All you need to know for the perfect city break in Geneva.
Cheese, chocolate and charm: Léa Teuscher visits the lively city by the lake where food and culture are taken as seriously as international affairs
Because it has it all: the multicultural effervescence of a metropolis, and the cosiness and tranquillity of a large country town. Mont-Blanc on the horizon, the blue mirror of Lac Léman, and the melted snows of Switzerland’s glaciers flowing in its centre. With vineyards and orchards a few kilometres away from the town centre, it is also a foodie’s heaven, with almost 40 Michelin-recommended restaurants, even more GaultMillau and, of course, delicious cheeses and chocolates. A high-tech centre famous for its precision industries and international organisations, Geneva still boasts a tranquil medieval old town complete with cobbled lanes. And despite its Protestant history and rather austere architecture, Geneva has a vibrant Mediterranean atmosphere in the summer, when you can lick a delicious ice cream by the Jet d’Eau or take a dip in the lake at the lovely Bain des Pâquis. In winter, it is the best place to enjoy a bit of a city break before heading to the slopes of the French and Swiss Alps.
What to do?
Take in the lakeside views: walk along Quai du Mont-Blanc, cross the Rhône on the Pont des Bergues, and take a break at the Jardin Anglais, known for its kitsch flower clock, before heading to the Jet d’Eau. The symbol of Geneva, this giant water feature was originally created by the safety valve of the local hydrolic station. After all this lakeside walking, collapse on the welcoming lawn of the park La Grange, surrounded by thousands of rose bushes. But don't forget: the best way to take in the lake views is to hop on one of the Mouettes (seagulls), the city’s frequent boat shuttles. Or you could also try a little cruise on the lake to the popular medieval French village of Yvoire (00 41 848 811 848; www.cgn.ch).
The Old Town is not to be missed, with its Cathédrale St Pierre (you can climb on its tower to catch a glimpse of the Mont Blanc) and the city’s oldest house, Maison Tavel (00 41 22 418 37 00). The historic buildings houses a museum on everyday life in medieval Geneva. If you climb to the attice you will find a huge model of the city as it was before 1850, when the impressive defensive walls were still standing. The Old Town is pretty but quiet during the day, as its atmospheric streets are lined with expensive antique shops and galleries (the best shops and the usual chains are to be found just below the Old Town, in the bustling Rues Basses). It’s best to visit at night, when locals gather around an apéro on a terrace in the lovely 16th Bourg-de-Four square.
If you have time, stroll down from the Old Town to the leafy Parc des Bastion by following the Promenade de la Treille, on which is said to be longest wooden bench in the world (120m). In the parc, you will find Le Mur des Réformateurs, a stern monument to protestantism feature sculptures of Knox and Calvin, as well as the city’s motto, Post Tenebras Lux (Light after darkness). It was partly sculpted by the same artist who created the Christ Redemptor in Rio de Janeiro. If this is getting too serious for you, don’t worry: you can relax in the nearby café, watching the locals play with giant chess pawns in the park.
On the other side of town, a visit to the UN headquarters at the Palais des Nations (00 41 22 917 48 96; www.unog.ch) will help you explore the city’s international connections. Over 25,000 UN delegates meet in the palace (which is a big as Versailles) every year to discuss world peace. The nearby Musée de la Croix Rouge (00 41 22 748 95 25; www.micr.org) is also well worth a visit: the Red Cross was founded in Geneva in 1863 and is the world’s first humanitarian organisation. Art lovers will appreciate the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (00 41 22 418 26 00) or the Museum of Modern art (www.mamco.ch), while watch fanatics will spend all their time at the Patek Philippe Museum (00 41 22 807 09 10; www.patekmuseum.com) in the lively Plainpalais neighbourhood, where bars and bistros are very popular with students.
Cross the river Arve and you will find a completely different atmosphere in Carouge. Influenced by its Sardinian origins, this charming neighbourhood boasts a village-like atmosphere, pastel houses and plenty of pavement cafés and boutiques. A short drive south from Carouge, just after the French border, is the Téléphérique du Salève (www.telepheriquedusaleve.com). In five minutes this cable car will take you to the Salève summit from where you can enjoy uninterrupted views of the Jura, the city, the lake and the Swiss Alps. The best way to get back at the foot of the mountain? Hitch a ride with one of the local paragliders, of course.
Where to eat and drink?
Start the day with a breakfast on the lake at the relaxing but colourful Bains des Pâquis (00 41 22 738 16 16; buvettedesbains.ch), a summer institution for all Genevans. For drinks, snacks and pasta try the terraces of La Clémence (00 41 22 312 24 98) in the Old Town, or Le Remor (00 41 22 328 12 70) for its excellent salads and ice-creams. Serious gourmets might want to sample the two-Michelin-starred cuisine of Restaurant du Parc des Eaux Vives (00 41 22 849 75 75; parcdeseauxvives.ch), or head for Restaurant du Cheval-Blanc (00 41 22 750 31 01; restaurantchevalblanc.ch) and its imaginative Italian menu. Le Café du Soleil (00 41 22 733 34 17; cafedusoleil.ch) is a local favourite for traditional Swiss raclettes and fondues, while the Auberge de Dardagny (00 41 22 754 14 72) on the city’s edge serves simple traditional dishes. The nearby vineyard Domaine de la Donzelle (00 41 22 754 02 81) is open on Saturdays for free wine tasting. For a more urban wine-tasting session, the Verre à Soif (00 41 22 740 38 40; verre-a-soif.com) in the Grottes neighbourhood offers a great choice of dégustations.
Where to stay?
Situated near the old armaments square in the cobbled Old Town, the picturesque Hotel Les Armures (00 41 22 3109172; hotel-les-armures.ch) is famous for its magnificent Swiss food and its beautiful 17th-century setting. It is also Bill Clinton’s favourite hang-out in the city. But for even more star guests and royalty, try the Hotel des Bergues (00 41 22 908 70 00; hoteldesbergues.com), the oldest of Geneva’s palace-style hotels, set by the lake in a discreetly grand 19th-century building. La Cours des Augustin (00 41 22 322 2100; lacourdesaugustins.com) is a chic design hotel with art gallery located in a charming neighbourhood, just a short tram ride from the lake. The Auberge d’Hermance (00 41 22 751 13 68; hotel-hermance.ch) is a cosier inn with five country-chic bedrooms and a celebrated restaurant, located in the medieval lakeshore village of Hermance, 15 kilometres north-east of Geneva.
When to go?
In summer, visit during the Fêtes de Genève (fetes-de-geneve.ch) if you like fun fairs, fireworks and festival crowds. Or else, come for the 1st August, the national day. You’ll be able to see more fireworks, and sample the local soup, sausages and potato salads by one of the bonfires.
In winter, visit for L’Escalade (December, www.escalade.ch). This traditional festival celebrate the defeat of the Savoy army in 1602. The soldiers managed to get to the city walls, but the people of Geneva stopped them from climbing (escalader) by pouring pots of hot soup over them. Today, the event is celebrated with plenty of vegetable soup and a popular race through the Old Town. The symbole of l’Escalade is a piece of chocolate shaped like a soup pot and filled with marzipans shaped like vegetables.