It’s a mild early-spring day in the city of Geneva. The sun’s gentle light feels warm on the skin, though a chilly breeze off the nearby lake reminds eager Genevois they should have worn light sweaters. Most of them haven’t. The sun has brought people out in droves to gather under colorful cafe umbrellas clustered along the river’s edge. The sunlight lends a golden glow to the young leaves in the trees along the roadsides and in lakefront parks. The whispering rush of the Jet d’Eau spouting lake water into the clear sky, a graceful arc carried on the light wind over the harbor, brings to mind the relaxing aura of a Japanese garden. The lake is remarkably calm. On the water, crisp white sails cut the glassy surface, while in the distance, hazy on the horizon, the gently sloped, white peak of Mont Blanc crowns the view. Walking along cobbled streets, over ancient stone bridges or resting on a bench in the park overlooking this remarkable scene, it comes as no small surprise that the name of this quintessential European city is synonymous with the word peace.
To understand Geneva, one must first understand Switzerland. In the United States, we think of ourselves as a proud base of democracy and the ultimate “melting pot” of differing cultures. True to its central position in Western Europe, Switzerland is a crossroads of cultures. Where the boundaries of most European nations evolved based on the geography of culture and language, Switzerland’s boundaries are formed primarily by the spectacularly daunting landscape of the Jura Mountains to the north and the Alps to the south and east. Its principal population is composed of the hearty folk who crossed these barriers -the French from the west, Italians from the south, Germans from the north and Bulgarians from the east. The cultural mix is so inherent that Switzerland officially recognizes the native languages of each of these nations. English is also widely spoken in this most multinational of destinations.
At the very southwestern corner, where the Rhône River meets Lake Geneva, lies the canton of Geneva, birthplace of Calvinism and onetime multilingual center of Protestant reform. In 1864, Henri Dunant founded the International Red Cross here and held the first of the Geneva conventions. In 1919, Woodrow Wilson chose Geneva for the seat of the League of Nations. Today, more than 190 international organizations, including the United Nations (European headquarters), the World Health Organization and the International Labor Organization are centered in Geneva.
This is quite a responsibility for a city of barely 180,000 residents, but one the city handles with aplomb. The combination of this heritage with its multinationalism-nearly 40 percent of the population is not native, hailing from more than 200 countries- makes Geneva Switzerland’s most cosmopolitan city. Over the centuries, this city, known for its openness and heart, has seen wave after wave of refugees from conflicts the world over. These people brought with them their skills and crafts (watchmaking is a particularly good example), their ideologies and their talents. The city has sheltered the likes of John Knox, François Marie Arouet de Voltaire, Honoré de Balzac and Richard Wagner. Here John Calvin set about to reform Christianity and Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.
It’s not only humanitarian organizations, refugees and watchmakers that have chosen Geneva for their headquarters. Many multinational corporations have established their European, Middle Eastern and African headquarters here. Dupont’s EMEA has called Geneva home since 1959, Caterpillar has been here since 1960. Hewlett-Packard, Oracle and Gillette are also present. In 2002, Polo Ralph Lauren moved in, consolidating its London, Paris and Bologna, Italy, offices in Geneva; and this year, Colgate-Palmolive announced its intention to relocate its EMEA headquarters here from Paris. It will find itself in good company-its principal American rival, Procter & Gamble, established headquarters in Geneva some time ago. The American corporate presence here is especially visible every year on July 4, when the city plays host to the largest American Independence Day celebrations outside the United States.
A number of factors are behind the current push for multinationals to set up shop in Geneva, not the least of which is the tax situation. Geneva has one of the lowest tax-to-gross-domestic-product ratios in the world. Add to this Geneva’s high standard of living (WM Mercer rated Geneva the second-best city in the world for quality of life), a highly educated, multilingual workforce, technical sophistication and infrastructure, central European location and the convenience of a large international airport 10 minutes from the city center, and the reasons become clear. And then there are Geneva’s famously private banks. Geneva is, literally, the asset-management capital of the world.
