Zürich, which sits astride the Limmat River at the point where it emerges from the Zürichsee (Lake Zürich), is a beautiful city. Its charming Altstadt, which makes up a substantial part of the city center, is full of elegantly restored historic buildings as well as first-rate shopping, both in exclusivity and uniqueness. In the distance, snowy mountains overlook the lake, whose shores are dominated by centuries-old mansions. Few high-rise buildings disturb the skyline, and their heights are modest by U.S. standards.
Zürich was renowned as a center for commerce as early as the 12th century; many of its diligent merchants had made fortunes dealing in silk, wool, linen, and leather goods. By 1336 this privileged class had become too powerful in the view of the newly emerging band of tradesmen and laborers who, allied with a charismatic aristocrat named Rudolf Brun, overthrew the merchants' town council and established Zürich's famous trade guilds. Those 13 original guilds didn't lose power until the French Revolution—and even today they maintain their prestige. Every year Zürich's leading businessmen dress up in medieval costumes for the guilds' traditional march through the streets, heading for the magnificent guildhalls.
If the guilds defined Zürich's commerce, the Reformation defined its soul. From his pulpit in the Grossmünster, Ulrich Zwingli galvanized the region, and he ingrained in Zürichers a devotion to thrift and industriousness so successfully that it ultimately led them into temptation: the temptation to achieve global influence and tremendous wealth. Today the Zürich stock exchange is the fourth largest in the world, after those of New York, London, and Tokyo.
Nevertheless, Zürich is not your typical cold-hearted business center. In 1916 a group of artists and writers rebelling against the restraints of traditional artistic expression—among them Tristan Tzara, Jean Arp, and Hugo Ball—founded the avant-garde Dadaist movement here. The fertile atmosphere also attracted Irish author James Joyce, who spent years here while re-creating his native Dublin in Ulysses and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Today the city's extraordinary museums and galleries and luxurious shops along Bahnhofstrasse, Zürich's Fifth Avenue, attest to its position as Switzerland's cultural—if not political—capital.
In recent years “Züri,” as it’s known by the locals, has won a number of global accolades as one of the most “liveable” cities because of it's green spaces, efficient and timely transport system, and cleanliness. Swiss precision and eye for detail is visible everywhere, and no district is left untouched or forgotten. Even the so-called rougher areas are well kept by international standards. Zürich is a far cry from what it was thought to be 30 years ago: dull, closed to outsiders, and rigid. Today’s city is a vibrant, multicultural metropolis that maintains the cool, modern, and international elegance that the Swiss pull off with perfection.