Geneva, a city of about 200,000 residents in a mountainous, landlocked country, punches above its weight on the world stage. Nestled around the tip of Lake Geneva — known as Lac Léman — and otherwise penned in from three sides by France, Geneva manages to be one of the most international cities in the world.
It’s home to one of four main offices for the United Nations, which in turn has created a vast ecosystem of NGOs and global interests ranging from research to business. For instance, CERN and its world-famous — and some dread, potentially world-ending Large Hadron Collider — is located outside the city. Come for the cheese, stay for the muons, they say about Geneva these days.
The steady stream of high-powered, foreign visitors into Geneva has put fashion, luxury shopping and fine dining at the forefront in a way that belies its small footprint and population. As cosmopolitan as Geneva may be, though, there’s a fierce local pride, too. In the crystalline lake and the lifestyle it offers, in the production from its lush, agriculturally rich environs, in Chasselas wine and fondue and the city’s other culinary trappings.
Combine those together — a multicultural hub with an international gaze and a bountiful local region — and the result is an intriguing destination worthy of your attention. “Geneva belongs more to the world than to Switzerland,” a local once told me. That means you’ll be right at home, and after a weekend in town, you might think it’s you that belongs in Geneva.
How to Get to Geneva
Geneva Airport has a small number of direct flights to the United States. From the airport, Geneva’s city center is a 10-minute train ride away. The city provides free transportation cards for most visitors with a registered hotel booking, enabling you to ride for free and make use of public transport elsewhere around town, too.
Zurich’s airport is the larger hub though, and the good news is that if you fly there, you can hop on a convenient train between the cities. The ride is a quick and tidy three hours, and happens to take you through some of the most beautiful terrain on the planet.
Where to Stay in Geneva
With a preeminent lakefront position overlooking Old Town Geneva and the hilltop Geneva Cathedral, Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues is one of the finest addresses in the city, putting guests into the heart of the action. It’s also Geneva’s oldest hotel, with the structure built in 1834 and reemerging under the Four Seasons banner in 2005.
There’s a fitting palatial feel to the property, though it’s spliced with modernity thanks to recent additions, including a top floor spa with a lavish indoor pool, sauna area and well-equipped gym. Decor is opulent, with gilded accents, floral wallpaper and classical, plush furniture, as well as all-marble bathrooms with soaking tubs. The ground floor Bar des Bergues is a see-and-be-seen spot for everything from a power lunch to a more casual coffee or cocktail.
Located a few miles outside the city proper, La Réserve Geneva is an urban resort sitting on a lush 12-acre property. The hotel debuted as the first in Michel Reybier Hospitality group, and is celebrating its 20th anniversary this season.
This is the type of setting where the beauty and the serenity of the lake come to life, and where you’ll be tempted to do like I did, and not set foot anywhere off the grounds for the duration of your stay. Though, if you must, complimentary boat transfer service will ferry you back to Old Town in style via the hotel’s yacht, which guests can access by private walking tunnel.
The hotel offers a large outdoor pool, tennis courts, and a comprehensive spa and wellness program, with 102 rooms split across two connected wings joined by a central lobby, bar and cigar lounge. Rooms feature spacious balconies, many with lake views, as well as tiled bathrooms that feel akin to personal hammams, and decor inspired by African safari lodges.
Back downtown, another standout is the Ritz-Carlton Hotel de la Paix. The property abuts the always-bustling pedestrian walkway lining the lake, and is adjacent to the Square des Alpes green space. Lakefront rooms here come with spectacular views, including straight shots of Geneva’s beloved Jet d’Eau, one of the largest and most powerful water fountains in the world.
Enter into the property via a soaring atrium lobby, with terraced stone balconies looking down from the floors above, where an enormous, crystal chandelier showpiece hangs down. The grandiosity is balanced by a robust contemporary art program across the hotel’s public spaces, with the hotel consisting of two connected buildings.
What to Do
Spend an afternoon strolling around the lake and the charming streets of Old Town. Visit the Jardin Anglais and its famed Flower Clock, St. Pierre Cathedral and the mosaic displays outside the old armory, or Les Armures.
The UN is housed within a large complex including numerous places to see across Ariana Park. Its Palais des Nations home can be visited with guided tours, along with the UN Museum, the Red Cross museum, and numerous statues and monuments.
