When Geneva Tourism kindly invited me to rediscover their city, two things crossed my mind.
One, I had spent most of my Ph.D. studying Geneva's key role in travel networks around the Alps for the past 250 years. Two, I knew I had to put aside all the modern clichés about Calvin's town: a city full of stressy bankers and fancy international organizations with a lake in the background.
When combining the two, it suddenly made sense: what matters most about Geneva is its people. The weekend I would spend there will confirm it all. Are you ready to discover Genève thanks to the Genevois?
The Genevois love having their fair load of secrets
My local guide from Geneva Tourism, Nicolas, says something that would strike me throughout his tour: Geneva is full of secrets and false stories.
Statues and plaques mean one thing, but their origin lies somewhere else. Street names have been renamed, and non-Calvinist churches were kept hidden in fancy bourgeois buildings.
The Geneva Old Town is full of these hidden gems, quirky streets, and houses that gained extra stories over centuries. The Escalade Festival reveals it all: head over to Passage de Monetier, a very narrow street that only opens up during the festival.
And after wandering through Geneva's historic streets, you should visit Maison Tavel. It is Geneva's oldest residence, and you will learn countless things and fun facts about the city's history. And about its people, of course. You will also find an impressive miniature model of the city.
My hosts have provided a Geneva City Pass, the key to gaining free entry into this and many other museums.
Geneva has always been an international hub, and this has taught the locals exceptional skills
Geneva has only joined Switzerland for good in 1815. Before that, it was a small republic with a bit of a love-hate relationship with its neighbors from Savoy. But more importantly, it did not gain its reputation as an international hub when the United Nations opened its offices there.
Back in the 16th century, Geneva had already welcomed refugees from all over. One important group was the Huguenots, Protestants who were being persecuted in France. Geneva welcomed thousands of them and had to expand the city limits. The Huguenots were master watchmakers; John Calvin's aggressive laws against displaying wealth meant that watches quickly became the legal alternative to jewelry.
Thanks to the influx of Huguenot residents, Geneva turned into the capital of luxury watchmaking it is today. Initium in Geneva's old town offers mere mortals a chance to embracing this heritage.
During this new type of workshop, I am enabled to assemble a Swiss watch in just a few hours. The passionate Initium staff made up of former, new, and aspiring watchmakers is here to teach me about Geneva's passion for watchmaking. (Those opting for the most premium workshop will even get to keep the watch they have just built.)
I can highly recommend this experience to anyone: I learned much during the Initium watchmaking workshop and felt like I had connected with Geneva's heart and soul.
Geneva was once a hub for British and French tourists heading on to the Alps - an era I have studied for my Ph.D. The reason being that Geneva was already an international meeting point.
More recently, Geneva carried its tradition and has even been named la Genève internationale. This is where the Red Cross was invented and still operates. Of course, many international organizations are headquartered here.
You can quickly hop on a local train or the Léman Express line to visit the "Nations" neighborhood. The M4 boat also goes there, with the added bonus of a quick sail around Lake Geneva. My guide, Nicolas, told me that hardly any Genevois have grandparents from here. The city is a constant melting pot, but all make Geneva their home anyway.
Here's the famous Palais des Nations, home of the United Nations Office in Geneva:
Joie de vivre and dolce vita make up the Geneva way of life
Forget about the Genevois's reputation of a Swiss Parisian: always in a hurry and hardly with a smile on their face. Good food, delicious wine, and space to relax make up the real Geneva way of life.
Geneva Tourism has reserved a room for me at Hotel Longemalle in the city center, right between the lake and the old town. This exquisite hotel turns out to be the perfect spot for my weekend adventures - and for relaxing in style.
The in-house Lebanese Restaurant Balila is marvelous. While sipping Lebanese wine recommended by the competent staff, I nibble on countless mezze and platters. This exotic experience located in a typical Genevois hotel reminds me once again of Geneva's unique links to the outer world.
Just outside of my hotel, the Geneva Street Food Festival is equally a big hit, with a wide variety of world food.
My Geneva city guide arrives by electric tuk-tuk
The next day, I am conveniently being picked up in front of the hotel. Aubin, who has co-founded Taxibike, owns a couple of electric tuk-tuks. This quiet, green, and reliable mode of transport allows us to “wander” through the newer parts of the city.
Next, Aubin heads for the Geneva countryside. (Yes, Geneva is an entire canton, not just a city.) While telling me fun facts about the villages nearby, I can once again feel this passion Genevois like Aubin have for their small but mighty republic.
Within 15 minutes, our tuk-tuk arrives in the middle of the vineyards. We stop by Domaine Dugerdil in Dardagny where I meet Sophie, a passionate winemaker who seems well connected in this part of canton Geneva.
Sophie produces more than twenty different types of organic wine, all grown locally on her vineyards. While chatting with Sophie and Aubin, I even get to try local charcuterie and cheese. Sophie’s passion, love for human connections, and big smile leave a lasting impact.
On the way back, Aubin drops me off at Café de Peney, a great restaurant known for its local fare and exquisite wines. A quick bus and train ride gets me back to my hotel within twenty minutes. I keep telling you: who needs cars in 2021?
So there I am, at the end of my weekend, standing in front of that beautiful lake while telling myself, "This lake is great, but this place and its people are even better."
Within 48 hours in Geneva, I have turned into a rookie watchmaker, a keen wine sipper, a passionate history lover - all within an international hub. This is Geneva in a nutshell, and I urge you to discover it!
Many thanks to Geneva Tourism, Hotel Longemalle, and Taxibike for hosting us and showing us the best of Geneva and its people.