Nestled at the Southern tip of Lac Léman, Geneva is a beautiful, small city in French-speaking Switzerland. It offers the opportunity to easily explore two countries in one stay, being just a few miles from the French border. I had planned to hire a bike to cycle along the lake and into France, but found that all hire shops were shut for winter so decide, on this occasion, to remain on foot and dedicate my weekend to the city instead.
Airport, accommodation, and free travel in Geneva
A train from the station at the airport will take you to the city centre in around 15 minutes. What’s more, ticket machines in the luggage collection hall of the airport provide you with a complimentary ticket for all public transport, valid for 80 minutes. If you are staying at a hotel or hostel, you can also claim a free travel card for the duration of your stay upon check-in.
This time, my Friday night flight begins in Liverpool, and arrives ahead of schedule in Geneva at 20:30, to an already-waiting train. From the central station, it is an easy, 10-minute walk to the Geneva Hostel, which is to be home for two nights. Check in is friendly and easy, and the room – a single-sex six-bed dormitory is clean, spacious, and pleasant. Besides one sleeping woman, it is empty, and I lock away my backpack as quietly as possible, although of course the desire to not disturb the others usually results in everything becoming twice as loud as usual. The locker shut with a bang and the sleeping girl now fully awake, I leave the room and retrace my steps along the quiet, night-time streets, in search of food.
Lulled into a false sense of security by the free travel offer, I had forgotten my friends’ warnings of how expensive Switzerland can be. Failing to locate any appealing, open restaurants, I wander into a corner shop and experience the sting of my first purchase. I part with 15CHF (around £13.00) for a packet of bread rolls, some cherry tomatoes, and a handful of pistachios. I vow to check the opening hours of the nearby Lidl for future food acquisition. My dinner acquired, I head back to the hostel and eat in the shared dining area, before retreating for a peaceful night.
Must-see Geneva sights and the Escalade Festival
Saturday morning arrives and is a cold, bright, and generally perfect winter day. At breakfast – which is included in the price of a stay at Geneva Hostel – I meet fellow solo-traveller Ina, from Berlin. Ina is hoping to blag her way into a conference at the United Nations that will take place later in the week and plans to spend the day doing so. We arrange to meet in the evening, and I follow my nose to the shore of the lake, taking its paths towards Old Town. It is early still, and the streets are quiet, calm, and inviting.
I walk along a promenade to the lighthouse, watching people braving the cold water for a swim. Although just the sight of them is enough to make me shiver, part of me feels that my weekend may not quite be complete unless I join. The thought of how much money I would likely have to part with to purchase a swimming costume, however, puts paid to those thoughts as quickly as they arise. Further along the lake, there are several interesting sculptures. My favourite is Melancolie by Albert György, which seems a perfect fit for the still-deserted streets beneath misted mountains.
Arriving at Place de L’Ile, which separates the Old and ‘New’ towns, I search amongst the banks for the church at which the walking tour I am booked onto will meet. I recommend always finding out if there is a walking tour available wherever you are visiting. There are usually several operating in major cities and many are free, run by very knowledgeable and personable locals, and rely on a pay-what-you-can tipping policy. After a quick catch-up with the couple who were sat in front of me in the plane the previous evening, our guide arrives. The Escalade festival is taking place over this and the following weekend, and our tour will be slightly re-routed to avoid any collisions with fun-runners, who take over the town for the weekend as part of the celebrations. The Escalade festivities celebrate the thwarting of a scaling of the city walls by the army of the Duke of Savoy in 1602. Legend has it that soldiers were halted in their tracks by a local woman, Catherine Cheynel, pouring a cauldron of hot soup over them. The windows of every confectionery shop in town sells chocolate versions of the cauldron (‘marmites’), complete with vegetables made of marzipan.
The tour takes us to Jet d’Eau, the Flower Clock, Place du Molard, and along the Reformation Wall (above which, incidentally, runs the world’s longest bench), to name a few sights. The cobbles of Place du Molard are interspersed with glass stones sporting friendly phrases in all six languages of the United Nations, which are lit up at night. It also hosts a beautiful Christmas tree. I get chatting to some enthusiastic photographers from Poland, and we revisit Jet d’Eau at the end of the tour to capture some pictures with the rainbow that runs through the jet, still functional thanks to the relatively mild weather this season (it is closed during the cold winter months to prevent icicles being flung along the streets). Following this, we find a place to eat that will not quite break the bank, before I head back along the lake, towards the hostel, where I have arranged to meet another traveller from the UK for a visit to the Palais de Nations.
