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Geneva, Switzerland 72-Hour Vacation

City Sights Sans Stress
A Chic Global "Village" for the 21st Century
By Dawn Turek

Geneva and its landmark jet d'eau fountain
Geneva and its landmark jet d'eau fountain

Between the parallel craggy peaks of the Alps and Jura Mountains lie the lapping waters of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman to the locals) with its postcard-famous waterspout. Perched on the edge of the lake along the Swiss-French border, Geneva is virtually surrounded by France—in fact, during the Napoleonic Wars; the French annexed the city from 1798 until 1813. In 1815, the city rejoined Swiss Confederation and became the capital of the country's francophone region. Geneva earned its legendary tolerant attitude in the 16 th century during the Religious Reformation by accepting exiled Protestants from neighboring countries. Since then, the city has earned an international reputation by housing the Red Cross and being selected by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson as the headquarters for the League of Nations—better known these days as the United Nations.

In modern times, the only invaders of this city are tourists and diplomats. While meandering the twisting Old Town roads you're likely to hear at least three of Switzerland's four national languages—the dominantly spoken French, as well as German and Italian (the fourth, Romansch, is only spoken by one percent of the population). Given that over half of the local populace hold a foreign passport, you're likely to hear conversations switch mid-sentence from lilting Swiss-French cadences to rapid-fire English.

Looking for decadence, discretion or a discount? Swiss hospitality skills are world class, so dine and sleep in ultra-luxurious style or more budget-friendly digs—both maintaining that infamous efficiency and cleanliness. Facing the rippling lake, the city's first hotel dates from 1834 and still exudes elegance—not that you'd expect anything less from the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues. Downstream a bit is the swank boutique Beau Rivage, which oozes old world flair. At the Hotel Les Armures, you can lay your head in a former 17th century home in the heart of the Old Town. For families, kids of all ages will be entertained by the Hotel Edelweiss's kitschy chalet style—complete with live yodeling in the restaurant. Budget friendly options include the Hotel Central situated three minutes from the Old Town or the quiet chalet-styled Luserna. For transportation, Geneva is a relatively easy city to walk around but for longer distances, the city offers a Geneva Transport Card that you receive from your hotel at no extra charge. This card enables you to use the entire public transportation network without any restrictions during your entire stay in the city.


The heart of the city lies in the sloping cobblestone labyrinth that forms the Old Town (Vieille Ville). Stop by a local boulangerie (bakery) such as the Chocolaterie du

Old Town
Old Town

Rhône, for a hot buttery pain au chocolat—this is Swiss chocolate after all—and then head to the top of the winding maze to find the looming Cathedral of Saint Pierre. The Cathedral's façade is a neoclassical 18th century addition whereas the Cathedral's twin towers—visible throughout the city—and its interior retain their original gothic design. Building began on the Catholic Cathedral in 1160, ultimately lasting 150 years. Pass through the austere stone interior to climb the steep step-filled north tower that takes you above the red-roofed Old Town and offers a panorama of the distant lakeshores. Note that the shiny gold and spired cupolas rising above the city belong to the Byzantine-styled Russian Orthodox Church. After your climb, walk down to the belowground level of the Cathedral to see the archaeological site discovered in 1976. Highlights include the Roman-era mosaic floors, portions of previous places of worship and an 11 th century crypt.

Still in the Saint Pierre square, you'll find Maison Mallet, an eighteenth century building whose foundations rest on the remains of the Cloisters where the Reformation was adopted in 1536. Now home to the International Museum of the Reformation, you'll find detailed information of the religious movement from its Calvinist origins to its global impact. Sit and enjoy chorales written by Martin Luther in the small music room or peruse The Barbier-Mueller room, which presents original documents describing the religious wars between the Catholics, the Protestants and Geneva's historical importance during this violent schism. An underground passageway connects the museum to the archaeological site under the Cathedral.

