What’s Doing in Geneva
For many, two words come to mind when thinking about Geneva: melting pot. While this may be a literal reference to the city’s time-honored fondue tradition, it may also refer to the unique blend of past and present, and of homegrown and exotic, that the city represents. Geneva is a curious mixture of modern multiculturalism and ancient history, at once a diplomatic gateway to the world and a small, isolated village with its own customs and traditions. The city is nestled in the Lake Geneva valley in Switzerland’s southwest corner.
With over 40% of its current population comprised of foreign nationals, Geneva has had a long history of being shaped by outside influences. The city first came into existence as a small border town in the 2nd century BC, and eventually became part of the Roman Empire. Geneva later played an important role in the Protestant Reformation in the mid-16th century. It was the home of French theologian John Calvin, one of the Protestant Reformation’s most prominent leaders, from 1536 until his death in 1564. The city also became a safe haven for Protestant refugees escaping persecution in other parts of Europe.
Having stood as the seat of the League of Nations until 1946, today, the city continues to be a major hub for multinational cooperation, home to a branch of the United Nations as well as many other international organizations including the World Trade Organization, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the World Economic Forum.
Geneva’s reputation as a key location in international diplomacy stands in contrast to its small, provincial atmosphere. Far from being a large metropolis, the city has the ambience of a cozy 19th-century village, and its population feels very much at times like a happy, tight-knit family. The Genevese are a friendly, congenial people, prone to chatting up strangers waiting at tram stops and throwing city-wide festivals to celebrate just about every occasion under the sun. Having a good command of the French language is essential to interacting with the local population; although it is not uncommon to find an Anglophone in Geneva, the great majority of the city’s residents speak French as their native tongue.
As one explores Geneva in more depth, one is bound to discover many hidden gems that illuminate both the modern and traditional aspects of the city.
WHAT TO DO
Geneva is one of the most pedestrian-friendly cities in the world, and is small enough so that it can easily be traversed on foot in a few hours. Unlike London and Paris, the city is not known for its bustling tourism or upscale shopping and nightlife venues. It is a much more low-key location, quiet and memorable mainly for its green parks, gardens, historical monuments, and museums.
Geneva does however host a handful of popular tourist attractions, the most prominent of which is the Jet d’Eau, a fountain shooting water up into the air to an altitude of 459 feet (140 meters). The city’s most recognizable landmark, the fountain is located at the end of a jetty on Lake Geneva’s left bank, at the point where the lake feeds into the Rhone River. The fountain was first constructed in 1886 as a safety valve to relieve water pressure in the city’s hydraulic power network. It became a landmark in 1891, when Geneva’s City Council decided to move the fountain to its current location in celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Swiss Confederation. The fountain was reinstalled in 1951 with a new pumping station that allows water to be shot into the air to a higher altitude.
For the visitor in the mood for a sauna, a city-operated water taxi will provide quick transport across the lake from the Jet d’Eau to the Bains des Paquis, a bathhouse and beach venue located on the Quai du Mont Blanc. The facility offers two saunas and a Turkish bath that are open from September through May, as well as a hammam that is open year-round. Other amenities at the bathhouse include a public beach, open between May and August, massages, free tai-chi lessons, and the Buvette des Bains, a small restaurant that serves fondue dinners in the winter. The Bains des Paquis was first established in 1872, and redesigned 60 years later in a joint effort by engineer Louis Archinard and architect Henry Roche. In the 1980s, Geneva residents successfully campaigned to save the popular recreation spot from demolition.