Until recently, Zurich called itself the “Little Big City”, implying that it had all the friendliness and accessibility of a small town along with the cosmopolitan splash of a large metropolis. As the building boom raced on, however, that slogan was lost to PR history.

Zurich © Zürich Tourism
Zurich
© Zürich Tourism
But the small-city spirit is very much alive in the picturesque “Lindenhof” area, which hovers over the Limmat River and some of its historic guild houses along it, affording a fine view out towards Lake Zurich and The Alps beyond. The Lindenhof remains a quiet place to take a shady break, despite being just minutes from the busy Bahnhofstrasse, the jugular vein of commerce that Zurich’s many bankers hustle along between appointments.

Zurich’s concertgoers have a wide spectrum of top-quality musical offerings, all of which are practically spitting distance from one another. The first of the two major concert venues is the Tonhalle. After 19 years under David Zinman, the chief conductor’s baton passed two years ago to the young French conductor Lionel Bringuier, who has given deserved attention to the French repertoire. The Tonhalle Orchestra’s members hail from many nations, but they form a harmonious and compelling whole.

The Tonhalle Orchester Zurich © Priska Ketterer
The Tonhalle Orchester Zurich
© Priska Ketterer
The 1895 hall is a feast for eyes, too, but it will be undergoing a major renovation soon and will only reopen on the same lakeside site in four year’s time. In the interim, rehearsals and performances will be held in the historically industrial but now trendy western hub of the city.

Apart from the Tonhalle, and just across the lakeside bridge, however, the Zurich Opera House vies for as much attention. Dating from 1891, it looks like a little sister to other great dames of its kind. The house has two fine orchestral configurations: the Zurich Philharmonia, and the Baroque Orchestra La Scintilla, whose recent performance of Händel’s Orlando brought down the house. As General Music Director, Fabio Luisi leads some of the biggest international stars.

The Opernhaus also houses the Zurich Ballet, which performs under the creative direction of choreographer Christian Spuck. A healthy fare of modern works has brought a younger audience in, which has seen the emergence of insider tours, introductory lectures, and open house events – for example an annual live opera screening outdoors – which have all proved popular ventures. On the huge terrace in front of the opera house this past June, for example, some 10,000 viewers watched a live performance of Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame.

The Opernball at the Zürich Opernhaus © Zurich Opernhaus | Eduard Meltzer
The Opernball at the Zürich Opernhaus
© Zurich Opernhaus | Eduard Meltzer
Another fine musical venue in Zurich, if one more intimate, is the Semper Aula inside the Federal Institute of Technology (ETH), where first-rate soloists and smaller configurations regularly perform. Architecture hounds can also marvel at the building (1853-1874) designed by Gottfried Semper, the ETH professor of architecture who was considered one of the most important theorists of his age. No fewer than 21 Nobel laureates have walked through these hallowed halls, including Albert Einstein who won the prize in 1921. The small museum inside the main building is also a gem; its collection comprises a broad variety of visual art in a compact, tidy setting.

La Porte de l'Enfer by Auguste Rodin at Zurich's Kunsthaus © Roland Zh
La Porte de l'Enfer by Auguste Rodin at Zurich's Kunsthaus
© Roland Zh
Anybody interested in a broader spectrum of art, though, can take a 7-minute walk down the hill that takes you to the city’s Kunsthaus. A gem of the 1910 Secessionist architectural style, this counts as one of the great museums of Central Europe. While already generously proportioned, its display space is soon to be expanded 78% by a new David Chipperfield-designed structure. The Kunsthaus’s fine collection includes a broad and representative swathe of European masters, but also highlights Swiss treasures including J.H. Füssli, Ferdinand Hodler, Alberto Giacometti and Pipilotti Rist. Just outside the museum entrance and for all to enjoy is a version of Auguste Rodin’s huge and almost transcendental bronze doors La Porte de l’Enfer ("The Gates of Hell"), and Henry Moore’s lusciously undulating sculpture Working Model for UNESCO Reclining Figure, whose left shoulder signals the direction of the very pleasant Kunsthaus restaurant.

And speaking of gastronomy, not 5 minutes from the Kunsthaus, back down near the opera house, the legendary Kronenhalle offers delectable − if pricey − Swiss specialties. Those with tighter purse strings should certainly take a peek inside in any case. Former owners Gustav and Hulda Zumsteg collected fine early-20th-century paintings, which now pepper the walls. Hungry customers can slurp down their oysters under a canvas by Henri Matisse or Marc Chagall.

The Rietberg Museum © Museum Rietberg
The Rietberg Museum
© Museum Rietberg
Finally, the great Rietberg Museum, an institution devoted entirely to non-European art, sits proudly above the lakeshore opposite. Truly a place apart, it is the site of the purported romance between Mathilde Wesendonck and Richard Wagner, who was a long-term guest here in the 1850s. Surrounded by a park that is enormous by Zurich standards, the Wesendonck Villa was transformed into an exhibition space in 1952, though a fair share of its collections and special exhibitions are hidden away in the stunning modern building opposite, opened in 2007, in what is somewhat of an underground treasure trove.