No trip to Geneva should miss the basics: the Vieille Ville is a lovely spot and when the weather is nice, there is no better stopping point than La Clemence in Place de Bourg de Four for a coffee and croissant, or something a little stronger. If you are feeling lazy and prefer not to walk the hill up to the old town, take the train. There is a tourist tram that embarks at the bridge at the Ile de Rousseau, just across the Rhone from the Hotel Des Bergues if you are coming from the train station. It winds its way up into the old town, conveniently stops in front of St. Peters Cathedral, and, voila, you are in the old town. For 8 francs I will walk thanks, but it’s a nice choice for the weary traveler.
The old St. Peters cathedral is a bit austere, no surprise given Geneva’s reputation as the seat of Calvinism, but take a step into the cathedrals chapel just off the Narthex and marvel at the beautiful stained glass and the ornately decorated walls. If you are an intrepid aficionado of archeology, its worth it to visit the unearthed foundations of the church dating back to early Roman times, and getting a sense of the depth (no pun intended) of the local history. The entrance is down a flight of stairs just to the right of the main entrance outside the church.
The best advice from there is to explore - simply wander in any direction and enjoy the shop windows and restaurants. The Maison Tavel is an interesting brief stop, if only for its collection of medieval and renaissance pieces. Les Armures, in front of the Maison Tavel has a reputation for its fondue, but have no fear, fondue is pretty common in Geneva, and an awful lot of restaurants do it well, so don’t feel obligated just yet. Generally speaking, the locals do not eat fondue in the summer, but don’t let the funny looks you may get deter you: a nice moitie-moitie (vacherin and gruyere) fondue with a bottle of Geneva red wine (I recommend the Gamaret served chilled) can hit the spot, even on a warm summer afternoon. But of course it’s meant to be a cold-weather, heart-warming dish.
The streets are very colorful with cantonal flags and government offices intermingled with the shops, restaurants, and cafes. Dining outdoors in the evening at Café Papon is very agreeable, situated as it is at a gateway in the old city walls and a picturesque courtyard dining area, as is Soupcon down the street from La Clemence (run by some Lausanne hotel school grads with an eye for great service and food). Chez ma Cousine On y mange du poulet (roughly meaning the house of my cousin where we eat chicken) is a great joint for a value meal in the old town – 15 francs for half a roasted chicken, a heaping pile of frites, and a salad. Right next door to Soupcon, and no reservations accepted…
Reservations are a requirement generally speaking. That is if you aren’t a risk taker, and they are particularly needed for lunch, but for dinner as well. Unless you show up at a restaurant very early for lunch, it can be difficult to get a seat. Geneva is a small town, but during the workday, its ranks swell with the bankers and business people who commute in from other cantons or from France. And lunch is an event - I haven’t met a banker yet here who is not deeply attached to a leisurely 2-hour lunch break. Even that little pizzeria you saw as you wandered up to the old town with its eclectic menu of Pizza au Thon and salads du jour will be jammed up by 1:15pm. So take note, and plan accordingly.
The prime shopping quarter of Geneva is between Rue de Rhone and Rue de Rive. The tram line runs down the center of Rue de Rive (the no. 12 and 16 lines) and cars are not allowed on it. It is Geneva’s 5th Avenue, and while the really expensive stores are on Rue de Rhone, the main department stores (Globus, Bon Genie) are on Rive as are FNAC (electronics and books) and Payot (books). You want to drop some cash on a fancy Swiss watch and are looking for the best deals? My advice is to go to New York City. I have not bought a Swiss watch here, but I am reliably informed by numerous sources that, unless you are well connected, you are going to find better prices elsewhere. But for selection, you will not find better and if you are dead set on spending $2,000 to $50,000 on a timepiece, this is the place. You will have no trouble at all finding a store to give your money too.
Globus is a worthwhile stopping point, especially if you are hungry. There are two food courts, one above the Rue de Rhone entrance and another facing on Place Molard. There is a wonderful gourmet food and wine shop in the basement of the department store as well. Check it out, as it’s a great place to stock up the hotel room with any snacks or drinks you might want to eat on Sunday (more on Sundays in Geneva later). There are a number of cafes lining Place Molard, which has recently been reconstructed and is another great outdoor hangout in center Geneva.
No place on the beaten path in Geneva is quite as physically beautiful as the lakeside parks, and they really deserve some time to stroll along. When you have finished your visit to the old town and concluded your bargaining at the watch store, take a wander in the direction of the Jet d’Eau. Can’t miss it. The 250-foot high jet of water is a throwback to an old engineering device that the Swiss used to release pressure on the locks across the Rhone. Visitors to town were so enthralled with the amazing gusher that the Swiss cleverly built a motorized version with appropriately handsome lighting and placed it along the lake as an attraction.
If by chance you have purchased a day pass for the tram, make use of it by taking a boat across the lake from the Jardin Anglais (the park near the Jet d’Eau and home of the strangely famous flower clock) to Rive Gauche - hey, why walk if you can ride. You can also buy a 30-minute ticket for 2.20 francs and go across. The promenade along this side of the lake is, in my opinion, a lovelier walk than the center city side. If you are fortunate and have a clear day, you can see the Alps in the distance and the peak of Mt. Blanc sparkling in the sunshine with the city of Geneva in the foreground (don’t worry, you won’t be the first to snap this pic).
In all seasons the Bain de Paquis is an unusual spot on the Geneva social scene. Bain de Paquis is the beach of Geneva, built on the pier jutting into the Rhone from the left bank (directly across from the right bank pier from which spouts the Jet d’Eau). In summer, the entrance fee is 1CHF, and out of season is free. In summer you will find, as they say, tout le monde hanging out here. If you are a topless sunbather at heart, here is your chance to work on that tan. The Bain has a couple of swimming holes in the lake, several diving boards and high dives, and a really acceptable café in addition to its pebbly lakeside beach. When the weather cools, the Bain stokes up the hammams and steam rooms that can be rented if you feel like a nice Turkish bath. On summer evenings, the Bain de Paquis is the meeting place for the 20-ish crowd preparing for a big night out. My first experience with the Bain de Paquis came on my first trip to Geneva when I left my hotel one Sunday morning in search of a cup of coffee. Geneva is indisputably closed on Sundays, but the café at Bain de Paquis serves coffee and croissants by 8:30am. Truly a lifesaver.
If you manage to tear yourself away from the people-watching at Bain de Paquis, there is a lovely walk up the lakeside. The wide promenade is dotted with small ice cream stands and outdoor cafes at the end of which is a lovely lakeside park. A nice walk, and also a great jogging itinerary if you are so inclined. This is in the general direction of the United Nations compound, and if you are interested in visiting that organization, take your passport (it’s a little blot of internationalism in the midst of Geneva and has its own border police) and hop the 13 tram in the direction of "Nations".