Locals always aim to take advantage of the lake’s pristine waters and ambiance, and visitors would be wise to follow suit. There are a number of lake beaches and clubs to explore, with Bains des Paquis being the most well-known. The swim club and bath house has a pier that juts into the lake, and in addition to swimming and sunbathing, is popular for its saunas and its restaurant. Other options include Tropical Corner at Geneve-Plage, and the no-frills Baby-Plage.
Head out onto the lake for a lunch or dinner cruise with CGN which operates a fleet of Belle Epoque vessels, including paddle steamboats. Other bookings such as wine tastings and special events are also available. For a different vantage point, hop on the cable car to the top of Mont Salève; while Geneva isn’t quite in the Alps, you’ll feel like you’re getting a taste of them from up there.
Geneva is the de facto global headquarters of luxury watchmaking, and the glitzy hotels and buildings lining the lake around Old Town are lined with signs touting brands such as Patek Philippe, Hublot, Breitling, Piaget, Tissot and Tudor, with an occasional international sneaking in, such as that small upstart Rolex. So, yes, you can expect to do some serious damage with watch shopping here at their flagship stores. There’s even a Patek Philippe Museum to visit.
You’re not done living the luxe life yet, are you? Didn’t think so. Head to the original Davidoff cigars outpost, opened in 1911, to nab a nice smoke for the evening.
Where to Eat & Drink
Geneva is one of the largest wine regions in the country, and while Pinot Noir and Gamay are widespread, its most prized offering is Chasselas. The dry white wine is a Swiss staple, and as it’s almost literally not exported, you need to come to the country to enjoy it. There are about 100 wineries in the hillsides around Geneva canton, and a 15-minute ride to Satigny will get you into the vineyards; consider Domaine Des Bossons or Domaine Les Perrières as two solid choices.
Fondue is a way of life in Geneva. The season, and the weather, don’t matter, and if you pluck a Genevois off the street and ask him or her what their final meal would be, it would be a near unanimous winner. At its heart, it’s a humble combination of Vacherin and Gruyere cheeses, white wine and perhaps a few turns of black pepper, and I’ve been told to make that first luscious bread dip in a figure 8 for good luck. Give it a whirl at Brasserie Hotel-de-Ville. For the full Geneva experience though, head to Buvette des Bains, within the aforementioned Bains des Paquis. Order the fondue. Dip your bread. Sip your wine. Look at the lake. Get in the lake. Enjoy life.
Many of Geneva’s cafes and restaurants are as much about maximizing the setting as they are about relishing classic fare. Head to Restaurant la Perle du Lac, and get the pan fried perch from the lake as you gaze upon it. The Cottage Cafe is an all-day cafe and restaurant set within a park, ideal for a coffee break, an aperitif or a light bite.
For more of a DIY approach to the same ideal, visit Manor Food. The gourmet market has an enormous selection of Swiss delicacies, including all of the cheese, charcuterie and Chasselas you need for a loaded picnic.
It should come as no surprise that international fare is abundant in multicultural Geneva. Fiskebar showcases Nordic-inspired cuisine combined with local, seasonal ingredients. Its Nordic Experience is an optional tasting menu, and you’ll want to make sure to stick around to the end of the meal, when a loaded cart of Chartreuse and other digestifs is presented to the table.
Izumi offers one of the best views in the city from its perch atop the Four Seasons. The restaurant serves Nikkei cuisine, a fusion of Japanese and Peruvian, from a buzzy setting including a sushi counter. Beyond the rolls, be sure to order up some wagyu, along with noteworthy bites such as mini lobster tacos, and crispy rice squares topped with tuna tartare.
Le Tsé Fung at La Réserve is the only Michelin-starred Chinese restaurant in Switzerland. Chef Frank Xu serves up a series of tasting menus meant to be shared with two people highlighting dishes such as Peking duck, as well as a selection of a la carte fare including dim sum and standout selections such as red rice rolls with prawns.
For a night cap, head to a trendy cocktail spot such as L’Apothicaire Cocktail Club, Le Calbar or Mr. Barber. Or keep seeking out Swiss wine while you can with a number of boutique wine bars in town such as UVA, La Tenuta and Chez Bacchus.
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