for European gay men. The city is known for its relaxed attitudes to the pleasures of sex, drugs and electronica. As in most places, such easy living has been hard fought and won.
Zurich's sex appeal was threatened by a police crackdown on darkrooms two years ago. "The police closed down a bar because they had a darkroom and argued in front of a court that it was illegal," says Pierre Rosselet, co-president of Pink Cross, the national gay men's advocacy group, itself an umbrella for dozens of regional chapters and smaller organizations. Rosselet, a lawyer by day, helped to successfully challenge the ruling, which was overturned last year.
"The first court said, yes, it's illegal. But then the supreme court of the state of Zurich ruled that a darkroom was legal if certain precautions were taken." Darkrooms and saunas once again flourish in the city. Of the victory, Rosselet says, "We are very happy and proud."
Electronic dance music fans flock to the city, particularly for the annual Streetparade, a citywide dance party with a definite gay vibe. Each August, every square inch of public space in Zurich is transformed into a disco. A roving party of club kids and drag queens in dayglo costumes flows through the streets while each of the city's many public squares becomes an outdoor dance club. Makeshift dance floors pop up everywhere: in parks, on boats and even in the giant main hall of the Hauptbahnhof, the central train station. The chief of police tried to ban the parade in 1994 but ultimately caved in the face of massive protests. These days, the city of Zurich is a major force behind the festival and, true to its sophisticated reputation, it even distributes information on how to avoid purchasing bad party drugs.
Switzerland's drug laws are among the most progressive in the world, Claude Janiak tells me. Janiak is a Swiss senator who, as the former president of the Swiss national assembly, was the country's first openly gay head of state. He has worked successfully in favor of drug decriminalization, immigration reform and gay civil unions. Janiak says the country's progressive legislation is simply a function of Swiss pragmatism.
"The Swiss drug policy," he says, "is an example of what I call the realpolitik. Fifteen years ago, they started with the program that the state gave the heroin to the people. And so the small criminality went down because [drug users] didn't have to steal money. I mean, the police have better things to do than to run after people with drugs." These days, while trafficking laws remain, possession of drugs - all drugs - has been decriminalized. This freedom is balanced with tough laws against driving under the influence. It's a bold approach that has inspired Germany to implement similar drug reforms.
Janiak also fought for gay civil unions. A bill was passed in 2004, but opponents collected the requisite 50,000 signatures to force a national referendum on the issue the following year. Janiak says he was not worried the law would be repealed. "I was quite sure that we would win it, because in the parliament it was approved largely.
"In Switzerland, normally such questions which concern the society, abortion for example, people are very realistic. So they know that there are abortions, and they prefer that it is legal and it's done in the hospital and not I-don't-know-where. Regarding gays and lesbians, people know that there are gays and lesbians," he laughs. Sure enough, the referendum approved gay civil unions by a large majority. It was the first time in the world that gay partnership rights were bestowed, not by a legislature, but directly by a country's citizens.
Corine Mauch, Zurich's chic lesbian mayor, was not so confident. "I was skeptical, I must say," she says. "I was very astonished when it passed with almost two-thirds of the people saying yes in Switzerland. This for me really was a signal; we have made large progress during the last three years." She is equally pleased that her lesbianism was not a negative factor in last year's mayoralty campaign. "I was elected with a very good result," she says. "For me this proved it's not an issue for the population of Zurich." Mauch was a member of parliament before becoming mayor. Before that, she was a bass player in a rock band. Now, she's working to make Zurich a greener city. "We have fixed in our city constitution our goal to be a sustainable city," she says. It's a goal that comes with ambitious self-imposed standards and deadlines. The city recently built a highway around itself, to keep traffic from entering the city and encourage transit use instead.
One can get anywhere quickly and effortlessly via Zurich's transit system. Trams run constantly, often on dedicated streets, and tram connections are breathtakingly precise. But when I suggest to Mauch that Zurich already seems to have a perfect transit system, she expresses great surprise, "No, we don't!" "The starting point is good," she concedes, "but we have to realize it still." This realization involves a little social engineering to alter habits. "We really want to force people to take the way around the city," she says.
Thanks to the smarts and efforts of Switzerland's progressive gay and lesbian politicians and activists, Zurich stands to become still less polluted, more efficient, more relaxed and a lot sexier.
Swiss International Airlines (swiss.com) is exactly what you'd expect from its namesake: an efficient and comforting way to make your way across the ocean. Service is meaningfully engaging and details are managed properly. Tyler Brele, the gay Canadian founder of Wallpaper and Monocle magazines, oversaw the airline's makeover a few years back.
Once you've arrived, a Swiss rail pass (sbb.ch/en) is a shockingly affordable way to get around, even in first class. Restaurants tend to be somewhat pricey across the land, but the quality of food is generally high. Hotels are expensive in Zurich, but they generally offer many free services, like breakfasts that eliminate the need for lunch, which help mitigate the cost.
WHERE TO STAY
Zurich hotels divide roughly into two camps: traditional Swiss charm and ubermodern sleek and stylish. In the former camp, the Alden (alden.ch) is the best example. Built in 1895, the hotel's exterior resembles a miniature palace. Inside, there are just 22 rooms and suites, each one unique. Rooms are cozy but never twee, with an emphasis on elaborate spa-like bathrooms. They offer free old-school services like shoe shining, and the daily breakfast is an elaborate affair that includes serve-yourself Champagne. On the sleek front, the new Park Hyatt (zurich.park.hyatt.com) is a marvel. The shiny dark exterior is minimalist perfection, making a nice backdrop for drinks or dinner from the sidewalk patio. The lobby lounge's vaulted ceilings and massive modern fireplace make the indoor option equally delightful.
-- David Walberg is publisher and editor at large at Pink Triangle Press, which publishes Guide magazine.
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