Geneva, in the French speaking side of Switzerland, is the second largest city in the country with Zurich being the largest. Well known for the lake that it stands on, it is considered a global city because of all the international organizations that have their home here. The Geneva Conventions were signed here which deal with treatment of prisoners of war, and the United Nations and the headquarters of the Red Cross can also be found in this beautiful city.
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History and Geography
The city of Geneva is located at the south-west end of the lake, just where it flows into the Rhone. There are two mountain ranges surrounding the area, the Alps and the Jura. In the lake itself, two rocks, the Pierres du Niton, stand out and these are thought to have been here since the ice age. This is the place that was chosen as the reference point for surveying for all of Switzerland. There is also a second river that flows nearby, the Arve River, which itself flows into the Rhone, just as the lake does.
Those who love winter sports are literally spoiled for choice here since Mont Blanc can be seen in the distance and is only about one hour away by road. However, Geneva itself, being at lake level, is usually quite mild in the winter and very warm in the summer.
Best time to go to Geneva
If it is meadows full of wild flowers and the kind of countryside one would imagine that Heidi lived in, summer is definitely the time to visit. However, if it is snow sports in the surrounding mountain ranges, winter is also a fun time.
Rain is adequate and pretty much spread out throughout the year with autumn seeing above average rainfall. In the summer, many visitors go swimming in the lake and there are several beaches to enjoy. June to September sees temperatures around the mid twenties with winter going as low as four degrees.
Getting Around in Geneva
The city is served by no less than two train companies – the Swiss network, SBB-CFF-FFS, and the French SNFC network. People can get here by train from as far away as Paris and Marseille or Montpelier and Lyon. There are also great motorway connections to France and the rest of Switzerland so expect to see European tourists here and there.
There is good public transport in the form of a bus, trolleybus or tram system that covers the city itself and the whole region. Some lines will extend into France too. There are boats which transport passengers across the lake and others that take people further afield.
Taxis are often a problem since they are usually booked in advance. They also tend to not take children or infants because of the stringent seating laws here. Car hire is a must if skiing holidays are being taken since visitors can spend time in the mountains during the day and enjoy the city and its entertainment at night.
Major attractions and Sights
Geneva has much to see in the way of sights for those who love history. One such place is St. Peter’s Cathedral. Originally settled by Celtic tribes, the hill that houses the cathedral is the same place that influential reformist Calvin preached.
One thing that should not be missed is the huge water jet known locally as Jet d’Eau, rising to one hundred and fifty meters that sets off the lake beautifully. Be aware in winter though as it is sometimes not operating. This setting was once the opening shot of a famous series in the UK so plenty of people like to photograph it.
There are many parks and public spaces in Geneva with one of the most popular being the Jardin Anglais. Thousands of plants have been used to make up a floral clock and there is part of the park which has deer and flamingos for people to enjoy. The floral clock was made as a compliment to the watch and clock makers of the city and is a good five meters across. There are more than six thousand plants used in the clock and the mix is changed at the beginning of each of the four seasons.
For anyone who is interested in science, Geneva is home to the Large Hadron Collider. Here, they are trying to, in the most simplistic terms, test the Big Bang Theory – when the earth was created; some say that if anything goes wrong, this could be the end of the world instead!
For some leisurely walking, try the pedestrian trail that runs out of the city and along the north and south of the lake. This is a lovely and scenic walk and it allows people to slow down a little from frenetic city life, and is enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.
For those who love anything old, try out the Barbier-Muller Museum in the old town district. Here find lovely pieces of art from the Asia-Pacific area which includes carvings and jewelry.
Since Geneva is quite expensive, it is refreshing to know that there are some free tours on offer. Many people use the mobile ‘app’ which is available on the free Wi-Fi network that the city offers. This means that people can stroll at their leisure as long as they have a smart phone or iPad or iPod etc and it doesn’t need to be downloaded either. The technology is so good that the embedded GPS system shows the user exactly where they are and also points out all the key attractions and transport facilities among other things.
Sometimes it is great to get out of the city to see the mountains. A trip up the mountain to Chamonix on the Swiss border where there are cable car rides and photo opportunities galore is the chance to breathe fresh clean air. If it is winter, then there are plenty of places to ski or snowboard too.
Or try a trip on the Gruyeres and the Golden Express to see some spectacular scenery. There is a coach ride first and then a train ride from the city to end up in the wonderful meadows and hills of the Swiss Alps. The Alps are sensational as the train descends into the valley down to Montreux.
