This lakeside city of high finance and even higher mountaintops may seem like an exclusive Old World bastion, but it’s got the soul of a small town.
AUTHOR JEBEDIAH REED
IN MANY RESPECTS, THE SWISS CITY OF GENEVA is designed to cater to the very wealthy and the very powerful, which is why, to the rest of us, it might seem like a bit of a splurge. When so many of your visitors are interested in private banking services, high-level diplomacy and timepieces that cost as much as sports cars, it’s unrealistic to expect a lot of bargains. Fortunately, you get what you pay for in Geneva. The city is extraordinary in its history— Julius Caesar passed through, it was the world capital of Protestantism in the 16th century, and today it is home to a permanent office of the United Nations—as well as its natural setting, located as it is on the shore of Europe’s largest lake and under the towering grandeur of Western Europe’s tallest mountain, Mont Blanc. But despite Geneva’s global significance, the city proper is home to fewer than 200,000 people, and it rarely feels overcrowded: You can sip espresso at a café in the stunning Old Town and feel, as a visitor, as though you are part of the fabric of the place, enjoying its charms ever so discreetly. In fact, the Genevoise wouldn’t have it any other way.
Diving at Bains
Image – Sean Macleod
DAY ONE You wake up at Hotel President Wilson (1), a 230-room modern glass and steel stunner on the Right Bank of Lake Geneva. Your elegant room looks out on the water— as does the hotel’s $63,000-a-night bulletproof Royal Penthouse a few floors above. For a moment you wonder what titan of global finance or politics is staying there now, but breakfast awaits. Pass through the chic water-themed lobby as you hurry outside to La Vouivre bakery before the famous milk chocolate croissants sell out (they always do). The glorious pastry melts in your mouth as you sit at an antique wooden table sipping coffee and watching an art student sketch nearby.
This is the Pâquis district, a diverse and lively neighborhood frequently described as “emerging,” which, in Geneva, seems to mean a conspicuous dearth of luxury boutiques compared with adjacent areas. But Rue des Pâquis, the district’s main street, is lined with charming shops and restaurants. Make your way past them to the sylish five-star Le Richemond (2) hotel, where a bellman points to a low-slung water taxi, or mouette. Once aboard, you savor the breezy half-mile trip across the lake to the Left Bank, where locals are sunbathing and a few hearty souls are enjoying a morning swim.
After stopping to admire the 450-foot-high Jet d’Eau (3) fountain, Geneva’s most iconic sight, you continue toward the Jardin Anglais (4) to find out what time it is at Flower Clock, an enormous analog device with a face made of thousands of blossoms.
Image – Alexei Fateev/Alamy
Timepieces are the soul of this city, so you also pop your head into the Bucherer (5) jewelry shop across the avenue and check out the $100,000 Rolex with the all-diamond face. Avoid an impulse purchase and stroll over to Rue du Rhone, “Geneva’s Fifth Avenue,” for some window shopping. It’s an impressive display of luxury, but the old walled city of Geneva, just three blocks to the south, is more your speed. You climb the narrow cobbled streets up to Hotel Les Armures (6), a magnificent 17th century mansion that serves what many local foodies consider the city’s best fondue. A place that might be overrun by tourists elsewhere in Europe feels local, with finance types sporting pocket squares and conversing quietly. You order the classic fondue—croutons dipped in savory cheese—and afterward the waiter shows you pictures of the Clinton family eating here. (Hillary got the fondue, Bill the sauerkraut.)
Before the food makes you sleepy, it’s straight to nearby St Pierre Cathedral (7), a mesmerizing architectural Frankenstein as important to Protestantism as St. Peter’s Basilica is to Catholicism. Step inside and admire the austere wooden chair where John Calvin sat while he preached. Outside, stroll over to the ramparts of the old city wall and pat the trunk of Geneva’s famous chestnut tree (8), whose first annual bud traditionally marks the end of winter. Descending an old cobbled horse ramp, you find a small playground at Place Neuve where serious-looking men play chess with oversize chessmen on boards the size of shuffleboard courts. Try not to become a pawn in their game.
On the way home, loop back through the Old Town and enjoy a vealburger with parmesan cheese at the chic bistro Soupçon (9), then pop next door to the lively and shockingly inexpensive La Clemence, a bar that occupies the best real estate on Place du Bourg-de-Four, the Old Town’s central plaza. If you’re in the mood to indulge, ask for a locally brewed Calvinus beer. A cheeky young Swiss fellow warns you with a wink, “The first one isn’t so good—but they get better.” He’s right.