SWITZERLAND - Divided linguistically and culturally, Switzerland does not have a typical city. What its three biggest – Zurich, Geneva and Basel – do have in common, however, is an appreciation of quality. This innately Swiss characteristic is evident in the art institutions, Michelin-starred restaurants – more per capita than in any other country – and homegrown design brands in all three cities.

Quality exudes from every cobblestone in Zurich’s Old Town, a must for its museums, riverside promenades, medieval churches and high-end shopping. Be sure not to miss the absorbing Kunsthaus, the country’s leading fine-art museum, Cabaret Voltaire, the café-pub where the Dada movement was born in 1916, and the Kronenhalle restaurant, which displays the personal art collection of former owner Gustav Zumsteg. Hours can be spent in the numerous fashion and watch boutiques of Bahnhofstrasse, including Bucherer, Türler and Beyer, whose in-house museum has a fascinating collection of 250 timepieces. 

Lately, however, Zurich has created new hot spots outside the traditional centre. Hip developments in the former industrial buildings of Zurich West have helped shake off the city’s long-standing reputation as a slick but rather unexciting place, cultivating a new cultural life. Renovated in 2012 as part of the regeneration is the Löwenbräukunst, a former brewery housing two superb contemporary art museums – the Kunsthalle and the Migros Museum – and several commercial galleries, with young dealers such as Jean-Claude Freymond-Guth sitting alongside established names Eva Presenhuber, Francesca Pia and Bob van Orsouw. 

old_town_zurich_2WThe Old Town of Zurich.

Where else can you see so much culture so efficiently? For visitors it’s fantastic,” says Heike Munder, director of the Migros Museum für Gegenwartskunst. Occupying the same building means “we have more energy to create a vibrant atmosphere together, so the whole building becomes more and more active. Moreover, the entire neighbourhood has changed. Now there are restaurants, galleries and cafés everywhere.” 

While there, visit the nearby Im Viadukt, a collection of boutiques and speciality shops under the arches of a railway bridge, and the architecturally impressive Schiffbau, a former ship-building plant turned cultural centre which also houses the industrial-chic restaurant LaSalle.

grand-hotel-lwa-trois-rois-atrium_5The atrium of the Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois.

The area gives Zurich an energy that Francophone Geneva, a three-hour drive away, might not quite match. But it is trying. When it comes to contemporary art this quiet, refined city is emerging from the shadows of its Swiss-German compatriot thanks to the Association du Quartier des Bains, a collective of five art institutions and thirteen commercial galleries clustered in the Bains neighbourhood in central Geneva. Here, contemporary art museum MAMCO sits near the newly renovated Musée d’ethnographie de Genève (MEG) and commercial galleries including Mezzanin, Bernard Ceysson and Patrick Cramer. 

If you can, visit during La Nuit des Bains (this year on 19 March, 28 May and 17 September) when the galleries stay open late. “On any weekday this is still a quiet neighbourhood,” says MAMCO external relations manager Garrett Landolt, “but on La Nuit des Bains it’s always busy and there’s a great feel; people play music, bars are open late.”

Its galleries may not have the international profile of Zurich’s, but many, such as Espace Quark, are making a name for themselves locally by championing young artists from the area, while burgeoning art fair artgenève, which staged its fourth edition this January, is attracting international attention. 

In contrast, Geneva’s watchmaking industry needs no introduction. The city has been a watchmaking centre since the 16th century when Reformation leader John Calvin banned the wearing of jewellery, turning local goldsmiths to watchmaking instead. Explore the myriad boutiques along Rue du Rhône, including Roger Dubuis, Audemars Piguet, Breguet and Omega, before visiting the Patek Philippe Museum, whose collection of antique timepieces is “really wonderful,” says Christophe Roulet, editor of Haute Horlogerie magazine, published by the foundation that runs Geneva’s industry fair Le Salon International de la Haute Horlogerie (SIHH). He also suggests making appointments to visit the watchmaking workshops in two suburbs of Geneva – Plan-les-Ouates and Meyrin – where many major brands have headquarters.

While SIHH and artgenève are important fairs, neither matches the scale and international reach of Basel’s two luxury events. Watch and jewellery fair Baselworld, every March, and June’s Art Basel, both at the Messe exhibition centre, generate a huge buzz in Switzerland’s third city, boosting its restaurants, nightlife and art and design scene as eager crowds flock in. 

Art Basel is “a benchmark that inspires people,” says Raphael Wyniger, owner of Der Teufelhof, an innovative hotel that uses the profits from its rooms and restaurants – including the Michelin-starred Bel Etage – to fund theatre and independent art exhibitions in its building. “It really has an influence on young people,” he adds, citing the city’s LISTE fair for young artists as a favourite. 

patek-philippe-museum-geneva_4A masterpiece of watchmaking at the Patek Philippe Museum in Geneva.

Undoubtedly economically vital for Basel, the two shows are considered by some to be all Basel can offer international visitors seeking culture, but that’s not the case. While Basel has fewer commercial galleries than Zurich, its public art institutions such as the Kunsthalle, Museum für Gegenwartskunst and Kunstmuseum (under renovation until 2016) are among the country’s best. Meanwhile the city’s wealth has generated significant private investment in art including the superlative Fondation Beyeler and the Schaulager, which displays the collection of the Emanuel Hoffmann Foundation. 

Basel’s streets are also like artworks, from the beautifully preserved medieval Old Town to the contemporary architecture of city natives Herzog and de Meuron in buildings including the Messe Basel and the bar-restaurant of the Volkshaus cultural venue. Lose yourself in the alleys and boutiques of Spalenberg or the jewellery stores on Freie Strasse before rounding off your visit at arguably the city’s most artistic restaurant, the two Michelin-starred Stucki, whose chef Tanja Grandits creates food that sums up Switzerland perfectly – beautiful, understated and of
superb quality.

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