More than 150,000 flights arrive in Geneva each year carrying more than 8 million passengers, more than 70 percent of whom are traveling on business or attending conferences and exhibitions. Geneva ranks third in the world for number of annual conferences. With more than 14,000 hotel beds, it is hard to imagine not being able to find accommodation; however, when popular events such as the annual Geneva Motor Show in March or the quadrennial Telecom exhibit take place, space is at a premium.
Flanking the lake and the river that feeds it, Geneva is a small city divided into two distinct parts. On the Right Bank, the city’s top-flight hotels line the river. Across the way on the Left Bank lie the cobbled streets of the Vielle Ville, the Theater District and some of the world’s most exclusive shopping. Dress in comfortable shoes and be prepared to pay a premium should you find something you cannot live without. Some of the city’s simpler pleasures are less pricey and just as satisfying. Head for the lakefront, where you can actually walk out on a pier and visit the city’s most famous landmark, the 460-foot waterspout known as the Jet d’Eau. Take a stroll in the park, throw some bread to the squabbling waterfowl, buy a gelato, stretch out in a sunny patch of grass and enjoy the peace.
Want to Go?
Swiss International Airlines (tel 877 FLY SWISS, www.swiss.com) flies nonstop to Geneva from New York (JFK) and Newark (EWR). Connecting service is also available from Swiss’ other U.S. gateway cities, including Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Miami.
There is a direct rail link between the airport and Cornavin station in downtown Geneva. Structured like a traditional European city, Geneva has a center encircled by streets and housing so you’ll find most of what you want is easy to reach on foot. Taxis tend to be expensive. The public buses and trams are plentiful, cheap and quite reliable.
For more information, contact Geneva Tourism (www.geneve-tourisme.ch).
Where to Stay
Mandarin Oriental Hotel du Rhône
Bleached woods and sleek modern furnishings set this renovated grand dame apart from the pack. Impeccable service and top-notch facilities close the deal. Facing across the Rhône within view of the fabled Jet d’Eau and Lake Geneva, the hotel dates back more than 50 years. Following a recent renovation it now offers high-speed Internet access for an additional charge.
Mandarin Oriental Hotel du Rhône
Quai Turrettini 1, Geneva, Switzerland, tel 41 22 909 00 00
fax 41 22 909 00 10, www.mandarin-oriental.com
Hotel Epsom Manotel
There are six of these Manotel hotels on Geneva’s Right Bank, all of them high-design concept spots with extraordinary business facilities. From its glass facade and open conference facilities, to the minimalist artistry of its guestrooms and the well-placed ports for its high-speed Internet connection, this is a hotel chain you wish you could find in more cities.
Hotel Epsom Manotel
18 rue Richemont, Geneva, Switzerland, tel 41 22 544 66 66
fax 41 22 544 66 99, www.manotel.com/epsom
This cozy, 45-room boutique hotel dates back to 1872. Guests here enjoy a high level of attention and business-friendly details such as in-room faxes and personal voicemail. A small fi tness room and sauna are available. Somewhat over the top, the hotel restaurant, Bertie’s, shouldn’t be missed.
Hotel d’Angleterre,17 Quai du Mont-Blanc
Geneva, Switzerland, tel 41 22 906 55 55
fax 41 22 906 55 56, www.dangleterrehotel.com
Romance is at the heart of this opulent Victorian palace of a hotel. From the gurgling fountain in the four-story atrium to the original frescoes in the lavishly decorated rooms, this is the place to fall in love. Front rooms boast views of the harbor and distant Mont Blanc. For the road warriors among its guests, triple-line phones and high-speed Internet round out the hotel’s many offerings.
Beau Rivage, 13 Quai du Mont Blanc
Les Pâquis, Switzerland, tel 41 22 716 66 66
fax 41 22 716 60 60, www.beau-rivage.ch
Where to Dine
In Geneva, beaux-arts rules. Sometimes it seems impossible to find a spot to get a bite to eat that doesn’t remind you that this is the French quarter of Switzerland. Fortunately, the food here bears the same delectable indelible mark.
