French-speaking Geneva is cosmopolitan and expensive -- unless you know where to find the best values.
By Jim Johnson
A quiet breakfast on a summer morning in an elegant Geneva hotel. At one table a dapper, 60-something captain of industry wears a business suit that cost the equivalent of an around-the-world airline ticket. Opposite him a scruffy teenager with multiple body piercings and rainbow-colored hair wears jeans frayed la mode du jour. Surprisingly, they speak to each other in warm tones punctuated by an occasional laugh. The scene is a perfect metaphor for Geneva, a city of contrasts and tolerance.
Stand in the heart of downtown, and you can feel the electricity of one of the world's most cosmopolitan, international cities. Head five minutes in almost any direction and you can relax in rolling vineyards or on the expansive waters of Lake Geneva. One minute, it's an international city with 208 banks, 65 watch manufacturers and an alphabet soup of United Nations agencies (Geneva's the U.N.'s European HQ); the next minute it's small-town Switzerland with a population of barely 180,000.
About 70 % of visitors are there on business and their presence means a strong tourism infrastructure for all visitors, including 125 hotels (14 of them five-star), more than 1,100 restaurants, and shops to strain every credit card limit. And the town's compactness means more charm and convenience for tourists, who can make the trip from one end of downtown to the other without breaking a sweat.
Nearly 40 % of residents - representing 183 nationalities - are from outside Switzerland. Of the remaining Swiss, about a third are descendants of refugees who fled to Geneva in the 17th century to escape religious persecution. Everyone seems to have learned to get along.
Virtually encircled by France, Geneva is the most French of Swiss cities. Each day, 30,000 French citizens commute to work in Geneva.
And you just have to love a city with five chocolate factories and where residents consume an average of 25 pounds (11 kilograms) annually - nearly three times the U.S. level.
The town straddles the Rhône as it pours into Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). The left bank (facing upstream away from the lake) is the older part of the city, protected by a fortress and fortifications. The right bank is where hotels sprang up when protection was no longer needed. From there, you can look across the lake to the Old Town and mountains (including Mont Blanc when the weather cooperates).
Even a few hours in Geneva demonstrates it's one of Europe's most walkable cities. Starting at the Rhône, follow the promenade along the right bank and the lake, past excursion boats and the Paquis Bath, a downtown swimming area perfect for a picnic. If you'd like, you can borrow a bike - just leave a deposit. Stop along the way at a food stand and watch street performers. Or dodge packs of in-line skaters. Soon, you'll come to the Botanical Gardens - one of the city's many parks. Then cross the lake in a mouette - literally "seagull" - a water taxi that ferries passengers along the waterfront, weaving among tacking sailboats.
Completing your walk along the left bank, you'll pass two city landmarks: the Jet d'Eau - the 140-meter (459-foot) geyser-like fountain that pummels the sky with 416 liters (110 gallons) of water per second - and the English Garden with its flower watch, an operating clock with hands and dial made of living flowers. You can extend your walk along causeways connecting a string of islands in the Rhône.
Another recommended stroll is through the Old Town along 16th- and 17th-century streets, past St. Peter's Cathedral (and the exciting yet often missed archaeological site under it), the Town Hall, the Arsenal and Bastion Park, typical of green spaces converted from former fortresses and moats. Audio-guided tours to 26 points of interest are available at the tourist office (rue du Mont-Blanc 18), two blocks from the main station. There's no cost for the 2-hour tour, but you must leave a CHF 50 deposit.
Just a short tram ride from the center is Carouge, once a small village and now within the city limits. Designed in 1754 by a Turinese architect, its unique Mediterranean flavor makes for great walking. The streets, laid out in the 17th-century, run off a central park, creating a checkerboard arrangement of blocks. Each block is made up of gabled, two-story row-houses with wooden galleries that open in the rear to gardens. Carouge is filled with boutiques, food shops, bakeries, bistros and cafés (L'Imsomnia is a current hot spot). Once home to many craftsmen, Carouge continues the tradition with shops owned by artisans who design, create or repair hats, handbags, furniture, clothing and, at Les Allumés, lamps made from household items like colanders, clasps, spoons and tea strainers. Trams run every 7-10 minutes from the main station on line 13, direction Palettes.
