Suddenly the nearby ski resorts don’t seem so much fun.

Zurich has a reputation as a lifeless centre of international finance.

You can add to that the manic Swiss organisation and efficiency, and an uptightness that makes the Queen look like Jim Morrison.

It is also ranked globally number two for quality of life, and is the second most expensive city in the world.

But for those willing to look, a subversive subterranean Zurich exists, and it’s pretty easy to find – the city has a population of under 400,000, after all.

A rich history 

Like many places dominated by commerce, there is a strong reaction against it.

Some locals refer to the city as ‘Zu-reich’, meaning ‘too rich’, and there is a history of radicalism – James Joyce lived in Zurich during the 1920s and ’30s (he is buried in the Fluntern Cemetery), Lenin took refuge here in 1916, and the Dadaist art movement began in the city in the 1920s.

But modern Zurich is a unique experience, even if the city remains pricey. Most of the action is in the west, far from main street Bahnhofstrasse and its luxury shopping.

The former industrial district has undergone a transformation in the last decade, and is a hub for music venues, theatres and things such as Binz, a former factory that now hosts plays, concerts, films and exhibitions, as well as housing up to 40 squatters.

All time high 

Down the road is Letten, home to Europe’s largest open-air heroin market until police closed it down in 1995.

Now, it’s an idyllic spot on the Limmat river where teenagers and 20-somethings congregate in summer to swim, and then drift into a nearby arts centre that doubles as a bar for refreshment.

Shady characters still dwell here, as the man who offered me a bag of something illegal can testify.

It is behind the veneer of respectability that Zurich’s exciting new identity lies. You have to look beyond the suits and famous Swiss reserve to find it, but it’s there.

Nearby ski resorts


As a favourite among locals and tourists alike, Flumserberg can get busy in high season, but offers tobogganing and dog sleds for non-skiers, and has the additional attraction of being only 45 minutes by car from Zurich.


One of the biggest resorts within striking distance of Zurich.

Monks brought skiing here in the early 20th century and Engelberg now boasts 26 ski lifts and 82km of ski runs. It is also home to the world’s first revolving cable car.


A tranquil and quiet retreat, this is the pick of the bunch.

Two hours from Zurich, Andermatt is something of a hidden gem.

The resort offers endless off-piste opportunities and sits amid imposing peaks, while the town itself is one of Switzerland’s prettiest mountain villages.