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Time to explore: Six days spent dabbling in Swiss art, history, clocks, hiking and, of course, chocolate

The Ferris wheel on Lucerne's Europaplatz is seen here from the city's medieval ramparts. (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)
The Ferris wheel on Lucerne's Europaplatz is seen here from the city's medieval ramparts. (Adriana Janovich / The Spokesman-Review)
By Adriana Janovich For The Spokesman-Review

ZURICH – Some were easier to peel than others.

It was a bit of a challenge to pull the piping-hot, charcoal-roasted chestnuts from their mahogany-colored skins. But their stubbornness – more of an amusement than a bother – just added to the experience.

This time of year, heissi marroni, or hot chestnuts, can be found at street vendors throughout Zurich’s city center. Our group – my husband and I, my college friend, her husband and their young daughter – picked up a bag to share just before boarding a boat for a cruise around Lake Zurich.

The late autumn afternoon was crisp but clear and sunny. The lake, dotted with small towns and at least one chocolate factory that wafted a sweet scent our way, was picturesque. And, between the five of us, the tender, mild and gently sweet chestnuts didn’t last long.

In fact, the entire trip – six full days in Switzerland, including two in the alpine village of Brienz – felt like it went too fast. Here are some highlights.

Exploring the top of the lake. The Zurich Card includes free round-trip fare for an hour-and-a-half-long cruise. Board the boat for the Kleine Rundfahrt, or small roundtrip, at Bürkliplatz, a town square at the edge of the lake. For the best view, bundle up and sit outside on the top level. Grabbing a bag of hot chestnuts from a street vendor along the way to the dock is optional.

Window-shopping on Bahnhofstrasse. The city’s main street connects the lake with the central train station, and it’s lined with sleek storefronts touting luxury brands. Bahnhofstrasse is among the world’s most expensive shopping streets. But strolling past the stores – Rolex, Cartier, Tiffany & Co., Chanel, Burberry, Prada, Hermés – doesn’t cost anything. The busy boulevard stretches not quite a complete mile. The high-end department store Bongenie Grieder occupies an ornate 1913 corner building, and if the weather’s warm enough – it was in mid-October when I was there – the elegant and intimate terrace at Griederbar, overlooking the bustling Paradeplatz, provides a little oasis for coffee or cocktails and a chance to rest your feet.

Sampling chocolate. Switzerland – Zurich, in particular – is renowned for its high-quality chocolate. The iconic Confiserie Sprüngli, dating to 1836, is known for its ultra-fresh truffe du jour as well as Luxemburgerli, or signature macarons. The specialty at Läderach is its 1 kilo chocolate sheets in about two dozen flavors, including one with crunchy corn flakes. There are truffles, too, as well as flavored chocolate mini mousses and – this time of year – specialty dark or milk chocolates in the shape of chestnuts, complete with prickly green shells. Confiserie Honold – part café, part chocolate shop – dates to 1905 and is known for its thick hot chocolate, chocolate cake and, of course, truffles. Teuscher – you’ll recognize it by the abundance of faux flowers draping down the front window – also offers truffles and pralines as well as gift boxes topped with its hallmark faux flowers.

Telling time. The Beyer Clock and Watch Museum is located on the lower level of the Beyer Chronometrie and, although it’s small, features an extensive collection of timepieces – from hourglasses and grandfather clocks to intricate pocket watches. One of its most striking clocks is a gold griffon that blinks, flaps its wings and opens and closes its mouth when it dings.

Appreciating art. The Kunsthaus features works from Picasso, Chagall and Monet, including a couple of large panels of his famed water lilies. Only about 10 percent of the entire collection – some 4,000 paintings and 95,000 drawings and prints from the 13th century onward – is on display. A special exhibit, Matisse Metamorphosen, showcases the artist’s sculptures through Dec. 8.

Exploring Swiss history. The Landesmuseum offers a permanent exhibit on the history of Switzerland from the late Middle Ages to present. Through Jan. 19, 2020, there’s a special exhibit on exquisite 17th century printed and painted cotton fabrics from India.

Making a pretzel at Mühlerama. Grind your own flour, then bake it into a pretzel at this hands-on bread museum, located in an industrial mill dating to 1913. It was converted into a museum in 1986, and it’s a great place to go if you’re traveling with children. The 6-year-old accompanying us couldn’t wait to go down the wooden slide once used for transporting sacks of freshly milled flour – and she lives in Zurich and has been to the museum multiple times. While your bread bakes, tour the mill, which still produces several tons of flour each year.

Hanging out under the viaduct. This is not as sketchy as it sounds. The archways under railway tracks in the up-and-coming industrial Zurich-West neighborhood have been fashioned into storefronts. They house a long line of clothing boutiques and cafés, anchored by Viadukt Markthalle, a food hall with traditional Swiss cookies, myriad young and aged Swiss cheese, apfel zimt pastry, fresh pasta, artisan bread, charcuterie, wine, sandwiches, individual sweet and savory pies, a full-service restaurant, and more.

Heading for the hills. Spectacular views of Zurich – city and lake – are just a short ride from the city center. Uetliberg offers a panoramic look from a 2,850-foot perch west of Zurich. It’s a short, uphill climb from the train stop to the viewpoint in front of the luxury hotel Uto Kulm, where – for a few Swiss francs – you can climb a lookout tower for even more of a sweeping view. If the weather’s nice, hike one of the many trails on the mountain. To the east, take the short Dolderbahn rack railway to the elegant Dolder Grand Hotel for views from the opposite side of the city and fine dining and drinks, or – for nine Swiss francs, like me – a cappuccino.

Sampling sausages. The spacious and lively Zeughauskeller is packed with locals and tourists alike pretty much every night. Located in a medieval armory dating to 1487, this beer hall offers a friendly ambiance along with stone columns, a painted ceiling lined with thick wooden beams and – honoring its history – some ancient weaponry. The meaty menu features sausages, schnitzel and other hearty, no-frills Swiss fare.

Lunching in Lucerne. We stopped here to stretch our legs before continuing on to Brientz, walking along the medieval city wall and flower-lined, wooden Chapel Bridge before finding a café along the Reuss River for a savory tarte flambée.

Hiking in Brienz. This quiet alpine village sits along the eastern shore of turquoise-colored Lake Brienz, where the Grandhotel Giessbach faces one of the most famous waterfalls in Switzerland. The weather was still warm enough when we visited to hike from the falls along the Uferweg to the nearby village of Iseltwald, then take a boat back to Brienz.

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