The struggle of Geneva (Genève) for independence is inextricably linked with Puritanism. By 1602, when it won independence from Savoy, the city’s religious zeal had painted it as the “Protestant Rome”. Geneva joined the Swiss Confederation only in 1815, with a reputation for joylessness which it still struggles to shake off. Today, there is plenty for budget travellers, with its beautiful Old Town and many galleries.
Be sure to pick up a Geneva Transport Card when checking in – this allows free public transport for the duration of your stay including the train to the airport and the mouette ferries across the mouth of the lake.
A former factory west of the Old Town at 10 rue des Vieux-Grenadiers, the Bâtiment D’art Contemporain now houses top-quality contemporary art galleries, notably Mamco and the Centre d’Art Contemporain de Genève, as well as photographic exhibitions, bars and a nightclub.
Ten minutes south of the centre of Geneva by tram #12, #13 or #14, Carouge was built by the king of Sardinia in the 1750s as a separate town for Catholics and Jews. Its low Italianate houses and leafy streets now house fashion designers and small galleries, and the area’s reputation as an outpost of tolerance and hedonism lives on in its numerous cafés and music bars.
On the Rive Gauche, beyond the ornamental flowerbeds of the Jardin Anglais, erupts the roaring 140-metre-high plume of Geneva’s trademark Jet d’Eau. Nearby is the main thoroughfare of the Old Town, the steep, cobbled Grande Rue. Here, among the jewellery shops and galleries, you’ll find the atmospheric seventeenth-century Hôtel de Ville and the arcaded armoury. A block away is the late-Romanesque Cathédrale St-Pierre, with an incongruous Neoclassical portal and a plain, soaring interior. Tucked behind the cathedral in the eighteenth-century Maison Mallet, the Musée Internationale de la Réforme, documents Geneva’s contribution to the Reformation. Just beyond is the hub of the Old Town, Place du Bourg-de-Four, a picturesque split-level square ringed by cafés. Alleys wind down from here to a lovely terrace, the Promenade de la Treille, with the world’s longest wooden bench (126m). Beneath this is the austere Wall of the Reformation (1909–17), with statues of the leading reformist preachers, in the university park.
About 1km north of the station stands the imposing UN complex (tram #13 or #15 to Nations). Guided tours of the Palais des Nations start in the new wing (entry 14 av. de la Paix) and continue to the original Palais des Nations, built in 1929–38 to house the League of Nations. The highlight is the Council Chamber, with allegorical ceiling murals by José-Maria Sert. Just beyond the UN is the thought-provoking Musée International de la Croix-Rouge, which documents the Red Cross’s origins and achievements.
Just east of Geneva Old Town is the gigantic Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. The first floor houses a superb collection of armour and weaponry, fine panelled interiors and silverware; upstairs the art collection includes Konrad Witz’s famous altarpiece, made for the cathedral in 1444, with Christ and the fishermen transposed to Lake Geneva. The basement holds a huge archeological collection.