If a picture paints a thousand words, prepare for 60,000 words. That’s in addition to the actual words, ca 2,600. In fact, this could easily be loads of separate posts, but I’m in the mood to do one massive one. So here we go, all in one place.
What do you think of when you hear Geneva? Money, perhaps? ✓ It is one of the world’s most important financial centres. Diplomacy? ✓ Peace? ✓ This is where the powers that be have come through the years, to negotiate peace in Lebanon, Balkans, Afghanistan, Syria… A city of expats? ✓ Nearly half are expats, who enjoy a high quality of life, very many with yearly salaries at USD 200,000.
But what about Geneva as a tourist destination? Thinking of Geneva for your next weekend break, and wondering what to do, what to see, where and what to eat? Look no further.
1. Free public transport
That’s right, free!
We’ll begin at the arrivals hall at Geneva Cointrin Airport. Not the most exciting airport in the world, but little Cointrin has a very friendly way of wishing you welcome: free transport into town. Go to this machine in arrivals:
Not a bad start, is it…?
As if that isn’t enough, when you stay at a hotel, hostel, or campsite, you’re entitled to a free transport card for the duration of your stay. Très sympa!
Perhaps you’re hungry? Just arrived in town, ready for a spot of lunch or maybe afternoon tea – and don’t want to walk far for it?
It’s not particularly Swiss, in fact it is from the country just a few miles away, but Ladurée in Geneva manages to be both chic and cosy, and the food is delicious and just the right size portions.
From the railway station, cross the street and walk down pedestrian Rue du Mont-Blanc, and you’ll find it at the corner of Hotel des Bergues, across the street from Lake Geneva. The food is creative, beautiful and delicious. Here’s a melt-in-your-mouth burrata with basil and radishes, and a strawberry millefeuille.
(Rest assured, more foodie pics will be forthcoming.)
3. Free public spaces
One of Europe’s greenest cities, little Geneva has more than 20 parks for you to lounge about in and do, well, essentially nothing. Love that! Many of those are along the promenades of Lake Geneva, or Lac Léman in the local lingo (i.e. French).
Lake Geneva plays the lead role here, with the famous Jet d’Eau (at 140 metres, it’s the tallest fountain in the world), boats on the lake, life along the banks… And there’s the flower clock in the English Garden; a homage to clock making – we’re in Switzerland, after all. 6,500 flowers in the dial!
Me, I’m especially intrigued by a statue of Sissi, Empress of Austria, whose dramatic life ended just here one September day in 1898, the random victim of an Italian anarchist who was out to get any royal. He stabbed her to death with a homemade, sharpened needle file.
Famed romantic poets, Lord Byron and Percy B. Shelley, hired neighbouring cottages along the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. And Shelley was inspired to write Hymn to Intellectual Beauty
…Love, Hope, and Self-esteem, like clouds depart, And come, for some uncertain moments lent. Man were immortal, and omnipotent,…
(Notice how he writes love, hope and self-esteem, not love, hope and faith?)
Even better-known words were inspired here. You see, Byron, Shelley and Shelley’s wife, Mary, competed amongst themselves: who could write the best ghost story? And you probably know who won. Mary’s famous story about young Dr. Frankenstein who created a fantastical monster was inspired in – and set in – Geneva.
Less, shall we say, charming pieces, were also inspired here at Lake Geneva. One Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov, better known as Lenin, spent time here in exile and wrote One step forward, two steps back, where he bitches about political rivals.
And these are just a few of the notables who have lived and loved along the shores here.
Lake Geneva and the Jet d’Eau, seen from the tower of Cathédrale Saint-Pierre in the old town
4. Geneva Girls’ Guide
Women: it pays to get a Geneva Girls’ Guide, for eating out, shopping, beauty, wellness and trip tips – and not least, freebies all about town: gifts, discounts, and more. We had free champers at this cool spot on, or I should say, in – the River Rhône, Halles de l’Île. You can pick up a Girls’ Guide at the Tourist Info Centre (also on Rue du Mont-Blanc) for CHF 16. But only if you’re a girl.
5. Geneva’s charming old town
Geneva’s old town is from Roman times and is anything but flat, the inclines offering surprises around every corner: little boutiques, bistros, medieval fountains, and just all-in-all cosiness. Lots of ancient sights as well, including the 15th century City Hall, as well as an old arsenal, where you can see Julius Caesar arriving in town in 58 BC. Well, a mosaic of it anyway. Also, do climb the stairs to the 4th century Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, especially for the views!
