Long known for its watches, chocolate, and banks, Geneva is a postcard-perfect city with a rich history as a haven for cultural freethinkers and a modern-day reputation as a hub of international cooperation. Nestled in a valley on the southwestern end of Lac Léman and ringed by the snowcapped Alps, the dazzling surroundings are a playground for skiers, snowboarders, hikers, and sailors. In the city, cobblestone streets lined with cafés, luxury boutiques, grand monuments, and museums beckon to foodies, shoppers, history buffs, and art fiends.
The Rhône River cuts through Geneva, and its strategic importance as a crossing ground had a lasting impact on the city. The Genevois controlled the only bridge over the Rhône north of Lyon when Julius Caesar breezed through in 58 BC; the early Burgundians and bishop-princes who succeeded the Romans were careful to maintain this control. The wealthy city-state fell to the French in 1798, then made overtures to Bern as Napoléon’s star waned. Geneva finally joined the Swiss Confederation as a canton in 1815. Throughout this turbulent history, the city served as a place of refuge for the religious reformers Jean Calvin and John Knox; sheltered Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley; and expelled its native son Jean-Jacques Rousseau for being liberal way before his time.
Geneva’s museums have drawn particular benefit from the city’s unique perspective on history and cultural exchange: you can visit a military exhibit up the hill from the Red Cross’s examination of humanitarian efforts; weigh the extremes of ancient and contemporary ceramics; browse archaeological finds from Egypt and the Far East; compare pre-Christian primitive art with its modern incarnation; relive the Reformation; or explore the fruits of human thought and creativity as expressed on paper, in science, and inside the case of a tiny pocket watch. The Palais des Nations forms the ultimate living (and working) museum of 20th-century history.
Today, Switzerland’s famous neutrality has made it a hotbed of international activity with a thriving community of expatriates from around the world. The result is a bustling city filled with busy shops and lively cafés during the week and a more serene lakeside retreat on the weekends as many use this gateway city to explore the natural beauty of the region.
Hiking or skiing the nearby Alps and Jura are popular weekend activities, and there are options for newbies, extreme adventurists, day-trippers, and those lucky enough to extend their holiday. From meandering through the wine trails to hiking and skiing, Geneva provides a great home base for exploring the surrounding countryside.
POINTS OF INTEREST
Charles d’Este-Guelph, the famously eccentric (and deposed) duke of Brunswick, died in Geneva in 1873 and left his vast fortune to the city on condition that his mausoleum, the Gothic design of which is based on the 14th-century Scaligeri tombs in Verona, be given prominence. No one is sure why his sarcophagus faces inland.
TEMPLE DE LA FUSTERIE
Designed by Huguenot refugee Jean Vennes and completed in 1715, Geneva’s first specifically Calvinist church was built to accommodate the flood of French Protestants that followed the 1685 revocation of the Edict of Nantes. The baroque facade blended into the secular landscape around it; the well-lighted and whitewashed galleries within allowed 750 people to hear every word the minister said.
The city first planted this gigantic, and accurate, floral timepiece in 1955 to highlight Geneva’s seminal role in the Swiss watchmaking industry. Some 6,500 plants are required four times a year to cover its 16-foot-wide surface.
TOUR DE L’ILE
On the border of the Rive Gauche’s Plainpalais and Centre Ville neighborhoods is the lone surviving fragment of a 13th-century castle built by Bishop Aymon de Grandson to protect Geneva from attack via the bridge. The castle was demolished in 1677; this carefully preserved lookout tower now houses the Banque Safdié. It is not open to the public.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, born in Geneva and the son of a Genevois watchmaker, is known to history as a liberal philosopher in part because the conservative governments in Geneva and Paris so thoroughly rejected his views. His statue on this former city bastion, erected reluctantly in 1835 (57 years after his death), was surrounded by trees and his face deliberately hidden from view until the 1862 construction of the Pont du Mont-Blanc gave Rousseau the last laugh. In 2012, for Rousseau’s 300th birthday, the statue was turned so visitors can once again see his face.