(Public transit in Geneva is superb, and its "tariff community" covers the complete canton and includes buses, trams, boats and trains. Tickets range from one zone for CHF 1.80 to an all-zone day-pass for CHF 12.
If you're not a walker, take an excursion boat either up the Rhône or along the shores of Lake Geneva past villas and lakeside communities, or head out to the vineyards in nearby Satigny. Swiss Rail trains operate hourly from the main train station to the Satigny station, where they connect with a "W" bus which runs a loop through vast vineyards, petite villages, past moss-covered walls and medieval chateaux.
The Beau-Rivage is Geneva's oldest five-star hotel and the only one still in private hands. Since its construction in 1865, it has passed through four generations of the Mayer family and continues to welcome kings and queens, emperors and empresses, presidents and the occasional film star.
The entrance is palatial, with marble columns and floors, plush furniture and a six-story atrium with fountain. Diffused light filters through the translucent roof.
The expansive hotel has just 93 spacious guest rooms. Standard rooms look out to the sides and back of the hotel and are furnished quite comfortably. Superior rooms overlook the lake and Alps and are individually furnished, many of them with family heirlooms and period furnishings. Deluxe rooms, also with lake view, feature English fabrics and, in many cases, Louis XV and Louis XVI style furniture.
Number 420 is a deluxe double with triple bay windows looking straight out to the Jet d'Eau. The walls have decorative plaster scrollwork. In another deluxe double, Number 415, the furniture is 18th century, the carpet is rimmed by a marble floor and the bathroom is large. Number 118, a junior suite, is a good choice for business travelers, with separate entrances to the bedroom and work area. Among the standard rooms, Numbers 110 and 210 are somewhat larger than the others with particularly spacious bathrooms.
Daily Rates: Standard rooms single or double CHF 395-570, superior rooms CHF 660-1,240, deluxe rooms and junior suites CHF 830-1,495, suites CHF 2,750-7,195. Breakfast buffet is CHF 37; continental breakfast CHF 27.
Rating: Quality 18/20 Value 17/20
This modest hotel smack dab in the heart of Geneva's Old Town isn't for everyone. There's no concierge, no room service, no mints on the pillow, no plush furniture, no Jacuzzi. The rooms are smallish but the prices are super, and guests don't sacrifice cleanliness, cordial management or amenities like private bathrooms, phones and satellite television. And, unlike most hotels which are across the river on the right bank, this one is on the more charming left.
Bel'Espérance and its 1920s building are still owned and managed by the Salvation Army, which ran a women's residence here until eight years ago. When it moved, however, the guestrooms underwent complete renovation. Some walls came down to create one larger room from two smaller ones, fresh carpet was laid, and a benefactor donated an extensive collection of 19th-century Louis-Phillippe furniture, which wards off any remnant institutional feeling in the hotel's public spaces.
The quiet, friendly setting also attracts out-of-town educators, visiting artists and musicians. In the evening, guests relax in the parlor or, in good weather, on the rooftop terrace, where there are views of the cathedral, the Jet d'eau and the Jura.
All rooms on the fourth floor have balconies, and - with two rooms and two balconies - Number 403 is an excellent value. Number 407 is a large single. If a balcony isn't important, Number 310 is a comfortable L-shaped double. Another plus for travelers: laundry and ironing rooms as well as a shared kitchen, complete with a refrigerator with separate lock-boxes for each room.
Daily Rates: Single CHF 95-115, double CHF 140-150, studio CHF 180 for two, suite CHF 200
Rating: Quality 11/20, Value 15/20
Romantik Hotel Domaine de Châteauvieux
Barely 15 minutes from downtown, the Domaine de Châteauvieux lies atop the rolling hills of Geneva's wine country. With a 500-year history, this former manor house is now a delightful country inn, recently renovated and full of rustic charm and elegance. Entry is via an old gatehouse, where workers once lived during the grape harvest. Inside is a huge wine-press, draped with flowers. Flower boxes are at every window.
