10 New Reasons to Love Switzerland Now

Peter Hebeisen

From Zurich to Geneva to Bern—and places in between—Departures goes in search of the new Swiss cool.

Let’s face it, Switzerland isn’t exactly famous for its vibrant, ferociously modern energy. It’s picturesque, of course, but it’s all just so, well, neutral. Today, however, those who know where to look will find that the country can provide as many exciting, of-the-moment pleasures as anywhere else in Europe. And with the Swiss franc offering a better exchange rate than the euro, it does so for less money, too.

1 Avant Architecture

The country clearly has an appetite for contemporary design. Basel native Peter Zumthor won this year’s Pritzker prize—the Pulitzer of architecture—and almost every big-name architect working today has a seminal building here. Among the newest is Daniel Libeskind’s Westside Shopping Center, which opened just outside Bern last October. Yes, it’s a shopping mall and—aside from the Bernaqua Adventure Pool & Spa—not a particularly exciting one at that. But the building itself, with the razor-sharp angles of its locust-wood exterior, has quickly become an iconic city landmark and a pilgrimage site for architecture buffs. At 100 Riedbachstrasse, Bern; westside.ch.

2 High-Altitude Cuisine

Restaurants in the top Swiss ski resorts have been redefining Alpine dining, marrying contemporary design and gastronomy with updates on local cuisine and architecture. It began in 2004 in Gstaad, where Alain Ducasse created the modern French menu at Chlösterli (dinner, $100; 3783 Grund Bei; chlosterli.com). The cuisine has since been taken over by Michelin-starred chef Martin Dalsass, who added Mediterranean influences to the restaurant, which is housed in a 300-year-old chalet redone by French designer Patrick Jouin. More recently architect Norman Foster did the sleek Post Haus (dinner, $120; 3 Via dal Vout) in St. Moritz, which riffs in a very modern way on classic seafood dishes. And at Heimberg (dinner, $115; 84 Bahnhofstrasse; heimberg-zermatt.ch) in Zermatt, local artist Heinz Julen transformed a rustic all-wood space, doing it up with contemporary touches like a chandelier made of forks and wineglasses. Here, chef Klaus Schlachter reinvents old recipes inspired by the Alpine terroir to create combinations like marinated summer deer carpaccio with truffled ricotta and beetroot gazpacho.

3 Insider Access

For five years Zurich’s Mehrwert Services has been doing concierge duty for clients of Swiss banks, securing, say, a high-season reservation at an impossible-to-book modernist chalet in Gstaad. Now Mehrwert has also teamed up with the Swiss tourist board to create Premium Switzerland. Like a Switzerland-specific Quintessentially—but without the membership requirement—the collaboration extends the company’s Rolodex to visitors, providing customized travel itineraries and facilitating last-minute ticket requests to the likes of Art Basel, the Lucerne Festival, and the Montreux Jazz Festival. premiumswitzerland.com

4 No Nip/No Tuck

Luxe Swiss spas like La Prairie are known for their noninvasive antiaging treatments—therapies that favor enzymes and vitamins over the scalpel. The newest will be Verbier’s Solmaï, which opens in December as a collaboration between the ski resort’s Chalet Solmaï and the self-proclaimed “skin architect” Jo Robbins. It will be the only spa in Switzerland to use the Brit’s “cosmoceuticals” product line, so named because it combines cosmetics with pharmaceuticals that are usually only employed after surgery. Many of the services, the Timeless Body Rejuvenator, for example, aim to improve the skin by promoting tissue regeneration, increasing collagen density, and correcting discoloration. At 51 Route de Station Verbier; solmai.com.

5 Art for Sale

Basel may be the country’s star contemporary art world attraction, but from August 21 to 30, Swiss and international galleries will come to St. Moritz, displaying work in the resort’s public areas and top hotels for the second annual St. Moritz Art Masters Festival (stmoritzartmasters.com). Last year orchestras from Vienna and St. Petersburg were flown in for the occasion, and one could buy a David LaChapelle photograph at the Protestant French Church in town or an Ugo Rondinone sculpture from Zurich’s Eva Presenhuber Gallery at Badrutt’s Palace Hotel. For those who can’t make it to the festival, there are always the country’s best galleries: Geneva’s cutting-edge collective Quartier des Bains (quartierdesbains.ch), with works by French painter Pierre Dunoyer and fashion designer-cum-photographer Kris Van Assche, and Galerie Gmurzynska (gmurzynska.com), which specializes in modern and 20th-century Russian avant-garde works and has showrooms in Zurich, St. Moritz, and Zug.

