Geneva is the second largest city in Switzerland, surpassed only by Zurich, and is continually named one of the most liveable cities in the world. It s a global city, a financial city, a city acknowledged as being the worldwide epicentre for diplomacy, greatly helped by the presence of numerous international organisations such as the headquarters of the United Nations and the Red Cross. Most importantly though, Geneva is a city that is synonymous with wealth, design excellence, the birthplace of the Rolex and home to a huge array of fine jewellers, but this has distracted from the plethora of art and culture on offer. This is a city that is teeming with the vibrancy and energy that any culturally diverse and artistically driven city has to offer, Geneva has just been under appreciated for quite some time.
The municipality (ville de Genève) has a population of a mere 194,458, that’s almost ten times the capacity of London’s O2 Arena. The canton, essentially the city including its outer suburbs houses only 474,169 residents. It is also the place where the Geneva Conventions were signed so I guess it’s not the most surprising thing that a vast number of foreigners have a somewhat limited view of what is really here to discover. It’s funny; before I got a chance to visit, my general idea of Geneva was exactly that, limited. I had conjured an image in my mind (fuelled by a very dated stereotype of the city) of a place swarming with suits and briefcases, austere older men holding business meetings in lavish surroundings all sporting a gold Rolex and eating buckets of chocolate. I daresay it’s quite the opposite.
Comfortably nestled on the shores of Lake Geneva (Western Europe’s largest lake), Geneva is the epitome of a trans-seasonal destination city. In summer the lake becomes the epicentre of aquatic activity from fishing and diving to livelier wake boarding and para-boating. You can take a cable car and have a leisurely ramble up Geneva’s local mountain, Mont-Salève, or in winter you can be in a vast array of ski slopes in under an hour, it’s heavenly. Les Gets is just 55km away or if you want something a little more glamorous why not try Megeve, 75km away. Insert this into a mountainous backdrop with the Alps, the Jura Mountains and Mont Blanc (Europe’s highest summit at 15, 776ft) and you have a pretty breath-taking place. You get the picture.
Then, of course, there is the Jet d’Eau – a jewel in Geneva’s crown where the River Rhône spills into the lake. It’s quite something to behold 500L of water being propelled to a height of 140m at 200km/h; it’s another one of those examples where pictures simply don’t do it justice. Rather quaintly five retirees who devote their spare time to this symbol of their city run the maintenance and scheduling of the fountain, and if you ask nicely they might even let you turn it on in the morning.
The most surprising discovery about the lifestyle and the people as a whole is their supremely relaxed air, something that comes when you are truly laid back and at peace with life in general. It is such a pleasant thing to encounter and automatically puts you at ease, especially coming from the constant rush of London and its teeming streets or the fast-paced nature of Parisian life.
Lunch at la Buvette des Bains des Paquis is the perfect spot to rub elbows with a throng of locals at any given time and they’re open daily from 7am – 10.30pm this is an absolute must if you’re in Geneva. The prices here are extremely affordable and have remained unchanged since the 1980s’. The food is incredibly tasty and simple, there are two choices for lunch so it keeps the decision making process to the minimum allowing you to focus on more important things, like the sunshine or the view! Grab a table in the sun, or under cover and just chat away. If there is a little extra space on any table just jump on in and share, the locals are extremely welcoming and friendly and will have you feeling right at home in no time. The fondue is supposed to be beyond words so on cooler nights there is definitely something to warm yourself up with; well that and the most incredible local wines (but we’ll get to that later, trust me, it’s worth the wait). Quite simply, this is where the people of Geneva go. We managed to swing by Café des Bains for dinner and the food was simply delicious. The starters and main were just impeccable, excellently prepared and presented, and most importantly the taste was amazing. The décor is another great example of the art driven sub-cultures of Geneva as huge pieces of contemporary street-style art adorn the walls. If you feel like something a little more upmarket then fear not as you’ll find Geneva to be the culinary capital of Switzerland, home to over 50 gourmet restaurants.
