Things to Do in Geneva
Lake Geneva (Lac Léman to the locals) is land-locked Switzerland’s largest body of water, though most of its southern shore is in French territory. The lake is ringed by Alps and almost any point along the shore offers jaw-dropping scenery, as well as some of the most sought-after real estate in the world. More active visitors can swim, dive, windsurf and row in the warmer months.
The western extremity of the lake is dominated by the city of Geneva. Travelling eastwards you enter the canton of Vaud, whose capital Lausanne is known for the Musée de l’Art Brut, a world-famous survey of early outsider art, as well as a museum celebrating the Olympic Games, whose governing body is situated here. Further east you pass through Vevey, the heart of the Swiss Riviera, before coming to picturesque Montreux, famous for its jazz festival and the imposing Château de Chillon, a medieval bastion right on the water.
If you’ve seen a panoramic view of Geneva you’ve most likely seen the huge lake Water Fountains, or Jet d’Eau, with its commanding position at the point where the River Rhône empties into Lake Geneva. It started life in the 19th century as a humble safety valve for a hydraulic installation, but is now the city’s foremost symbol.
With every second, some 130 gallons of water are propelled at 125 miles an hour to a maximum height of 150 yards (that's 500 liters at 200 km/h reaching 140 meters). The water shoots into the air before descending in a graceful fan shape back down to the lake, but its exact destination is determined by the strength and direction of the wind. In the warmer months, the fountain is lit during the evening until 11 o’clock.
From Roman mosaics in the foundations to the neoclassical columns of its facade, the Cathédrale de Saint-Pierre is not only Geneva’s main house of worship, it is also a fascinating time capsule of the different influences that have dominated the city over the centuries. Depending on how you approach it, you could be forgiven for thinking the cathedral is actually a group of smaller buildings huddled together, as successive building programs – most notably Romanesque and Gothic – never completely wiped out previous traces.
Saint-Pierre is associated above all with the Protestant reformer John Calvin, who preached here in the 16th century; his rather uncomfortable looking wooden chair is still on display. And if you’re feeling energetic, just nearby is the entrance to the cathedral’s north tower, which will reward your 157-step climb with one of the best views of Geneva.
A masterful marriage of horticulture and technology, the Geneva Flower Clock is one of Geneva’s most striking landmarks, a gigantic clock face fashioned from over 6,500 plants and flowers. Located in the picturesque Jardin Anglais (English Garden), the iconic timepiece was built in 1955 in honor of the city’s internationally renowned watchmaking industry and is now one of Geneva’s most photographed sights.
This is no mere monument – the Geneva Flower Clock is also a fully functioning clock, among the largest of its king in the world, with a diameter of 5 meters and a seconds hand reaching over 2.5 meters long. The impressive floral arrangement now features eight dials and is replanted 4 times a year, with local landscapers creating ever-more elaborate designs each time, utilizing seasonal blooms and on-trend color schemes.
The Palais des Nations Unis - or Palace of United Nations - is a monumental structure worthy of the European home of the United Nations, the international organization’s most important seat outside of New York. The neo-classical complex was originally built in the early 1930s as the headquarters of the League of Nations, the predecessor to the UN. These days it hosts major global conferences as well as numerous smaller meetings at which diplomats work at the coalface of day-to-day international relations.
Highlights of the guided tour include the enormous Assembly Hall, the Council Chamber and an exhibit of official gifts. A short film detailing the work of the UN puts it all in context. There is no charge to enter the surrounding Ariana Park. Here peacocks roam freely and the landscaped gardens offer splendid views of the lake and nearby Alps.
The Red Cross is one of the numerous international bodies associated with Geneva. This museum pursues its progress from the mid-19th century, when local businessman Henry Dunant first conceived of a transnational group which would help the afflicted in times of need. The chronologically arranged exhibits follow this great humanitarian organization through the unparalleled destruction of the 20th century to the present day, where the Red Cross (or Red Crescent in Muslim countries) represents a banner of hope in trouble spots and scenes of natural disaster the world over. Exhibits tell the story through text, video, sound, interactive displays, as well as an archive of some seven million index cards documenting prisoners of war, a testament to the ideals of the Geneva Convention. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, also known as the Musée International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge, is a monument to humanity’s best impulses in the face of its worst.
In a leafy park along the scenic banks of Lake Geneva is the Ariana Museum–a palatial, three-story mansion home to over 20,000 glass and ceramic objects. The museum features a private collection of ceramic vases, cups, statues, stained glass windows and paintings, plus a room of contemporary ceramics on the second floor and a display of temporary exhibitions in the basement. Though most descriptions are in French, the free museum is still worth a visit for its beautiful surroundings.
Held in an impressive, Baroque-meets-classical-style building, the museum gives way to high-vaulted ceilings, rich burgundy walls, massive columns and an accessible balcony overlooking the Parc de l'Ariana. There's also a tea room (similar to a cafe) and an outdoor patio offering lunch (though you'll need reservations).