The inn's 17 guestrooms are spacious with both modern comforts and antique furnishings. Like grapes, hotel guests need plenty of sunlight, and the spaces are bright and cheerful. Number 34 is a large double with shower, bath, two sinks and a Jacuzzi and much of the original bricks and beams are exposed. The view is to the Rhône. Number 32 looks to the vineyards and mountains. Owners Philippe and Bettina Chevrier live on the premises (their room's the one with the swinging cat door).
The hotel couldn't be closer to the vineyards: take a few steps across the terrace and you're there - and only minutes from an extensive system of hiking trails.
Guests with cars should have no problem. Others will need to take a taxi (expensive) or a train (recommended) from the main station for the 20-minute ride to Satigny. With advance notice, the hotel offers free transfers to and from the Satigny station.
Contact: Hotel Domaine de Chateauvieux Peney-Dessus, CH-1242 Satigny/Genf, tel. +41/022/753 1511, fax 753 1924
Daily rates: Single CHF 175-335, double CHF 195-385. Free parking.
Rating:Quality 17/20 Value 17/20
Hotel Edelweiss Manotel
Completely refurbished in 2000 at a cost of CHF 12 million, the Edelweiss comes surprisingly close to recreating the look and feel of an authentic Swiss chalet - or at least our perception of a Swiss chalet. Pine covers almost every surface, much of it painted with flowers or hand-cut with roses and hearts. To complete the picture, the Edelweiss staff wear traditional garb.
Guestrooms have the same rustic, Alpine feel, with plank-wood walls and matching furniture and closets. Spread over seven floors - the 5th and 7th are designated nonsmoking - the hotel's 42 rooms are comfortable, modern and clean, if not spacious. They are also air-conditioned, a relative rarity. Only the top two floors have views, and Number 721 (or Number 621 for smokers), often used as a triple, is larger than most. Two big windows look out to the top of the Jet d'Eau.
Edelweiss is in a primarily residential district just a few minutes by foot from the train station and lake.
Daily Rates: Single CHF 215-246, doubles CHF 263-300. Weekend rates from CHF 163 single, CHF 200 double.
Rating: Quality 13/20 Value 14/20
Geneva presents plenty of dining options and tough decisions. Given its international citizenry (consisting in part of workers from 195 diplomatic missions and 95 consulates) and many business visitors, it's no surprise Geneva has a diversity of places to eat, including more than 100 Asian restaurants (the Celeste Empire on Tour-Matresse is the oldest and among the best, for cuisine if not setting). There's no problem finding good places to eat - Geneva has seven Michelin-starred restaurants; Zürich none - the challenge is finding affordable ones.
Your best bet for that is the Paquis district, a short walk from the main railway station or the lake promenade. The choice of cuisines is wide and eclectic, and the prices among the lowest in town. Within three blocks are Thai, Indochinese, North African, Spanish, Italian, Lebanese, Moroccan, Philippine and Mexican restaurants. Note that the Paquis district is a little rough around the edges, and restaurants are interspersed with billiard parlors, bars (one, Arts Café, felt straight from 1950s Greenwich Village), laundromats, antique book stores, the occasional sex shop and ladies of the night in tight skirts and high heels.
Restaurant les Armures
Located in a historic building in the heart of Geneva's most historic district, the Restaurant les Armures lives up to its fine reputation and to the recommendations of several residents. Built nearly 450 years ago (and with a cellar dating back another 350 years), the building looks its age (in a good way); inside, the rooms have stone walls, plank ceilings supported by thick beams, and a variety of decorations like huge cowbells and sections of old wine barrels. If the weather allows, opt to dine outside up against the walls of the Old Armory. History's in the air.
A starter of barley soup was rich and creamy with a pleasant earthy taste. Breast of duck in raspberry vinegar sauce won the nod over lamb cutlets with thyme and chopped veal in cream sauce. The duck was tender and moist, and the sauce lightly sweet and tart. Based on reports from the next table, the Chinese fondue (chunks of pork) and cheese fondue with mushrooms are also superb. Lighter fare includes raclette, that delightful Swiss speciality of melted cheese served with boiled potatoes and tiny gherkins; salade nicoise; and platters of air-dried meat, cold ham, and cheeses. Entrées come with fresh vegetables and Rösti that puts hash-browns to shame.