The seasonal, lakeside bar La Terasse is the perfect place to go for an early evening drink – re-opening for the summer in May the bar is simplicity at it’s finest. Uncomplicated drinks, well executed, giving you a chance to just relax. Grab an Aperol Spritz and take in the eccentric mish-mash of people. Don’t be surprised if that cliché tourist with a camera and socks and sandals reclines next to a suit wearing businessman, or any one of the gorgeously chic women that dominate this city. It is overall a much younger, much fresher and much more fun city than imagined, with the opening of the Hotel N’vY there is a marked change in catering more and more for Generation Y – simple practicality that is supremely comfortable, relaxing and has an understated type of luxury. Hotel N’vY even flew in notable graffiti artist Meres One to create a series of custom designs in one of their café/bars and add additional artwork in each and every room of the hotel. It is refreshing to see such a fun and funky hotel, their attention to detail is commendable, even their cocktail menu was tailor made and crafted by leading industry professionals based in New York. On that note, definitely do check out the bar on any given night for an array of superbly made cocktails where the atmospheric lighting is ever changing to suit the mood. The hotel itself is akin to an art gallery, they have a formidable collection of contemporary art adorning the walls and occupying the corridors – handily each and every one has an informative placard to answer all questions about the art and the artists.
Which brings me to the art. Geneva is an art rich city. Take Quartier des Bains, an area that has been transformed into an art loving boho heaven and acts as a platform for avant-gardist European art. It is home to MAMCO (Museum for Contemporary Art) and an impressive number of privately owned galleries, overall it is a district well regarded for both its cultural activities and nightlife. The Nuit des Bains is a collaborative evening that encompasses a throng of galleries and targeted exhibitions, allowing visitors to take a leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood and stop in from gallery to gallery, drink in hand, and truly immerse themselves in the artistic culture of Geneva. Three times a year the whole area celebrates the event and galleries open simultaneously for private viewings. It is evenings such as these that allow you to discover a world of new artists and art pieces. I particularly adored Maarten Baas’ Smoke table and chairs at Mitterrand+Cramer who, coincidentally, co-founded the Quartier des Bains association in 2000.
Like superb art, fine wine might not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Geneva, or Switzerland in general for that matter, but this land produces an array of surprisingly good wines. The vineyards are generally quite tiny and family owned businesses with very limited production. In terms of volume they make a mere 110 million litres of wine a year (to put it into perspective France produces closer to 5 billion litres per year), which isn’t really enough to export. You’ll rarely see Swiss wine abroad but that does increase the uniqueness of the opportunity to go to Switzerland, sit on the shores of Lake Geneva and imbibe something local. Lavaux, in the neighbouring Canton, is one of region’s main vineyards and became a Unesco world heritage site in 2007 on account of its ancient terraces stacked up steep hillsides, not dissimilar to rice paddies, if you find yourself in the area it is definitely worth a visit. The open cellar wine tour is the absolute supreme opportunity to experience Swiss wines and is held once a year in May. It allows visitors to visit and sample produce from various cellars for just 5 Euros. The wine samples are free, you’re just required to pay the 5 Euros to buy your travelling wine glass “caves ouvertes” which you get to take home at the end of the day. I love it!
Every summer the Geneva Festival (Fêtes de Genève) sees hundreds of thousands of people flocking to the Jardin Anglais and shores of lake Geneva to experience and immerse themselves in Swiss culture and tradition. This year from 17 July to 10 August, Geneva Tourism & Conventions Foundation presents an “Espace 1815”, a series of events that showcase traditional music, restaurants and craft offerings to mark the anniversary of Geneva’s accession to the Swiss Confederation. Most impressively there is a rather awe inspiring, hour-long firework display.
I haven’t even had a chance to mention the architecture or the views and the landscape…or the chocolate! (If you get a chance, visit Philippe Pascoët – it’s the upper echelon of deliciousness). Switzerland is a country driven by quality and Geneva is a superb example. It’s a vibrant city, a treasure trove teeming with art and overflowing with culture. It is a true under explored gem of Europe and something everyone should definitely discover at least once, if not more, in their lives. It’s a city with seasonal duality, rain or shine, sun or snow the possibilities are endless and no less magical. The guys at Geneva Tourism are beyond helpful and their weekend passes are the easiest way to explore the city…best of all it’s close enough for a weekend trip.