November is a great month for holidays in France. With two long weekends on the horizon, we decided to spend a night in Switzerland taking advantage of the Toussaint holiday in France and the short three-hour drive to Geneva from Dijon. In the weeks before we asked friends and colleagues for advice about the city and, to be honest, received mixed reviews – a few saying there was absolutely nothing to do there, other saying it is a pretty escape, we were left with a rather neutral expectation about what we’d find. Like we were told we found a city that is calm, more residential than touristic, but we also found some unique Swiss charm (and delicious swiss chocolates) that are worth visiting.
Driving into Geneva the change from France to Switzerland was seamless. Pack your passport, Switzerland is non Schengen so you might be asked to show them, although we didn’t have to use ours for the entire weekend. We made our way through the border with no problems and were welcomed to Geneva by Friday afternoon traffic jams. The city was buzzing with movement, and traffic was hard to follow. Remember to change some Euros to Swiss francs as well. Most places take Euros but, as if there weren’t enough banks in Switzerland an easy stop at an ATM will save you trying to figure out the Euro/Franc difference.
We checked into our hotel, Kipling Manotel, a lovely place whose warm colonial decor reflects Rudyard Kipling’s travel stories and is a quick 15 minute stroll on the lake from downtown. The friendly staff welcomed us and I loved finding our first taste of the Switzerland with mini Toblerones waiting for us in the room.
With the energy from out first dose of sugary goodness we made our way to Lake Geneva (Lac Leman in French) and the famous Jet D’Eau fountain. The posh street Quay de Mont Blanc, lined with belle epoque hotels, is the perfect place to get a breathtaking view of the snowy Alps and the stunning peak of Mont Blanc, Europe’s tallest mountain. The Jet D’Eau can be underwhelming, a simple jet of water that shoots hundreds of meters in the air, yet somehow it becomes an intriguing or hypnotizing detail that catches the wind and sunlight in its spray.
Geneva is a small city built around Lake Geneva, and anywhere you are it seems the lake is a short five or ten minute walk away. Getting around the city is easy on foot, but buses, trams, and boats offer a few other options. We received a complementary transport pass from the hotel, giving us free use of all of the city transport for our stay. From the Quai de Mont Blanc catch the number 1 boat to the other side of the lake and downtown Geneva. It’s a short ride, just five minutes, but a fun way to experience the beautiful blue lake. You’ll get off at the Jardin Anglais, another pretty promenade by the lake that will take you to the Jet d’Eau if you want to get wet. Lake Geneva really is the heart of the city, so spend some time walking along the quays, take a ride on a boat, picnic in the park, or if you visit in the summer spend an afternoon at on of the city’s beaches. It’s calm blue water is utterly relaxing.
Heading downtown from the lake the rows of luxury brands like Rolex and Cartier shining from the rooftops remind you that you are in one the most expensive cities in the world. What better to remind you that you’re in Switerland than some watch shopping? Stop by Bucherer and check out the Rolex bling in the windows; Bucherer sells more Rolex watches than any other place in the world. Don’t miss the gorgeous watches at Patek Phillipe next door. If you can take a step inside to see the beautiful decor and The Patek Phillipe Museum of Swiss clockmaking inside.
When your tired os seeing so many diamonds and zeros, make your way to Rue Paix de la Croix. The busiest street in the city, pedestrians and trams cross back and forth to chocolate shops and some more affordable shopping at H&M or Swatch. We went to Martel, a Genevan chocolaterie since 1818, in the afternoon for a warm chocolate. The place was packed with families, couples, and friends enjoying cakes and hot chocolates. I got the signature creamy hot chocolate with whipped cream (word to the wise, add sugar it comes au natural) and bought a bag of chocolate from the giant bars piled up in the windows.
After the new town, head up the hill to the old town and the Cathedral. The reformation started in Geneva and in this cathedral. John Calvin’s humble chair is behind one of the columns. The cathedral is stark and bare, the ostentatious of the images and decor from the Catholic past removed in the Reformation. For an idea of what it might have looked like before, stop by the chapel on the way out. the bright reds, blues, and golds are surprising. Though not much to see inside, buy a ticket to go up to the towers of the cathedral for a panoramic view of the city, it was one of my favorite parts of the trip.
There are a few other museums to see in the old town, but we didn’t make it to any others, choosing instead to spend some time with the locals on a terrace. The old town is filled with little terraces wrapped around corners up and down the streets. In the square Bourg de Four La Clemence is the place to be. Grab a table and settle in for some people watching and designer bag spotting.
Plan your budget well for eating in Geneva. Expect to pay at least 20-25 euros a plate in any restaurant, and more if you are looking for a fancier meal. The typical fondue will cost around 23 euros a person. We stopped at Brasserie de l’Hotel de Ville just next to the town hall in the old town, from the terrace we enjoyed the lovely view of the golden leaves in the park below while we gorged ourselves on cheese. Word to the wise, plan on heading back to the hotel slowly after the fondue or taking a nap on La Trielle, the longest wooden bench in the world. so. much. cheese.
If you are looking for a budget option, head back to the Paquis neighborhood and the friendly Buvette des Bains. Located on a little island next to the beaches on lake, the view is incredible and the prices will be a welcome surprise after the 25 franc average on the menu at any other restaurant. Choose your spot on the picnic tables on a dock with, order the daily special (lamb couscous for 14 francs that smelled divine when we were there) and take the food to your table. The portions are hearty, the food is good, the crowd is relaxed, and the view of the alps and Mont Blanc are stunning. Stop by after 6pm for their Fondue au Cremant under the stars for 23 euros .
Geneva is a comfortable town. We found our way around in no time and moving a little more slowly on the calm shores of the lake and with a belly filled with creamy goodness. With steep prices for food and not too many sights to see, a quick night visit was enough to give us a proper taste of the town and that moment when the clouds suddenly lifted and we finally saw the summit of Mont Blanc shining in the distance.