Thursday, December 14

A Guide to Geneva, Switzerland

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Geneva is situated in the far west of Switzerland on a piece of the country that juts into France like something sharp and uncomfortable in the pocket of tight jeans. It sits at the western end of Lake Leman, the French name for the lake that Anglophones tend to refer to as Lake Geneva. A small part of the shore of the lake, to the south east of the city is actually French.

It is not the capital city of Switzerland, but its cosmopolitan nature and stately demeanour make it feel like one. Although much of it is either heavily or American accented, you’ll hear more English spoken here than French.

Geneva is a truly international city with the banking and pharmaceutical sectors being two of the industries that explain why over one-third of the city’s population are from outside Switzerland.

The city curves around the western end of the lake like an extended letter C. Cointrin Airport is 5 Kilometres north of the centre and just north of the airport are the snow capped peaks of the Jura.

South of Geneva, and a wonderful sight on a clear day, the iconic Mont Blanc stands proud. The train journey across the border to Chamonix followed by a cable car ride to take in the views of Europe’s highest mountain is one of the most popular excursions with visitors to Geneva.

If you don’t want to do this, or don’t have enough time, the best view of the mountain from the city is from a vantage point standing at the northern end of the Pont du Mont Blanc, the road and foot bridge where the River Rhone pours into Lake Leman.

Geneva is an easy city to navigate on foot but since all visitors staying in hotels, hostels or campsites get a free travel-card for the duration of their stay (including the day of departure) it seems silly not to use the trams, trolley buses or even the municipal water taxis that make short journeys between various quays on the lake at least for the longer trips.

You can take the bus to the outskirts of the city where we crossed the border by foot and took the cable car up Mont Saleve from where you can get brilliant views of Geneva.

The card is issued on your arrival at your accommodation but you can get a ticket for the journey from the arrivals hall at the airport to get you to your accommodation free of charge in the meantime.

The city comprises a number of quite distinctive districts such as the Old Town, the “international district”, Les Paquis and Plainpalais. The Old Town climbs the hill towards Place Neuve and comprises cobbled streets lined with charming stone townhouses.

The gothic Cathedral of St. Pierre which dominates the skyline and this and the nearby chapel of the Macabees are popular tourist attractions.

There are a handful of museums in this quarter, the highlight of which is Maison Tavel, reputedly the oldest house in the city, dating from the twelfth century. Its rooms have been presented to show how they would have been furnished in the seventeenth century.

The international area is north east of the centre. Here you’ll find the Palais des Nations: originally the home of the League of Nations (the forerunner of the United Nations, set up in the aftermath of World War 1), this impressive edifice is now home to the United Nations Office at Geneva. Visitors can undertake guided tours of the building.

Nearby is the Museum of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent (the organisation was the brainchild of Genevois Henry Dunant) which is fascinating and a visit is highly recommended.

Plainpalais has a slightly alternative ambience, centred on the Plaine de Plainpalais which is like a large grassless village green. There’s occasionally a fair stationed on part of the plaine but there’s also a permanent skate and BMX park, a children’s play area and, for the adults, a permanent outdoor cafe bar.

Tourists might find themselves in this area to visit one of the museums such as MAMCO – the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, or the Patek Philippe Museum dedicated to the work of the celebrated Swiss jeweller and watchmaker.

Les Paquis is Geneva’s melting pot – a big fondue if you like. It is home to immigrants from all over the world and the place to come for tasty international cuisine at reasonable prices. This area does have a certain reputation for petty crime so you should take care after dark.

Another interesting but less well known area is Les Grottes, just behind the train station. It’s essentially a residential area, at the heart of which is a striking public housing estate with a strong flavour of Gaudi. If you have time it’s well worth an hour or so to look around it and explore the little boutiques and retro design shops in this area.

A boat trip is definitely recommended during a stay in Geneva. They run all year round but there are more sailings in summer. In winter they tend to be limited to afternoons only.

The shortest circular trip lasts just over an hour and a quarter. Lake Leman is immense so you’ll only get to see a small section but it’s worth it to get an alternative view of the city.

As well as showing you some of the magnificent chateaux along the shores of the lake, you also get quite close to the Jet d’Eau, the huge water-jet that has become the symbol of the city. The jet was first created in 1886 as a means of releasing water pressure created by turbines on the Rhone; the plan was to build a reservoir for this purpose but until this was done, a temporary jet was installed.

This one reached a height of 30 metres and the one in place today reaches over 140 metres. It operates daily unless there are high winds but hours vary depending on the time of year.

There is no end of accommodation in Geneva: there are hotels on every street and the accommodation available runs the spectrum between top class hotels and backpackers hostel.

However, accommodation costs are high (even our hostel cost around £50 a night for a double room) and the cheaper accommodation tends to be on the outskirts of the city. Of course, with free public transport, staying further out becomes a more viable option.

Similarly, there are plenty of places to eat but prices are quite high. If you really don’t have much to spend on food, you could try some of the Lebanese lunch counters in Les Paquis where you can buy things like falafel wraps for a few Francs or the restaurants inside department stores which are said to be good value.

Les Paquis is home to a diverse range of international cuisines such as Senegalese, Lebanese, Indian and Mauritian. It is cheaper to eat big at lunch time and smaller in the evening if money is an issue.

Fondue is the traditionally Swiss option and there are plenty of places with it on the menu. However, in spite of the fact that it is essentially cheese and bread it is generally expensive. Many places also offer roesti but this dish is really typical of the German speaking part of Switzerland.

Geneva is an utterly handsome and elegant city offering a host of exciting ways to spend your time. The downside is that it’s expensive but creative tourists can always find ways to get round that.  

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