I’m not going to lie, when I first moved to Zurich I had a bad time of it. While, logically, I could see it was a beautiful town in a stunning country where life is clean, safe, affluent and well-appointed, I was solidly miserable – I’d given up my friends, a great job and the ease of living life in my native tongue for nice scenery?
But nearly four years on, I am much happier. And after talking to a friend who had just moved cities, I started thinking about all the unexpectedly great things I’ve come to appreciate about my adopted hometown of Zurich. So here are the 12 ways in which Zurich has (pleasantly) surprised me.
1 Culture shock
I moved to Zurich after almost a decade in London, before which I lived in Sydney. They’re all international cities of the world, and I thought moving from one European country’s largest city to another would not be a major change. But it was. It’s subtle, sure, but it’s there. Everything from the new language(s!) and points of etiquette, to the way people queued, to everyday smells on the street. Ultimately, I think it’s both eye-opening, mind-broadening and even humbling to experience this, but it wasn’t exactly the fun and easy adventure I had anticipated.
Shopping is like a national sport in the UK, Australia and the US. In Switzerland, while people love to spend their money, the attitude to ‘hitting the shops’ feels quite different. For one thing, most shops are shut on Sundays. There’s less variety and everything is so expensive, even online. It really makes you re-think the amount of time you dedicate to shopping, and you know what? I feel better for buying less.
Since I already had a young child when I moved here and have had another since, my hard-drinking days are (mostly!) behind me. However, I do highly rate the general Swiss attitude to booze. There’s far less of a cane-it culture here which means you don’t have to deal with idiots falling out of pubs or pissed footy hooligans. Dinner parties and barbecues with mates end at sensible times and leave me with a pleasant buzz rather than feeling complete blotto. Although I do think it's a bit weird to come out of a stadium rock concert and find all the local pubs deserted!
Claire Doble in Zurich. Photo: Claire Doble
4. Rules culture
My community spirit has risen since moving to Switzerland. I often exchange greetings with locals and neighbours. And I’m now the person who politely rinses their wine bottles before trundling down to the communal recycling bins (carefully separated by glass colour and only within the correct hours of course). People will tell you there are a lot of rules in Switzerland, and it’s true, there are. But I find they’re mostly sensible and if you follow said rules, you’re pretty much left alone to live your life your own way. Which gets rid of a lot of silly, patronizing nanny-state-type attitudes. Genius!
5. The great outdoors and exercise
I’ve been a city-girl all my life. Offer me an evening of dressing up and clubbing and I’d take that over a hike and wellness any day. Or would I? Mountains, lakes, forests, hiking trails: all that nature grows on you, if you’ll pardon the pun. The Swiss population has the fourth-lowest obesity rate in the OECD countries and it shows. Exercise gives you a ‘mountain high’, which is surprisingly fun and addictive; plus I’ve discovered a whole new world of kit in which to show off one’s freshly toned bod. Win-win!
In London, the municipal pools are all tiny and grotty or huge, freezing outdoor lidos. Either way they’re crowded as heck whenever you’d care to go and spookily deserted at other times. In Sydney, there are sandy beaches and a pool on every corner named after an Olympian, but you can’t park anywhere and the transport sucks. Zurich has a nice mix of lakes, indoor and outdoor pools, all easily accessible via public transport. Plus they pretty much all have free-to-use giant waterslides, which I find very exciting (I mean my kids do, ahem).
7. The climate
It’s easy to get distracted by scenery in Switzerland, but one thing people rarely mention is the excellent climate. I see a lot of blue skies (some longer-term residents dispute this, but I wonder if they’ve lived in London!). And I really enjoy the definite seasons: winter is properly cold and snowy; summers get hot, with weeks of high-20s/early 30s; and just when you’re getting sick of it, it’s autumn and the leaves are turning glorious shades. Also, you don’t get too much damp, due to the altitude, and in Zurich it’s rarely windy because of the surrounding mountains, plus you get some spectacular thunderstorms.
Zurich has a great climate and plenty of lovely places to swim. Photo: Per Kasch/Swiss Tourism
A funny one. I thought London was the place to put yourself out there but now I’m not so sure. Zurich is probably not the place you’ll become an overnight sensation but I’ve found it’s a receptive environment for people to create and grow their own businesses and become successful. I’ve also found the expat community very supportive of each other’s ventures.
9. Can do but it’ll cost you X
Once you get over the ‘sticker shock’ of high costs, what I like in Zurich is that everything has its price and it’s fixed. There’s almost no haggling, which means there’s no hassle. When I recently lost my smartphone at the Limmatschwimmen event, it was no problem because a Bademeisterin (life guard) can dive down to look for it, for a cost of 60 francs, if found (It was – yay!). If she hadn’t found it, I could have commissioned the SeePolizei to do a deep-search for 150 francs. Organising a party? Here is the price list and there’s no hidden extras. I guess what I’m saying is, yes: everything costs a lot, but at least you know the next person is paying the exact same amount as you.
10. Money and real estate
Another tricky one. No one likes to talk about it, and it’s generally assumed everyone has a fair bit in Zurich, or you wouldn’t be here. I don’t tend to rub shoulders with Zurich’s super-rich, (although I wouldn’t know it if I did: the Swiss are famously discreet), but I don’t get that sense of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ in Zurich. As for real estate, which in my former hometown of Sydney is completely crazy and just about all anyone can talk about, in Zurich, with 71.5 percent of the population living in long-term rented accommodation, it’s mostly a non-issue. What a blessed relief!
11. Local festivals and traditions
Australia has a lot of imported holiday traditions that can feel a bit odd in the southern hemisphere. Christmas turkey in 40 degrees anyone? Halloween at the start of spring? (Shamefully, white/modern Australia has not adopted days of local or seasonal significance from its first nations people, but that’s a whole separate issue). I love that Zurich goes its own way with national days: Sechseläuten marks the start of summer with a giant exploding snowman in the centre of town and winter begins with the beautiful Räbeleichti – where kids parade with candles in carved-out turnips. So much nicer than hitting up strangers for candy!
The Sechseläuten is one of Zurich's great annual traditions. Photo: Andreas Omvik/Zurich Tourism
12. Small(er) is beautiful
There’s a lot to be said for life in a small-big town (or should that be a big small-town?). And I’m not surprised it’s often the smaller cities that tend to win global ‘Best Quality of Life’ surveys. With a nice mix of international and local festivals, big-name gigs and smaller venues, global brands and local designers, plus some world-class food, Zurich is compact enough that you’ll often run into someone you know, but large enough that you can be left alone. Best of both worlds? I can honestly say that for me it is!
Claire Doble is an Australian-British expat living in Zurich and blogging at clairevetica.wordpress.com
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