6 A Sweet Suite

Norman Foster’s complete renovation and expansion of Zurich’s 110-year-old Dolder Grand hotel has two very different sides. On the one hand, there are the refurbished Belle Epoque spaces in the original castlelike building; on the other, there’s the glass and aluminum minimalism of the new golf and spa wings. Somehow it all works together—albeit for a price. Take the $7,000-a-night Carezza Suite, for example, which falls cleanly into the latter category. The two-bedroom, 2,500-square-foot space emulates the curvilinear Alberto Giacometti sculpture for which it’s named, with wavy plaster-covered walls gently uplit by floor lights. The two bathrooms have whirlpool baths and steam showers, with a sauna in one, and in the screening room a large flat-panel television is hidden behind custom-built walnut-wood cabinetry. In the living room floor-to-ceiling windows give out onto Zurich and the Alps beyond—views that can also be enjoyed from the wrap-around terrace. Standard rooms, from $770. At 65 Kurhausstrasse; thedoldergrand.com.

7 The Sounds of Music

The Swiss cultural calendar offers musical events of every kind, with the summer’s annual Lucerne Festival as the highlight. The focus is definitely on the classical, but what makes it more modern are the premières of new works and artists. This year’s program, held August 12 through September 19, includes 11 world-debut compositions plus 22-year-old Chinese pianist Yuja Wang performing with the Lucerne Festival Orchestra and its cofounder, Claudio Abbado, on August 12, 14, and 15. Tickets, from $30; 41-41/226-4400; lucernefestival.ch.

8 Alpine Idyll

Snow can be hard to guarantee at many ski resorts in Switzerland. Not so at Adelboden-Frutigen, however, a downhill destination just east of Lausanne. Its location 4,400 feet above sea level and newly expanded snowmaking system ensure plentiful powder December through April. The Solis Cambrian (rooms, from $220; 7 Dorfstrasse; solisadelboden.com) is the hotel of choice here, and the racecourses on the Chuenisbärgli run have made the area a regular host of the Ski World Cup. During this past season’s competition, a tented VIP Sky Lounge opened, providing great views, plus food and drink, from its position 60 feet over the races. (Tickets can be reserved by calling Kathrin Hager at 41-33/673-8084; only about 200 are available.) Last winter the resort also launched an on-mountain concierge “care team” to provide dining recommendations and direct skiers to the best slopes. Full-day lift tickets, $50; 41-33/673-8080; adelboden.ch.

9 The Titan of Tennis

Roger Federer, the 27-year-old Basel-born tennis star, epitomizes Swiss calm and precision. Patrick McEnroe described him as “Baryshnikov in sneakers,” and fellow champion Tracy Austin called him “a symphony in tennis whites.” Currently ranked no. 2 in the world, he was no. 1 from February 2004 until last summer. In July he lost a nearly five-hour Wimbledon finals match to Rafael Nadal but in August won gold in men’s doubles at the Beijing Olympics, and the autumn saw him secure Switzerland’s promotion to the Davis Cup World Group for 2009. (The country didn’t make it the year before.) This fall, from October 31 through November 8, he’s playing on his home turf, at the Davidoff Swiss Indoors tournament in Basel (tickets, from $25; davidoffswissindoors.ch).

10 Zurich by Design

Zurich’s Bahnhofstrasse is the city’s Rodeo Drive or Fifth Avenue, lined with international labels like Chanel, Dior, and Tiffany. For shopping that’s edgier and on-trend, the stylish head across town to the Langstrasse neighborhood. Here, in the revamped red-light district, a selection of one-of-a-kind boutiques stocks homegrown designs. The atelier and gallery Making Things (20 Grüngasse; makingthings.ch) mounts exhibitions by local artists, illustrators, and photographers and sells its own handprinted line of wearable silkscreened men’s, women’s, and baby designs. Around the corner is Tran Hin Phu (32 Birmensdorferstrasse; tranhinphu.com), named for its Chinese Vietnamese fashion designer who specializes in airy graphic-print silk blouses and figure-conscious silk jersey, cotton, and linen dresses in a neutral palette. And at Zwei 25 (25 Zweierstrasse; zwei25.ch), owner Nathalie Schweizer does “demure” dresses, which she sells in addition to her husband’s modular steel furniture.

And the One Classic We Had To Revisit

Jean Nouvel’s übercontemporary KKL Cultural and Congress Center, built in 2000, and Santiago Calatrava’s train station hall, opened in 1989, define Lucerne’s Bahnhofplatz, but it’s the city’s more history-steeped sites that truly charm: the medieval 14th-century covered Chapel Bridge; the Historical Museum of Lucerne, with its handicrafts and folk art; and, not least of all, poetic Lake Lucerne, famously painted by J.M.W. Turner in 1842. Located on the water, directly across the lake from the KKL, and built in 1906, the 136-room neoclassical Palace Luzern (rooms, from $500; 10 Haldenstrasse; palace-luzern.ch), with its immaculately restored Art Deco black-and-white marble foyer, is the perfect base for taking in the city’s storied past.