An insider's guide to Geneva

Most foreigners know Geneva as a quaint Swiss city, home to the United Nations, chocolate shops and watchmakers. But beyond the tourist haunts, in-the-know locals are slinking into underground jazz bars, exploring the city from the seats of vintage bikes and swapping luxury jewellery shops for browsing the wares at quirky boutiques. So forget the sparkle, the plush hotels and the flower clock, and experience Geneva in a fresh way – as an insider would.

Plainpalais

Plainpalais is one of Geneva’s most prominent and diverse quartiers, teeming with university students, young locals and expats. From its bars and restaurants to its rotating events in the large neighbourhood square, Plainpalais is pulsing with life year-round.

Plainpalais flea market. Image by Nicolas Nova / CC BY 2.0.

Plainpalais flea market. Image by Nicolas Nova / CC BY 2.0.

Do: Thrice weekly, the celebrated flea market, known as the marché aux puces, comes to life on the open space of the Plaine de Plainpalais in the neighbourhood’s centre. Sift the bric-a-brac, old postcards and photos, vintage watches and grand armoires, while sipping spicy chai from the nearby Les Tartes de la Caravane (www.traiteur-de-tartes.ch).

See: For three nights a year, local galleries throughout Plainpalais open their doors for several evenings of viewings and free wine. Organised in conjunction with the Museum of Contemporary Art (Mamco; www.mamco.ch/expositions_EN.html), the youngest contemporary museum in Switzerland, Nuit des Bains brings modern art to the masses. Join the Genevoise spilling on to the sidewalks, while wandering from one exhibit to the next.

Drink: One of the coolest wine bars in the city, Café Marius (Place des Augustins 9), is tucked humbly away on an unassuming corner. An art deco interior lined with bottles, hanging hams and illustrations of pigs hints at its former life as a butcher shop. Try any of its biodynamic and organic wines paired with tasty tapas.

Shop: Well-heeled hipsters step into the clothing boutique L’Arsenal (www.larsenal.ch) for curated collections from fashion houses worldwide. For stylish home and kitchenware (and made-in-house furniture), hoof it over to Les Enfants Terribles (www.les-enfants-terribles.ch).

Eat: Burgers are not usually associated with Geneva. But thanks to budding restaurant Inglewood (www.inglewood.ch), that’s changing. This turquoise-painted burger joint first opened beside the university, catering mainly to students. Word soon spread and the Genevoise were flocking here for knockout burgers prepared on demand with local products and ingredients. Lines can snake out the door – a rarity in Geneva – but it is worth the wait for the city’s best burger.

Pâquis

Swimmers jumping into the Bains des Pâquis. Image by Ingolf Pompe / LOOK / Getty Images.

Swimmers jumping into the Bains des Pâquis. Image by Ingolf Pompe / LOOK / Getty Images.

Seedy on one end, pristine on the other, Geneva’s red-light district, the Pâquis, transforms with every turn and corner. Hidden throughout the quartier’s intertwined and ever-changing roads are some of the city’s most frequented hotspots and hush-hush finds.

Do: A visit to the Bains des Pâquis, year-round, is a must for any traveller to Geneva. During the summer, stake out a spot on the pier jutting into the lake to catch musical performances at sunrise, followed by a day spent intermittently sunbathing and swimming. In the winter, book a massage and warming sauna, topped off with a stellar fondue dinner served at communal tables lakeside.

See: For top-notch jazz, step inside the AMR (www.amr-geneve.ch), a local music school that hosts some of the continent’s best jazz bands and musicians nightly. Workshops and open jam sessions held in an underground cellar round out its daily performance schedule.

Eat: Set among leafy trees in a petite park behind the historic Brunswick Monument is the Cottage Café. This restaurant is always packed with locals sipping on coffees in the morning, lounging over lunches at midday, or digging into tapas dinners when the restaurant's menu of small plates kicks in at night (the sweet potato tart tartin with morels and cream is not to be missed). Warmer months are best spent on the patio, while the eclectic interior provides a cosy respite in the winter.

Drink: Floor-to-ceiling windows and bright, colourful chairs make Les Cinq Portres (www.lescandale.ch/public/5_portes.html) a cheerful and airy spot to share a carafe of wine, beer or cocktail in any season. In the evenings, dim lighting and a plethora of candles set a relaxed mood that makes lingering a pleasure. The servers and clients are all down to earth, offering a reprieve from the more buttoned-up bars around town.

Carouge

Nestled just beyond Geneva’s periphery, Carouge – officially a separate city in the canton of Geneva – was built up by the King of Sardinia in the late 1700s. Today, elegant plane trees and winding roads flank pastel-coloured buildings that house galleries, boutiques and cafes.

A tram crossing a bridge in Geneva. Image by Alain GAVILLET /CC BY 2.0.

A tram crossing a bridge in Geneva. Image by Alain GAVILLET /CC BY 2.0.

See: Experimental art and cutting-edge performances rotate through the contemporary art space at FLUX Laboratory (www.fluxlaboratory.com/en/lieu). Step through a discreet grey door and into a narrow townhouse where the creative set display their latest work through concerts, workshops and expositions. Then catch an independent film at Cinéma Bio (www.cinema-bio.ch), a landmark movie house dating from 1912, where film buffs craving global, independent cinema are satiated nightly.

Do: Chase art with a stroll through the bi-weekly farmers market where seasonal produce and products pop up in temporary stalls. Finish off impromptu tastings with cappuccinos and pastries from Wolfisberg (www.wolfisberg.org). Better yet, delve deep into the bakery; several times a year Wolfisberg opens its kitchen to the public in the wee hours for clandestine, late-night tours.

Eat: For a lively atmosphere and phenomenal food, make a beeline for Le Dix Vins (rue jacques Dalphin 29). Vintage French adverts cover the walls, antiquated seltzer bottles line its shelves, and a handful of wooden tables and chairs sit in the dining room. Expect proper bistro-inspired fare, like your would-be French grandmother would make; from the entrecote to the millefeuille, everything is prepared expertly and with rich, satisfying results.

Drink: Rub elbows with locals at long-time local favourite Chat Noir. This bar-cum-restaurant-cum-theatre hosts DJs, bands and solo performances, while shaking up some of the best cocktails in town. Opt for the Bloody Mary or the only Old Fashioned served in Geneva.

Shop: An afternoon shopping in Carouge is easily spent dipping in and out of stylish boutiques, from independent fashion houses to innovative ateliers. At jeweller Lindsay Marie, one-of-a-kind necklaces and bracelets are delightfully handcrafted. If you’re planning an extended stay in Geneva, visit the overflowing second-hand and vintage bikes at the velo garage at Selle Que J’aime.

Geneva tips and take-aways

  • The local bus system, the TPG, is easy to navigate through the city and most hotels offer complimentary bus passes during your stay.
  • Shop hours are limited in Geneva and almost all shops close on Sundays. Plan to visit any stores before 7pm on weekdays and 6pm on Saturdays. Thursdays have extended hours, with closings nearer to 9pm.
  • Bike rental kiosks are available in neighbourhoods throughout Geneva, perfect for short jaunts around the city’s parks and the lake.
  • Summertime yields a plethora of outdoor music concerts. In the winter, the Old Town hosts classical and holiday performances indoors.
  • Pick up the annually updated Le Renard Sur La Lune, which highlights some of the city’s best venues. Copies are available for free at the central train station, Gare Cornavin.