Bohemian Carouge is my favourite Geneva quarter, or really another town, across the river. It’s often referred to as Geneva’s Greenwich Village; I think it’s even nicer. Heaps of quirky boutiques, cafes, artisans’ studios, and, not least: colour. And street art.
Blue Balloon Coffee Dealer is rumoured to have the best coffee in town, roasted just right, ground just right, served just right. I can’t vouch for that, as I didn’t try it. Also, I’m not really a connoisseur. Cool name, though: hats off to Blue Ballon for making selling coffee interestingly suspect…
7. Street art
To lessen the problem of unwanted (read: ugly) tagging/graffiti on utility boxes and the like, the city has commissioned artists to make them more beautiful. There are those who think public authorities shouldn’t sanction street art. I think it is a constructive measure for combatting a problem.
Street art is all over the place, but particularly in Les Grottes district, just behind the railway station, where we found this Pink Panther bus and this Reggae mon.
8. Social housing
Les Grottes, by the way, is a neighbourhood I wouldn’t mind living for a bit. Very central, and interesting things on offer: vintage shops, theatres, cinemas, dance classes (even a pole dance studio), lively night life. Just my style. And if I were to live there, it would be in this creative complex known as the Schtrumpfs buildings, the Smurf houses. Reminiscent of Hundertwasser’s exciting housing complex in Vienna (not to mention his whimsical public toilet in New Zealand), and also of Gaudi, here’s 170 apartments with city-subsidised rent. Not sure how I’d go about finding an available one, but I’ll let you know if/when I do.
9. The world’s longest bench?
Well, perhaps not. This bench, stretching along La Treille Promenade in the Old City, is 120 metres long. And it’s not a new invention either, as it was built in 1767. Rumour has it, there are longer benches in Marseille, Barcelona, Moscow… But I’ll wager this is the longest bench with the best view – of the Salève and Jura Mountains. Plus, you can play rodeo nearby.
10. Non? Oui?
The OUI/NON-sculpture in the city’s shopping district is created by Markus Raetz. The artist probably had a nobler purpose in mind, but local guide Ursula has a more interesting explanation: in this cosmopolitan city, many an international delegate bring their husband/wife/boyfriend/girlfriend along – and they might want to do a spot of shopping while their S.O. is busy in long meetings. Here’s how that little chat might go:
– h/w/b/g: Lend me your credit card, honey?
– S.O.: Non!
– h/w/b/g: If you’ll lend me your credit card, … (whisper)
– S.O.: Oui!
11. The UN
You may have visited the UN building in New York; here’s UN in Geneva. Can’t tell you how many hours I’ve spent in meetings here at Palais des Nations in my former civil servant life. It’s enormous, with miles and miles of hallways, above and below ground. And let’s not forget the little coffee shops all about the place, where most conclusions are actually reached, compromises made, then rubber stamped in the meeting halls. These days, with sinister people in charge all over the place, the UN is more important than ever.
Guided tours are available, don’t forget to bring your passport. And don’t miss the Council Chamber where you see José Maria Sert’s stunning golden murals, showing humanity’s progress and our struggle for peace.
12. The broken chair
Across the street from the Palais des Nations, on Place des Nations, is this evocative sculpture, reminding us of the horrors of land mines. More about the 3-legged chair in this post.
From Place des Nations, we head up the street for our next stop – but first, a quick look at this sculpture of Gandhi in Ariana Park on the way. It’s lovely. That’s all.
Be the change
14. The Red Cross/Red Crescent Museum
At the UN, lunch breaks are long; interpreters have negotiated 1.5 hours, (and very well deserved: they do amazing work!). During one of those breaks many years ago, I visited The Red Cross/Red Crescent Museum. It’s just across the street.
I still remember vividly what an educational – and emotional – lunch break that was. I thought it one of the most thought-provoking museums I had ever seen.
If you see only one thing in Geneva, this should be it!
Just now, and until 25 November 2018, there’s a temporary exhibition on, showcasing first class photo journalism with refugees in focus; more than 300 photos taken by photographers from the Magnum cooperative: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, Maria Eisner; the world’s top photo journalists.
The permanent exhibitions include three areas, representing three current challenges: defending human dignity, restoring family links and reducing natural risks.
One of the great things about this museum is the interactivity, the hands-on experience. There’s power in touch. Twelve contemporary witnesses bring it to life. I sit down and listen to a prisoner from Guantanamo Bay. It’s as if he is talking to me personally. So much so, I get angry hearing what he has been through.
