The "discreet charm" of bourgeois yet vibrant Geneva may be subtle, but it grows rapidly on visitors and residents alike. From the Mont Blanc bridge in the evening, when the skyline of gracious, orderly stone buildings is reflected on the lake, Geneva's charm is visible to all. Without a doubt, this is a prosperous and attractive city.
As the capital of French-speaking Switzerland (Suisse romande), Geneva has a gorgeous setting with a lake, river and mountains. This and the fact that it occupies a central location within Europe make it a magnet for tourists and, not surprisingly, one of Switzerland's top destinations. Relatively small and manageable, Geneva is easy to explore on foot, and the authorities work hard to keep car traffic at a minimum.
Geneva is also physically diverse, with a charming medieval Old Town, a busy commercial district and handsome architecture, from elegant stone and wrought-iron facades to the laid-back, village vibe of the Carouge suburb. Seen from the train station, Geneva's graceful skyline is capped by the Alps, with the cathedral's spires in the middle ground and the water jet gushing up from the lake in the foreground.
The city's prosperity is evident everywhere, from luxury hotels, upscale restaurants, and Mercedes and Jaguars on the streets to opulent villas dotting the Geneva lakefront. Geneva has a long tradition of hosting royalty and other well-heeled people, along with an established reputation for welcoming refugees.
Switzerland's second-largest city after Zurich, Geneva boasts an average per capita income of more than 51,000 CHF, one of the highest in Europe. Banks, insurance firms and jewelers are ubiquitous, but Geneva is also proud of its intellectual roots: In the 16th century, the city was the cradle of Calvinism, and it is now a major science center and cultural capital.
Since the Red Cross (formally, the International Committee of the Red Cross) was founded there in 1863, Geneva has nurtured a long-standing humanitarian and internationalist tradition, and now hosts more than 125 multinational companies, about 30 international organizations (including the principal United Nations agencies), about 300 nongovernmental organizations and some 200 diplomatic missions. Geneva also often ranks among the world's most livable cities.
Geneva is ringed by mountains—the Alps to the east, the Jura to the north and west—and faces Lac Leman (Lake Geneva). The heart of the city lies where the lake and the Rhone River converge, dividing Geneva into the right bank (where the train station and the bustling Paquis district are located) and the left bank (of greatest historical interest and beauty).
The Arve River also runs through the city. The Old Town sits atop a small hill on the left bank of the Rhone, beyond which the city sprawls out to the south to Plainpalais, Carouge and beyond. Clustered north of the right bank, overlooking the lake and heading toward the airport, are the offices of the United Nations and other international organizations.
The Lake Geneva region was inhabited as early as 3000 BC by successive waves of Celts (including the Helvetii tribe), Germans and Franks. Around 500 BC, a Celtic tribe settled on the hill where Geneva's Old Town is now located.
The Romans arrived in the second century BC (Julius Caesar wrote the first known historical reference to Geneva in 52 BC) and used the city as an important base for several hundred years. Geneva was an important seat of power for the Merovingian, Carlovingian, German and Burgundian empires from the sixth to 11th centuries.
Geneva's status rose during the Middle Ages, thanks to its trade fairs, but the city had to fight off continual invasions by the House of Savoy between the 12th and 17th centuries. The last Savoyard invasion ended in defeat on 11 December 1602 when, according to legend, the Genevans staved them off by throwing cauldrons of boiling soup onto the assailants, who were trying to scale the city walls. (This night of the Escalade, or scaling, is now commemorated yearly.)
Under religious reformer John Calvin, the city was established as the Republic of Geneva in 1536 and functioned as an important center for the Reformation. It continued to flourish into the 18th century, when it hosted such luminaries as Jean-Jacques Rousseau (a Geneva native) and Voltaire (who settled just across the border with France).
Following the French Revolution of 1792, Napoleon annexed the Republic. Geneva regained its independence in 1813 and joined the Swiss Confederation in 1815.
A beacon of democracy, Geneva granted its citizens universal suffrage in 1847 with a notable exception—Swiss women did not have full, federal voting rights until 1971, although they were able to vote in cantonal elections after 1960.
With the founding of the Red Cross in 1863 and the signing of the first Geneva Convention in 1864, Geneva established its reputation as a seat for international organizations. The League of Nations was founded there in 1919, and Geneva became the European headquarters of the United Nations in 1946.
Both outdoor enthusiasts and museumgoers will find plenty to enjoy in Geneva. In addition to spectacular mountain vistas and a vibrant lakefront scene, the city also features an extensive botanical garden, parks and historical neighborhoods to explore.
Meanwhile, the 40-plus museums and galleries cover a range of interests, such as art and history, natural history, modern art and ceramics.
Geneva isn't Europe's most exciting nightlife center, but the offerings are respectable and cover most tastes. The racier venues tend to be clustered around the train station (which is also the red-light district), with quieter and classier spots scattered throughout the city, especially in Plainpalais, Eaux Vives and Old Town, and around the Rue du Rhone.
Geneva's restaurants run the gamut from fast-food outlets to extravagant gourmet experiences. Local and regional specialties include fondue, raclette and other cheese dishes, perch fillets and mussels with french fries. There's also a good variety of ethnic restaurants, especially those serving pizza.
Restaurants (especially ethnic) are clustered around the train station, but good meals can be had throughout the city, particularly in the Old Town, Eaux Vives and Carouge, around the international organizations and by the lake. Even many of the most upscale spots offer plat du jour bargains at lunchtime.
Expect to pay within the following guidelines, based on the cost of a single dinner, not including tip or drinks: $ = less than 30 CHF; $$ = 30 CHF-50 CHF; $$$ = 51 CHF-80 CHF; and $$$$ = more than 80 CHF.
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