Design Milk Travels to… Zürich, Switzerland

Coming back down from the bucolic, “the hills are alive” splendor of my adventures in the Swiss Alps, expectations were tempered arriving in northern Switzerland’s most famous lakeside city. How would any urban experience match the alpine dreams of crystal clear glacial lakes and (literally) breathtaking altitude I had just woken up from? But Zürich has a way of steadily imparting its appeal, especially in summer, when the entire populace seems to glow with the conscious confidence they’re living their best life. Soon enough, the city famous for its extravagant and upscale shopping, medieval architecture, renowned chocolatiers, and glorious waterfront lifestyle will have you imagining what it might be like making a home in one of the world’s most liveable cities.


The lobby of the Hotel Helveti \\\. Photo: Hotel Helvetia

The Hotel Helvetia is our favorite type of place to stay at: casual and unfussy, yet appointed with enough details to make your time there feel like the exception, rather than the rule in life. The heart of the city is only a short walk from the hotel’s doors, with both the Museum Haus Konstruktiv and Old Botanical Garden just across the bridge, making it an easy jumping off point for days while acquainted with Zurich.

Photo: Hotel Helvetia

The hotel’s main rooms were designed by local interior designers Atelier Zurich, with the contemporary pastel painted interiors a collaborative effort between Leopold Weinberg and architect Nele Dechmann.

The Scandinavian vernacular makes the absence of things feel like an addition in service of comfort. \\\ Photo: Hotel Helvetia

Each of the rooms riff playfully off the hotel’s historic Art Nouveau facade, with 35 rooms and two luxury business apartments on the attic floor to choose from (ask for a room overlooking the nearby River Sihl if you like to people watch). The interior decor at first may seem just north of spartan, but you’ll then notice they furnished your room with a handcrafted Hästens Luxuria mattress.

Photo: Hotel Helvetia

Photo: Hotel Helvetia

The Atlantis by Giardino is situated a little further from the beaten path, and for that reason we wholeheartedly recommend this mountainside hotel adjacent to the Zurich’s Uetliberg for anyone who likes to return from days spent in the city to accommodations of luxe civility.

Photo: Atlantis by Giardino

Photo: Atlantis by Giardino

That’s not to say the hotel is sleepy; with a history tied to the likes of guests like Grace Jones, Freddie Mercury, and Frank Zappa, you know this post-war modernist hotel operates within the realm where partying and privacy both hold court.

Downstairs the 2 Michelin stars awarded Ecco Zürich makes the promise of a memorable meal a surefire bet. \\\ Photo: Atlantis by Giardino

Photo: Atlantis by Giardino

Photo: Atlantis by Giardino

Photo: Atlantis by Giardino

The 92 rooms and suites of the Atlantis by Giardino do a convincing job of keeping guests willingly within their rooms. Decorated with an eye for the timeless by London-based hospitality design firm Gallery HBA, appointments include plush sofas custom-made by Molteni, with some rooms offering balcony views of the mountains in the distance, others of the cityscape just below. Comfort here is always appointed on the right side of class.

Design collective Monoplan is credited for updating the 1960s Hotel Atlantis architecture originally designed by architects Hans and Annemarie Hubacher and Peter Issler.

Notable mentions: Engimatt Hotel \\\ EMA House \\\ Hotel Zuri


Zurich is a pleasantly walkable city, dotted with numerous opportunities for shopping along the famous luxury lane of Bahnhofstrasse and medieval Altstadt (Old Town). Perhaps indicative of the infamous high cost of living here, even the most touristy of spots are mostly free of cheap tchotchkes sellers.

Exploring the numerous narrow pedestrian cobblestone alleyways and stairs offers incentive to ditch the map and get yourself lost (the city center is easy to navigate thanks to the water and other architectural landmarks always offering a hint which way you should be going), and you’ll find yourself enjoying unplanned detours here and there for just a peek around the corner. One of our favorite shops in Zurich is also perhaps the smallest: Afrod’or, a sliver of a store dedicated to African designs.

Photo: Gregory Han

The Museum of Zurich University of the Arts was high on our list of design destinations in the city. With four collections representing Design, Graphics, Decorative Arts, and Poster composed of over 500,000 objects, it’s a designer’s paradise. Unfortunately, traveling for work rather than leisure meant our schedule dictated only the briefest of drop-in at the end of the day. Fortunately the museum’s gift shop was still open on our last evening, and any disappointment was washed away by the gift shop’s inspiring display of books and posters for sale.

