An unexpectedly fascinating city with beautiful countryside on its doorstep
Geneva is not a city people immediately think of for a European getaway. Locals warned me to bring a book when they learned I would be staying for two weeks! But it was a pleasant surprise, with a good variety of things to do, and some beautiful countryside within very easy reach.
Geneva is probably best known as a hub for NGOs and charities, and of course the United Nations. The north east of the city is dominated by the large buildings which serve as their headquarters, and by the UN buildings themselves. The gates to the UN, in front of the rows of flags and the main building, are a very popular photo spot. As is the Broken Chair, a tribute to those wounded by land mines. The buildings do sit slightly on the edge of town, so if modern blocks aren’t your thing, you can stick to the city centre, and especially to its historic heart. This is full of tall old buildings, and feels more akin to an Italian castle town than to something you’d find in Northern Europe. But there are flags absolutely everywhere, just in case you forget where you are.
This area has the International Museum of the Reformation, and the Cathedral of St Pierre. It costs very little to go up one of the towers of the cathedral, from which you get fantastic views across the city and over the lake. This is a good place from which to get a view of the Jet d’Eau, one of the tallest fountains in the world, with water reaching an impressive 140 metres in the air (now dwarfed by King Fahd’s Fountain in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, at 260 metres). This accolade masks its rather mundane origins as an outlet for a hydraulic power network, but it is still an great sight. Getting close to it and its huge spray is a good way of avoiding the worst of the summer heat! I am realising that as I get older I seem to be developing a fear of heights, as I felt rather a wimp timidly clinging on for dear life at the top of the cathedral tower. But the view did help me overcome this.
As you would expect, the cathedral is not the only cultural attraction in Geneva. There is the aforementioned Museum of the Reformation, as well as a surprisingly good art museum, the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, the Red Cross Museum, the Patek Philippe Museum, and the Swatch Museum (which I must admit I was not drawn to but is apparently actually quite interesting), to name a few. You can also visit the Calvin Auditorium, where John Calvin and John Knox once preached, and see the monument to the Reformation, the Reformation Wall, with its striking depictions of international reformation leaders.
I visited Geneva in the summer, and it did get very hot (sometimes over 30 degrees Celsius). In addition to this we had some spectacular rainstorms. Sat at the end of Lake Geneva, also known as Lac Léman, and surrounded by mountains, it is easy to see how it becomes the target for some strong weather systems. But there is plenty to do to cool down, from swimming in the lake, particularly at the Bains des Pâquis, to sampling some delicious ice cream (of which Manu Gelato is a favourite).
Needless to say, Geneva is quite an expensive city. Switzerland in general is very expensive, with a high cost of living. Eating out is definitely on the pricey side, and you’ll notice the difference in the cost of basic groceries. We stayed in AirBnB apartments, so were able to reduce our expenses by cooking for ourselves, and buying our own breakfasts. The fruit and vegetables, as I always find in Europe, are so much better than in the UK, even when brought from Lidl and Denner, the budget supermarkets. Accommodation is costly too, but there is a fair amount of choice, so you can stick to a tighter budget, especially if you avoid hotels. Public transport is widely available, and is actually relatively cheap. I would really recommend taking a water bus. These dot across the lake, and are a great way to get out onto the water without having to pay for one of the expensive boat tours. These are pretty parks like the Parc de la Grange, and the Botanic Gardens are open access (and have animals!), so there is lots to do without having to pay admission fees.
A note on language: Switzerland speaks a dizzying number of languages, but understandably French is the main language of Geneva. People do speak English, but they are perhaps a bit less willing to do so than in, say, Amsterdam. A little French will go a long way, so it is worth putting some time in, even just a few hours on Duolingo, or with a decent phrasebook. Also of note is that I would not describe Geneva as particularly vegetarian friendly. When we went I was still just a pescetarian, but even that proved to be a struggle. Supermarkets like Migros have a decent lunch selection, but be prepared for slim pickings in cafés and restaurants. However, more studenty areas have some good veggie options. Inglewood, for instance, a popular burger joint, has great vegetarian burgers, and will swap one for a meat burger on any of their different menu options. So if you’re ready to look around a bit, there are things out there.
A slightly off-the-beaten track thing to do in Geneva is go out to the La Jonction, and particularly Viaduc de la Jonction, to see the meeting of the two rivers, the Rhône and the Arve. La Jonction is a popular place for barbecues and cooling down in the hot weather. The rivers look really impressive, the two colours coming together so precisely. The view from the viaduct is particularly good. It is a little bit scary if you’re like me and find deep, fast running water unnerving, but as long as you don’t jump in you’ll be fine!
I can’t write about Geneva without mentioning CERN. If you’re willing to take a tram ride out of the city, through the suburbs towards the French border, CERN will not disappoint. The European Organization for Nuclear Research, CERN is home to the Large Hadron Collider, site of some of the most fascinating experiments and discoveries of our time. Despite my focus on the humanities in my formal education, I have always been a bit of a physics nerd, and there was plenty to keep me entertained in CERN’s museum. The highlight of my visit though was an official tour. These are led by researchers working on the site, so you’re in the hands of an expert. Our guide was charmingly enthusiastic, and took us on a two-hour trip around some of the different areas, explaining complex ideas with ease, and in a highly accessible way. It’s easy to feel intimidated by the words ‘particle physics’, but by the end of the tour you’ll come away with at least a solid handle on what the LHC experiments are trying to achieve (and you’ll never again fall for speculation about it creating a black hole!).
CERN isn’t the only attraction to tempt you beyond the city limits. The area features some stunning landscapes, and a short bus ride will take you out to the mountains. Bizarrely, due to the weirdly narrow shape of this end of Switzerland, whether you go North or South you’ll still end up in France. For an easier climb, go to the Salève, which has a very popular cable car. First built in 1932 and rebuilt in 1982, this will take you all the way to the top of the range, giving you amazing views on the way. Walking along the ridge takes you past a Tibetan monastery (of all things), and up into charming mountain meadows, with views down over Geneva and Lac Léman. You can take a bus straight from the centre of Geneva, but be warned that once at the other end buses only take cash.
For the more adventurous walker (dare I say hiker), you can take a slightly longer journey out across the border beyond CERN and into the surrounding French villages and up to the Jura Mountains. Walks will take you up some fairly steep climbs through beautiful woodland and up onto high meadows. You can reach some pretty good heights here; we got to about 1718 metres at the top of Le Reculet, the second highest mountain in the Juras. The weather can be changeable, and it gets cold and windy higher up, so be sure to wear appropriate clothing and footwear, pack extra layers, and take plenty of water and snacks. There are shelter huts, but it is preferable not to need them. To quote the remarkable Sir Ranulph Fiennes (one of my favourite quotations in fact): ‘there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’. Your efforts are rewarded with spectacular views, and even in the fog it is quite a magical experience, as the still air is pierced by the sound of trickling springs and low cow bells drifting down the mountainside. The scree on the way down can be a little treacherous, so allow yourself plenty of time for the descent. It’s not a great idea to be rushing for a bus!
All in all I enjoyed Geneva far more than I was expecting. It is a pretty, clean city with plenty to offer in terms of culture and entertainment, and the beautiful surrounding landscapes give you a lot more than your average city break. The view from the plane as we came in to land won me over instantly, and it only got better from there.