If any of these restaurants deserves to lay claim to its beaux-arts interior, Le Lyrique does. This restaurant in the heart of the Theater District has been a favorite of Genevois theatergoers for more than century. Split in three parts, an upscale restaurant, brasserie and streetside cafe, Le Lyrique has something for every palate and budget.
Le Lyrique, Bd. du Théâtre 12, Geneva, Switzerland
tel 41 22 328 00 95
Red poppies and swirling greenery stretch up the blue walls of this hotel restaurant-cum-visual treat. It’s cozy to a fault with contrasting yellow tablecloths and colored candles. Top-notch brasseriestyle food makes you want to come back for more. Service is a tad slow, but the overall charm is worth the wait.
Tiffany, Hotel Tiffany, 1 rue des Marbriers
Geneva, Switzerland, tel 41 22 708 16 16
Le Lion d’Or
Large picture windows overlook the city, the lake and the Jura Mountains beyond from this swank eatery in the heart of one of Geneva’s poshest neighborhoods. Dishes here have the sophisticated edge you’d expect in a Paris restaurant. Herbs are fresh from the garden outside.
Le Lion d’Or, rue Ancienne 53, Geneva, Switzerland
tel 41 22 342 18 13
What to Buy
No trip to Switzerland is complete without at least window shopping for watches. Head for the rue du Rhône, the street closest to the river, for some of the best luxury shopping in the world. Stop by Bucherer, which has the best inventory of durable Rolex watches. Marvel over the ultraslim white-gold watches at Piaget and survey the wares at Patek Philippe, which dates back to 1839 when it invented the precision winding mechanism it still installs in all its watches. If all those expensive watches make your mouth water, you can drop by Du Rhône, Swiss chocolatier since 1875 and partake in that other luxury item for which the Swiss are famous. If you’re looking for a bargain, nearby rue de la Confédération, also known as rue du Marché, is the place to go. For souvenirs, rue du Mont-Blanc on the Right Bank is where the majority of tourist shops are found.
What to See
If it’s a sunny day, you will inevitably be drawn to the waterfront where you can walk out to the Jet d’Eau. Oddly appropriate to Geneva’s industrial history, the 460-foot water spout was originally a release valve for a 19th century watering system for local factories. Every valve for a 19th century watering system for local factories. Every day when the factories shut down, the water pressure would build, causing backed-up water to shoot out of the valve, creating a water spout or “jet d’eau” over the lake. It soon became a tourist attraction. As the factories moved on to modern plumbing, the city replaced the mechanism with Europe’s highest water fountain, which is turned on in the mornings and off late at night. You can walk out to it on the concrete pier, but be careful, you might get wet.
For such a small city, Geneva has a surprising number of museums, but none so topical or fascinating as the Patek Philippe Museum (7 rue des Vieux-Grenadiers, tel 22 807 09 10, www.patekmuseum.com). The museum’s focus stretches beyond its collection of 4,000 timepieces-guides lead watchmaking tours through the streets of Geneva. If you still have time, make your way to the International Red Cross and the Red Crescent Museum (17 av. de la Paix, www.micr.org). Exhibits are often grim, but highlight the lengths to which human kindness has gone in the face of disaster.
Just the Facts
Location: Geneva lies at the southwestern tip of Lake Geneva at the junction with the Rhône River. The Canton of Geneva is located in the southwest corner of Switzerland and shares 90 percent of its border with France.
Climate: Sheltered by the Jura Mountains and tempered by the presence of Lake Geneva, the temperature is rarely colder than 32 degrees in the winter and hovers below 70 degrees in the summer. During the winter months, sometimes a chill wind called the “bise” blows down from the north.
Time Zone: GMT+1
Phone Code: 41 22
Electricity: 220v AC 50Hz
Official Languages: French, German, Italian and Bulgarian. English is also widely spoken.
Key Industries: Banking, watchmaking, industrial machine-parts manufacture, production of chemicals primarily used in the manufacture of perfume and medicines.
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