Taking your time in Geneva

The Swiss city is expensive to visit but don’t let that put you off – you get what you pay for, writes Adrienne Cullen

The Swiss city is expensive to visit but don't let that put you off – you get what you pay for, writes Adrienne Cullen

AS YOU MIGHT expect from Switzerland, Geneva is living proof that quality of life doesn’t come cheap. While it has an almost permanent presence in the world’s top five most attractive cities, you’ll usually find it in the top five most expensive as well.

Don’t let that put you off though. Again as you might expect, you get what you pay for – in this case the buzz of a global financial centre, the sophistication of a city that’s home to a telephone book full of international organisations, and a whole lot of local history, colour, and charm as well.

Plus, you’re in the home of high-end watches. That means you get to use as many watch, clock and time-related puns and references as possible during your stay. Hey, watch it! Just a second! This transport system runs like clockwork. That chimes with me. Don’t be alarmed . . . you get the picture.


Geneva is all about its physical setting. In the background there’s the awe-inspiring vista of the snow-covered Alps, with Mont Blanc visible on a clear day. In the foreground there’s the glamorous waterfront of Lake Geneva. So not surprising-ly, the big leisure time pursuits here are sailing and skiing – sometimes both in one day.

BELIEVE IT OR not, Geneva’s best known sight, however, is neither the mountains nor the lake. It’s bang in between. The Jet d’Eau, at 140m high, is the tallest fountain in the world, visible from virtually everywhere in the city, apparently even from an altitude of 10km.

But don’t be content with seeing the Jet d’Eau from a distance. For the sake of the children, take the trip out to the stone jetty on the left bank of the lake and you won’t be disappointed.

Better still, do it at night when it’s beautifully illuminated in different colours. But watch out, the slightest change of wind direction and you’re drenched . . . this is advice based on personal experience.

Having dried off, it’s time to head across the River Rhone to the main shopping district, tucked between the neighbourhood of Les Eaux Vives – where the Jet d’Eau is located – and the ultra-discreet banking district.

The streets to look out for are Rue du Rhone, Rue de Rive and Rue du Marché. Once there, it’s strictly a matter of willpower: there are boutiques to rival London or Paris; all the timeless watchmakers, Patek Philippe, Piaget, Raymond Weil, Omega, Swatch et al; art and antiques, and chocolate – as much as your wallet can handle . . . or perhaps simply window shop.

A quick(-ish) lunch at La Favola on Rue Jean-Calvin – certainly the best Italian restaurant in Geneva – and when you emerge after a refreshing petit café, you're ideally positioned for an afternoon in the Old Town, a stone's throw to the south.

Two places not to miss: magnificent Cathedral Saint Pierre, which has great views of the lake and the mountains; and the Town Hall, where the League of Nations and the Red Cross were both founded. The 14th-century Maison Tavel, the oldest house in the city, now a museum, is also worth a visit for the flavour of history.

As evening falls you’ll be glad that Geneva is packed with Michelin-starred restaurants, nine this year in the city and canton combined. The most renowned is Restaurant Hôtel de Ville in Crissier, run by Switzerland’s foremost chef, Philippe Rochat. It’s on Lake Geneva, but closer to Lausanne than to Geneva itself, unfortunately.

Still, for my money, there’s nothing as Swiss as a bubbling cheese fondue. In which case, first choice has got to be Restaurant Les Armures in the Old Town (near Maison Tavel, in fact). A plaque near the door marks a visit in 1994 by Bill and Hillary Clinton.

There’s always something to do in Geneva as night turns to morning. If you have a slush fund for cocktails, head for Gold Platinum on Quai du Seujet, where the city’s moneyed 20- to 40-year-olds gyrate on the dance floor and sprawl in the VIP lounges. It’s cool. It could be anywhere. But the prices are certainly Swiss!

Where to stay, where to eat and where to go

5 places to stay

  • Hotel Beau-Rivage. 13 Quai du Mont-Blanc, 00-41-22-7166666, beau-rivage.ch. Old-world opulence sums up this magnificent five-star hotel on the shore of Lake Geneva and in the heart of the business district. It has two well-regarded restaurants, Le Chat-Botté and Patara. Doubles start at 800 CHF (€598).
  • Hotel les Armures. 1 Rue Puits-Saint-Pierre, 00-41-22-3109172, hotel-les-armures.ch. Known for its excellent restaurant, which specialises in traditional Swiss cheese fondue and raclette, this hotel is a favourite with visiting celebs. Jimmy Carter stayed; the Clintons just dined. Doubles from 674 CHF (€500).
  • Mandarin Oriental Geneva. 1 Quai Turrettini, 00-41-22-9090000, mandarinoriental.com/geneva. Perfectly situated on the bank of the River Rhone, at the edge of the financial district, this building has beautiful art deco detailing and a fabulous roof garden. Doubles start at 590 CHF (€440).
  • Hotel de La Paix. 11 Quai du Mont-Blanc, 00-41-22-9096000, hoteldelapaix.ch. A lovely elegant establishment, totally renovated in 2006, Hotel de Paix sits on the shore of Lake Geneva with great views of Mont Blanc. Its restaurant, Vertig'O, has just won its first Michelin star. Doubles start from 497 CHF (€370) prepaid and non-refundable, otherwise 585 CHF (€437).
  • The Warwick. 14 Rue de Lausanne, 00-41-22-7168000, warwickgeneva.com. Very much a business hotel, well located opposite the railway station, just 10 minutes by car from the airport, and not far from UN HQ. Double rooms from 378 CHF (€282).

