Calm, clean and cultured, with an incredibly beautiful setting, Geneva is nothing short of gorgeous. It's also the perfect base for boat trips on the lake and scenic train rides high into the Alps
Thanks to budget airlines, Geneva is readily accesssible, and it’s the perfect place for a weekend or short break if you like a mixture of city, culture and open spaces. We took advantage of cheap easyJet flights from Liverpool’s John Lennon Airport for a four-night mini-break.
The city is the second most populous in Switzerland, after Zürich, and is home to a number of global organisations, including the Red Cross and several agencies of the United Nations. Known as the Peace Capital, it is also a massive financial centre.
Geneva is situated at the tip of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman in French), at the point where the Rhône river exits the lake. Its most famous sight is the Jet d'Eau, or water jet, at the entrance to the lake’s harbour. When in operation, this sends a massive 500 litres (132 gallons) of water per second jetting 140 metres (459ft) skywards.
Geneva somehow has a different atmosphere to most major European cities. To begin with, it’s incredibly clean. Walk the main streets and you can’t help but notice the absence of litter and splodges of dried chewing gum on pavements, while every fourth lamppost or so has a container attached with small plastic bags for dog-owners to use should their pets leave any little pavement deposits. Even more amazingly, we saw several people actually use them.
The city has a sophistication about it and an air of calm. In a way, it’s like going back in time, or perhaps a vision of how you’d like all cities to be and their residents to behave. We witnessed a lakeside demonstration by Muslim activists, angry at the treatment of Palestinians by Israeli forces, yet we never saw a police officer, and the placard-waving demonstrators, like the members of the public they handed leaflets to, were all incredibly polite.
Travelling around the city is easy, as tourists are given a free travel pass for buses, some trains and trams for the length of their stay. Of course, you can’t visit Geneva without a boat ride down the lake. There are plenty of trips to be had, all of which stop off at various small towns and villages on both the Swiss and the French side of the lake. We disembarked at Yvoire, a French medieval village that’s impossibly picturesque, with the snow-capped Alps as a backdrop and the air filled with the sweet smell of flowers. After crepes in the village square and a stroll, we met the boat for its slow return journey to Geneva. It’s hard to imagine a more beautiful setting for any boat ride.
We also took a train ride up into the Alps, to the wonderful ski resort of Gstaad. Catching the mainline train (60 Swiss Francs each) from Geneva, we changed after just over an hour, at Montreux, for the GoldenPass service up into the high Alps. Surely this has to be one of the world’s top train journeys. Right from the start, as the train climbs away from Montreux, the views are simply breathtaking, first of Lake Geneva and the snow-covered Alps beyond, then of the stunning mountains, Alpine valleys and wonderful villages as you climb toward Gstaad.
Gstaad itself is wonderfully picturesque, and a fabulous place to simply stroll and breathe fresh Alpine air. However, expect the unexpected - we witnessed a beach volleyball game in a miniature stadium. It was certainly strange watching women in impossibly tiny bikinis dive about the man-made court while other groups walked past in padded jackets, carrying skis and snowboards.
Switzerland isn’t the cheapest place to visit, with restaurant and bar prices generally substantially higher than in the UK. But look around and there are good deals to be had if you’re on a tight budget, particularly among the many Italian eateries. For authentic Swiss fare, try Les Armures, on Rue du Puits-St-Pierre in the Vieille Ville, and, if the weather's kind, sit out and enjoy the terrace. From the extensive menu, raclette or fondue is a must; there is also plenty of quality French cuisine on offer. We enjoyed the elegance and ambience of Les Armures and were pleasantly surprised, as the bill, at 110 Swiss Francs, was less than expected.
For a less formal, no-nonsense occasion, Roberto (10 rue Pierre-Fatio) has a wide range of Italian cusine and pizzas to die for - and, at around 40 Swiss Francs for main courses, a meal here shouldn’t break the bank. However, reservations are a must, as the restaurant is hugely popular.
Where to stay
We stayed at the three-star, 54-room Hotel Eden, which is perfect if you want a quiet, ideally located base. It's right across the road from the Botanical Gardens and the lake beyond, and the Old Town can be reached by strolling through the gardens then walking for around a mile along the lakeside. Rooms in the hotel are spacious, and each has a small balcony. Room service is excellent, and staff were very helpful and good for ideas on where to visit. The hotel clientele during our stay was a mixture of tourists and business people. Breakfast was buffet-style, with plenty of choice, although a cooked English was extra.
All in all, Geneva has a great deal to offer and I would urge any discerning traveller to try it at least once.