Cosmopolitan, polyglot Geneva is a rare city. Strung out along the shores of Lake Geneva, it’s a truly international town, which combines Swiss efficiency with French flair and a dose of multinational charm. True to the Swiss stereotype, there’s an overload of banks, chocolatiers and watchmakers, but while international finance and clocks power Geneva, there’s a lot more to the city than chocolate – including one of the finest waterfronts in the world and some breathtakingly pretty surrounding countryside. From the famously gargantuan Jet d’Eau fountain to the crystal-clear waters of the lake itself, Geneva is a city dominated by water and you don’t even have to get your feet wet to enjoy it.
On the Rhône
While Lake Geneva and the Jet d’Eau get most of the attention, Geneva is also home to the mighty Rhône River, which bisects the compact city centre. A vivid blue thanks to its Alpine origins, the Rhône is perfect for indulging in some watery fun away from the busy lake shore. Canoeing, kayaking and boating are all on offer, but the best way to do it is to make like a Genevois and swim it. Start at the newly installed swimming platforms near the Saint-Jean rocks and the current will do the rest - giving you a duck’s eye view of the city as you float past. While the swimming is easy, the stopping is harder and the current strong, so it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Grab one of the buoys and drag yourself to the shore where you’ll find plenty of quirky riverside bars to warm up in. Try the Ethno Bar (Rue des Deux-Ponts 2, 022 310 2521) for great river views, an eclectic take on interior design and some of the best cocktails in Geneva. If you’d rather not get wet, daily river cruises run from the Pont de l’Île (Quai des Moulins), which take you through the city and out towards the Jura Mountains as far as the Verbois Dam.
The lake shore
While the Rhône dominates the town centre, Lake Geneva is the city’s beating heart. The second largest freshwater lake in Europe, Lake Geneva – also known as Lac Léman – boasts sparklingly clean water, plenty of places to dip your toes in and a flotilla of paddle steamers and ‘mouettes’ (taxi-boats) to get about on. Start with a trip to the St Pierre Cathedral (Place Bourg-Saint-Pierre), just off the Rue du Rhône and where John Calvin preached during the Reformation, and climb the 157 steps to the top of the north tower for the best view of the lake that Geneva has to offer. Once you’ve got your bearings, take a stroll along the Rue du Rhône before heading down to the lake shore.
The wealthiest shopping street in Geneva, the Rue du Rhône is watch nirvana with the big names – Chopard, Patek Philippe, Piaget, Raymond Weil, Rolex – all present and correct. Whether you’re buying or not, it’s great for window-shopping, while the wonderfully ritzy Globus (Rue du Rhône 48, 058 578 5050) is a treasure trove of beautifully presented, if expensive, pieces by Swiss and international designers.
Once you’ve had your fill of the shops, head towards the Pont du Mont-Blanc and onto the Quai du Mont-Blanc, which runs along the lake shore. Here, you’ll find the famous Jet d’Eau, which shoots 140 metres into the air before crashing back down into the lake and soaking a few tourists in the process. Further along the quai are the Bains des Pâquis (Quai du Mont-Blanc 30, 022 738 1616), which combine a hammam and Turkish baths with the chance to take a dip in the lake and enjoy a few drinks all in one go. In the winter, it’s the perfect spot for a sauna and fondue, while in the summer; the wonderful lake views make it a fabulous place for an idle evening with friends.
Around Lake Geneva
Along with ‘mouettes’ or taxi-boats, Lake Geneva is home to a flotilla of old-fashioned paddle steamers. While you can take a city tour or indulge in a dinner cruise on one of the tourist boats, better and cheaper are the crafts that sail up and down the lake from Geneva to Lausanne and Montreux. Run by CGN (Quai du Mont-Blanc, 0848 811 848), trips run daily in the summer, and along with spectacular views of the towering massif of Mont Blanc and the city itself, take you close to the terraced vineyards on the craggy alpine hillsides of the surrounding Lavaux wine region.
At the far end of the lake, the picturesque town of Montreux has plenty to offer, including a bizarre bronze of former resident, Freddie Mercury, a brilliant summer jazz festival and the pretty Chateau du Chillon. Chillon, a medieval gem located on a rocky promontory jutting out into the lake, is a short walk from the ferry terminal and is home to some Byronic graffiti, courtesy of the poet who was once imprisoned there.
On the way back to Geneva, stop at the medieval village of Vevey, which along with being the headquarters of Nestlé, is home to the Grand Hotel du Lac (Rue d'Italie 1, 021 925 0606); a period piece made famous by the Anita Bruckner novel of the same name. Now refurbished, it oozes old-world charm and does a mean line in lunch on its garden terrace overlooking the lake.
If you’re still there come dinner time, head to Restaurant Denis Martin (Rue du Château 2, 021 921 1210) – Vevey’s very own Michelin-starred restaurant – close to Nestlé HQ and an extremely odd bronze of an oversized Milky Way chocolate bar. But don’t let that put you off: Denis, Switzerland’s hyperactive answer to Heston Blumenthal, is big on molecular cuisine and only too happy to show you how it’s done – up to and including experimenting with pots of liquid nitrogen. The restaurant itself serves up a 30-course set menu, most of which is delicious, but does include some unusual additions such as ‘Rien’ – a spoon coated in a clear jelly.
Go to our Geneva page to read more information about this route, and to book flights to Geneva.