You’ve arrived at the citadel of Geneva, with its glistening Lac Léman, proud and austere architecture, and fame for its luxury brands and decadent chocolates. Before coming, you picked up all the classic guides, and dove into the blogosphere in search for those diamonds in the rough only a local would know (and would never tell). But we know you’re a discerning traveler. You might not be able to guess that Sweetzerland is the latest expensive buffoonery to have hit the high street. But this is why we’re here: to help you discover Geneva like a local – and without breaking the piggy bank.
Day 1: 09:00 – 14:00
Geneva has about 100 years of history for every square meter you will walk. One of the less known neighborhoods with a history is Carouge, with its low rise, colorful apartment buildings, boutique shopping, and plenty of cafés and wine bars made for people watching. Your main attraction on any given Saturday morning? The Marché de Carouge, a true cornucopia of local produce, live and in colour, nestled tightly around the Place du Marché. Take a spin, smell the flowers, take a peak at the late 1920s architecture of the Cinema Bio. Refuel with wine or coffee at one of the market stands or cafés overlooking the market. Put your shades on, sit back, and listen to the melody of the Geneva French accent. Doesn’t get more local than this.
But don’t get too comfy, there is much more to see! Meander your way out of Place du Marché down Rue Saint Joseph, poking in and out of small designer boutiques featuring laid back clothing, artisanal jewelry, and fair trade crafts from around the world. In this street you’ll also find Philippe Pascoet, the best contemporary chocolatier in Geneva you’ve never heard of. Chocolate fans will love him for the way he elevates the flavor of the chocolate, while giving it whiffs of verbena, sparks of lime, cracklings of caramel, and various herbal infusions that will simply make you melt. Don’t leave without a selection of his aromatic ganache cubes, chocolate covered macerated raisins, and caramelized pistachios.
Now that you’ve glazed the boutiques of Carouge, central Geneva awaits. So pick up your feet and walk across the Arve river (or hop on the tram for a few short stops) to the student quarter of Plainpalais. If you’re hungry, you’ll want to make your first stop at Paradiso or Birdie Café– they’re hip, serve food in the style of avocado toast, and compete with each other for best coffee in town, hand’s down.
Day 1: 14:00 – 19:00
Plainpalais is a vibrant, young neighborhood, with something for everyone. Down and around Rue des Bains, the main artery of Geneva’s contemporary art scene, you’ll find MAMCO – Geneva’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art – and dozens of small galleries promoting local and international artists. Not sold on the abstractions of contemporary art? Go vintage: on the main plaine, you’ll find Geneva’s flea market in full swing (until 3ish), where you can flip through records, admire turn of the century furniture, and pick out costume jewelry. Here’s a tip: these fragments of a city’s personal history make great little affordable gifts.
Part of what makes this area so vibrant is its proximity to the University of Geneva. The main buildings sit inside the well-manicured Parc des Bastions, just across from the Geneva Opera House. On a sunny day, hundreds of students, families and randoms splay out on the grass, or play chess on the giant chessboard. And perched just above and behind this stately campus, you will find the entrance to one of Geneva’s main tourist attractions: the Old Town. You’ll want to take a slow walk up the steep, ancient hill – and I can tell you now, your hike will be rewarded at the top with a magnificent view. Have a rest on the world’s longest bench, take in the Saleve mountain (looking over us always)… and when you’re ready, venture into the very heart of the Old Town, to check out what all visitors must see.
Day 1: 19:00 – ???
There is not much about the Old Town that I can tell you that isn’t already in every tourist book. You’ll see the Cathedral de St Pierre, the Hotel de Ville, and the cannons, and learn about the great religious leaders and thinkers that the city has hosted over the centuries. You’ll find its time to wind down after all this walking, and for this, there is no better water hole than La Clémence, a miniature café with a sprawling terrace at the tippy top of the Old Town on Place du Bourg de Four.
At La Clémence you get all the charm of the old world, but with the lively presence of the local community. Just steps away from the monumental Cathedral, and yet it remains decidedly un-touristy. This goes double for the Café du Bourg de Four, just another few steps away, and a great option for a (mostly) traditional Swiss dinner. Eating here will throw you back to the 19th century, when it first opened. Then, as now, its main clientele are the local legislators who work down the street, and their legacy lines the walls today still. Now run by a Swiss-ex-Yugoslavian family, the house specialty, roesti cevapcici, is perhaps a perfect depiction of modern day Switzerland, and absolutely not to be missed.
