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As one of the safest countries to visit this year, Switzerland should be on your hit list for an overdue holiday – especially Geneva, a decadent city with plenty to see and do.
Surrounded by the beautiful Alps and Lake Geneva, Geneva certainly knows how to make an entrance. But beyond the charming façade, there’s so much that can be packed into an itinerary – from stand-up paddleboarding on the lake and pedalling to nearby vineyards, to brunching like a Genevois or mooching around the market.
Geneva’s alpine backdrop will have you itching to head for the heights. Dubbed the Balcony of Geneva, Mont-Salève is an easy day trip. On cloudless days, the views are phenomenal of the Mont Blanc massif, the Jura Mountains and Lake Geneva. Mountain biking, hiking, climbing and tandem paragliding ramp up the action in summer, with cross-country skiing and sledding taking over in winter. Hauling visitors up to 1,097m (3,600ft) since 1932, the cable car is undergoing a revamp, reopening in 2022 with a new panoramic restaurant, climbing wall, museum and botanical garden, along with a 360-degree viewpoint.
Every Wednesday and Saturday, Plainpalais Square hums with locals, browsing and haggling their way around the marché aux puces (flea market). Looking for secondhand books, clothes, jewellery, records, knock-off antique chandeliers and furniture? It’s all here.
Locals often make a proper morning of it, lingering at a café for brunch (try retro-cool Le Marcel), playing pétanque or taking the kids to the skate park.
If food is more tempting, hit the farmers’ market on Tuesday, Friday or Sunday morning to bag French cheeses, fruit and veg, spices and preserves, and snack your way around the world at street-food stands.
Geneva is at the cutting edge of the global contemporary scene, largely thanks to the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. Housed in a converted 1950s factory, it presents a boundary-crossing mix of permanent and temporary exhibitions. While you’re here, pop into the Centre d’Art Contemporain, which forms part of the same complex and turns the spotlight on the work of young and emerging artistic talent. Free guided tours (in French and English) are available at 3pm on Sundays.
On a hot summer’s day, it’s as though the whole city is stripping off and jumping into this popular lakefront bathing spot in the hip-and-happening Pâquis district. A lighthouse marks the Bains de Pâquis, where a pier juts out across the lake and locals come to sunbathe, swim, get a massage or picnic at the beach. It’s just as popular in the winter, with a sauna and hammam warming things up nicely. For brunch or lunch, try La Buvette des Bains or the Cottage Café in the nearby waterfront gardens.
This quaint-as-can-be neighbourhood on the fringes of Geneva is a little bubble of bohemia. If the pastel-coloured, shuttered houses, sidewalk terraces and gelaterias look oddly Mediterranean, it’s because Carouge once formed part of the Kingdom of Piedmont-Sardinia. You can catch the tram here for a leisurely nose around boutiques, galleries, vintage shops and chocolatiers (Philippe Pascoët’s award-winning creations are sublime). Or rent a bike (free for the first hour) to pedal along the banks of the Arve River. After dark, Le Chat Noir is the go-to for cocktails, gigs and DJ sets.
Geneva has kept perfect time for centuries, and luxury brands such as Rolex and Patek Philippe have their headquarters here. If you fancy creating your own timepiece, join a one-of-a-kind courses run by Initium. It divulges the secrets of watchmaking and lets you have a go at making your own mechanical masterpiece. Classes range from three-hour introductory sessions to a full day building your own watch.
Known in French as Lac Léman, the lake is Geneva’s biggest heart-stealer, surrounded by botanical gardens and watched over by the snow-capped French Alps (Mont Blanc among them). You’ll also catch plenty of bright-yellow mouette shuttle boats that make quite the scene. Its unmissable centrepiece is the Jet d’Eau fountain, a 140m-high (460ft) rainbow-kissed plume that truly makes a splash.
You can stroll and cycle around the lake, or head to the city beach, Genève Plage, to swim, or stand-up paddleboard, windsurf, wakeboard and foil surf with Tropical Corner. For a spin around the lake’s vineyards, castles and villages, arrange a cruise or ferry trip with CGN.
Tucked away, slightly back from the waterfront, Geneva’s historic centre (Vieille Ville) is strikingly different to the progressive, modern city that first greets you. Go for a wander and you’ll find a maze of alleys, shuttered townhouses and cafés spilling out onto terraces and tree-shaded, fountain-splashed plazas.
The Old Town’s cake-topper of a cathedral is hilltop Cathédrale St-Pierre, a Romanesque-meets-gothic confection where Protestant reformer John Calvin preached from 1536 to 1564. Climb the south tower’s spiral staircase to see the whole city and the lake.
The real beauty of Geneva is how thrillingly easy it is to access the great outdoors. Rent a bike and head along signposted cycling route No 102 to pretty, wine-growing Satigny at the foot of the Jura mountains. The quiet rhythm of pedalling through parks is refreshing after a few sight-heavy days in the city. Stop off en route at the Maison de Voltaire, in Parc des Délices, where the French Enlightenment writer and philosopher lived from 1755 to 1760. In Satigny, wrap up with a wine dégustation at highly lauded La Cave de Genève before biking or taking the train back to Geneva.
One of Geneva’s best-loved summer hangouts, La Jonction is where the deep blues of the slow-paced Rhône River mingle with the milky browns of the fast-flowing Arve River in painterly fashion. Take a tram to La Jonction, then head up to the bridge for astounding views. In the warmer months, locals gather at the confluence of the two rivers for drinks, picnics and barbecues, as well as to and swim. Nearby is the Bois de la Bâtie, an urban forest with a free animal enclosure and children’s playground. Come at lunchtime so you can dine at the cottage-style Café de la Tour.
Need a holiday? Try a trip to Geneva and be inspired. Find out more at geneve.com