The Brunswick Monument in Geneva, Switzerland is a mausoleum for Charles II, the Duke of Brunswick. The Duke was an eccentric linguist, musician and horseman who came to Geneva after being driven out of his duchy of Braunsweig in 1830 and then building a fortune in Paris. He bequeathed his entire fortune to the city in exchange for such a monument being constructed in his honor. Never before had such a mausoleum been constructed in Geneva, so the monument’s construction was subject to great debate. While the Duke died in 1873, the monument was eventually built in 1879. Meant to be a replica of the Scaliger Tombs in Verona, Italy, it was designed in a neo-Gothic style and faces Lake Leman.
Geneva’s Old Town (Vieille Ville) contains some of the city’s foremost attractions, including the Barbier-Mueller Museum, the Cathédrale St-Pierre and the Maison Tavel. It is also the site of the International Museum of the Reformation, which underlines Geneva’s importance in the great religious upheavals of the 16th century, particularly through the work of French theologian John Calvin, who lived and preached here.
But this historically significant district offers much more than just indoor pursuits; exploring the area on foot is a pleasure, with a number of the narrow, winding streets closed to traffic and numerous cafes offering refueling stops along the way. The beautiful Place du Bourg-de-Four is the traditional center of the Old Town and a great place to enjoy an early evening drink.
More Things to Do in Geneva
Some 20 per cent of Geneva is covered in parks, of which the most popular is the Jardin Anglais, boasting a superb position on Lake Geneva. Since 1854 it has been a meeting point for locals and tourists alike, its grand established trees, stately fountains and sculptures of the city’s noteworthy artists evoking the elegance of an unhurried age. A bandstand hosts concerts in the warmer months.
Other highlights include a national monument commemorating Geneva joining the Swiss Confederation in 1814, but for over 50 years the star attraction has been the floral clock, one of the city’s best-known symbols. These days it’s a delightfully eccentric display, with most of the numerals lying outside the “clock”. Here the passing of time isn’t just marked by the hands but also by seasonal flowers which make up the arrangement. And at around 2.5 yards, the second hand is the longest in the world.
The oldest example of domestic architecture in Geneva, the Maison Tavel traces its origins to the beginning of the 14th century, with its layers revealing the wealth and prestige of its various owners and the growing importance of the city. As you approach, stone heads peer down at you and a corner tower lacks only Rapunzel to complete the fairy tale impression.
Once inside the distinctive dark stone walls you can explore the house from top to bottom. The cellar contains excellent examples of woodcarving and ironwork through the centuries, while the attic boasts a superb model of Geneva in the mid-19th century, when its fortifications were still intact. In between you’ll find displays of domestic interiors, including the surprisingly light and airy private quarters, fully outfitted kitchens, and displays including suits of armour and coins, highlighting the importance of finance to the city.
Patek Philippe is one of the most prestigious names in timekeeping, their watches having graced many a royal wrist since the company’s inception in 1839. Their museum accordingly devotes much attention to the brand’s own products, from the present day’s precision pieces back to exquisitely detailed pocket watches of the early 19th century. Early examples were frequently jeweled, enameled and emblazoned with the arms of the owner.
The Antique Collection turns the clock back even further, tracing the development of timekeeping devices back to approximately 1500. The museum also houses a significant archive and library dedicated to timepieces and related mechanisms, and the whole complex is housed in a handsome early 20th century building distinguished by enormous windows.
The Geneva Ethnography Museum (Musée d'ethnographie de Genève) holds the largest ethnographic collection in Switzerland–its 80,000 objects and 300,000 documents are beautifully arranged in exhibits highlighting all parts of the world. With rotating exhibitions, an extensive anthropology library and an upstairs gallery featuring music from around the globe, there is enough material to interest an expert and entertain those taking a look around. Though most of the descriptions are in French, the new museum is worth a visit, having reopened in 2014 in an iconic, Swiss-designed pavilion reminiscent of an Asian-style pagoda.
Though the building looks small, its peaked roof gives way to huge exhibition spaces below. The permanent exhibition covers two rooms and is free to enter, while the temporary exhibition changes yearly and is paid for. A tour of both is a good way to spend an hour in the city, with less people around in the morning.
Forget what you know about dusty ethnological displays in natural history museums; here the outstanding quality of the exhibits is matched by thoughtful presentation, with regular exhibitions highlighting various aspects of the collection. From Malian pottery to pre-Columbian jade jewelry, from Roman statuary to Papuan masks, the Barbier-Mueller Museum is the result of almost a century’s worth of passionate collecting and world-class research.
Have you ever watched Charlie and the Chocolate Factory in your childhood and wished you could go on a trip to such a magical place yourself? This dream might still come true. There is hardly a more fitting place to delve into the world of chocolate than at the oldest chocolate manufacturer in Switzerland, La Maison Cailler Chocolaterie. The exhibition shows visitors the origin of chocolate and takes them from the realm of the Aztecs in Mexico, who drank chocolate before a battle, aboard a ship that brought the first cocoa beans to Europe to the court of Emperor Charles V, who was one of the first Europeans who had the pleasure to taste the brown sweet. Eventually, chocolate made its way to Switzerland and today, it’s the country’s most successful export product and more chocolate is eaten per capita than anywhere else in the world.
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