Art installation of red trhreads hanging from a gallery ceiling with hundreds of pairs of suspended glasses

A weekend in Zürich

Where old-world elegance meets contemporary creativity

by Edel Cassidy
Words Edel Cassidy

Zürich is a symphony of experiences, harmonising old-world charm and modern vibrancy. Famous worldwide for its financial institutions, indulgent chocolates and luxury watches, it is also known for its more formal social etiquette. But behind this lofty façade, there is another side to Zürich. 

During World War I, the city became a haven for artists, intellectuals and thinkers who sought refuge from the ravages of war. Among these bohemian expatriates was Hugo Ball, a German author and performance artist who penned the Dada Manifesto.

Swiss Design Style emerged in the 1950s, but its origin was influenced by the modernist art movements of the 1910s and 1920s: Bauhaus in Germany, De Stijl in the Netherlands and Constructivism in Russia. The Swiss Style aesthetic has a unique identity based on functionality, minimalism, quality and innovation. 

Two young people with brightly-coloured backpacks against a green tiled wall
Freitag bags are created out of recycled truck tarps, seat belts and airbags

The Helvetica typeface was created in 1957 by Max Miedinger who was born in Zürich in 1910. The font, known for its functional elegance, is an icon of Swiss Style and is everywhere in Zürich – from stations, trams and buses to road and shop signs, even the branding for Zürich tourism.

Other notable Swiss designs include the Swiss Army Knife, Velcro, the Rex potato and vegetable peeler, and the Freitag bag – one of Switzerland’s greatest success stories. The bags are created out of recycled truck tarps, seat belts and airbags. Then there’s Mondaine, which manufactures the Swiss watches known the world over for their precision.

And Zürich itself runs as efficiently as the watches and clocks it produces. Trains and buses always run on time, arriving at the exact minute scheduled. Transportation is very well connected, with rail, bus, tram and ferry using one integrated ticketing system. The Swiss Travel Pass includes all journeys by train, bus and boat, and – a bonus for art lovers – it gives admission to over 500 Swiss museums.

25hours Hotel Zürich

My hotel, 25hours Hotel Zürich, was conveniently located in the heart of the city and within walking distance of the train station. A vibrant fusion of design, comfort and urban flair, it immerses guests in a dynamic atmosphere that captures Zürich’s creative spirit. The quirky, stylish rooms are spacious with a minimalist no-frills décor. There’s a complimentary minibar, with soft drinks, beer and snacks, and a Freitag bag on loan for the duration of guests’ stay.

A busy and vibrant bar interior with a bicycle suspended from the ceiling
25hours Hotel Zürich is a vibrant fusion of design, comfort and urban flair

Zürich Art Weekend

The city features an amazing line-up of cultural festivals throughout the year. I planned my recent visit to coincide with Zürich Art Weekend. Founded in 2018, it takes place annually on the weekend before Art Basel, the world’s leading fair for the international art market. The timing makes Zürich an unmissable stopover for collectors, gallerists, auction houses, critics and artists on their way to Basel. 

Over the weekend there is a programme of more than 100 events – from exhibition openings, guided tours and performances to thought-provoking panel discussions, cocktails and gatherings – at over 73 venues across the city. 

A person looking at a work of art in a gallery
Collage by Cindy Sherman at Hauser and Wirth. Courtesy of Zürich Art Weekend. Photo: Urs Westerman

Zürich Art Walks

To familiarise myself with some of the exhibitions and events participating in Zürich Art Weekend, I joined the Zürich Art Walk. Entry to the venues and the tour were free and it took approximately two hours. The highlights for me were:

  • The Marjorie Strider Exhibition at Galerie Gmurzynska. This is a retrospective exhibition of the understudied Pop Art pioneer Marjorie Strider (1931–2014), who challenged the male-dominated New York art scene of the 1960s and 1970s. Seeing herself as a sculptor, she playfully manipulates the viewer’s perspective by extending some of her paintings into the realm of three dimensions.
  • Chiharu Shiota, Eye to Eye. This acclaimed Japanese artist’s installation at Haus Konstruktiv was quite extraordinary. Thousands of red threads hanging from the ceiling filled the room, with a pathway left for visitors to walk through and become immersed in the experience. Attached to these threads were hundreds of old eyeglass frames. Preserving memories is important to Shiota’s work. All the frames have been previously worn, and although the wearers are unknown, their stories become part of viewers’ experience. Hints of their personality seep through in the diverse colour and style selection. 
  • Cabaret Voltaire, Spiegelgasse. The birthplace of the Dada movement was on my must-see list, so I was delighted when our tour made a brief stop there. It was here in 1916 that this zany artistic movement was formed in response to the horrors of World War I. The Dadaists defied the repressive conventions of contemporary capitalist culture, favouring spontaneity, irreverence and absurdity, and were strongly opposed to bourgeois values. The venue is now one of the city’s most vibrant contemporary art spaces. 
A vintage poster in cubist-style
Poster for the opening of the Cabaret Voltaire, 1916. Lithograph by Marcel Słodki

