Geneva. The name alone is associated with international peace, and its reputation as a city “where the world comes together in peace” is protectively guarded and promoted. While this slogan may present an idealistic vision of world politics, it is certain that Geneva is one of the most international and multicultural cities in the world. Yet, the city has kept its delightful Swiss charm. Here are five ways to experience Geneva’s international appeal and Swiss soul.
1) Neutrality, Above All Else
Switzerland, and Geneva in particular, is known for its neutral stance in international disputes. It managed to negotiate its way around World War II, despite being wedged between Germany and Italy. To this day, Switzerland abstains from joining the European Union, perhaps fearful of losing its much-coveted independence. This desire to remain neutral has been woven into the Swiss mentality since the country’s early beginnings
When the Christian protestant movement began in 1517, many countries with support of the powerful Catholic Church persecuted people for their newfound convictions. Geneva provided refuge to prominent reformers such as John Calvin. This historical example of Swiss neutrality is enshrined in the Reformation Wall on the University of Geneva grounds next to Place de Neuve. The monument honours Geneva’s prominent role in the history of world religions in its support of this burgeoning faith.
2) International Perspective
Known as the Capital of Peace, Geneva plays a critical role in world politics. More than 200 organizations are headquartered in Geneva including the United Nations and the Red Cross/Red Crescent. This international mélange is felt on the streets: people from all backgrounds with different national languages, cultures, and customs chat in the street and in cafés. Along with the four official languages, it is possible to hear snippets of conversation in every tongue.
This multicultural appeal is certainly enhanced by the United Nations presence. As the European headquarters of the UN, Geneva lies at the heart of world diplomacy. The headquarters, the Palais des Nations, is also a famous tourist spot with flags of every member state flying outside the gate. Tours of the Palais des Nations are available most of the year from Monday to Saturday in 15 languages. Lying just in front is the Place des Nations with its beautiful water jets and the Broken Chair monument representing Geneva’s contribution to the campaign against landmines.
Due to this reputation for neutrality, Geneva is also the site of the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN). Founded in 1954 by 12 Western European nations to work on the nuclear particles, the institute has become an example of international scientific cooperation. Most of the research is conducted on interactions between particles and the centre is recently famous for discovering the Higgs-Boson, or ‘God’ particle. While technically outside of Geneva, its only 20 minutes by tram on line 18. Not the entire center is open to the public but the Globe of Science and Innovation is worth a visit.
3) Get Outside
Natural beauty abounds in Geneva. The centre is built around Lake Geneva, home to the famous Jet d’Eau, or Water Fountain. This lake top water show was created by accident over 100 years ago and today it is Geneva’s most well known monument. The best place to see this marvel is from the trendy beach Bains des Pâquis where locals gather to swim, eat and enjoy the view.
Switzerland is synonymous with high mountain peaks and Geneva doesn’t disappoint. Although the Swiss Alps lie beyond the city limits, Genevans head to the mountains for a day trip to escape hectic city life. On a clear day, Mont Blanc’s summit can be seen peaking out behind surrounding Alps from the lake.
When the lake and the mountains are crawling with tourists, locals get their daily dose of outdoor activity in one of 50 parks and gardens hidden around Geneva. Surprisingly, I found myself the sole visitor in some of the city’s smaller green spaces, cocooned away from the bustle and noise. Perfect for an evening run or to read a book in peace.
4) Enjoy Life
If you aren’t part of the jet set, downtown Geneva’s nightlife is rather disappointing. Most of the restaurants and bars are exclusively priced with strict dress codes or tourist traps charging a small fortune for authentic Swiss cuisine. If you want to rub elbows with real Genevans on Saturday night, Carouge is the place to be in one of the many bars or clubs found in the district.
Once an ancient Sardinian market town, Carouge brings an Italian spirit to Geneva. The small streets are lined with Mediterranean style buildings painted in bright colours reminiscent of Venice. The boutiques, artist workshops and outdoor cafés have drawn Carouge comparisons with Greenwich Village in New York City. Although it comes alive at night, Carouge is definitely worth a day trip to see Geneva’s more bohemian side.
5) Don’t Forget the Past
Since its pre-Roman beginnings, Geneva has witnessed much of Europe’s turbulent history of the past two millennia. These ancient origins are felt throughout the city, particularly in its Old Town, the largest of its kind in Switzerland. It sits perched above the city and protected by fortified walls. One can witness the development of Geneva with the eclectic mixture of architectural styles from different eras that line narrow cobblestone streets.
The imposing St. Peter’s Cathedral dominates the Old Town’s skyline. This building was at the centre of the Protestant Reformation movement and was the home church of John Calvin after he fled France from persecution. The interior is just as impressive: high vaulted ceilings and a large pipe organ overlook the throngs of tourists paying homage to Calvin’s famous chair. The bell tower has the undisputed best place to see Geneva offering a priceless view of the city and Lake Geneva.
Whether attracted by its international reputation or its local allure, Geneva is a must-see addition to any Swiss agenda. The two personalities each reveal a different side of the international city, leaving plenty of sites for all travelers looking for a dynamic and multicultural experience.