Swiss Trips

A Night in the Museum

Zurich’s best hotel raises hospitality to the level of art.

By Scott Vogel January 6, 2016

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Zurich's luxurious Dolder Grand, built in 1899, reopened in 2008 after an extensive, years-long renovation.

Of the 132 hotels in Zurich listed on TripAdvisor, the Dolder Grand Resort is ranked number one. This would seem a terribly good omen for travelers seeking a pinnacle of hospitality, luxury and everything else in Switzerland’s largest city. Then again, the hotel ranked number one in the Houston area (of 478), is the Best Western Premier on West Green Rd., which while no doubt a fine property, possesses neither the stature nor location of a great resort.

At some point we will come calling at the aforementioned Willowbrook arcadia, with its exceptional amenities (a “sterilized remote,” gushes one Bayou City tourist), vaunted location (“near a mall”) and culinary acumen (“actual food served on real plates”). But it sits much further down our bucket list. First, one must see a hotel that some have called the best in the world. First, one must see Gault Millau’s hotel of the year for 2016. First, one must see the Dolder Grand.

Kloten Airport was the paragon of Teutonic efficiency we knew it would be: modern, compulsively navigable, spotlessly clean. The same might be said of the double-decker trains that take just 15 minutes to reach Zurich’s Hauptbahnhof, one of the busiest stations in the world. (It helps that the airport is just six miles away.) For our money, however, it was the city’s tram system that impressed the most. Hard-working Zürchers (the city’s work ethic is legendary) have been packing them full since 1882, back when horses pulled the cars. The network of routes grew steadily as the first electric trams were introduced in 1894, eventually reaching into the town’s every nook and cranny.

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The Dolder affords a grand view of Lake Zurich and the Alps beyond.

Image: Shutterstock

Fin de siècle Vienna may have all the cachet but fin de siècle Zurich was no slouch either, as even the lowliest tram ride confirms. There’s the smallish Zurich opera house, of course, which sits regally on the Sechselautenplatz, and the dynamic collections in the city’s main art museum, the Kunsthaus, which dates to 1910, not to mention the Cabaret Voltaire, birthplace of the Dada movement. But even as St. Peter’s church—whose foundation dates to the 9th century—stood sentry, the Bahnhofstrasse transformed itself from a lowly city moat to the busiest thoroughfare in town, and later a pedestrian shopping street that’s now some of the most expensive real estate in the world.

And the turn of the 20th century saw yet one more great contribution to Zurich culture, one best reached by trading a tram for a funicular—the Dolderbahn. Its destination, the Dolder Grand Hotel, completed in 1899, was “intended as a place of relaxation and regeneration for people in the city in need of a rest,” says its website, and you can feel the stress and grind of modern Zurich (never much to begin with, admittedly) evaporate as you board the Dolderbahn’s candy-apple red cars for the slow, six-minute ascent up Mt. Adlisberg to a bluff just a few thousand feet above the city. From there, it’s a just a short hike along a forested path to the Dolder Grand, whose vistas alone—including Lake Zurich and the Alps—immediately announce it as a hotel like none other.

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The Dolder juxtaposes Old World and New.

The Dolder has had its share of the doldrums over the years, but ever since the 9.8-acre resort was shuttered, magnificently restored and then reopened to the public in 2008, the accolades haven’t stopped. Celebrity sightings were never unusual (The Churchills! The Einsteins! The Mandelas!) but while the faces have changed—The Clintons! The DiCaprios!—the adoration hasn’t. The four-year renovation saw a spiffing up of the original hotel and the addition of two wings of rooms and suites, which now number 176 in all.

Most impressive of all, we thought, upon entering the Dolder’s sumptuous, Gilded Age lobby, was the juxtaposition of Old World and New, the latter represented by the hotel’s incomparable collection of 20th- and 21st-century art. If there’s another hotel in the world with a more vast collection of certifiable masterpieces, we haven’t heard of it. Everywhere you look, it seems, there’s yet another original by yet another famous artist, from Pissarros in the restaurant to a Henry Moore sculpture just steps from your room. And there are lots of provocative pieces, like the cheeky, irreverent cereal boxes by Jani Leinonen that you pass on the way to breakfast, the Keith Haring in one hallway, the Robert Indiana in another. The lobby, not to be outdone, sits under the watchful eyes of Andy Warhol’s massive Big Retrospective Painting, a true showstopper if ever there was one.

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The Dolder boasts a 43,000-square-foot spa.

As I say, such pieces are every place you might choose to look, and many more places you might not, which is why the hotel offers iPad tours of a collection that must be the envy of many a museum. It’s a bit shocking, honestly, to come across a Dali on the way to a hotel restaurant, but exciting too. This is hoteling as it almost never is: artistry as amenity, culture as creature comfort. And the Dolder’s inventive genius isn’t confined to the works that hang from its walls. The hotel’s Michelin two-star restaurant serves food that’s as satisfying to the soul as the body, and the staff is in its own way a masterpiece too—warm, knowledgeable and gracefully efficient.  

Not unlike the art on its walls, the hotel’s spa is beautiful and challenging in equal measure. The 4,000-square-meter facility boasts sauna and steam facilities, of course, but also separate men’s and women’s foot baths, a Japanese Sunaburo, and outdoor hot tubs framed by snowdrifts in winter (this is Switzerland, after all). Those who crave bathing experiences less public, or with less exposure to the elements, might repair to their rooms, where bathtubs abut floor-to-ceiling windows, many with priceless Alpine views.

Priceless is a word you’ll end up saying a lot if you find your way to the Dolder Grand, and like all priceless experiences, it’s undeniably, well, pricey. But let’s face it. Sometimes a sterilized remote, a location near the mall and food served on real dishes just isn’t enough. Sometimes you need more. Sometimes you need one of the world’s great hotels. Sometimes only the Dolder will do. 

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