This lakeside city of clocks and Calvinists mixes Switzerland’s best bits with a globe-straddling array of cosmopolitan flavours. Ben Lerwill gives an overview.
0700-0900. Today’s Geneva has a reputation for being expensive, businesslike and slickly efficient. By rights, therefore, you’d expect its centre to be a neat grid of office buildings, so it’s rather nice to instead find a jumbled hill of cobbled squares and random stone stairways. Its historic core – the small but endearing Place du Bourg-de-Four – is a fine place to start the day. The surrounding streets are sedate this early in the morning, hiding quiet fountains, antique shops and atmospheric nooks. You’ll find some great old brasseries and cafés, interspersed in contemporary Genevan fashion by sushi joints and electronics stores. Grab a coffee at La Clémence (Place du Bourg-de-Four 20, 022 312 2498), still known as a hangout for thinkers and creatives, and drawing a decent-sized crowd from early in the morning.
0900-1100. Geneva has played an active role in the evolution of Europe for centuries, so the city’s history is as full of rich layers and dense tales as you’d expect. A novel way of getting to the heart of the place is through the tourist board’s new Geneva Mystery (Rue du Mont-Blanc 18, 022 909 7000), a lateral-thinking, game-cum-sightseeing tour that leads through much of the Old Town, uncovering nuggets of historical trivia along the way. Among other spots, you’ll call in at St Peter’s Cathedral, from where – 157 steps up its tower – you’ll be greeted with one of the city’s best views. Gaze out onto Geneva’s landmark sight, the gushing mega-spout known as the Jet d’Eau, which gets turned on at 10am. The 140-metre-high fountain, formerly a relief valve but now essentially a look-at-me symbol of the city, is responsible for seven tons of water being in the air at any one time, gunning it high above the skyline at 200 kilometres per hour.
1100-1300. Choose from two contrasting visitor attractions, both of which are emblematic of Geneva’s spirit of international cooperation. John Calvin helped make the city a magnet for European Protestants fleeing persecution in the 1500s and 1600s, and this epoch can be entertainingly explored at the International Museum of the Reformation (Rue du Cloître 4, 022 310 2431) – as well as permanent displays of everything from translated bibles to polemic cartoons, there are often excellent temporary exhibitions too. Away from the city centre, there’s a more modern cross-border institution in the form of the United Nations’ Palais des Nations (Avenue de la Paix 14, 022 917 4896). After New York, the UN counts Geneva as its chief HQ, and by taking a guided tour you’ll see the familiar-from-TV meeting spaces, sometimes in action. Prepare for a rub-your-eyes moment when you encounter the technicolour stalactites on the ceiling of the Human Rights conference room.
1300-1500. Geneva’s neighbourhoods stack against each other to sometimes unexpected effect. This is especially true of Pâquis, a hard-nosed quarter with streetlife of all hues, just metres from the poodle-walkers and highfalutin hotels of Quai Wilson and Quai du Mont-Blanc. There are numberless places to grab some lunch, but for a proper slice of Genevois living you should head back to the water’s edge and the Buvette des Bains (30 Quai du Mont-Blanc, 022 738 1616), a restaurant that forms part of the city’s famous lakeside baths. The restaurant itself is heated by wooden stoves in winter and spills onto terraces in summer, and regardless of the season you can work up an appetite (or work off a fondue) with a swim or sauna.
1500-1700. Geneva isn’t exactly renowned for its bargains, but such a triviality doesn’t seem to make shopping any less popular. Rue du Rhône is where to come for the really top-end stuff, but if you’re not a fan of buzz-to-enter boutiques or cripplingly pricey watches, there’s more atmosphere on some of the other Rues Basses (the collective name given to Geneva’s main shopping streets). Those on a sweet-toothed mission should call in at Du Rhône Chocolatier (Rue de la Confédération 3, 022 311 5614) – since opening for business in 1875, its doors have welcomed everyone from Churchill to JFK. For more eclectic needs, the flea market on Plaine de Plainpalais – held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as well as the first Sunday of each month – throws up paintings, books, records and a thousand other things besides.
1700-1900. Geneva has long connections with horology, a relationship evidenced by the Jardin Anglais’ large floral clock, which draws a near-constant flow of camera-toting visitors. More rewarding, and certainly more insightful, is the Patek Philippe Museum (Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers 7, 022 807 0910), which provides a detailed look at the precision timepieces of the brand’s world-renowned watchmakers. There’s also a glittering collection of related time-keeping ephemera dating back to the 16th century. Not far away from the museum, make time for a pre-dinner drink at Bar Marius (Place des Augustins 9, 022 320 6239), a one-time butcher’s shop reinvented as an on-trend wine bar.
1900-2100. The city’s location on the shores of Alp-ringed Lake Geneva is one of its most obvious selling points, and arguably the classiest way of absorbing the scenery is from one of Geneva’s belle époque paddle steamers. The gourmet Philippe Chevrier cruise (Promenade du Lac, 0848 811 848; timetables vary according to season) makes use of just such a vessel to serve up a top-notch dinner as the sun sets over the skyline. If you’d rather stay on land for a stylish meal, you could do far worse than book a table at L’Adresse (Rue du 31 Décembre 32, 022 736 3232), a well-thought-of bistro doubling as a fashion boutique – its creative menu uses locally sourced food.
After 2100. Round the day off in the bohemian quarter of Carouge, to the southwest of the city centre. The comfily designed Bar du Nord (Rue Ancienne 66, 022 342 3820) offers a selection of more than 300 whiskies for a nightcap, staying open until around 2am at weekends. Not far away, Le Chat Noir (Rue Vautier 13, 022 307 1040) plays funk, electro and hip-hop to a lively clientele. Back in town, the N’vY bar at the newly opened hotel of the same name (Rue Richemont 18, 022 544 6666) has a mixologist, a DJ and appropriately modish décor.
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Written by World Travel Guide.