This mountain-ringed city of clocks and Calvinists takes Switzerland’s best bits while adding in a few cosmopolitan flavours of its own. Ben Lerwill gives an overview.
0700-0900. Geneva’s character can be hard to pin down, combining machine-like efficiency with a certain homespun cheeriness. By reputation you’d expect its centre to be a neat grid of office buildings, so it’s rather nice to 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 a Bang & Olufsen store. Grab a coffee at the wooden-beamed Au Pied de Cochon (Place du Bourg-de-Four 4, 022 310 4797), which draws a decent-sized crowd from early in the morning.
0900-1100. Take a slow stroll down to the lakeside, where Geneva’s landmark sight – the gushing mega-spout known as the Jet d’Eau – 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. In its simplicity, it’s a cracking spectacle. Should you fancy a damp camera, there’s a pier leading out to the fountain from the Left Bank. Close by, the bandstand-dotted Jardin Anglais and its much-photographed floral clock (the most famous timepiece in a city obsessed with horology) are good spots for a people-watching amble, although the best views of the city – mountains, Jet d’Eau and all – are from the top of Saint Peter’s Cathedral in the Old Town. At 157 steps up, it’s a good workout too.
1100-1300. What makes Geneva more than just another amiable European city is the number of pan-global organisations based here – largely due to the founding of the International Red Cross in the 1860s by a local businessman, which drew wider attention to Geneva’s plum location. Today, hundreds of organisations mean it sometimes feels more intercontinental than it does Swiss. Two of the best known are the centre for nuclear research at CERN (northeast suburbs, 022 767 7676), home of the Large Hadron Collider and catnip to anyone who knows their photons from their Higgs bosons, and, of course, the United Nations (Avenue de la Paix 14, 022 917 4896). Both offer guided tours. After New York, the UN counts Geneva as its chief HQ, and 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 just metres from the poodle-walkers and highfalutin hotels of the lakeside. It’s here, they say, that the real Geneva is found. Expect street life of all hues, with a dose of hipster swagger added for good measure. Two smart bets for lunch are Cafe Art’s (Rue des Pâquis 17, 022 738 0797), where generous salads and sandwiches are served in cosy, jazz-soundtracked surrounds, and the recently opened Les Mangeurs (Rue du Prieuré 6, 022 732 0063), which has a focus on quality regional produce – and sells its own fruit and veg to boot.
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 the adjacent Rues-Basses. Those on a sweet-toothed mission should call in at the Rohr artisan chocolatier (Rue d’Enfer 4, 022 311 6876), which was the first to develop Geneva’s madly indulgent pavés glacés (bite-sized chocolate “cobbles”). For more eclectic needs, the flea market on Plaine de Plainpalais – held on Wednesdays and Saturdays – throws up paintings, books, records and a thousand other things besides.
1700-1900. On the side of the Tour du Molard, a storybook-pretty old clock tower in the heart of town, are engraved the words “Genève – Cité de Refuge”. It’s a reference to the days when John Calvin helped make the city a magnet for European Protestants fleeing persecution in the 1500s and 1600s. This spirit of acceptance is best explored at the International Museum of the Reformation (Rue du Cloître 4, 022 310 2431; open earlier in the day). At the Tour du Molard itself, there’s refuge of more fleeting kind to be found – the Bar à Vin (Place du Molard 2, 022 310 0202) occupies the tower these days, offering 150 different wines; perfect for a pre-dinner snifter with a dash of history.
1900-2100. Lying an easy reach to the southwest of the city centre, the bohemian quarter of Carouge makes for a deeply enjoyable evening destination. Full of pastel-coloured, independent bars and restaurants, it has a measurably cool vibe which it carries off in unaffected style. Rue Saint Joseph, Rue Ancienne and their neighbours are where to head for dinner – among the modern art galleries and art house cinemas are located some excellent finds. One of the best is Ô Calme (Rue Ancienne 36, 022 301 2220), which takes you first past the kitchen before revealing a bookshelf-lined dining room and secret garden. The menu gives a modern twist to popular dishes.
After 2100. Also in Carouge, 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, meanwhile, the Glow bar at the five-star Hôtel Président Wilson (Quai Wilson 47, 022 906 6745) has cocktails, a large fireplace and a modish feel.
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Written by World Travel Guide.