Five o'clock tea at the Beau-Rivage hotel. Finger sandwiches and shortbread, fruitcake and tarts, warm raisin scones and pots of strawberry jam. At one table, an Englishwoman of a certain age, powdered and Jaegered, finally gets her husband's attention after taking away his Financial Times. At another table, the attentions of a South American playboy, sunglasses poised on forehead, make it all but impossible for his pouty charge to butter her scone, let alone pet her whippet.
Such droll scenes have earned Geneva its reputation as the most cosmopolitan city in Switzerland. Unfolding quietly, elegantly at the foot of the Alps and the Jura, just where Lake Geneva narrows and becomes the Rhône River, it is the capital of a canton that shares almost its entire 68-mile perimeter with France. This goes a long way toward explaining the city's dual identity and suave appeal.
Getting your bearings: Geneva is tidily cleaved in two by the Rhône. The Rive Gauche, or Left Bank, is on your left as you look downriver, west and south toward Marseilles. This is the cradle of the Old Town, Geneva's enchanting artistic and cultural core, the site of its university, of historic monuments and fortified walls, and of the 12th-century Cathédrale St.-Pierre. Here, more than anywhere else, the city comes closest to realizing its longing to be another Paris. Spend a morning reading the international dailies threaded onto poles at the sunny Palais de Justice café, and you'll understand why.
Of chief interest on the newer and less graceful Right Bank are the 19th-century
so-called palace hotels, which practically rub shoulders on and off the
Quai des Bergues and Quai du Mont-Blanc. Fans of these establishments call
them "grand"; detractors call them mausoleums. No one disputes
that they are big. Head north through a string of the vest-pocket public
parks that make Geneva one of the greenest cities in Europe, and you hit
the sprawling International Complex, the European seat of the United Nations.
Geneva gets a bad rap as a city of gray-suited functionaries and loupe-eyed watchmakers, a place you pass through on your way to somewhere elsepossibly a French ski resort. But it's no mere terminal. The French art of living, wedded to the Swiss art of efficiency, is a marriage made in heaven, in Geneva.
Where to Stay
Right Bank or Left?It's up to you the city has two wonderful small hotels, one on each side:
Hôtel d'Angleterre 17 Quai du Mont-Blanc; 41-22/906-5555, fax
41-22/906-5556; doubles from $295. Bright and stylish, small but not too
small (39 rooms and six suites), this 1872 Right Bank landmark was given
a complete makeover in 1995. Shame about the bathrooms, though: Europe is
still far from understanding the simple engineering that allows water to
flow from a showerhead without causing a flood. Albert Roux of London's
Le Gavroche is the consulting chef at Bertie's, the hotel's perfectly good
English restaurant, housed in a Victorian-style conservatory with spectacular
views of the lake.
Hôtel Les Armures 1 Rue du Puits-St.-Pierre; 41-22/310-9172, fax 41-22/310-9846; doubles from $295. For many, there's no point in visiting Geneva if they don't stay in the Old Town, which to them means a room at the 17th-century Armures. On the upside: ravishing frescoes, painted-beam ceilings, the raclette in the hotel restaurant, and only 24 rooms and four suites. On the downside: ham-fisted decoration, stale air, and a certain twee-ness.
At the Right Bank palace hotels, a room overlooking the lake, the Jet d'Eau, Mont Blanc, and the Alps costs up to 20 percent more. But you didn't come to Geneva to gaze at a fire escape:
Hôtel des Bergues 33 Quai des Bergues; 41-22/ 731-5050, fax 41-22/732-1989; doubles from $350. Ask for one of the 50 recently renovated rooms (there are 113 rooms in all, plus 11 suites). Nice, if stiffly deployed, Directoire and Louis Philippe furnishings.
Beau-Rivage 13 Quai du Mont-Blanc; 41-22/731-0221, fax 41-22/738-9847; doubles from $379. While the hotel lacks freshness, the six-story atrium lobby, with its fountain and buttercream carved-wood decorations, is still impressive. In fact, it looks much the same as it did in 1898 when Empress Elizabeth of Austria was stabbed by an anarchist upon leaving the premises, expiring shortly afterward in one of the suites. (There are six today, plus 97 rooms.)
Le Richemond Jardin Brunswick; 41-22/731-1400, fax 41-22/ 731-6709; doubles from $460. The most lugubrious of them all: red satin cushions on red velvet sofas. Sixty-one rooms and 31 suites.
For some, the location of these two hotels midway between the Old Town and the lakecouldn't be better:
Hôtel de la Cigogne 17 Place Longemalle; 41-22/818-4040, fax 41-22/818-4050; doubles from $290. Hold tight for the giddy decorative exuberance of the 36 rooms and 14 suites in this Relais & Châteaux property.
Hôtel Touring-Balance 13 Place Longemalle; 41-22/310-4045, fax 41-22/310-4039; doubles from $180. This is as close as you'll get to a good deal in Geneva. The 55 rooms and five suites are plain but not unpleasant.
Where to Eat
La Favola 15 Rue Jean-Calvin; 41-22/311-7437; dinner for two $105. La Favola is the best Italian restaurant in Geneva, but is it the best restaurant in Geneva, period?A lot of the city's been-around-the-world palates think so. Tortellini aren't tortellini; they're tender pillows filled with the creamiest, sweetest ricotta, in a luscious reduction of red wine, meat juices, and butter. The intimate dining rooms inspire romantic confidences. As for location, a few steps from the Cathédrale St.-Pierre in the heart of the Old Town isn't too shabby.
Café-Restaurant du Château d'If 51 Rte. de Thonon, Vésenaz; 41-22/752-1211; dinner for two $45. You won't agonize over the menu at the bare-bones restaurant owned by self-appointed "fondue pope" Jacques Pipoz; there isn't one. The only decision is between the all-Vacherin fondue and the (better) one made with Vacherin and Gruyère, plus garlic and white wine. Be warned: Pipoz allots a whopping 13 ounces of cheese per person. Spring for a cab; it's 10 minutes from town (then again, you may need the walk home).
Pizzeria da Paolo 3 Rue du Lac; 41-22/736-3049; dinner for two $55. Even if you're in Geneva for only three days you should consider eating here twice: it's that good. Fragrant white Alba truffles are shaved onto your ricotta focaccia right in front of you.
Chez Bouby 1 Rue Grenus; 41-22/731-0927; dinner for two $75. A classic paper-napkin bistro where tweedy, bifocaled retirees meet young Geneva professionals. Bouby offers the rare possibility of eating late; it takes orders for full, hot meals until 1 a.m.
L'échalotte 17 Rue des Rois; 41-22/320-5999; dinner for two $50. A hail-fellow bistro with truck-driver portions (forgo a first course) of beef bourguignon and choucroute with all the trimmings.
Le Béarn 4 Quai de la Poste; 41-22/321-0028; dinner for two $195. Depending on your mood, the rather prissy atmosphere (pink linens, faux-marble paint effects, smoked mirrors, gold paper doilies!) at this quayside institution will heighten or hinder your appetite. The chef, Jean-Paul Goddard, longs to be taken seriously, but he may not be quite up to his ambitions.