Unless you’re John Kerry, Geneva probably isn’t high on your European travel list. It may not even be in the Top 5 of your Switzerland travel list. Geneva has a bit of a reputation as being a boring diplomatic city – not exactly the best tourism marketing. But this is a terrible shame – both for Geneva and for you – and I’m here today to right this wrong.
I was admittedly not quite sure what to make of Geneva when I first arrived there, on New Year’s Eve, almost six years ago. It was very cold, and gray, and I hadn’t figured out the buses yet so I had to walk down a long and uninteresting street to get into the heart of the city. This left me with a less-than-enthusiastic first impression. But over the next eight months that I called Geneva home, it grew on me like a tattoo you don’t regret. I was very sorry to say goodbye.
While most of Switzerland has very much a German vibe, Geneva feels French. They speak French, of course (and probably several other languages to boot), but beyond the language, the architecture and atmosphere are more akin to the French villages on the other side of the border than to Lucerne or Zurich. You can get a proper baguette here. And macarons. And you can practice your “oui’s” and “s’il vous plait’s” with the comforting knowledge that the person you’re speaking to will probably switch to English if you start to struggle.
The city arranges itself on either side of Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman, if you will) with several low bridges connecting the left and right banks. The foothills of the Alps wrap around the western edge of the city. Stately buildings – many of them featuring the names of large banks or expensive watches – line the lakefront boulevards. The famous Jet d’Eau (literally, “jet of water”) may not have the most creative name but it certainly is impressive. You can admire it from any point along the banks of the lake, or walk out on a pier to stand right underneath it. On a clear day, with a blue sky, it’s a stunning vista.
Geneva’s Old Town is as moodily medieval as the best European towns are. It has the added bonus of sitting atop a steep hill, which makes you work for the pleasure of exploring it and rewards you with sweeping views over the city (even better if you climb the stairs to the top of the cathedral’s towers).
And as for that boring diplomatic side of Geneva: well, the meetings may be dull, but the United Nations’ “Palace” is worth a visit for anyone with even a dash of political wonkiness in them. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum is moving for anyone with a heart.
For all these reasons, I’ve made Geneva the centerpiece of our Lake Geneva and French Alps tour, which I will be leading this fall (spring 2017 dates are now available, too). Geneva also happens to be perfectly located to explore some of my favorite spots in France: the breathtaking Chamonix (which I wrote about here) and the lovely canal-strewn city of Annecy. We’ll visit Annecy on market day and cross our fingers for clear skies when we trek to the top of Chamonix. After getting our fill of France and Geneva, we’ll take a train along the north shore of Lake Geneva to Montreux, an art nouveau charmer of a town with a genuine medieval castle and a delightful lakefront promenade. Switzerland does wine as well as it does chocolate and cheese, and some of its best wines come from the nearby Lavaux region, whose terraced vineyards have earned themselves a UNESCO World Heritage designation. We’ll spend a day sampling their wares, because you’ll surely want something to wash down all the chocolate.
Since you don’t have eight months to get to know Geneva and its neighbors, spend a week there with me, instead. I’ll show you the best parts. I think it will grow on you, too.