Those of you who have been to Switzerland (yours truly included) know plenty about this fine city. Great views of Mont Blanc. Lots of famous shops selling quality jewelry and watches. But there’s more to Geneva, Switzerland. More than you think.
And don’t just limit yourself to mere window-shopping – although there’s nothing wrong with that at all. Take advantage of the medieval center of “the city of peace”. While you’re at it – and keeping in mind that you’re on a budget – take advantage of the free transit passes offered to visitors. And those of you who are historically inclined, then you know that the United Nations and other organziations are headquartered there, hence the international ambience. Now to the inside skinny:
GETTING AROUND: Just before leaving the baggage claim area at Geneva airport, look for a machine that dispenses free passes for area buses, trams and trains. The pass is valid for 80 minutes from the time you get it. The train to the city center takes six minutes.
Hotels give guests another free pass for the duration of their stay. You can take unlimited rides on city buses, trams, taxi boats across the lake and return to the airport by train. Geneva is relatively small — population 188,000 — and most sights are within walking distance of Lake Geneva and the city center.
Bikes can be borrowed free at different locations — http://www.geneveroule.ch/en. You only need to show your passport or ID card and leave a refundable deposit of $18.65 (about 20 Swiss francs). A pleasant way to cross the lake is in the romantic little yellow taxi boats called Mouettes that stop at five lakeside docks — http://www.mouettesgenevoises.ch/en/index.php.
CHEAP EATS: At Geneva’s street festivals you find grilled Swiss sausages and a variety of Latin American food under $10 (10 francs). There are many options walking distance from the main train station. The popular Lebanese cafe Au Parfum de Beyrouth at 18 rue de Berne near the train station has good kebabs and vegetarian falafels for less than $8 (8 francs). Also:
- The Paquis Baths at the small lighthouse on the lake has a cafeteria with a lake terrace that offers a menu of the day for $11-$13 (12 or 14 francs) at lunchtime and 6 p.m.-9 p.m. Try homemade cakes and fresh juice. It’s also the most popular swimming spot in the clean lake water. It’s free after 8 p.m., otherwise a little under $2 (2 francs).
- Mandarin, 1-3 rue de Chantepoulet, offers dim sum delicacies on Sundays 12 p.m.-5:30 p.m. for about $4.60-$6.50 (5-7 francs) a small dish.
- Mosaique, 31 rue du Mole, is a small Eritrean restaurant. The meat dish is $15 (16 francs) and the vegetarian dish $12 (13 francs). Eat with your fingers.
- Across the Mont Blanc bridge over the Rhone River leaving the lake, you’ll find Au Big Sandwich, also called Chez Raffaele, at 10 rue des Eaux-Vives, with various sandwiches around $6-$8 (6.80-8.80 francs), homemade salads, pasta dishes and other Italian delicacies to take away.
- Chez Ma Cousine at 6 Bourg-de-Four in the heart of the Old Town serves mouthwatering chicken dishes at less than $14 (15 francs).
- Les Armures, 1 rue Puits-St.-Pierre, near the cathedral, is one of the most popular places for the famous fondue cheese dish and other traditional Swiss food. The restaurant is reasonably priced as Geneva goes. Fondue is $23-$26 (25-27.50 francs) per person.
- Near a large open area known as Plainpalais back down in the city, there is Feuille de banane at 29 rue de Carouge, an Asian fast food restaurant where you can enjoy good Thai and Chinese specialties, if you can stand the occasionally rude waiters. Plates are $12-18 (13-19 francs).
MUST-VISITS: Lake Geneva, or Lac Leman, is a good starting point. Families stroll along the esplanade, picnicking amid the flowers in the adjacent gardens. There’s even free wireless Internet access. Walk past Geneva’s signature Jet d’eau, the towering fountain rising 460 feet from a jetty in the lake.
Don’t miss one of the city’s best ice cream shops, the Arlecchino on rue du 31 decembre, right across the street, offering 30-40 flavors of homemade ice cream at $3.25 (3.50 francs) a dip.
Farther along Quai Gustav Ador you’ll find free lawn chairs close to the Baby Plage beach where you can walk into the water. There are no changing cabins, but admission is free.
Sailing fans should see the America’s Cup trophy on display at the nearby Societe Nautique de Geneve, home to champion Alinghi.
Back at the Jardin Anglais (English Garden) you can see the flower clock — a symbol of Geneva’s famous watch industry.
Cross the Mont Blanc bridge and take a right along Quai du Mont Blanc past the Paquis Baths to find Palais Wilson, once headquarters of the U.N.’s predecessor League of Nations. Named for U.S. President Woodrow Wilson, who advocated for the league’s creation, the palais now houses the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights.
From there on a clear day you can look across the lake to the white peak of Mont Blanc, at 15,780 feet the highest mountain in the Alps.
Back on the other side of the Rhone, St. Peter’s Cathedral (Saint Pierre) tops the Old Town in charmingly tangled cobblestone streets. Religious reformer John Calvin, whose 500th birthday is being celebrated this year, made the cathedral his home base. On days with good visibility, you can climb the towers of the cathedral for $3.75 (4 francs) and overlook the city toward the Alps and the Jura mountains.
Stop for a drink in a sidewalk cafe in the Bourg-de-Four, a trading center in ancient times and popular meeting place today. Bastions Park, a short walk from the Old Town, features the Reformation Wall — a monument backed against part of the city’s ancient defensive walls, that boasts 16-foot high statues of Calvin and three other major leaders in the Protestant Reformation.
Across town you can see the United Nations’ Palais des Nations, which hosts peace, disarmament and other international talks. Take tram 15 or 13 from the train station to Nations. A giant three-legged chair symbolizes the tragedy of injuries and deaths from land mines. Opposite is the new 196-foot long mural by 100-year-old Swiss artist Hans Erni. Uphill to the left is the international Red Cross museum and the entrance to the U.N., both of which charge $9.35 (10-franc) entrance fees.
Walking down from the square along Avenue de la Paix, you’ll find the city’s free Jardin Botanique (botanical gardens). Geneva’s museums offer free admission the first Sunday of the month. Most are closed Mondays.
CRUISES: Lake Geneva, the biggest lake in western Europe, is known for strong winds ideal for sailing and sailboarding.
Paddlewheel steamboats regularly cross the lake, including stops both in France and elsewhere in Switzerland. Tickets are pricey but the boats are included in Eurail passes. InterRail holders pay half price; http://www.cgn.ch/eng.
CONCERTS and FESTIVALS: In summer, open-air concerts and festivals revive the quiet city. Fetes de Geneve, the annual street festival on the lakeside running July 30-Aug. 9, offers numerous free concerts, dance floors with disco and Latin American music, rides (for a fee) and a big fireworks show Aug. 8.
Park La Grange hosts free summer concerts ranging from rock music to French chanson on Wednesdays and Fridays. Bring a picnic; http://www.ville-ge.ch/culture/musiques/. Free jazz concerts are offered on Mondays in the courtyard of Geneva’s historical town hall; http://www.ville-ge.ch/culture/musiques/jazz.html.
The same venue hosts free classical music concerts twice a week, usually Tuesdays and Thursdays; http://www.ville-ge.ch/culture/musiques/classique.html. Listen to free organ concerts in St. Peter’s Cathedral, Saturdays at 6 p.m.
Airfare and accomodations within the city limits are reasonably priced, as well. For more information on accomodations in Geneva or to book, please click here.