Another great trip to the mountains which should not be missed is the Gstaad trip. The Cable Car Glacier 3000 takes visitors up and above the peaks of the Alps so that they can hike over the glacier there. Gstaad itself is where winter sports take place but summer vistas are also unforgettable.
If there are kids along on the holiday, Geneva is full of fun parks and zoos etc. The Zoo de Servion houses primates and big cats as well as local animal life. Or, try a visit to the Aquaparc that has both indoor and outdoor pools for water adventures so this is great all year round. At Aquasplash, on top of the usual pools and slides, find trampolines and beach volley ball facilities among other activities.
The Swiss Vapeur Parc is also a great place for the children. It is a host of many different miniature railway tracks and, although the place is quite small, kids can take rides on the trains. This is a really fun place for smaller children and those who love trains. Older kids may well get a little bored but the small ones will love it.
Lastly, for this section, there is a lovely place to visit on Lake Geneva itself. The Ile Rousseau is a beautiful green island at the heart of the water. Some four hundred years ago, this was used as a fortress to stop invading troops. This is why it has the arrow shape. The island is full of swaying trees and willows with great views of the city. The island is a cool place away from the city centre where people go to just chill out, take a stroll or enjoy a picnic. Find a pavilion style restaurant here to have a lunch or snack. The island was named after the local boy made good, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, an eighteenth-century philosopher whose statue can also be found on the island; it has been here since 1835. This place can be reached either by foot from either side of the lake, or on the Pont du Mont-Blanc.
Shopping in Geneva
Geneva has a wealthy population so visitors should expect to find high end shops and designer wear outlets at every corner. There are also many little tourist style shops for souvenirs dotted here and there. Some would say that these are a little on the tacky side but the tourists seem to like them. Look in the Old Town and the Bourg-de-Four district for watches, T shirts, army knives et al. For the personal touch, get a name engraved on the handle of this most iconic of Swiss products.
For traffic free shopping, try the Rue de la Confederation. Prices are obviously a little on the high side but the quality is excellent. Comparison shopping is recommended to save some money as prices do tend to fluctuate.
To shop where the locals do, try the outdoor market at Plaine de Plainpalais which is open on several days during the week. On Sundays, very few shops are open. One part of Geneva that is great for shopping is Quai du Mont Blanc since it is right on the waterfront. Here too find plenty of cafes for a quick lunch or break.
Eating Out in Geneva
When in Rome, as they say, eat somewhere where the locals eat. In Geneva that would be at the Buvette des Bains des Paquis. This is a simple wooden building on the right bank of the city and this is where locals come to bathe in summer, take a sauna in the winter and enjoy a fine lunch too. Favorite local dishes include pig’s trotters, pork sausage with caraway seeds and lamb, fish or meat dishes.
Or try a place called U Bobba which is known to serve the elite and the smart set. Particularly tasty are the veal medallions served up with pistachio nuts or gorgonzola gnocchi.
Nightlife in Geneva
For the younger element, the Bar du Nord is the place to be on Fridays and Saturdays. It used to have its own beach feature, but now it has been revamped for the young and trendy set. Full of Bauhaus style furniture and with the best selection of whiskies in town, this is the place to see and be seen.
For the over thirties, Le Palais Mascotte is a great place. It is a restaurant cabaret bar which is rather select. It plays seventies and eighties music, but also has a basement bar that plays more modern music.
For something a little more up-market, try the Bâtiment des Forces Motrices which is a converted pumping station. Now, cultural events take place here which includes ballet and classical music.
Anything of local interest
Christmas is a lovely time to be in Geneva as it has the Tree and Lights Festival between November and January. Some people will balk at prices in general in the city but since the festival is free, it is good to come in and experience something just a little bit different. Expect to find sumptuous food on offer, like the famous Swiss Fondue, or join in the many street parties.
Another local event is the Fete de L’Escalade which literally means ‘scaling the city walls’. This traditional celebration marks the attack by the Duke of Savoy and in commemoration the city’s people carry torches through the streets. It is said that a mother emptied a hot cauldron of boiling soup on the intruders and this is the reason why there will al so be soup served up during the celebrations.
Confectionary has its place in the celebrations so look for the famous Swiss chocolate on sale. As a centerpiece for the festivities, townsfolk fill a chocolate cauldron with marzipan vegetables, again depicting the soup story, and the carnival atmosphere is rounded off with people dressed in period costume and beating drums. This festival occurs between the 10th and 12th December every year.