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How Zurich Is Throwing Off Its Business-Only Reputation

Once a glossy banker’s paradise, Switzerland’s moneymaking hub is casting off its upper-crust image and returning to its century-old roots.

In the annals of European art history, Zurich’s pivotal role in the rise of surrealism is often overlooked. A century ago, when the war was raging, the Swiss city became a haven for artists and writers who, together, dreamt up the hugely influential Dadaist movement in the atmospheric cafes and velvet-lined cabaret halls of the old town, which sits on either side of the Münsterbrücke Bridge. This period of intense creativity that thrived during World War I would ultimately lead to surrealism and beat poetry.

Today, the picture-perfect medieval heart of the city is still filled with fairy-tale spires, gold-fronted cake shops, and ornate trams rattling along winding streets. But a 15-minute drive will bring you to Zurich-West, a thriving, former industrial area more reminiscent of edgy Berlin than any Swiss city, where the local creative set is getting its mojo back. Once again, we can credit the artists with the city’s cultural rebirth. When the western districts were all but abandoned in the 1980s, warehouses and shipping containers sat disused for decades. At the same time, aspiring artists were being forced out of the city center by astronomical rents and a lack of studio space.

Courtesy IKOO

Lowenbrau-Kunst (Oberdorfstrasse 2; 41-44/307-7900), a sprawling brewery dating back to 1897, was home to the first kernel of Zurich-West creativity. It sat abandoned until a group of young creatives moved in around the early 2000s, quickly transforming it into an artistic hub. Over the years, big-name tenants like Migros Museum fur Gegenwartskunst, one of the city’s most important contemporary art museums, and prestigious galleries including Hauser & Wirth and Kunsthalle Zurich, moved in, choosing the Zurich-West district over venues in old town.

These galleries have played an essential role in redefining Zurich’s identity, but to ensure artists continue to have somewhere to work, the local council started creating independent, artist-run “off spaces,” which offer rent-free studios and galleries. They have proliferated at such an astounding rate that Zurich is now home to one of the most dynamic non-commercial art scenes in Europe. In Berlin, the old adage goes, “You can’t throw a stone without hitting an artist.” And while that may be true, it still has a paltry number of subsidized artists’ spaces by comparison to the Swiss capital.

Dienstgebaude (Töpferstrasse 26; 41-76/211-7112) is the most atmospheric, thanks to a sleek white interior with views over an emerald green park. Housed in a former printing factory near Zurich-West, it holds a series of rolling exhibitions for in-house artists—and luckily for any aspiring collectors, most of the work is for sale.

And where artists lead, designers and chefs soon follow. Im Viadukt (Limmtstrasse 259; 41-44/412-8393) was an abandoned 19th-century viaduct that was transformed into a buzzing food hall and fashion quarter in 2010. A five-minute walk southeast from Lowenbrau-Kunst, it has more than 20 farm stands and market stalls specializing in Japanese cuisine, Swiss fondue, and Peruvian ceviche, as well as galleries and fashion boutiques tucked beneath its 36 viaduct arches selling an eclectic assortment of goods.

The concept store Cabinet showcases home décor, jewelry, and fashion within a rustic, industrial space, while Street-Files carries emerging Nordic streetwear brands alongside established labels like Ontour and RVLT. At Soeder, you’ll find unisex grooming products made to smell like wood fires, freshwater lakes, and mountain air. (It’s also the kind of place where bearded Swiss hipsters offer a hot cup of Ethiopian coffee while you’re browsing.) “I think one reason why our shop is so popular is that it’s very local—the mix of quality, creativity, and comfort is Swiss down to the core,” says Soeder director Johan Olzon.

And if all this shopping is making you hungry, the restaurants are as creative as the clothes. Housed in a series of converted shipping containers on a grassy field is Frau Gerolds Garten (Geroldstrasse 23/23a; 41-78/971-6764). Like everything in Zurich-West, it began life a few years ago as an affordable place for artists, poets, and designers to meet and eat on the cheap. With graffiti-covered walls, food trucks selling Sri Lankan pancakes and Korean poke, and live music most evenings, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were light years away from Zurich’s inner-city Disney spires.

Fabian Fretz

Or there is the fashionable Tribeka district, where a series of small specialty establishments are crammed next to one other over six or seven winding avenues. Buckets of flowers from independent florists line the streets filled with galleries, shoe shops, and along with a number of book, craft, and vinyl stores. But most of all in Tribeka, there are the restaurants. Italian favorites are always packed on the weekends.

There is Cento Passi (Stauffacherstrasse 119; 41-76/513-2204), where pasta is a religion and Fat Tony (Langstrasse 135; 044-291/68-75), which serves the best Neapolitan pizza in the city. Café du Bonheur (Zypressenstrasse 115; 41-44/558-9900) is filled with lavender vases and serves classic French fare with a particular focus on all things caramelized, so leave space for dessert.  Palestine Grill (Langstrasse 92) focuses on cuisine from the Middle East—think rich stews filled with eggplants, red peppers, dill, garlic, and cumin, while Ikoo (Bäckerstrasse 39; 41-44/370-3776) is a sleek Japanese spot filled with wildflowers and specializing in ramen, gyoza, and onigiri.

But more than the trendy new restaurants and concept stores specializing in the latest in style and fashion, Zurich-West has played an essential role in helping the Swiss creative set get their confidence back. In other words, Berlin had better watch its back.

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