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Oberer Letten, Dynamo, Swissmill Tower, Zurich, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

Swiss National Museum – Swissmill Tower

Discover Zurich's 19th century concrete pioneer, explore Platzspitz Park and dip into Letten Canal vibes on this short city walk
Picture of Karin Bürki

Karin Bürki

Texte et photographie : Karin Bürki

Do you love striking architecture, lush city nature and want to explore Zurich’s legendary river lido vibes? This short but incredibly dense and exciting city walk from the National Museum to Swissmill Tower along Platzspitz park and the Limmat has got you covered. It walks you from Zurich’s 19th century concrete pioneer to contemporary architectural icons, takes you to James Joyce’s favourite spot and dips into Letten canal – where Zurich is at its most Zen.

  1. Swiss National Museum Zurich
Landesmuseum, Swiss National Museum, Platzspitz © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Ever wanted to fast track through Zurich’s concrete heritage from its origins to the present in one location? Head straight to the National Museum opposite Zurich’s main station. The museum comprises the castle-like main building from 1898 and a sculptural concrete extension from 2016. Admittedly, Gustav Gull’s historicist building looks an unlikely concrete pioneer. But it was here that the then novel building material made its first major appearance in the canton of Zurich – namely in the vaulted ceiling of the hall that is now housing the permanent “History of Switzerland” exhibition. Since baring-it-all concrete was not considered appropriate at the time, it was duly plastered over. It took 111 years until it was finally made visible as part of the major refurbishment of the National Museum in 2009 – albeit as a newly-cast and earthquake-proof replica.

Landesmuseum, Swiss National Museum Zurich, Säulenhalle, Concrete Heritage, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

 © Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Landesmuseum, Swiss National Museum, Extension, Zurich, Platzspitz. © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

The extension by Christ & Gantenbein presents itself as a pebble-coloured, city-cliff-like concrete sculpture. The massive trapezoidal elements wind along the castle, new inner courtyard, Platzspitz park and the Limmat. The most spectacular views are enjoyed from the monumental staircase in the dramatically rearing “bridge” section. Numerous portholes open up exciting new views of the old building and the park.

2. Platzspitz Park

Platzspitz Park, Limmat, Zurich © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

As a Zurich resident, I never paid much attention to the city’s tree-scape until lockdown, when my morning walks to Platzspitz park became a fixed (survival) ritual. I would sit down on a footbridge, listen to the gentle flow of the Limmat and feast my eyes on the beauty of the over 250-year-old maple-leaved plane trees, their giant branches dipping into the water. I made friends with the swans and ducks and forgot the world around me for half an hour or so. From these Zen moments I came to fully understand the calming and reviving power of Platzspitz and its tree-lined avenues.

Platzspitz Park, Limmat, Zurich © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

The popular urban oasis right behind the National Museum forms a striking triangular shape and is flanked by the Limmat and Sihl. Its origins date back to the 15th century. The first avenues were laid out as early as the late 17th century. In the 19th century, an elaborate network of paths and a pavilion were added, which paved the way for the park’s popularity. At the end of the 1980s, Platzspitz made negative headlines internationally when it became a hotspot for the international drug scene. The “Needle Park” was cleared in 1992. New trees were planted. Today, a good 30 years later, they are unfolding in full splendour.

3. Platzspitz: James Joyce & Amazonas moments

Platzspitz, James Joyce, Swissmill Tower © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Drahtschmiedli-Steg, Lettenwehr, Swissmill Tower, Zurich. © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Walk along the river to Platzspitz platform at the far end of the park, where the Sihl joins the Limmat, and, on the horizon, Swissmill Tower emerges – your destination. The two rivers are easy to tell apart. On the left flows the rambunctious, mud-brown Sihl, on the right the emerald-green, well-behaved Limmat. The unlikely pair swell into a raging torrent, battling it out over territory, before finally joining forces a few hundred metres downstream. Here, Zurich feels at its most Amazonian. This was one of James Joyce’s favourite spots during his exile in Zurich. The scenery reminded the Irish writer of his homeland and the poem “The Meeting of the Rivers” by the poet Thomas Moore. It even found mention in his main work Finegan’s Wake: “Yssel that the limmat?” and “legging a jig or so on the sihl”. The quotes are engraved on the metal inscription on Platzspitz’s enclosing wall.

4. Letten Canal & Oberer Letten Lido

Oberer Letten, Elsa Burckhard-Blum, Swissmill Tower, Zurich. © Karin Bürki.

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Cross Drahtschmiedli footbridge that runs alongside the Platzspitz weir. On the right, the commercial brutalism of the 1970s says hello with the boxy Marriot Hotel; to your left, the youth movement of the 1980s is calling with the Dynamo youth cultural centre. On sweltering summer evenings, the narrow strip between the restaurant and the canal gets crowded with swimmers, local hipsters, expats, tourists and everything in between. Welcome to Zurich’s most relaxed urban leisure zone and epicentre of a truly unique and vibrant lido culture

Marriot Hotel, Zurich, Letten Brutalism. © Karin Bürki. Explore more on
Oberer Letten, Dynamo, Swissmill Tower, Zurich, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on
Lettenkanal, Dynamo, Oberer Letten, Swissmill Tower, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Originally built to operate Kraftwerk Letten, Zurich’s first power plant, opened in 1878, the 700m long Oberwasser canal got its first lido shortly afterwards in 1896. With the construction of the Platzspitz weir in 1951, it was replaced by Elsa Burckhardt-Blum’s sober but elegant concrete structure in 1952. Designed as a lido for lunchtime swims for people working in the area it is free, turns into a bar at night and is extremely popular. In the eighties, the railway track that ran along the opposite bank was shut down and the area lay empty for years, before it was claimed by the very drug scene that had been evicted from Platzspitz park.