5 places to eat

  • Le Chat-Botté. 13 Quai du Mont-Blanc, 00-41-22-7166666, beau-rivage.ch. Located in the opulent Hotel Beau-Rivage, this restaurant, run by chef Dominique Gauthier, is reputed to have one of the best wine cellars in Switzerland. Groups of up to eight can reserve a "chef's table" in the kitchen.
  • La Favola. 15 Rue Jean-Calvin, 00-41-22-3117437, lafavola.com. Regularly described locally as "the best Italian restaurant north of Bologna", this is also a contender for Geneva's best restaurant. Just taste the Risotto alla Milanese au Safran.
  • Restaurant de la Cigogne. 17 Place Longemalle, 00-41-22-8184040, cigogne.ch. The panelled dining room, friendly but not overpowering service, and most of all the food – try the Turbot Façon Grandmère – make this an experience worth paying for.
  • La Perle du Lac. 126 Rue de Lausanne, 00-41-22-9091020, laperledulac.ch. Apart from the food, the real attraction of this restaurant is its fantastic location right on the shore of Lake Geneva (also known in French, by the way, as Lac Léman). Terrace tables must be booked.
  • Café du Bourg-de-Four. 13 Place du Bourg-de-Four, 00-41-22-3119076, cafedubourgdefour.ch. A charming bistro-style restaurant in the Old Town dating back to 1874. Perfect for a relaxed traditional meal.

5 places to go

  • Le Jet d'Eau and Le Jardin Anglais. Quai du Général-Guisan, 00-41-22-3119970 (tourism office), ville-geneve.ch. The Jet d'Eau is the big must-see in Geneva, though given its height of 140m, you can't really avoid it. Le Jardin Anglais next door is famous for its flower clock, a 1955 masterpiece of technology and floral art. It has the largest second hand in the world – more than two and a half metres long.
  • Cathedral Saint Pierre. 6 Cours Saint-Pierre, 00-41-22-3117575 , saintpierre-geneve.ch. This site has been occupied since at least the 4th century. John Calvin gave sermons here in the mid-16th century. Climb the 157 steps of the north tower for the best view in the city. Phew!
  • United Nations. Palais des Nations, 00-41-22-9171234, unog.ch. This is the European home of the UN, its second largest complex after New York. It's where both the League of Nations and the Red Cross were founded – and regular hour-long tours are available in 15 languages.
  • Musée d'Art et d'Histoire. 2 Charles-Galland, 00-41-22-4182600, ville-ge.ch/mah. If you're an art lover, you'll find exceptional works here by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Picasso, and sculpture by Henry Moore. Reason enough on its own to visit Geneva.
  • Villa Voltaire. 25 Rue des Délices, 00-41-22-4189560, ville-ge.ch/imv/. Institut et Musée Voltaire, also known as Villa Voltaire, is the great philosopher's Palladian villa, where his library and manuscripts are available to visitors. Fascinating for its uniqueness.

Hot spot

  • La Clémence. 20 Place du Bourg-de-Four, 00-41-22-3101096, laclemence.ch. Place du Bourg-de-Four is the very heart of the Old Town, and La Clémence is where gossip of every sort changes hands, over coffee by day and over wine after nightfall.

Shop spot

  • Geneva is an international shopper's paradise. It's so high-end that even the Plainpalais Flea Market feels chic. The main shopping streets are Rue du Rhone, Rue de Rive and Rue du Marché, adjacent to the banking district. And you'll certainly need to nip to the bank!

What to avoid

Confusion over the euro. Switzerland is not a member of the EU, and its currency is the Swiss Franc (CHF). The euro is widely accepted, especially in areas favoured by tourists, but you can’t count on every shop and hotel accepting them.

A good night out

Restaurant Les Armures. 1 Rue Puits-Saint-Pierre, 00-41-22-3109172, hotel-les-armures.ch. A cheese fondue is more than just a meal here, it’s a night out. It’s entertaining, great fun for groups, and delicious. Chef Gilles Legay and his staff do their best to make your visit special.

Get in the mood

How about a DIY fondue? Essentially it's your favourite cheese melted slowly in warm white wine, then scooped up on cubes of bread. First to drop bread into the cheese does the washing up! If you're planning to visit Villa Voltaire, re-read Candide.

More information

You’ll find plenty of local info at the official website, ville-geneve.ch, and at geneva.com. An alternative is geneva.info, although I think when whey say “Get Out” on the home page, they really mean “Get Out and About” . . . at least I hope they do.

Go there 

Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin and Cork to Geneva. Ryanair (ryanair.com) flies from Dublin to Grenoble in France, an hour-and-a-half by road from Geneva.