Taking a walk in Zurich’s historic parks

The garden of the Villa Bleuler has lost little of its original charm. Giorgio von Arb

“You can breath in the charm of the 19th century,” says the green-fingered woman charged with cultivating Zurich’s historic parks and gardens.

This content was published on June 19, 2004 minutes

This summer the city is highlighting its outdoor heritage by offering guided tours of its lush green spaces.

Judith Rohrer is leading a group along a path in the “Arboretum” park on Zurich’s lakeside, which takes them under a shady arch formed by the overhanging branches of a mature beech tree.

Rohrer is one of two conservators in the city’s parks and gardens heritage office. The department is unique in Switzerland and has paid dividends in unearthing the history of Zurich’s parks and gardens.

But the goal of the Arboretum builders to create a place “uniting science and beauty” seems to have been forgotten by the hundreds who come here on hot summer days to sunbathe or play football on the grass.

When it opened to much fanfare in 1887, Zurich residents were required to stay on the gently curving paths, which led them between generously spaced stands of trees grouped according to species or geographical origin.


“The idea was to educate and present walkers with constantly changing perspectives and insights into the park and the surrounding landscape,” explains Rohrer.

“Landscape gardening was invented roughly at the end of the Baroque period [in the early 18th century] and at that time man thought he could order the natural world to his liking.”

The creation of the public parks in the 19th century coincided with Zurich’s new-found wealth, and the invention of leisure time for the masses.

“The paths in the Arboretum eventually lead into open spaces, where you have beautiful vistas of the lake and, in the distance, the Alps,” she says.

This, she continues, was the first time in Zurich that alpine scenery was highlighted in such a way, to bring its beauty to the public’s attention.


“Zurich is blessed with historic gardens and the 19th century was the apex,” says Rohrer’s colleague, Silvia Steeb, as she opens the gate to the intimate green space of the Villa Tobler.

Thanks to Steeb and Rohrer’s research and excavation work, the original layout of this oasis in the middle of the city came to light.

“Its paths are at right angles and the flower beds are rectangular, so it’s more an architectural than a landscape garden,” says Steeb.

This reflects a redesign at the beginning of the 20th century by the villa’s second owner, banker Gustav Tobler, to make it symmetrical with the house.

Sparing no cost, Tobler also installed an ornate dragon fountain with a golden mosaic and other valuable sculptures (see video).

Secluded spots

The city is dotted with similar secluded spots in the middle of the city. They were once the private domains of Zurich’s wealthy elite, but are now in public hands.

Many of those visiting the Villa Tobler garden during the summer months go in search of peace and quiet, and the shade of the trees.

There was little shade when the saplings were first planted more than 100 years ago, but now mature, they alter the garden’s original appearance.

“We have to adapt to the conditions because we can’t use flowers that require a lot of sun which would have been possible when the trees were first planted,” Steeb says.

“It’s our job to preserve a garden’s character over time, knowing full well that a garden is a living thing.”

swissinfo, Dale Bechtel in Zurich

In brief

The city of Zurich is this year highlighting 12 historic parks and gardens:

Rieter Park
Villa Tobler
Friedhof Sihlfeld (cemetery)
Villa Bleuler
Kreuz church
Villa Patumbah
Bad Allenmoos

A book of photographs of the historic gardens is available from Kontrast publishers (see related sites)

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