I’m currently sitting in a window seat on a Brussels Airlines flight, having just departed my home city of Geneva to return to my current home of London. (Via Brussels. No, it’s not on the way. Lesson in learning to love your detours!)
As always in the 14 years since I officially moved away from Geneva, I’m wondering when I’ll be back. I’m incredibly grateful that it’s so much easier to visit regularly now that I’m back in Europe - compare a 90-minute direct flight to the 18 hours or so it used to take me from California – and I’m sure it won’t be that long before I’m back.
The reason I love visiting regularly isn’t just because my family and close friends still live here (though that helps! Shoutout to some of my favorite people!) It’s also that this city more than any other taps into my concept of home. So I thought I’d share a few of my feelings about it.
I’ve often been told that Geneva is boring. This is absolutely a fair statement. If you’re looking for nightclubs and cheap cocktails, this won’t be your bag. As in the rest of Switzerland, shops close early. Most restaurants are closed on Sundays, and sometimes Mondays too. My friend Anna and I came up with the idea once of opening a restaurant downtown and actually naming it ‘Open on Sundays.’ We’d be rich in no time, with no marketing necessary.
There are no world-famous sights in Geneva: no Eiffel Tower, no Big Ben, no Golden Gate Bridge. The closest it comes is the Jet d’Eau, a 140-metre tall fountain that sits on the lake. Which I’m betting most people have never heard of.
And it is expensive, oh yes. A cocktail will cost you $16 on a good day. A halfway decent dinner for two will generally top $100. A pair of Adriano Goldschmied jeans will set you back a cool $150 more than it would in the U.S.
Geneva isn’t even the first place I’d recommend to a traveler who’s never been to Switzerland. Go to Wengen, I’ll tell them. Go to Zermatt. See the mountains, hike the Grindelwald region, ski Verbier, sail Lake Lucerne. Get out of the big cities, in other words. (Though ‘big’ is a relative term, Geneva only being home to about 200,000 people.)
But if you ever do find yourself in Geneva, don’t just dismiss it. Give it a chance. Give yourself one day. Visit the United Nations building, or the excellent International Red Cross museum. Take a picture at an angle where it looks like you’re gargling the Jet d’Eau. Take a boat ride on Lake Geneva, on one of the steam-powered ships that traverse to places like Aigle, Evian, or Lausanne. Walk through the Parc des Bastions and see the statue of John Calvin on the Reformation Wall, along with three others who helped found the city. Climb the steps of the St. Pierre cathedral and admire the city below and the mountains around. You see that one right there, the Salève? That’s already in France. Geneva is 80% surrounded by it, and part of the 20% of Switzerland that speaks French as its native tongue.
Walk around the old town, and please, learn about the wonderful story of L’Escalade in 1602, which every child who grows up in Geneva learns about, where the Duke of Savoy attacked the city in the middle of the night, and the Genevese fought back and won. We’re underdogs, you know: a linguistic minority in our own country, often picked on by the French, but never to be underestimated. Every year now, we commemorate L’Escalade with reenactments, songs, and chocolate ‘Marmite’ cauldrons (which is why mid-December is a great time to visit!)
Try some great restaurants. Les Armures or La Cave Valaisanne for great fondue. Au Grütli for fusion and cool décor, right next to the opera house. Le Sesflo for a fancy meal (and it’s open on Sundays!) Little Buddha or Le Rooftop for drinks.
If one day is all you have, then please, give my little city a chance. Look past the price tags and the sometimes-too-quiet streets, take in the natural beauty and the history. Take a few moments to appreciate it before returning to your busy lives or the hustle and bustle of more ‘exciting’ places. We’re glad you came.
And I’ll be back soon.