ZURICH, Switzerland — My first visit to Switzerland was more than three decades ago, when I spent all my time in Lucerne, surely one of the most charming cities in Europe. I was enchanted by its sights and the rural scenes — fairy-tale chalets, meadows of wildflowers, and cows, their necks draped with bells, grazing on the slopes of mountains that towered above the countryside. I fell in love.
Subsequent visits have taken me mainly to the Alpine regions — back to Lucerne and to Interlaken, home to Jungfrau, one of the highest of the Swiss Alps. On this trip, however, I expanded my horizons, visiting a city I had been to briefly (Zurich) and one I had never been to (Lausanne.) I couldn't have made better choices. Not only is each city a traveler's delight, but each is home to a hotel that must be ranked among the world's very best.
Zurich, a gem in the German-speaking part of Switzerland, rarely makes the cut in the first-time visitor's planned European itinerary. Leisure travelers, however, should be aware of something that savvy business travelers have known for years: Zurich is one of the world's most desirable cities, consistently praised for its quality of life .
Surrounded by hills and lakes, it has a cultural scene second to none, shopping equal to anywhere and a history going back some 2,000 years.
There are the excellent museums and usual concert venues found in any European metropolis, but there also are some pretty unusual spots for indulging in a spot of culture. The best example is the Frauenbadi. The literal translation for this open-air pavilion overlooking the Limmat River is "the women's bath," and that is what it is during the day, when women from all over the city use it as a swimming hole. At night, it becomes a stage for classical and rock concerts.
Those with a fully developed shopping gene know that London has Savile Row and Bond Street, Paris has the Rue de Rivoli, and Rome, the Via Veneto; Zurich has the Bahn hofstrasse. Where centuries ago were medieval fortifications are now block after block of fashionable shops, selling everything from jewelry and watches to high-end fashion to melt-in-your-mouth chocolates. If you are looking for the latter, you can't do better than Spruengli or Teuscher, rated among the best makers of chocolate in the world (their passion for quality is witnessed by the fact that they make as many of their signature champagne truffles in a year as some of their competitors do in a day).
Finally, when it comes to history, Zurich has one of the loveliest Old Towns on the continent. Take a full day and just amble through the cobbled streets — up and down hills, around corners and into narrow alleyways. You won't be disappointed as there's a delightful surprise in almost every nook and cranny — cellar bars and a hilltop park overlooking the river, lovely fountains and hidden courtyards, views from the Charlemagne Tower of Grossmünster Church and stained glass windows by Marc Chagall in Fraumünster Church.
As antidote to all that climbing and walking, book passage aboard a sightseeing boat for a leisurely cruise of beautiful Lake Zurich, with its chalet-lined shores. If the weather is cooperating, you can spy snow-capped peaks rising majestically behind the hills surrounding the city. You can cap off the evening by reserving a table on the terrace at Lakeside Restaurant.
I promised you one of the great hotels of the world, and the Baur au Lac delivers. Situated in a landscaped park, it faces Lake Zurich and is a 10-minute walk from the Old Town. The hotel, which has remained in the hands of the same family since opening in 1844, has a history as illustrious as any in Europe. It quickly became the gathering place of royalty and the continent's power brokers, including Austria's beloved Empress Sissi and German Emperor Wilhelm II, as well as a continuous parade of czars and czarinas, princes and princesses, counts and barons.
It's a three-hour train ride on the excellent Swiss Rail from Zurich to Lausanne on the shore of scenic Lake Geneva, but the distance between the two cities can't be measured just in miles. Here, German gives way to French; beer gives way to wine; the urban cool of the city gives way to the laid-back character of the lake resort.
Lausanne is a lovely city in its own right — its medieval heart is surrounded by a bustling modern town that, in 1915, was chosen as the headquarters for the International Olympic Committee (the Olympic Museum is a must for any sports lover). But Lausanne is also a good jumping-off point for many of the area's other attractions, most notably a UNESCO World Heritage wine-growing region and a storied castle that is the embodiment of romance.
It is a short and scenic train ride from Lausanne to the terraced vineyards of the Lavaux region. The steep slope of the hillsides — from 15 percent to 100 percent grade, plunging straight down to the lake in many areas — seemingly made it unsuitable for farming. That fact didn't deter medieval monastic orders that cleared the hills and began planting orderly terraces of vines that were the beginning of the region's wine industry. There are lovely wine villages along the lake from Lutry to Montreux, with as many as 10,000 terraces on 40 levels; I chose to spend a morning in Cully, paying a visit to Epesses, a family-run winery typical of those in the Lavaux.
An afternoon cruise on the lake — with the snow-capped mountains of Switzerland on one side and the snow-capped peaks of France on the other — took me to the high-end resort town of Montreux, famous for its jazz festival and La Prairie Clinic and Spa, where the rich and famous go to get nipped and tucked. No Botox injections on the agenda this trip; my destination was just beyond Montreux to a rocky island that is the site of Switzerland's most visited monument.
During its 1,000-year history, the Castle of Chillon has been marked by three important eras — Savoy, Bernese and Vaudois — and has functioned as a castle, fortress and prison. It was as the latter that it gained its most lasting fame and its place in romantic fiction. The English poet Lord Byron, upon hearing of the imprisonment in the castle's dank dungeon of monk and political activist François de Bonivard, was inspired to write one of his masterpieces, The Prisoner of Chillon. With the Romantic movement in literature beginning in England and spreading to the continent, the castle became a popular pilgrimage spot. Byron, on his own visit, carved his name on one of the dungeon's pillars; the engraving can still be seen. Another must-see is the tiny chapel, an architectural jewel with its 14th-century religious paintings, which managed to escape the eye of Reformation zealots.
On the hotel scene, Lausanne counters the Baur au Lac with the Beau-Rivage Palace, for 150 years one of the country's leading hotels. Its magnificent setting — facing Lake Geneva and the Alps — is breathtaking, and its history is punctuated with the famous names of those who have stayed here, from Coco Chanel and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, to Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham to Benito Mussolini, who met here in 1923 with Britain's Lord Curzon and France's Poincaré to finalize the Treaty of Lausanne, dissolving the Ottoman Empire and paving the way for the Republic of Turkey.