Photo: Gregory Han

The Museum of Zurich University of the Arts \\\ Photo: Gregory Han

It’s nearly impossible to miss the towering container shop dedicated to all things Freitag – the perpetually popular purveyor of functional bags and accessories fashioned out of used truck tarps. Located in Zurich’s Industriequartier, you can see the assemblage of recycled shipping containers from a mile away. We recommend the flagship shop as a late afternoon destination; ascend up the tower of shipping containers and then come back down for a hearty communal meal with hundreds of locals in the adjoining outdoor dining garden.

Photo: Gregory Han

Photo: Freitag

Located in the heart of Zurich’s old town, at the Spiegelgasse near Neumarkt, LIMITED STOCK dedicates its selection to small batch, artisan crafted products with an emphasis placed upon functionality – everyday objects that aren’t merely coveted, but beloved because you’ll use them.

Photo: Limited Stock

Photo: Limited Stock

If your interests steer toward architecture, swing inside Hochparterre – Books on Architecture to check out both local and global publications and books dedicated to the field of architecture (just remember to consider the weight of any books you might purchase.)

Photo: Hochparterre

Photo: Fabrikat

Notable mentions: Fabrikat \\\ Soeder \\\ Viu Eyewear \\\ Im Viadukt


During summer the inviting waters of Lake Zurich attract legions of locals to the waterfront where the handsome population bathe in both elements of water and light. As a tourist, it’s a great opportunity to promenade with a scoop of ice cream in hand, or drop into a lakeshore eatery for a bratwurst and beer before making way to several nearby sites.

We were taken aback by the retro-futuristic architecture near the shoreline of Lake Zurich. Locals explained it was merely a “medical office”. \\\ Photo: Gregory Han

With its colorful angularity parked upon a lawn of green, the Pavillon Le Corbusier gives all appearances of an enormous modernist dollhouse, and half the fun is journeying upward by the building’s center staircase and outdoor ramp. The final building designed by Le Corbusier, the exhibition pavilion was designed entirely according to the Modulor system, an anthropometric scale of proportions devised by Le Corbusier based on the human body and the golden ratio. The rooftop deck is an especially comfortable vantage point to take in many of the structural and site specific details of the pavilion, a shaded architectural oasis.

Tourists converge at the Pavillon Le Corbusier in waves during the middle of the day, so get here early or late in the day to enjoy the exhibitions and tour the building without the crowds. \\\ Photo: Gregory Han

The most memorable trips are painted by reminiscence of places and faces met unexpectedly. And so it was during a walk into the adjoining suburban neighborhood across the waters of Lake Zurich when we spotted a flora-lined path leading upward into the Botanical Garden of the University of Zurich, the home to 7,000 different plant species and a trio of dome-shaped greenhouses hosting the ecosystems of tropical mountain forests, tropical lowland rainforest, and tropical drylands within.

A trio of greenhouses at the Botanical Garden of the University of Zurich \\\ Photo: Gregory Han

Photo: Swiss National Museum

Notable mentions: Museum für Gestaltung \\\ Swiss National Museum \\\ Maschinenfabrik Oerlikon (MFO Park)\\\ Enea Tree Museum


Photo: Gregory Han

Zürich has a reputation as an expensive cosmopolitan destination, but it’s also dotted with a multitude of affordable museums, parks, and other public spaces interconnected by walkways, buses, and trains. Life here seems to unfold as fast or as slow as you want, with the city’s historic landscape living harmoniously with its contemporary attractions. It is expensive here, but the price of admission to a life less ordinary – even if for just a few days – seems reasonable once there.

If you’re fortunate enough to be making your way to Zürich soon, note the second annual Design Biennale Zurich opens this week. This year’s biennale focuses on the theme play, with the entirety of Switzerland represented as a design playground, with design projects and installations representing various disciplines, including: algorithmic music, analog scientific models, digital craftsmanship, intelligent textiles, interactive everyday products, collaborative design, material experiments, urban utopias, and virtual reality.

If you’ve traveled to Zürich, Switzerland and have any additional favorite spots or recommendations for first time visitors, let us know below so we can share (and also check it out ourselves the next time we’re there).

Gregory Han is Tech Editor of Design Milk. A Los Angeles native with a profound love and curiosity for design, hiking, tide pools, and road trips, a selection of his adventures and musings can be found at