Hotel Baur au Lac review: Effortless luxury on the edge of Lake Zurich
The Baur au Lac was the hotel of choice for Marc Chagall, Richard Wagner and Alfred Nobel – and it's easy to see why
To many people, Zurich is synonymous with three things: banking, watches and chocolate. But away from the haute horology, high finance and well-crafted cocoa, the city is a surprisingly vibrant choice for a weekend break, especially if you pick a romantic and luxurious hotel to stay in. And one of the places that should definitely be on your radar if you're after Swiss decadence in its grandest form is the Hotel Baur au Lac.
It was opened by former Austrian pastry chef turned hotelier Johannes Baur in 1844. Situated in the heart of the city's celebrated old town and perched on the edge of Lake Zurich, the Baur au Lac commands a prime position in its own landscaped park. On one side are stunning views of the city and the slender green spire of Fraumunster Abbey, as well as the twin turrets of the Romanesque-style Protestant church, Grossmunster. In the other direction, you look out over the lake to the snow-capped peaks of the Alps beyond.
My partner and I arrived last weekend for a two-night stay, checked in and made our way up our private elevator to a junior suite on the top floor. There, we found a bowl of fresh fruit, a block of the hotel's own 1844 chocolate and a free mini bar to blow away the travel cobwebs.
Rooms are decorated in a blend of styles devised by interior designer Frederic d'Haufayt. Suites vary from Art Deco to Louis XVI and Regency, but include contemporary mod cons such as an iPad-operated room service, in-floor heating and televisions by the bath. The walls are adorned with Miro-esque artworks and the tabletops feature elegant Chinese vases and other flourishes from the Far East.
Every room is decorated with flowers arranged by the hotel's head florist Loren Fischer, whose original ambition was to work for the Queen. She settled instead on Baur au Lac, but says the job requires the same level of ambition and showmanship.
As well as being a lovely place to stay, the Baur au Lac is perfectly positioned to enjoy the best the city has to offer. Immediately on your doorstep is the old town – the ultimate location for retail therapy. According to locals, Zurich natives make their money in the banks and spend it in the old town.
Down a cobbled street, Gucci gives way to Valentino, which in turn sits next to Bahnhoffstrasse, a street teeming with glittering watches. One window alone contained close to £1m worth of gold-gilt, diamond-encrusted, tourbillon-powered timepieces.
The hotel is also a 15 minute stroll from the opera house, where we arrived on Sunday night for a performance of Medee, arranged through the Baur au Lac as part of its culture package. At short notice, the hotel can organise tickets of the highest category to one of Europe's most effortlessly grand opera houses – a beautiful hall that regularly stages productions featuring stars such as Cecilia Bartoli, Diana Damrau and Stephen Gould and conductors such as Marco Armiliato and Carlo Rizzi.
The jewels in the Baur au Lac's crown however, are unquestionably its two restaurants. The more casual of the pair is the Rive Gauche, "one of the places to be seen in the city centre," according to the Michelin Guide. "The great cosmopolitan interior attracts a trendy young and young at heart crowd to eat and drink but also to see and be seen."
The menu may lack sophistication – dishes have humorous names such as "Pump up the bass", "Shelldon Cooper", and "Hummer Simpson" – but the food is very elegant. Those three dishes for example are, respectively, a roasted fillet of sea bass on savoy cabbage cream, scallops on black salsify with beurre blanc, and a lobster bisque with crustaceans.
One advantage of having two top-quality restaurants attached to the hotel is that if you don't feel like going out, you can simply go back to your room afterwards. With our free minibar beckoning and a storm brewing outside, the choice was an easy one.
Other more illustrious guests have made similar decisions down the years, opting to stay in rather than go out. Marc Chagall spent days in his room composing sketches for the stained glass windows that now adorn the chapel of Fraumunster Abbey.
When he stayed at Baur au Lac in 1953, Richard Wagner entertained guests at the hotel with the first public reading of The Valkyrie in the hotel lobby. Three years later he returned to premiere the first act of the opera, accompanied at the piano by the great Franz Liszt (his father-in-law).
The Baur au Lac's lobby is also the site where Baroness Bertha von Suttner suggested to Alfred Nobel the idea of founding a peace prize.
After checking out, my girlfriend and I gave ourselves one last indulgence before going home – lunch at the Michelin-starred Pavillon restaurant.
Set in a rotunda designed by the architect Pierre Yves Rochon, the restaurant is flooded with natural light during the day, and illuminated with art deco Lalique chandeliers by night.
But the food is the real star of the show. We ordered from the Menu du Dejeuner, which offers two courses for 76 Swiss francs (£60).
The menu, which changes every two weeks began with two light as a feather amuse-bouches and a complimentary pre-meal plate, followed by two delicious courses.
My entree of langoustine in a rich saffron-coloured consommé was close to perfection. The rest of the meal was equally spectacular.
Lunch ended with two small bars of the Baur au Lac's signature chocolate. We jumped in a cab enjoying the aftertaste, both literal and metaphorical, of a perfect weekend in Zurich.
To book: bauraulac.ch or call +41 44 220 5020