15. Food, glorious food
Finally, you say. Food! Geneva has everything in that department. There’s fondue, of course. And that cheesy goodness that is raclette. Can’t get much more Swiss than that. And if you’re here in April, with fresh asparagus in season.. Mmmmmm…
In our neighbourhood this time, we spotted this gem, L’envers du décor.
with a delicious selection of… well, everything.
However, as we’re in Geneva, I can’t miss an opportunity to visit Café de Paris, one of my favourite eateries anywhere – despite offering only one thing on the menu – and despite that one thing being meat and me practically a vegetarian. I just adore the atmosphere, the attitude, the eavesdropping on such interesting conversations… So much do I enjoy Café de Paris, this is the only place in the world you’ll ever see me eat blood-dripping steak. (I mean, if you’re gonna eat steak, you don’t want it cremated, do you? Ruins the experience.) More about Cafe de Paris and the minuscule menu in this post.
La Halle de Rive is one of several food halls in Geneva. You’ll find everything you need for a picnic:
And Swiss luxury supermarket chain Globus has a selection of delicacies out of this world. Go in and devour all the gorgeous goodies with your eyes.
16. Modernist architecture
You’re not surprised I’m including a world heritage site, are you? On the list of 17 Le Corbusier sites in seven different countries, Geneva has two of the genius architect’s modernist structures. In the centre, not far from the old town is Immeuble Clarté, an apartment building. According to UNESCO, the 17 structures are a testimonial to the invention of a new architectural language that made a break with the past. I’ll be on the lookout for more of Le Corbusier’s work.
A. Mount Saléve
Even after all my visits in this city, I’ve not exhausted the sees and dos. On my list for next time is Saléve, the mountain you can see in the background in the long bench photo above. A mere 5 kilometres from the city centre, it’s reachable by bus, then a few minutes by cable car. The views must surely be stunning.
B. The Large Hadron Collider
I’ve been at CERN before, about 12 years ago. I made a point of visiting, in the hope that I would get to see the mythical Large Hadron Collider, the world’s largest particle accelerator, stretching for 27 km underneath Switzerland and France. But the LHC was off limits to the general public, even then. Unless you’re a physics student or perhaps Dan Brown, it is simply very difficult to see this tube where the unsolved mysteries of physics are tested on a daily basis.
But I’m not giving up. In fact, if I find a way in, I’ll make the trip to Geneva specially. I’ll switch around whatever I’m doing and just go. And I will of course let you know.
C. Out of town
Another draw with Geneva is its proximity to other delightful spots, both inside and outside Switzerland. Going eastwards along Lake Geneva, Lausanne is but a half hour away, and magnificent Montreux a further half hour (don’t miss that fabulous sculpture of Freddie!). In between is Swiss wine country, as well as the marvellous medieval Château de Chillon, where the young Lord Byron used to hang out in between visits to Italy.
30-40 minutes south is appealing Annecy, with its winding canals and colourful houses. One hour south-east is Chamonix. Venue of the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924, this is still a winter sports destination, but nice also in summer. You might want to take the cable car up to Aiguille du Midi. At 3,842 metres above sea level, if you’re not a rock climber (or live in La Paz), this might be the highest you’ve ever been. Remember to pace yourself on the top – no running, or you’ll be sorry.
If you venture even further, you can go to Neuchatel (1.5 hours from Geneva) and to the Jura mountains. Distances are short in Switzerland. Interlaken, and the Jungfrau Massif, Wengen and other famous spots are within easy reach.
This time, I spent a sunny April Saturday in lovely Lucerne. A bit long for a day trip perhaps, but I thought it was worth getting up early for the 3-hour train journey, to wander around this sweet little town. Post will follow.
17. Place du Molard
Let’s finish up by bringing it back to Geneva, and little Place du Molard, just because, well… I like it. The atmosphere is especially lovely at night, when the little square is lit up with luminescent tiles in the pavement, wishing you a good day, good night, see you soon, etc, in the 6 official languages of the UN: Arabic, Chinese, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.
So, again I obviously don’t know when to stop. 17 things you’ll love about Geneva, then. And a few more. Enjoy!
The Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement is a cross-national UNESCO World Heritage site. The Immeuble Clarté here in Geneva is one of 17 sites spread out in seven different countries. Here are more UNESCO World Heritage sites from around the world.
Disclosure: I’ve been in Geneva numerous times in the past, almost always for work and with too little time to look around. This time, I was here as a guest of My Switzerland. As usual, this has no bearing on what I write – or even if I write anything at all. That’s the way it has to be. Otherwise, this makes no sense.