Most entreés fall in the CHF 25-35 range. Pasta, salad, pizza and fondue items come in around CHF 20.
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 17/20
The sign out front describes the evening's entertainment as "Spectacle Folklorique" and one assumes Swiss folklore. Yes, the musicians play the alphorn and accordion and even yodel, but the repertoire also includes "O Sole Mio," some Nashville favorites, hula music and Elvis. The performers seemed to be Russian.
Actually, the food isn't bad. Edelweiss offers several fondues (including chocolate for dessert) and familiar dishes like raclette, pork stew with polenta, and lake fish poached in local wine. But the prices - CHF 40 for beef fondue and CHF 6.50 for a half-liter of Evian - are way too high, even by Swiss standards.
Service was horrible, in part because the servers had to slalom around a conga-line of would-be hula dancers and other obstacles. They also were often occupied in taking photos for enthusiastic guests. After nearly 40 minutes waiting for my server to come anywhere close, I put some money on the table and left. Good thing, since one dancing guest started doing a striptease to the beat of cowbells.
Contact: Edelweiss, Place de la Navigation 2, CH-1201 Geneva, tel.: +41 022 731 3658, fax: +41 022 758 8533.
Rating: Quality 9/20 Value 5/20
The original Brasserie Lipp opened in Paris in 1880 and soon became one of the city's most popular watering holes, a status it retains to this day. In the 20s Hemingway enjoyed its Alsatian specialities and art deco trappings. About a dozen years ago, Lipp clones appeared in Zürich and Geneva. Since the original restaurant's website proclaims "No Franchises" we assume these newer stores are part of the Paris operation.
The Geneva version is in a trendy shopping arcade next to the opera house and, in the style of the Paris version, features mirrored walls, waiters in long white aprons, and portraits of 19th-century actors, authors and playwrights.
Arriving customers are traditionally greeted with a small Amuse Bouche (gift of the house); in this case small sections of bread laden with mozzarella and tomato.
A fine starter was mesclun salad served in a pastry shell, topped with sliced chicken and drizzled with a fruity, creamy dressing. (Shrimp salad with smoked salmon and melon soup with fresh mint were other tempting options.) A main course of roast duck with strawberry vinaigrette, was presented beautifully with fresh green beans wrapped in bacon, grilled potatoes and a carrot-and-zucchini mix. For dessert, the apple tart beat out the créme caramel. Entrées are priced around CHF 25-27.
The Brasserie is more relaxed and less expensive than the adjacent Restaurant Lipp.
Contact: Brasserie Lipp, rue de la Confdration 8, CH-1204 Geneva, tel. +41/022/311 1011, fax 312 0104
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 15/20
Café des Négociants
Opened in 2001 in the Carouge district, Café des Négociants is one of Geneva's hottest dining spots. The food is superb and reasonably priced, the service attentive and friendly, and the 18th-century space light and cheery. The restaurant is both casual and chic with fun touches like bottled water from Norway served in a designer cylinder, and polygonal plates that are individual works of art.
While the menu changes daily, choices last August included rabbit terrine with pistachios, smoked salmon with avocado and grilled pine nuts, carpaccio of blue fin tuna with olives, and beef in mustard sauce. Desserts included panna cotta with lemon zest and grapefruit syrup, apricot roll with house-made peach sorbet, and tartare of fresh fruits served with browned coconut.
Entreés average about CHF 21, desserts around CHF 11.
Contact: Café des Négociants, Rue de la Filature 29, CH-1227 Carouge, tel. +41/022/300 3130, fax 300 3105
Ratings: Quality 15/20 Value 15/20
The menu here features 40 varieties of crêpes. Dinner crêpes include, among others, combinations of mushrooms, ham, cheese, spinach, tomatoes, salmon and onions, while dessert crêpes feature chocolate, oranges, honey and bananas. With only 10 tables, the restaurant is cozy. Owners and staff are friendly and enthusiastic. Prices are reasonable, in the CHF 6-17.50 range.
Contact: Crêperie Vautier, 37-39 rue Vautier, CH-1227 Carouge, tel +41/022/343 6314