Winterthur moves into the "big city" league

Flowers for Isabelle Kotchian (left) - the 100,000th resident of Winterthur - from the mayor Keystone

People used to say that the best thing about Winterthur was the fast train connection to Zurich, but 100,000 inhabitants of the city would now beg to differ.

This content was published on August 1, 2008 - 11:13

Switzerland's sixth largest urban centre enthusiastically celebrated the landmark figure in July. Winterthur has not only grown in size, but has also evolved from its industrial roots into a green and cultural city.

It joined the ranks of Zurich, Geneva, Basel, Bern and Lausanne as one of Switzerland's "big" cities when a French woman from Cannes moved to the city on July 3.

The 100,000th inhabitant realised a dream that Winterthur had been harbouring for decades in a country where the status and rivalry of urban centres features prominently.

Winterthur had come close to reaching the mark in the late-1960s, but a downturn in fortunes of its biggest industrial company, Sulzer, meant the population peaked at 95,000 in 1972 before declining.

Since then, Winterthur has moved out of the shadow of neighbouring Zurich - Switzerland's largest city and financial centre – by undergoing a gentle, but significant transformation.

Industrial giants such as Sulzer and textile machine manufacturer Rieter and insurance company AXA Winterthur (now French owned) are still big employers. But this has now been complemented by a profusion of high-tech start-ups specialising in the field of medical engineering and automation components.

The city attracts thousands of students with the country's largest technical college and this year Winterthur persuaded the renowned international think tank, the Club of Rome, to relocate to the city.

A "personal" city

Mark Würth, head of the city council's development department, told swissinfo that people are increasingly attracted to Winterthur because it is more "personal" than Zurich.

"It is a garden city with a very attractive landscape and environment and it has an above average cultural offering. It sits in a very central location for Zurich city and the airport and has a strong educational presence with the biggest technical college in Switzerland," he said.

Würth added that Winterthur has seen a big rise in building projects in the last five years to cope with the rising population, but also to convert former industrial sites into cultural centres. One example is the conversion of the Sulzer Areal industrial centre into a living and leisure area.

This measure, and others, have dramatically improved the cultural scene, according to Claudio Zahnd, one of the organisers of the annual Winterthur music week event.

"For young people there are so many more options today. Twenty years ago most of the bars for example closed at 11pm and there were not many concerts or other cultural events. Today we have quite a lively and diverse cultural scene," he told swissinfo.

"Winterthur has changed big time. Our cultural attractions are a definite plus for new inhabitants."

Cultural awakening

This cultural awakening also extends to older inhabitants and families in the shape of a renowned photographic museum, several other museums including the Oskar Reinhart art collection and an annual festival called Albanifäscht.

Unlike Zurich city and other communities in the region, Winterthur has a predominantly left of centre political make-up. Mayor Ernst Wohlwend is from the centre-left Social Democrats and presides over a council that does not include a single member of the rightwing Swiss People's Party – the most popular party in the country.

With the population increasing across Switzerland, Winterthur was bound to reach 100,000 inhabitants sooner or later. But the city is carving its own successful course that more and more inhabitants appear to be buying in to.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Winterthur


The first recorded evidence of a settlement at Winterthur dates back to the first century AD when it was known as Vitudurum in Roman times.

It got its present name when the counts of Kyburg founded a town on the site in 1175. Winterthur was transferred to Habsburg control in 1264 and was sold to Zurich city in 1467.

In 1922 the old town was amalgamated with the suburbs of Oberwinterthur, Seen, Töss, Wüflingen and Veltheim to make up the city as it is today.

Winterthur has 17 museums, including two Oskar Reinhart art collections, the central art museum, a photographic museum and an interactive technology museum.

Its theatre has become one of Switzerland's top venues for comedians.

The annual music week runs in August and this year features ex-Moloko singer Roisin Murphy. The Albanifäscht carnival, featuring live music and social events, was founded in 1971 and runs every June.

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Largest Swiss cities

The latest official population figures of Switzerland's five largest cities (2006):

Zurich: 350,100
Geneva: 178,600
Basel: 163,100
Bern: 122,400
Lausanne: 118,000

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