Stepping out of the train at Zurich's Hauptbahnhof, in the heart of Switzerland's banking capital, is like walking a wire between two very different worlds. The inclination is to head south toward the chichi shops of the Bahnhofstrasse -- a shopping boulevard that's considered one of the most expensive in the world, boasting all the stereotypical Swiss materialism you could ask for in the form of pricey watch shops and gourmet bonbon boutiques.
For an edgier insight into the city, though, exit north from the train station and venture toward the "other side of the tracks." The area known as Zurich-West centers on the formerly down-and-out Langstrasse, the city's longtime red-light district that has embraced its ethnic diversity, toned down its seedier side and emerged as the epicenter of cool.
Designer togs by the creators of Beige Swiss Styling fill one of the hip boutiques in the once downtrodden area called Zurich-West.
You won't encounter the fur coat crews here, but there's still plenty of stellar people-watching. Students drawn to the area for affordable housing stroll the streets alongside recent immigrants from Brazil and Kosovo, young hipsters and would-be artists.
Swiss designers are making inroads into the international fashion scene, and you'll find some rising stars in the neighborhoods surrounding the Langstrasse. At first glance, Dings (Zollstrasse 12) looks like your typical skate rat stronghold, with Vans and DC labels galore. But the Freitag bags sold here -- hip carry-alls that two Zurich brothers design from recycled truck tarpaulins (from about $103) -- make one-of-a-kind accessories and souvenirs (the mid-size version handles a laptop nicely, too).
Sandwiched into a fraction of a city block nearby, three tiny boutiques continue the street-chic theme. At Beige Swiss Styling (Josefstrasse 10), Zurich style mavens Karin Maurer and Manuela Helg give knitwear the X-factor. The piece de resistance -- a Merino wool skirt and cardigan set (about $563), available in figure-flattering retro patterns -- is designed on-site. Beige's knit scarves and hats are decidedly more affordable. Next door, Swallow-d and the Basel brand Erfolg (Josefstrasse 12) share a studio with a tempting cache of avant-garde handbags, printed tees and lush underthings. Finnish, Danish and Swedish labels for men and women are surprisingly affordable at Melvins (Josefstrasse 8), where you can score a ladies jacket from Helsinki fashion house Nanso for around $216. Melvins's circa 19th-century red Biedermeier couch is worth an ogle, too; it's not every day that the reluctant boyfriend lounge is offered with so much style.
Farther along, at Einzigart (Josefstrasse 36), you can browse the latest in Swiss-made home furnishings and accessories. A portion of the shop serves as a gallery for Zurich designers, and the striking light sculptures for sale give new meaning to illumination. While the collection focuses on fine design, there are a few quirky items, and the English-speaking staff will gladly guide you through the goods. Recently overheard: The Einzigart owner referring to an $8.65 whoopee cushion as his favorite item in the store, calling it a "symbol of liberalization from daily constraints."
If liquid pursuits liberate you, you'll be glad to know that this part of town is rife with watering holes. With a few exceptions, the middle stretch of the Langstrasse, where most of the area's sleaze cinemas and cabarets are located, caters primarily to the beer-pounding bunch in dark dives. For a more refined experience, stick to the bars and clubs on the north and south ends of the Langstrasse.
Despite the name, there's nothing Mexican about Acapulco (Neugasse 56), a retro lounge that draws Sunday night crowds for karaoke. Be the first to sing and your shamelessness will be rewarded with free drinks all night. Across the street, RiffRaff (Neugasse 56) is a popular spot to grab a cappuccino or a caipirinha before taking in an alternative film in one of the four tiny viewing rooms on-site (English flicks are consistently screened).
In the heart of the red-light district, Liquid Bar (Zwinglistrasse 12) features smooth sounds in an eye-popping, retro atmosphere. It's a place where Paris Hilton might feel at home, thanks to a decor scheme that's pinker than a baby shower and replete with sexy, egg-shape chairs perfect for slinking into while you're clutching a strawberry margarita (Liquid's signature libation, available by the pitcher for a jaw-dropping $42).
When it comes to eating, the ubiquitous Thai, Ceylon and Middle Eastern takeaways are affordable -- and welcome alternatives to the overpriced fondue restaurants in Zurich's more touristy areas. It's worth sitting down for a meal in the sumptuous Tea Room Blunt (Gasometerstrasse 5). Banquette couches surround low tables set atop mosaic tiled floors at the rear of the restaurant, where the trendy patrons are just as likely to be sipping mint tea and sucking jasmine-scented tobacco on the Hubble-Bubble as they are to be tucking into steaming Moroccan specialties, such as lemon chicken tajine with olives (about $23.50).
Swiss cuisine melds with Mediterranean at Restaurant Exer (Tellstrasse 10), a classy place near Liquid Bar with linen-topped tables and local specialties like gschwellti mit kase -- Swiss comfort food made from potatoes and cheese (about $23 ). Dinner for two, with a bottle of local wine, will set you back roughly $100.
Lily's Stomach Supply (Langstrasse 197) is a good spot for dining solo, with communal tables and a pan-Asian menu offering everything from Pakistani curry with papadams ($14.30) to a delicate Thai duck and eggplant dish ($16). Wear designer denim and sneakers you'd never sport to the gym and you'll fit right in with the urbanite crowds.
-- Terry Ward
For information on Zurich: Zurich Tourism, 011-41-44-215-4000, www.zuerich.com. General info on travel to Switzerland: Switzerland Tourism, 877-794-8037, www.myswitzerland.com.