Palais des Nations
Here, I must admit to not having done my research. If I had, I would have discovered that the UN building is closed to visitors on weekends during the winter. Tours are available between 10:00 and 12:00, and 14:00 and 16:00 on weekdays only, but we satisfy ourselves with selfies with the iconic flags, ponder the enormous Broken Chair sculpture across the street, and stroll back to the hostel, this time via Lidl. Another bread and fruit-based dinner is eaten in the dining hall and we reconvene with Ina and Dariusz, one of the Polish photographers, who also happens to be staying in the same place. Keen to see the festivities in full swing and find a beer or two, we all wrap up warm, scrape together as many Francs as we can spare and head back towards the Old Town.
Nightlife and Escalade celebrations
We agree on one thing pretty quickly – Geneva does not appear to be, in any way, a ‘party town’. Were the ‘Vin Chaud’ stalls not lining the streets for the Escalade, I suspect the pathways of Old Town would be as quiet as during the day. Still, the atmosphere in Place du Bourg de Four is welcoming this weekend, and we soak it in with a large cup of mulled wine each. After another stop at Place du Molard to take in the now-lit tree and cobbles, we find our way to a bar near the hostel – Mr Pickwick’s, which appears to be the only pub anywhere near our accommodation. Concluding that buying multiple drinks would mean we would not be able to afford to eat the following day, we settle on one pint of beer each, and a sharing basket of chips. Wondering why we are so tired at only 22:00, I check the activity tracker on my phone and realise I have covered 15 miles over the last 12 hours. We return to the hostel, bid each other ‘bonne nuit’, and I set about again unintentionally making as much noise as is possible whilst getting ready for bed.
Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain and Musée d’Art et d’Histoire
Sunday morning brings rain – a lot of rain. A perfect day for museums, made even better by the fact that a selection of museums and galleries are free to visit on the first Sunday of every month – a perk that happily coincides with the timing of my visit. Thankful now for my waterproof coat, which I had bemoaned the previous night for not being stylish enough to mingle with the high-fliers in this city of money, I again head along the lake towards Old Town. Unsurprisingly, the streets are even more deserted than the previous morning and I can’t help but relish having the promenade to myself, despite my wet feet and jeans, and glasses so covered in raindrops I can barely see.
I head further South in the Old Town than I had on Saturday, finding a little coffee shop full of locals who kindly tolerate the French conversations I strike up. I am pleased to find that more of my French is returning to me than I predicted, and even more so to discover that a coffee in this particular place is 3CHF – a relative bargain. Re-fuelled and slightly drier (the rain is easing off) I walk on to the Musée d’Art Moderne et Contemporain, finding it tucked away in what appears to be a warehouse. And I love it – there is an eclectic collection of many different styles and statements and I happily spend the morning roaming the exhibitions. Realising my legs are still aching a little, I sit down at one point, only to find that people immediately begin to approach me to ask for advice on the collections, and for directions around the galleries. Unsure which part of my raincoat-and-wet-jeans combination screams “I work here”, I deflect their queries and decide it is probably best to stand once more. I get in touch with two of my new companions (Ina is still on a mission to sweet talk her way into the UN and is spending the day schmoozing with a host of very important people at a conference, somewhere), and stumble upon a rare and welcome find – a vegetarian restaurant. I had given up hope of eating a full meal, finding a distinct lack of vegan food everywhere thus far. Despite wincing at the prices, I can’t resist the opportunity to sit in the warm and feel full again, so I meet the others there and excitedly order a bowl of tofu and mushroom rice. It costs the best part of £25 but I I try not to think about that.
My next stop is the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, also free to enter this Sunday (it is worth noting that not all the museums are included in this offer – make sure you check in advance if it’s going to be a deal-breaker for you). Overall, it is a little less to my taste but I am pleased to find a large Picasso piece there, and a fascinating collection of poetry-and-art, in English, French, and German, which I spend a while poring over.
The Escalade races have re-started and, on exiting the museum, I find that leaving the Old Town is going to be something of a challenge, with most roads being used by runners and surrounded by fencing. There are fancy-dress races, children’s fun runs, and more serious runners all wending their way along the cobbles. I try to cross a few times, failing on each attempt as a giant Pacman, reindeer, or robot appears and forces me to retreat. Eventually, I find a gap in both railings and competitors and return to the hostel to consume more coffee, charge my phone, and prepare for the flight home, hoping my remaining 15CHF will fund at least half a decent meal at the airport…