There I was at Zurich's staid debutante ball, in the middle of a crowd of dolled-up teenagers, when who should bounce onto the dance floor but Tina Turner. Turns out the leggy R&B goddess has lived in the Swiss city for 19 years. Decked out in a glamorous, floor-length beige gown, Turner let a spirited rendition of "We Are Family" carry her into an energetic boogie. And naturally, she kept up a fiery dance pace long after the rest of us started to fade.
Any doubts I had about how high Zurich ranks on the cool meter evaporated in that moment.
Most guidebooks dismiss Switzerland's largest city as an uninspiring warren of church steeples, fondue eateries and pricey boutiques. Although the airport is a popular arrival point for transatlantic travelers, most bypass the city for Lucerne, Zermatt or other more picturesque Swiss locales. Resisting the lure of the Alps, this spring I instead opted to explore the urban life of this pristine European country.
After venturing beyond Bahnhofstrasse -- the well-trodden promenade lined with boutiques and bank headquarters that cuts through the center of town -- I found an alluring mix of attractions ranging from lofty to just plain fun. Among them: a wing of Alberto Giacometti paintings and sculptures at the Kunsthalle Zurich, the city's main modern art gallery; the restaurant Blindekuh, where the wait staff are blind and patrons dine in the dark; and the oddly appealing decor of old-fashioned furniture and grandiose baroque decorations -- and an equally motley crowd -- at Kaufleuten, a popular bar.
"It's the kind of place where you stop for a day and then stumble across one thing after another," said Joe Ritchie, an American entrepreneur who lives in Geneva and visits Zurich often. "And then you find yourself changing plans to stay for an extra day, and then another. There's no single overwhelming attraction here, but there is an aesthetic that is unique and that draws you in."
Budget travelers have reason to pause at the Swiss border: With the Swiss franc running strong against the dollar, Zurich -- most of Switzerland, in fact -- is tough to manage on tight funds. But prices are comparable to those in other countries on the Continent. A traditional Swiss lunch of liver dumplings and sausages at Bierhalle Kropf, a much-loved restaurant, runs around $45 for two. Tickets to the Zurich opera, ranked among Europe's finest, start at around $25 a seat. A Zurich card, which costs $11.75 a day, includes admission to many museums and unlimited rides on trams and other public transportation.
An afternoon amble through the side streets brought me closer to the rhythm of the city. The attractive old town, bisected by the Limmat River, makes for a pleasant hour-long excursion, and the walkways along the banks offer grand views.
Although Zurich is a true metropolis, the narrow, low-rise, medieval buildings and enclaves of cafes, bistros and wine bars on nearly every corner give it the intimacy of dozens of villages clustered together. I followed a promenade that runs along the banks of Lake Zurich, the soft-blue body of water that stretches for about 16 miles from the southern part of the city. As dusk fell, the 2,857-foot Uetliberg Mountain and other peaks were bathed in hues of blue.
A panorama of natural majesty like this could have been entertainment enough for my first evening. But a Swiss friend had snagged a hard-to-get reservation at Blindekuh. Billed as "an experience in darkness," the restaurant is designed to give the rest of us a chance to see what it feels like to live without sight. Inside the front door, Camilla, a sight-impaired waitress, told us to choose our dinner options from a menu displayed on the foyer wall. She then led us by hand into a room without a single glimmer of light.
Appetites, I learned, are triggered at least in part by vision: Without the option of seeing my plate, I had to feel it to see how much I had eaten. And in this place where no face was visible, my dining companion and I found ourselves focusing more intensely on conversation. With my sense of taste enhanced, my salad seemed fresher, grilled steak more flavorful and mousse more chocolatey. Aside from the awkwardness of toasting in the dark, the evening was as fun as it was instructive. At around $50 a person, it was worth it.
Thank goodness for Peter Ern. A guide with Zurich's tourist board, he was unusually honest, and his focus was as much on the sociology of locals as the monuments. "We are generally a pretty stubborn people who value independent thinking," he said as we walked through the old city center. "It's not for nothing that [Zurich] was the birthplace of Dadaism," the popular protest movement of the early 20th century that stressed total freedom of artistic expression.
Ern seemed to know an anecdote about every structure we passed, no matter how obscure. He took me to the site of Turicum, the ruins of the city's original Roman fortress. This is one of the highest points of the city, and an overlook allows a lovely view of the buildings sprawling for several miles in every direction. A few codgers had gathered to play chess on two giant boards. A poignant fountain commemorates the day in 1292 when, according to legend, a group of local women donned armor and frightened away the invading Habsburgs.
