GENEVA - This may be the most important city in the world – a city that tells the rest of us how to live. Geneva, which boasts 4,000 years of history, is always in the news. As the centre for the United Nations in Europe, the city draws hundreds of thousands of top level dignitaries from around the world. It’s also the headquarters of some of the world’s most important regulatory organizations, including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). Even the scouts like Geneva – they decided to pitch their tent here and now make this their world headquarters as well.
Even with all that high-profile activity, though, there’s a small-town charm about Geneva which you experience when walking its narrow streets, sampling fresh farm produce at the local market, riding one of its slow moving trams, watching people play with giant chess pieces in one of its lovely parks or sipping Switzerland’s light bodied wines at one of the outdoor cafes that line its enchanting Arve River.
Above: Relaxing on the banks of Arve River.
Official Geneva is actually a bit out of the main city. The UN offices here is where 1,600 people work and is surrounded by a lovely park setting. These is the largest UN office outside the world body’s New York headquarters.
But few people come to tour those facilities. Instead it’s the monuments like the Jet d’eau, the world’s tallest water fountain, the manicured parks and the many museums and art galleries that the tourists truly appreciate.
The Jet d’eau dates back to 1886 and is the Old Faithful of Europe, shooting water over 300 feet in the air. The fountain is so big, it takes each drop of water 16 seconds to complete the round trip from nozzle to lake.
Because of its location on the shores of Lake Geneva – Lac Leman to the locals – the city is the perfect place to base yourself while touring enchanting Switzerland. The city is close to the French border and in easy driving distance to the country’s other “world” city, Lausanne, headquarters of the International Olympic Committee.
The lake is the main focal point of Geneva. The charming promenades that line its shores tempt strollers to pull up a chair at a café and linger over a coffee or glass of wine. There are also boat tours on the lake that sits cradled at the base of Alpine mountains.
Above: The Old Town is a lovely place to wander.
The city’s Old Town is a joy to walk. The cobblestone streets lead you to all sorts of wonderful attractions, like St. Peter’s Cathedral and the Maison Tavel, the city’s arts and history museum.
On the Rue des Granges, named the “Street of Barns” is where you’ll see some of the most expensive houses in Europe. The Hotel de Ville, or city hall, is another amazing structure with a grouping of buildings that reflect architecture from the 16th to the 18th centuries.
In the wonderful Promenade de la Treille you’ll find the world’s longest wooden bench and a few feet away an ancient chestnut tree which is the city’s symbol.
Geneva is a city with strong links to the Protestant Reformation and that period of its history is remembered at Parc Bastions and the Place Neuve. There you’ll find the impressive Reformation Wall with effigies of the four major players of the religious movement – Guillaume Farel, Jean Calvin (pope of the reformers), Theodore de Beze and John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian church in Scotland. The construction of the wall in 1909 coincided with the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth.
Above: Reformation Wall is a big tourist draw.
Because there are so many foreigners living in diplomatic Geneva – 40 per cent of its population comes from outside Switzerland – the city is blessed with some tantalizingly good ethnic restaurants, many of which can be found in the Paquis and Les Grottes districts.
If you’d like to get to know the locals, make sure you visit the Plainpalais flea market, the biggest in the city where you can buy records and clothing from a bygone era. For more modern duds, head over to the Rue de Rive or the Rue du Rhone where all the latest fashion styles are displayed in small shop windows.
For something a bit different, take a gondola ride to the top of the Saleve, Geneva’s backyard mountain that affords you great views of the city and surrounding splendor
The neighborhood parks inside the Old Town are where you’ll find chess masters playing with life size pieces on boards painted into the sidewalks. It’s also where you’ll come across some unusual – most of them erotic – sculptors that reflect the creative side of Geneva’s artistic community.
The tiny city boasts over 300 hotels, none better than the Mandarin Oriental's Hotel du Rhone. This is where most diplomats stay when they visit Geneva and the rooms and service are second to none.
Geneva also has a strong link with a former U.S. President. Woodrow Wilson, founder of the League of Nations, forerunner of the United Nations, is remembered at the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars. One of the city’s main streets is named after the president who was revered by most Europeans.
Internet users owe a great debt of gratitude to Geneva – this is where the worldwide Web was created.
Needless to say, Geneva is one UN-usual city.