To discover more of the city's roots, wander over to the charcoal grey building at 6, Rue du Puits-St.-Pierre where you'll find the oldest home in the Old Town, Maison Tavel. Dating from 1303, a fire damaged the building in 1334 and it was rebuilt shortly thereafter.

Geneva architecture
Geneva architecture

All of that reading and walking will work up an appetite. For a homey atmosphere that's easy on your wallet, go to "Chez ma cousine, on y mange le poulet" (literally, "At my cousin's house, one eats chicken"). Inside the bright yellow and green room you'll find mismatched dishes, old photos of somebody's family, and the only specialty of the house: chicken. Luckily they prepare it in a few tasty ways, so pick your favorite and enjoy the filling fare for under 15 Swiss-francs (CHF). It's the best bargain in a city of expensive eateries—and judging by the young professional crowd that converges here, the secret's out.

Once you've refueled, it's back to the streets to find the hub of the old town—the Place du Bourg-de-Four, once an ancient Roman marketplace. During the war of religions, old homes were demolished in order to settle the influx of exiled Protestants. Today, the Genevois still congregate here to chat around the eighteenth century stone fountain or lounge at a bistro terrace.

For dedicated shoppers, the Old Town will merely whet your appetite. Just below the Old Town, the parallel streets of Rue du Rhône and Rue du Marché are the two best shopping destinations in the city. The boutiques of Rue du Rhône purvey top designer's wares whereas the pedestrian-friendly Rue du Marché offers more wallet-friendly fare.

Of course, no visit to Geneva, or Switzerland, would be complete without a bit of chocolate. Chocoholics will need rehab after sampling the fine Swiss chocolate. At the base of the Old Town in Place du Molard, is Chocolats Rohr SA whose tearoom is perfect for a post-lunch nibble. Micheli is the spot for dark chocolate lovers to cozy up while Chocolaterie ARN offers a bit of everything. A budget friendly option, depending on your will power, is to just walk into any market and peruse the vast selection of mouthwatering chocolates.

Barbier-Mueller Museum
Barbier-Mueller Museum

If shopping is less your game than sightseeing, head to the Barbier-Mueller Museum. This family collection began before World War I, when patriarch Joseph Mueller indulged in two hobbies: collecting artwork and discovering the unknown. The elegantly arranged hodgepodge works include many unique masterpieces of tribal and classical works from around the globe.

Outside the museum, continue along your "Old Geneva" route of the Rue de l'Hôtel-de-Ville towards the City Hall (Hôtel-de-Ville), which has been home to the government of the Republic and Canton of Geneva for the past 500 years. The 16th century architecture includes a winding ramp that once allowed horses and their riders to climb three stories of the building. The oldest tower, Tour Baudet, dates from the 15 th century. In all, these hallowed walls have witnessed many a historic signing from the 1872 negotiations between the United States and England following the American Civil War, to the first assembly of the Geneva Convention that led to the birth of the International Red Cross, to the first meeting of the League of Nations in 1920.

Across the street from Hôtel-de-Ville is the 17th century Arsenal, a storehouse for arms until 1877. Today it houses five cannons once used to guard the city. Just outside of Arsenal, on the south side of the Old Town, you'll find the Treille Promenade, the last remaining fortification wall that offers a children's play area as well as lovely views overlooking the tree-filled Parc des Bastions.

Finally, dinner is the perfect time to rest your tired feet and taste some authentic fare at Les Armures, which serves the Swiss specialty of fondue. This tasty yet odiferous dish is a mélange of cheeses, for example Vacherin and Gruyère, in which you swirl hearty stale bread. Be sure to order a bottle of wine because, as the Swiss will tell you, "water will turn the cheese into a rock in your stomach." Conclude your night at the artsy airy Alhambar, a local favorite, with cozy vintage couches and deliciously sweet daiquiris.

Continue to Day 2


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PSG021908 (Updated: 11/17/09 NW)

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