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Sep 16, 2007
36 Hours in Geneva - The New York Times
36 Hours in Geneva

Christophe Margot for The New York Times

The United Nations office at the Palais des Nations.


Geneva, the political and transportation hub of Europe, is one of those seemingly unavoidable cities. It's like a Swiss version of Atlana: practically everyone passes through sooner or later, whether they want to or not. But there are plenty of reasons to stay longer. Not only is Geneva blessed with a sweeping lake within beckoning distance of the snow-covered Alps, but its medieval ramparts have also long served as a cultural haven for the world's exiles and freethinkers. Switzerland's famous neutrality also means that there is a thriving community of expatriate polyglots, many of whom work for international agencies like the Red Cross and the United Nations. So if you fly through Geneva, add a couple of days to your stopover.

A view of Lake Geneva

Friday

4:30 p.m.
1) DATE WITH A FOUNTAIN

Walk or bike along Lake Geneva's glamorous lakefront, where, on a clear day, you can see snow-capped Mont Blanc floating in the horizon. Rent a Bike (41-51-22-51-4820; www.rent-a-bike.ch), at the Gare de Cornavin, the main train station, has bicycles starting at 23 Swiss francs, or $19 at 1.21 Swiss francs to the dollar, for a half day. Start at the immaculate Jardin Anglais, with its famous 15-foot flower clock, one of Geneva's signature sights. Then glide over to the Jetée des Eaux-Vives, a breakwater that leads out to the Jet d'Eau, one of the world's largest fountains. From afar, the fountain might not seem remarkable. But from under the 459-foot-tall column of misting water, it's an awesome spectacle, especially when it's illuminated at night.

Jet d’Eau is one of the world’s largest fountains. From afar, the fountain might not seem remarkable. But from under the 459-foot-tall column of misting water, it’s an awesome spectacle.

8 p.m.
2) FONDUE RENDEZVOUS

Every visitor to Switzerland should sample at least one bubbling cauldron of cheesy stuff, and Restaurant les Armures, inside the Hôtel les Armures (1, rue du Soleil-Levant; 41-22-310-3442; www.hotel-les-armures.ch), is a fondue institution. This wood-beamed restaurant with muskets on the wall is at the top of Old Town, which winds around a hill overlooking the Left Bank. A plaque near the front door commemorates a 1994 visit by Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton. If you're famished, order the cheese fondue with mushrooms (27 Swiss francs).

Every visitor to Switzerland should sample at least one bubbling cauldron of cheesy stuff, and Restaurant les Armures , inside the Hôtel les Armures, is a fondue institution.

10 p.m.
3) COCKTAIL CROSSROADS

Walk dinner off with a stroll through the narrow medieval streets and head toward one of the city's favorite meeting places: the leafy Place du Bourg-de-Fours, the former medieval marketplace in the heart of Old Town. A dozen restaurants and cafes surround a tiny 18th-century marble fountain in the cobblestone square. Tiny  La Clemence 20, place du Bourg-de-Four, 41-22-310-1096; www.laclemence.ch) is a popular spot during the day for café au lait and a croissant. At night, it draws a lively mix of students, businesspeople and politicians.

The view from on high, Cathédrale St.-Pierre. The city is blessed with a sweeping lake within beckoning distance of the snow-covered Alps.


Saturday

10 a.m.
4) PROTESTANT HILLTOP

Though the walls of the tiny Old Town are covered in graffiti, the cobblestones and stone facades look much as they did during the Reformation, when John Calvin and John Knox found refuge there and created a “Protestant Rome.” Signs of the Reformation are evident at Cathédrale St.-Pierre (6, cours St.-Pierre; 41-22-319-71-90; www.saintpierre-geneve.ch) with its green-copper spire crowning the hill. A side chapel with 15th-century angel frescoes is a riotous contrast to the austerity of the cathedral's nave, which was stripped of its decorations by 16th-century Protestant reformers. Climb to the top of the north tower (3 Swiss francs) for a sweeping view over the city and the lake.

The cobblestones and stone facades of the Old Town look much as they did during the Reformation, when John Calvin and John Knox found refuge there and created a “Protestant Rome.”

1:30 p.m.
5) SWISS SCHOOL OF ART

The airy Musée d'Art et d'Histoire (2, Charle-Galland; 41-22-418-2600; www.ville-ge.ch/mah/) features an admirable cross-section of art history, including exceptional works by Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh Cézanne and Picasso. For a real treat, head to the second-floor galleries and get lost in the Genevoise landscapes of the Swiss painters François Diday and his student Alexandre Calame.

A gallery in the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire.