We stopped at the Fraumuenster, a church originally built as a convent in the 9th century. When the Protestant Reformation swept through Zurich in the 1520s, the convent was closed. Later the building briefly became a refuge for Huguenots and a Russian Orthodox place of worship. These days the services attract many prominent locals.
We paused before a set of five elaborate, 33-foot-high stained-glass windows depicting prophets and other biblical figures. Marc Chagall, who was born in Russia but emigrated to France, accepted a commission to design the windows in 1967 and spent three years on the project.
The mid-morning sunlight accented them brilliantly. The windows -- representing prominent scenes from the Old Testament -- were more detailed than any I have seen, and Ern's thorough descriptions made me appreciate them even more. When he finished, the small crowd that had gathered to eavesdrop offered an ovation.
As we left, I paused before another stunning window in the north transept, a 30-foot-high scene depicting Christ with eight prophets designed by Augusto Giacometti (a cousin of Alberto's) in the 1940s.
In this city known as a stronghold of watch merchants, it seemed a shame not to see what new timepieces were on display. Bucherer, a shop on Bahnhofstrasse, had a display of every imaginable type of watch, from a gold and steel Rolex with a regal blue face for $6,000 to a Swatch with a baby-blue elastic band for $55. A few blocks away, I popped into Schweizer Heimatwerk, a shop that specializes in Swiss-made crafts, souvenirs, knives, watches and other wares. The goods seemed well made, but they weren't cheap. A child's embroidered dress cost $60; wood-carved candleholders were $25 each.
Preoccupied with window-shopping, I was almost late for the Opera Ball. Organized by the Hotel Baur au Lac and held in the baroque Zurich Opera House every year, it is the city's poshest social affair. Although I covered the event as a member of the media, it is open to anyone who pays the $640 price of admission.
I watched with other reporters as the Zurich elite -- bank directors and corporate officers and their wives, decked out in black tie and classy evening wear -- arrived. And then came Tina Turner. Her hair was tinged with blond, her lipstick firetruck red. As usual, she looked terrific for a woman in her sixties.
Cornering the pop diva, I asked why she had chosen this unlikely place as her home. "It's fresh, always beautiful, and I can walk down the street without being bothered by anyone," she said with characteristic bluntness. "And people here are life-loving."
Bea Blum, a Zurich activist I chatted with later, had a different take on Zurich's residents. "We're a place with a lot of wealth, but I think and hope we realize that with that comes heavy social responsibility."
Inside, champagne cocktails gave way to an elaborate dinner: black truffles, veal steak accompanied by sauteed vegetables and galettes, and a dessert of rhubarb and strawberry charlotte.
After about two dozen of Zurich's social debutantes and their escorts marched onstage, the waltzing started. Thankfully, the band eventually broke into "Proud Mary" and other familiar R&B and pop songs. At that, no one, including me and Turner, could resist the dance floor.
On a Sunday afternoon, the Kunsthaus Zurich was so packed that a line formed out the front door. Although this showcase of modern art is known for its paintings by Edvard Munch, and impressionists such as Claude Monet, I headed to the wing displaying Giacometti's paintings and sculptures. As a longtime fan of the Swiss-born sculptor, I was thrilled to view the permanent retrospective of his works.
Spread over several rooms, it includes self-portraits and images of his family members from the 1920s through the '50s, Cubist-inspired paintings from the 1920s, and finally the long-necked bronze sculptures that are his signature works.
From the museum, I walked 15 minutes to the nearby Thomas Mann Archives. The German-born novelist, author of "The Magic Mountain," made his home in Zurich and died in nearby Kilchberg in 1955. The neighborhood around the archives, near the city's main university, reminded me of how heavy the student influence is here. Located in a small office down a back street, the archives contain shelves of Mann's books, a few letters and other manuscripts. Although the space was basic, it was strongly reminiscent of one of my favorite writers.
Later that evening, when I met some friends in the Kronenhalle, a popular local restaurant, we discussed what makes Zurich different from other mid-size European cities. As the waiter brought hearty portions of roast veal and house-made noodles and a fine bottle of Swiss red wine, I realized the answer was right in front of me. In mid-conversation, I looked up to see that the walls were covered with original paintings by Joan Miro, Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and other celebrated artists.
I was impressed with the spectacular trove of art, but not terribly surprised. After four days in Zurich, I had come to expect that treasures might pop up anywhere.
Gary Lee will be online to discuss this story Monday at 2 p.m. during the Travel section's regular weekly chat on www.washingtonpost.com.