Lettenkanal, Oberer Letten, Wild Garden, Graffiti Wall, Zurich. © Karin Bürki.

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Oberer Letten, Lettensteg, Elsa Burckhard-Blum, Zurich. © Karin Bürki.

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

After the area was cleared in 1995, the city converted it into an urban sports and recreation area. Attractions include beach volleyball courts, a sunbathing lawn, a skater park, an open graffiti wall, a wild garden and numerous bars. Today, the Letten is a truly unique urbane melting pot where hipsters and their dogs, runners, beach bums, pensioners, skaters and a big water bird population happily coexist.

Before moving on to Unterer Letten, let’s treat ourselves to two architectural gems: a few steps down the Dynamo, the “Rotach Houses” swing into view on the right. Designed by Max Ernst Haefeli in 1928, the terraced house is one of the best-known and most remarkable examples of early Zurich modernism. It draws heavily on Neues Bauen, an avant-garde form of architecture that emerged in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

Rotach Häuser, Oberer Letten, Zurich, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Lettenkanal, Oberer Letten, TBZ-Turm, Zurich. © Karin Bürki.

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

On the other side of the canal, the red wooden tower on the roof terrace of the Zurich Technical Vocational School will catch your eye. The art project by Daniel Roth from 2003 is based on an 1899 design by Vladimir Sukhov. The enigmatic observation tower is slightly illuminated at night, thereby transforming into a lighthouse.

4. Unterer Letten

Unterer Letten, Swissmill Tower, Limmat, Zurich. © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

At Lettensteg footpath, first turn right and then immediately left, always following the official, wide hiking and cycling path. Wait, is that a railway station on the right? Correct! Built in 1893, “Bahnhof Zürich Letten» was part of the suburban S-Bahn train system until it was disused in 1988. Today, the listed building houses the editorial offices of the travel magazine “Transhelvetica”. At the end of Kraftwerk Letten power station, the path forks. Take the route down. But before that, it’s worth making a short detour to the viaduct arch. The part over the Limmat offers a spectacular view of the urban river scenery, where the industrial past, the lush greenery of the present and Unterer Letten river lido converge in picture perfect fashion. 

The 1909 enclosed wooden bath was gently modernised in 1951 – again by Elsa Burckhardt-Blum – and extended to include a family-friendly “mainland section”. In contrast to Oberer Letten, the Limmat is much rougher here. A swim can prove to be quite a challenge for novices; for at the end, the notorious exit at the rake awaits. Those who tackle it feet first are clearly at an advantage.

Lettensteg, Limmatkanal, Limmat, Zurich. © Karin Bürki.
Bahnhof Letten, Unterer Letten, Zurich, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on
Café Nude, Tanzhaus, Unterer Letten, Swissmill Tower, Zurich. © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

Retrace your steps and take the path heading down to the river. After passing a small tunnel you arrive at Tanzhaus. The sculptural new landmark with the signature trapezeoid windows was designed by acclaimed Barcelona studio Barozzi/Veiga. The recycled concrete structure houses a dance academy and a café, the aptly named Nude. With Unterer Letten lido just a few steps away the question is what to have first: coffee or swim? 

5. Swissmill Tower

Swissmill Tower © Karin Bürki /

Swissmill Tower & view from the top floor

Zurich and Lake Zurich, seen from Swissmill Tower, spring 2018 © Karin Bürki / HEARTBRUT

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

118 meters of raw concrete, 21 storeys and a world record: Swissmill Tower is the tallest grain silo in the world. The stark 2016 exclamation mark lifted industrial architecture in Zurich West to new, airy heights. Wondering what a silo tower is doing in the middle of Zurich’s nightlife district? No, megalomania was not the driving force, as the tower was designed as extension to the historic Stadtmühle mill, which had become too small.  In fact, sustainability and logistics considerations played a key part: 100% of the grain is transported by rail. Four times a day, a fully loaded grain train leaves the site. The south side of the tower serves as a vertical solar plant, smashing another record: the six panels form the highest solar facade in Europe. Even the shadow the tower casts over parts of the neighbourhood, proves to be a blessing during the now common heatwaves. Like it or not, Swissmill Tower stands tall as the new landmark of Zurich West.

Cross Dammsteg bridge and walk past the tower. With a bit of luck, a grain train is being filled on the opposite side of the road. Continue straight ahead until you reach Limmatstrasse. Take the tram back to the main station or have a pitstop at Markthalle food hall and explore the shops along the Viadukt arches, located a few steps to the left of Dammweg tram stop.

Markthalle, Viaduktbögen, Zurich, © Karin Bürki. Explore more on

© Karin Bürki/Heartbrut

All season

This trail starts at Swiss National Museum Zurich, located at Museumsstrasse 2. Nearest public transport stops: Zurich main station (train), Sihlquai/Hauptbahnhof (tram)

Combine your walk with a swim in one of the river lidos. Or do as the locals do: grab a dry bag and float from the Dynamo to Oberer Letten. This route is also very popular with runners and dog owners.

In summer, there are lots of food trucks, temporary restaurants and bars along the route. The river lidos also offer refreshments (mid May – mid September). The park and the river are great for having a picnic. Beyond the summer months, you can recharge your batteries at Swiss National Museum, Dynamo, Café Nude and the food hall at Viadukt. 

Landesmuseum - Swissmill Tower, Route, © Swisstopo, Explore more on

© Swisstopo