It may come as a bit of a surprise to discover that the winner of 2015’s ‘leading city break destination of the year’ at the World Travel Awards was Geneva. This is no fluke; the Swiss city took the award home last year as well. However, travellers who make their monthly exodus to the Barcelonas, Romes and Venices of this world seem a little in the dark when it comes to Geneva.
With some of Europe’s best ski resorts an hour away from city, throngs of coffee shops, museums and galleries, and no less than ten Michelin-starred restaurants, you could be overlooking Europe’s best-kept city break secret.
For the culture vultures, the maze of medieval streets in the Old Town are enticing. Nowhere in Geneva is difficult to get to on foot, by tram or bus, and this district – perched on the hill above the lake – is compact, picturesque and jammed with museums, galleries and cafés.
It’s free (for now at least) from the crowds that make other ancient centres claustrophobic and difficult to appreciate. You may find you have the famous Hotel de Ville, 12th-century St Peter’s Cathedral and stylish Place Bourg-de-Four virtually to yourself, even in the height of the summer.
From there, it’s a well-heeled glide back down the hill to Geneva’s luxury shopping streets, on the bank of crystal clear River Rhone and the best of Bond Street and beyond. Flanked by supercars, and with the eye-watering cost of living in mind, these consumer palaces are dazzling but not geared up for the bargain hunters.
Those visitors instead seek out La Carouge, which was the refuge of choice for 17th-century revellers escaping the restrictive Calvinists, and remains Geneva’s boho quarter. It has a strong French influence, vintage boutiques, markets, street food and, when the sun goes down, bars and restaurants that would hold their own in Shoreditch or SoHo. Saatchi & Saatchi has its Geneva office in the district.
It’s also where you’ll find one of Geneva’s ten Michelin-starred restaurants, Le Flacon, ‘The Bottle’ attracts discerning visitors for its informal setting yet exacting cuisine. Elsewhere, there are typical bistros like Café-Restaurant Equinoxe on Rue du Pont-Neuf to sample or a night cap to enjoy in the bar of the Art Deco-style Cinema Bio 72.
The fine dining on offer across Geneva certainly demonstrates that it’s not all about chocolate and cheese. (Though both are exceptional, including the Du Rhone Chocolatier back in the Old Town, still making artisan chocolates by hand as they have since 1875).
There’s a feeling that Geneva has suddenly woken up to its old school foodie credentials, particularly its local produce, the quality of which is as clear as the glacial lake that just eight fishermen and women are allowed to take fish from. Feeding the hotels and restaurants of the city, these coveted licenses are often passed down through families.
For a real gastro getaway, though, the farms and vineyards just 15 minutes from the centre of town are a must. On a summer’s day, there’s no better way to explore than by extra-easy electric bike. Several guides, including the irrepressible Jean of ebike Tours, expertly lead visitors through countryside that any prominent wine producing region would be proud of. Tiny, tumbledown villages – seemingly deserted in the warm midday sun – support the army of small family growers that have been producing wine here since Caesar was a lad.
Those in the know stop off at one of the many auberges for a leisurely lunch washed down with an aromatic glass or two from award-winning producer Cave de Geneve. L’Auberge d’Hermance is one of the best known.
This life is about as far from the global business headquarters and hadron colliders as you could imagine, and yet the panoramic views across the valley take in all that – a few minutes tram ride away. It borders on the surreal.
Where to chill
Back in town, to counter the effects of such excellent wine and food, many visitors will naturally select the luxury spa experiences on offer from many of the larger hotels. But for something a little more native, break free of all that and head to the Bains des Paquis – the lido on the lake. With its city beach, open-air swimming and the opportunity for a massage on the water’s edge, it’s high on the list of dinner party mentionables.
The year-round calendar of unique events includes the daily dawn concert in the summer. If you can drag yourself from bed early enough, it’s an experience not to be missed.
Though with the wide range of excellent hotels and guesthouses to choose from, leaving your room may be a challenge. There are numerous luxury international hotel names – particularly in the Paquis district, the up and coming quarter on the north-west side of the lake, where there is space for expansive lobbies and open terraces.
At the head of the lake in the original part of town you’ll find the older townhouse boutique accommodation, such as Hotel de La Cigogne, with its own story of historic buildings and eccentric antique-collecting owners.
Geneva’s is not a story of the past, though. With the city on the verge of a new era as a destination to rival any in Europe, it’s probably time to book that break before the hordes catch on.
Swiss flies from London airports to Geneva from £81. Until the end of September. Look out for package deals which often include a double room and breakfast, an hour’s kayak or canoe trip and a cruise on the lake and a ticket for the Salève cable car, from 56 CHF (approx £37) per person.
Free transfer cards (from the ticket machine in the airport’s baggage hall) give travellers 80 minutes of free local transit, including the sleek, efficient train that delivers you to the city centre in ten minutes. At check-in, all visitors staying in the city receive a free Geneva Transport Card from their hotel, valid for the duration of their stay across the UNIRESO network.