Further up this same street, at No. 14, Vladimir Lenin and his wife rented a two-room apartment in 1916, the same year that he finished his book Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, while quietly plotting the overthrow of Tsarist Russia. A commemorative plaque marks the location of the building. 

I went back to the Cabaret Voltaire later that day to watch a performance by Maria Kulikovska, a renowned Ukrainian performance artist from Crimea who has lived in exile since Russia’s annexation of the region. She bathed herself alongside a sculpture clone made from ballistic soap, a substance used for testing weapons due to its body-like density. The poignant ritual symbolised self-purification and an attempt to heal trauma through care.

Other highlights from my weekend in Zürich

  • Kunsthaus Zürich is one of Europe’s great modern art museums boasting an impressive collection, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens, Monet, Munch, Picasso, Van Gogh and Matisse. 
  • Fluntern Cemetery is the final resting place of James Joyce, and there are many other landmarks associated with his time in Zürich. Joyce was among the eclectic mix of pacifists, revolutionaries and artists who sought refuge in Zürich during World War I and this is where he penned a substantial part of Ulysses. The Odeon Café, which Joyce often visited, has preserved the beautiful Art Nouveau décor in its original form since the café first opened more than 100 years ago. The James Joyce Foundation, based in Zürich, was established in 1985 and commemorates the writer’s connection to the city. Café Pfauen, located beside the Kunsthaus where Joyce sipped coffee and wrote during his exile in Zürich, sadly no longer exists. It was also a favourite of Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso. 
  • Lindenhof Hill offers breathtaking views of the city and the Limmat River. This historic site, once a Roman settlement, is an oasis of calm and relaxation – an ideal place for a picnic. 
  • Kronenhalle Restaurant, founded by Hulda and Gustav Zumsteg in 1924, was a favourite of local creatives and those visiting Zürich, including James Joyce, Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent and Marc Chagall. Today it continues to be Zürich’s most iconic restaurant, carrying on the legacy of the founders who were serious art collectors. The venue still displays works from the Zumstegs’ collection, including those by Picasso, Miró, Chagall and Rodin.
Large of a modern gallery building
Entrance to the recently opened extension at Kunsthaus Zürich, designed by David Chipperfield Architects. Courtesy of Kunsthaus Zürich
Three stained-glass windows in blue, green and yellow
Stained-glass windows by Marc Chagall in Fraumünster Church. Photo: Edel Cassidy
  • E-Bike Public Art Tour is a great way to see art in public spaces, buildings and hidden places that only insiders know about. I had no idea what to expect as it was my first time on an e-bike. So, with brief instructions, I hopped on. Hesitant at first, especially as we were navigating city traffic, trams and pedestrians, I managed to keep up and was delighted by how effortlessly the e-bike handled challenging uphill rides.
  • Lake Zürich is bordered by picturesque promenades and parks. The surrounding mountains create a stunning backdrop for leisurely boat rides and lakeside strolls. There are several restaurants surrounding the lake. I decided to try dinner at the Fischerstube Zürihorn seafood restaurant because of its unique location overlooking the water.
  • Fraumünster Church, a beautiful building in the heart of the historic Old Town, dates back to the 9th century. The choir has five large stained-glass windows created by Belarussian-born artist Marc Chagall in the 1960s. Each one has a dominant colour and depicts a biblical story. In the north transept is another significant glass window, The Heavenly Paradise, created by Augusto Giacometti in 1945. Beneath it lies the massive 5,793-pipe organ, the largest organ in Zürich.
A girl sitting on a wall overlooking the river and riverbank in Zürich
Lindenhof Hill offers breathtaking views of the city and the Limmat River
  • ‘A weekend in Zürich’ is published in Anthology Volume 20. Read more features from this volume or buy it now.
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