For many of us, work is why we visit Zurich—one of the world’s great financial centers. Work and maybe doing some luxury shopping. And while Zurich has plenty of tourist attractions, such as the largest clock face in Europe (high atop the 12th-century Grossmunster, the cathedral in which the Swiss-German Reformation was born), and charming, narrow streets to wander, it’s not exactly known as a nightlife destination. If you explore a little, however, you’ll discover that the city has an after-dark scene that rivals those in London, Barcelona, and Tel Aviv. (Fun fact: The city has more bars per capita than any other in Europe.)
Base your evening in Zurich West, the city’s trendiest neighborhood, located a quick tram ride from both the old town and the fancy waterfront. It’s the place to meet up with locals and get a feel for the nightlife in this booming city. Here’s your guide to where to drink, what to eat between drinks, and where to sleep it all off.
Where to get that first drink
For bartender secrets: An upscale neighborhood bar close to the tram, IQ Bar is the perfect spot to launch the night. Order a Campari Spritz or an aromatic Swiss wine and enjoy the casual atmosphere as you hatch the evening’s plan. (The bar team is accomplished, but remember that in Zurich cocktails are spendy, which is why most locals stick to beer.) IQ is busy early—even more so in warm weather when you can lounge on its patio—making for interesting people-watching. And if you befriend the bartender, you’ll get the inside scoop on which club has the best DJ—and where to enjoy the sunrise.
For a dose of tiki nostalgia: Mata Hari’s range of classic tropical cocktails draws a diverse mix of regulars and business types. The room is red and plush, the banquets invite your bar-hopping legs to sit, and the music is eclectic yet stylish, moving from Meatloaf to early Elvis and ’80s Wave. It may sound odd to have a tiki experience in Switzerland, but that rush of sugar and rum from your Hurricane will chase away any weariness and get you ready for the next stop.
For classic cocktails: Don’t let Hotel Rivington & Son’s fool you: It’s not a hotel, but rather a speakeasy in the style of Old Zurich. Built in the 1930s and refurbished in 2011, the Riv has a massive hand-hewn bar, tin ceilings, and light, diaphanous curtains. That staging, plus the vast array of local spirits and house-made infusions—and a bar team who knows just how to mix them—will have a cocktail-lover bolted to her barstool. And feel free to ask questions; the bar team likes to talk about family producers and local traditions. If you happen to miss an early-evening stop, go when the bar opens at 7 a.m. for a sunrise cocktail and avocado toast.
A note on tipping: The official line is that it's not necessary to leave a tip at a dining or drinking establishment in Zurich (service employees are paid a higher wage there than they are in the United States). However, North Americans find it difficult to walk away from a table without leaving anything for the staff—and the Swiss do actually tip, just not as much. If you are ordering drinks at a bar, leave a franc (about one dollar). If you are ordering several and hope to gain the bartender's attention later in the evening, leave a couple.
Where to break for a bite
Les Halles: Named for the now-demolished Paris market, Les Halles is known by locals as Peugeot (the decor includes a huge Peugeot sign, among other references to the car). The crowd is young, casual, and friendly, which makes the communal tables easier to navigate while carrying pitchers of well-priced beer. There’s live music, too: an eclectic mix of ’90s Wave, Ska, and contemporary with a bar-band vibe. A slightly random restaurant and shop are attached, with tapas, salads, and the overly Instagrammed (but delicious) moules frites, or mussels steamed with white wine, shallots, and garlic and served with magma-hot fries dusted in salt.
AuGust and Widder Kitchen & Bar: Hop the tram to this pair of restaurants, located in the grand Widder Hotel in Zurich’s historic old town. The hotel boasts several dining and tasting establishments, including AuGust, a street-level restaurant that offers a very Swiss selection of sausages and roasted meats. Refuel, then drop by Widder Kitchen and Bar for a cocktail before heading back to Zurich West. Here, the mixologists use numbered codes to catalog sensations: If you ask for a “chili,” you might get the Burn Baby Burned, which is cataloged as Chili ID 19_0285 and contains not only Calle 23 Blanco Tequila and lime juice, but both chili syrup and chili salt!
Where to find music
For a choose-your-own-adventure scene: Housed in a former shipbuilding factory, Schiffbau is a multi-venue complex that will stop you in your tracks. Looking at the soaring ceilings, massive doors, and brick walls (all original), it's easy to imagine factory workers polishing propellers and tinkering with engine parts for ocean vessels yet to be completed. Schiffbau is a large complex for Zurich, open and yet purposely divided into LaSalle restaurant, the jazz club Moods, and a theater. Midway through the building, you'll find a small elevator that will lift you to the rooftop bar, Nietturm. This small, glass-enclosed bar has killer views of Zurich West, a piano, and an upscale vibe. The seats fill up quickly but keep your eyes open as turnover is high (locals tend to stop in for a beer or a glass of bubbles on their way to another venue).
For an enlightened vibe: Self-dubbed a “collective nightclub,” Hive has three unique rooms, resident DJs, and visiting artists. Hive is unusual in that bouncers at the door choose people from the line in an attempt to curate a mix of “weird, easy, and urban” patrons. You can chill out, dance like mad in the disco, and greet the dawn in the dance hall, all while supporting Zurich-based and area performers. Hive is not into macho or aggressive types, so if you fit those codifiers, check them before you get to the door. The club opens at 11 p.m. and closes at 7 a.m. on Saturday (9 a.m. on Sunday), making it the perfect place to greet the day and buzz off to the airport.
For an underground feel: Yes, it’s back in Old Town, but if you want a place to dance after hitting up AuGust, you could do worse than the hotel’s Widder Garage, which is just that—a garage! When the owners of the property decided to renovate their extremely popular bar, one of the team members suggested repurposing the existing garage to accommodate their loyal local following. The team retained the parking lines painted on the floor and added eclectic pieces, including silver goblets, disco balls, a wall of vinyl albums, and antique furniture. Drinks are equally eclectic. The bar program includes both an impressive whiskey library and contemporary cocktails like the Dead Rabbit, made with Havana 5 Anejo (Cuban rum aged in bourbon casks), and carrot, passionfruit, and lime juices. Pro tip: If you are a guest of the hotel, you may be able to get VIP access.
Where to have a nightcap—and maybe even sleep
25 Hours Hotel: The 25 Hours Hotel is a contemporary, well-appointed property designed by Zurich resident Alfredo Haberli, known for his expressive, colorful work. Best yet, the cheerful rooms and suites are relatively affordable. If you’re spending the night partying in Zurich West and feel like costume changes are in order, this is the hotel for you.
Baur au Lac: It’s not in Zurich West, but this beautifully appointed hotel is just a tram-ride away. Boasting the Michelin-stared Pavillon restaurant, a steakhouse, and a trendy bar, the Baur au Lac is a mainstay of the Zurich social scene. Expect an impeccable stay: In the world of hospitality, a Swiss-educated hotelier is considered the ultimate host—and the Baur au Lac is one of the original training grounds for fine service. In the warmer months, the urban garden offers a welcoming place to sip a glass of chasselas, the mineral-heavy white wine from Vevey Canton, and watch the stars.