This lakeside city of old-world enlightenment and cutting-edge precision is now fully fledged as one of Europe’s top city breaks. Ben Lerwill gives an overview.
Preconceptions of Geneva can often paint the city – not wholly unfairly – as pricey, fastidious and full of international deal brokers. But if you might therefore expect its centre to be a rigid grid of global offices, it comes as a pleasant surprise to instead find a jumbled hill of cobbled squares and plunging stone stairways. Its historic ninth-century core – the small but atmospheric Place du Bourg-de-Four – is a fine place to start the day. The surrounding lanes are sedate this early in the morning, hiding bric-a-brac shops, pretty fountains and winding sidestreets. You’ll find some great old brasseries and cafés, interspersed in contemporary Genevan fashion by sushi joints and electronics stores. Grab a coffee at Café du Bourg-de-Four (Place du Bourg-de-Four 13, 022 311 9076), open from 7am throughout the week. It’s been open since the 1870s and still has a warm, woody feel.
There’s no disputing the destination’s centrepiece. Lake Geneva, known locally as Lac Léman, forms the city’s strikingly scenic focal point, with different neighbourhoods draped around its banks. The lake itself stretches for some 72 kilometres – the city is clustered around its southwest corner – so it gives an almost coastal sense of space. One of the most enjoyable ways of getting around town is actually via the yellow water-buses known as mouettes, and you’ll find four different routes criss-crossing the water year-round. The lake also plays home to 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.
Geneva has played an active role in the evolution of Europe for centuries, and the city’s history is as full of rich layers and dense tales as this would suggest. Call in at the Maison Tavel (Rue du Puits-St-Pierre 6, 022 418 3700), a small but informative museum set in a townhouse originally dating from the 12th century. It traces the city’s history through events such as the birth of Calvinism – under John Calvin, medieval Geneva became a haven for persecuted Protestants – right up to its present incarnation. The city’s modern face is perhaps best witnessed by heading out of the town centre to visit 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 guided tours of sections of the complex are usually offered four times daily. Prepare for a rub-your-eyes moment when you encounter the technicolour stalactites on the ceiling of the Human Rights conference room.
Geneva has had reason to puff out its chest lately. It was named Europe’s Leading City Break Destination at the World Travel Awards in 2014, and the accolade was at least partly in recognition of the city’s appeal for style-seekers. Indeed, a “Geneva Girls’ Guide” (only available from the visitor information centre at Rue du Mont Blanc 18, 022 909 7000) has just been released by the city tourist board, giving tips on local designers, luxury hotels and gastronomic restaurants. One of the best of these is the newly Michelin-starred Il Lago (Quai des Bergues 33, 022 908 7000), a classy place specialising in Northern Italian dishes. For a post-lunch walk, stroll along the water’s edge to the open-air baths at Bains des Paquis (Quai du Mont-Blanc 30, 022 732 2974) – they’re a magnet for locals, who come for saunas in winter and lake swims in summer.
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, and even window-shopping can be fun, but if you’re not a fan of buzz-to-enter boutiques or cripplingly pricey watches, head instead to the flea market on Plaine de Plainpalais – held on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as well as the first Sunday of each month – which throws up paintings, books, records and a thousand other things besides. Close by, those on a sweet-toothed mission should call in at the elegant Christophe Berger (Avenue Henri-Dunant 16, 022 329 1202) – it’s part tea room, part patisserie and part chocolaterie.
The excellent Ethnographic Museum of Geneva (Boulevard Carl-Vogt 65-67, 022 418 4550) reopened in 2014 after a four-year closure. Its permanent exhibition now showcases more than 1,000 items from five continents. From the museum, walk across Parc des Bastions to enjoy the early evening at Promenade de la Treille (Rue de la Croix Rouge), a raised outdoor walkway where you can look out in the direction of the Jura Mountains. It’s also where you’ll find the world’s longest wooden bench, 126 metres from end to end.
Start off the evening with a pre-dinner drink, and perhaps some tapas, at nearby Le Demi-Lune Café (Rue Etienne Dumont 3, 022 312 1290). It has a quirky atmosphere – lots of mirrors and beaded lampshades – as well as some good Geneva wines. For something equally full of character, book a dinner table at L’Adresse (Rue du 31 Décembre 32, 022 736 3232), a highly thought of bistro doubling as a fashion boutique – its creative menu uses locally sourced food.
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, Qu’Importe (Rue Ancienne 1, 022 342 1525) offers a different kind of vibe, with wine the main focus. Back in town, the N’vY bar at the recently opened hotel of the same name (Rue Richemont 18, 022 544 6666) has a mixologist, a DJ and arty, on-trend décor.
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Written by World Travel Guide.