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Zurich: The heart of the old city in the heat of summer

“It’s a bit hot today, isn’t it?” I ask the taxi driver as I fiddle with the window.

Boris—that’s his name—agrees. He tells me it isn’t so bad. Not right now, at the tail end of June, where it’s already at 25 degrees. Last year, he tells me, it was even worse. Zurich had had a record summer in 2018, and not in a good way.

We go through the highway that leads to the center of the city and Boris points at the trees, saying that all the leaves were yellow back then, that the heat had dried them up. It had gotten so bad that on Swiss National Day—the annual celebration of the Swiss Confederacy founding—even fireworks were restricted, for fear of setting a blaze.

They’d called it extreme weather, somewhere along the mid-thirties centigrade, and Boris tells me to watch out for it. That kind of heat would have been a normal summer in Asia, where I’m from, though I know it’s deadly serious to a country that’s used to being in the cold. I tell him I’ll watch out, in any case.

He drops me off at the hotel and the minute I step back out, I see what he means. Europe is in the middle of a heat wave, and it’s something the people here are trying to get used to.

The docks along the Limmat River.

Across the street, a man is walking home shirtless, wearing what looks to be a pair of Speedos. A woman is riding the tram in her bathing suit and a shawl. Hardly anyone is wearing trousers.

Still, it’s only partly because of the heat. Here, near the Limmat River, people have taken to lining up lounge chairs and umbrellas by the banks, making the best out of the weather. I roll up my sleeves and prepare to head to the heart of Altstadt, the Old Town, where some of the most historical spots in the city still exist.

I walk across the bridge, over the Limmat, and step into the medieval town. For a city that’s always felt cold to me, and sometimes a little lonely, I’m seeing things in a different light for the first time. Literally, for the most part.

The view from inside Altstadt.

A warm, blue sky hangs above everything, letting you see the colors of the ancient buildings, the texture of the cobblestone streets, the hints of life in the waters. The shops that line the streets display some of the things Switzerland is known for: watches, chocolates, and cheese. People from everywhere take their places on cafe seats, on park benches, on bicycles making their way along the banks of the river. Veer off from the main roads and you discover streets that lead to medieval houses, ancient frescoes, and ornate windows—the oldest remnants of Zurich’s past.

It is a pleasant, vibrant, and endlessly fascinating experience, walking through Altstadt. And even in the middle of a heatwave, Zurich has never felt more alive. At least, not to me.

The next day, by late afternoon, I head down to the Zurichsee, a lake that Boris, the taxi driver, had recommended. He’d said that you could hop on a boat and take a tour of the surrounding landscape, and that it would be something to see this time of year. By the time I get there, I see what he meant. 

Most of the people lie by the shore, spreading blankets over the sand or going into the water for a swim. Some of them sit on the grass near the Pavilion Le Corbusier, the art museum dedicated to one of Zurich’s most renowned architects: Charles-Édouard Jeanneret, who went by the name Le Corbusier.

Here, by the lake, you see the people of Zurich at their most carefree, and possibly at their warmest. This time of year, the Zurichsee plays host to boats and birds, but also to swimmers and sunbathers. Groups of friends reach into coolers stocked with cans of beer, families watch as the children run across the grass, and even those who came alone seem happy to just be here, reading books or listening to music on their earphones.

Sunset at Zurichsee

The heatwave isn’t over yet, and over the next few weeks, it’s going to get worse. But right now, before June is over, people aren’t going to let that get to them. For a city that’s used to being in the cold, they take it for what it is.

I stay for a while and take it in with them. It only begins to get dark by 10 in the evening, and so we all take our time. But slowly, one by one, the groups disappear. I make my way past the Le Corbusier Pavilion, back to the tram, and watch the summer disappear, at least, for tonight.