After dinner, you’ll have your share of tipple to choose from. To keep it sweet and simple, seek lower ground in the neighborhood of Eaux-Vives, where you’ll find a cluster of amazing new cocktail bars on the quaint street of Henri Blanvalet. Like Goldilocks, you can test and try which is right for you: the papa bear cocktails at Atelier du Cocktail, the clear trendsetter; the mama bear of Bottle Brothers, opened shortly after, with some remarkably talented bar tenders who will whip something up for you based on your preferences; or little bear’s cocktails at Little Barrel, a few blocks away, specializing in rums in a more quiet atmosphere. Whichever one you pick, you can be sure you’ll eventually have fairy tale dreams.
Day 2: 09:00 – 14:00
Sunday is a day for peace and quiet in Geneva, a long-standing and appreciated tradition of the city’s culture. So today, your best bet is to go with that mellow flow. Get a good start on breakfast at Chez Quartier, another cozy spot for people watching, eavesdropping, and of course a great breakfast. An order of coffee or good quality tea with a piece of delectable quiche or cake should set the tone for the remainder of your relaxing day.
From here, take a slow walk down to the Rhone, where locals will be out for a stroll, walking their dogs, and exchanging hellos and good days. This is a side of Geneva you are unlikely to see by the busy lakeside, and what makes it so special is the wildlife: the flow of the river and its forested banks make it a playground for birds and ducks of all kinds. Within minutes, the city will have fallen far behind you. If you go far enough, you will eventually arrive at a high bridge, from the middle of which you can peer down on a strange manifestation of nature, where the Rhone and the Arve rivers visibly flow into each other.
From here, you can either keep walking across the bridge and down the hill to rejoin the opposite bank and finish your walk that way. Alternatively, double back to eventually rejoin the lakeside. By this time, I’m guessing you’ll be hungry, and ready for the Swiss take on a hamburger at The Hamburger Foundation. Or, if the weather is nice, you can also grab a bite to eat on the lakefront at the Bains des Paquis, where they serve lovely fresh salads, and a dish of the day at very reasonable prices (be warned, cash only).
Day 2: 14:00 – 19:00
If you’ve opted for lunch at the Bains des Paquis, you may want to consider staying for the low key hammam and Turkish baths and a dip in the lake – a classic weekend outing for Genevan adults of all ages. You could also hitch a ride on a mouette – the yellow public transportation boats that shuttle you across the lake – for a visit to the slightly more upscale Bain Bleu. While the Bains de Paquis is by far the simpler and more straightforward establishment, at le Bain Bleu you may find yourself on a rooftop hot pool getting a foot rub from an underwater jet while sipping a glass of bubbly. They both have their charms, and either way, you will leave feeling fantastically relaxed. And if spas are not your thing, try taking a stroll through the urban grit of les Grottes, a neighborhood just above the train station, with a real homey feel, and loads of street art and key-hole bars and cafés.
Day 2: 19:00 – ???
To polish off your weekend, have a go at another one of Geneva’s classic dishes – a carryover from our linguistic brethren in France – the steak frites.
Now your selection of restaurants for the best steak frites is not without controversy. Before choosing, know that your selection will place you into a category, will absorb you into a family. And before proceeding, know that the author of this 48-hour guide is whole-heartedly biased towards one of them. In the right corner, on the right bank of town, near the train station, is the Café de Paris. In the left corner, on the left bank of town, near the central area of Rive, is the Relais de l’Entrecote. Both will throw you back to turn of the century Paris, and serve you an excellent cut of meat with fries and a green salad to start. They will differ mainly in their house sauce – since it is unlikely you will be able to compare, assume they are both sufficiently decadent to satisfy you. But where one has a definite advantage over the other is in the dessert: the “Gateau du Relais” at the Relais de l’Entrecote is perhaps the finest fudge you will ever have, and if that isn’t enough, it is served with its older sister, the fondant au chocolat. With that information, dear reader, the choice between the two corners is yours.
If you still fancy one last taste of Geneva, consider treating yourself to a cocktail at the bar at the Hotel des Bergues (as the locals still call it). Traveling certainly takes its toll, and it is rare to see the tradition of hotels in its original, finer form. The Hotel des Bergues tea room/bar will throw you back to the days when there was no such thing as low cost travel, and comfort was king. So if you feel like seeing what it feels like when a hotel rolls out the red carpet, make this your last stop… before carrying on with the beauty of modern-day tourism, which, at its best, is traveling like a local.