3 p.m.
6) VILLA VOLTAIRE

Anyone who says there's no money in philosophy should visit Voltaire's former home, now the Institut et Musée Voltaire (25, rue des Délices; 41-22-344-7133; www.ville-ge.ch/imv). Voltaire was a shrewd businessman, and his writings on liberty and sharp wit won him rich and powerful patrons, including Catherine the Great and Frederick the Great. From his Palladian villa set in an immaculate garden Voltaire in the 18th century set forth the ideas that would help spark the French Revolution. You can read them, along with his personal letters and manuscripts, in the philosopher's sumptuous salons.

5 p.m.
7) HIGH-END TIMEPIECES

If there's any doubt that you're in the world capital of watches, wander down Rue du Rhône with its diamond-encrusted and gold-plated shops. Check out Busher (No. 45; 41-22-319-62-66; www.bucherer.ch), which has been selling high-end timepieces since 1888 and has what is thought to be the world's largest selection of Rolexes. A mere 44,000 Swiss francs buys the special-edition platinum model. Not unusual enough? Go up the street to Marconi (No. 53; 41-22-311-3630), a boutique watchmaker that makes only small-run editions. Its clunky, over-the-top timepieces (600 to 850 Swiss francs) look like something Willy Wonka would wear if he could afford them.

8 p.m.
8) ALPINE ARABIA

Geneva has a growing Middle Eastern community, as evidenced by the Arabic script on storefronts, banks and offices all over. For a cultural taste, follow your nose to Rue de Berne, where Libyan bakeries, small teahouses and Middle Eastern restaurants stand side-by-side with the city's small, tidy red-light district. La Caravane Passee (11, rue du Dr. Alfred-Vincent; 41-22-731-3431) is a casual family-run restaurant popular with immigrants and students. Order a steaming plate of traditional lamb couscous (15 Swiss francs) and wash it down with pots of foaming mint tea (3.50 Swiss francs).

Middle Eastern food available on the Rue de Berne.

11 p.m.
9) TECHNOCRATS

Geneva tends to shut down early, but there are a few spots where you can party with the city's moneyed class. If the high cocktail prices (25 Swiss francs) don't faze you, head to the Platinum Glam Club (18, quai du Seujet; 41-78-726-6941; www.platinum-club.ch). White sofas and V.I.P. lounges surround a pulsating dance floor, where the city's well-dressed 20-to-40-somethings gyrate under strobe lights and smoke machines. The music ranges from thumping techno to Middle Eastern dance music, and notable D.J.'s have included the likes of Busta Rhymes and DMX. Admission is 25 Swiss francs for men, free for women.

Sunday

11 a.m.
10) MODERNIST BRUNCH

Who says the Swiss are humorless? Certainly not the cheery waiters at Faim (5, rue Châtelain; www.faim.ch; 41-22-340-2575), a Scandinavian-sleek cafe on the Right Bank. The funky décor, tasty eats and rotating photo exhibits draw the city's bright young things every Sunday morning. A brunch plate, including delicious restaurant-baked bread and jams, is 28 Swiss francs.

1 p.m.
11) PEACE COMPLEX

When you hear news reports of “negotiations taking place in Geneva,” it invariably refers to the Palais des Nations(14, avenue de la Paix; 41-22-917-4896; www.unog.ch), home to the second-largest United Nations office, after New York. Sprawled along Geneva's Right Bank, this complex of grand offices was built from 1929 to 1936 to serve as the headquarters of the League of Nations. When it was reconstituted as the United Nations after World War II, this became the U.N.'s European headquarters, housing an alphabet soup of organizations like Unicef and WHO. The hourlong tours — in any of the organization's 15 official languages — take you through the enormous Assembly Hall and the commemorative galleries (10 Swiss francs; passport required). Later, stroll the surrounding 87.5-acre Parc de L'Ariana. Avoid being nipped by the peacocks that roam wild. In a city as safe as Geneva, this might be the greatest danger you'll face.

Take an hourlong tour — in any of the organization’s 15 official languages.

VISITOR INFORMATION

Continental, Swiss International Air and United fly from Newark or Kennedy airports. Fares this month start around $657 on Swiss. A taxi from Cointrin International Airport to the city center is about 30 Swiss francs, about $24 at 1.21 Swiss francs to the dollar. It's often easier and cheaper (5 Swiss francs) to take the six-minute train (www.unireso.com) to the central station, Gare de Cornavin; trains depart several times an hour.

Hôtel de La Cigone (17, place Longemalle; 41-22-818-4040; www.cigogne.ch), on a quiet square between the lake and Old Town, is elegant; rates start at 480 Swiss francs for a double.

Hôtel les Armures (1, rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre; 41-22-310-91-72; www.hotel-les-armures.ch) offers medieval-themed luxury in Old Town. The French actor Jean Marais and Jimmy Carter have been guests. Rooms start at 570 Swiss francs for a double.

Hotel Admiral (8, rue Pellegrino Rossi; 41-22-906-9700; www.hoteladmiral.ch), near the central train station, has simple and comfortable rooms starting at 129 Swiss francs for a double.

Geneva, Switzerland
The New York Times
   
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