At first blush, the city of Geneva might conjure up an image of staid European city with banking and diplomacy at its core, and a rather stodgy reputation. But scratch the surface and you will find a vibrant, cosmopolitan city with an alternative side, replete with bohemian neighborhoods, flea markets, live music clubs, contemporary art and independent design. Here’s how and where to uncover Geneva’s ‘cool factor’.
Two rivers, the Rhône and the Arve, flow through the city. A short tram ride from the city center across the Arve is Carouge, Geneva’s West Village. This is where indie shops, cafés and artisans come together in a striking Italianate setting of pastel walls, painted shutters and stone archways.
Don’t miss the baked delights at Boulangerie Wolfisberg or the unusual flavors at Chocolat Pascoet – try coriander or sage if you’re adventurous, or passion fruit to play it safe. Go on Saturdays or Wednesdays when Carouge’s bi-weekly farmers’ market is in full swing at Place du Marché. Pick up some fresh bread, local cheese and honey, fruits and wine, and have a picnic or just soak in the vibe.
Next head to the nearest restaurant for a spot of refreshment. Try the relaxed bistro Café du Marché or the classy French brasserie Café des Négociants by Swiss celebrity Chef Philippe Chevrier. Carouge also hosts a Thursday evening market, perfect for a pre-dinner stroll followed by a drink at one of the lively bars in the area – for example live music at Chat Noir is a local favorite as is the funky Le Cheval Blanc, which hosts local rock bands and improv nights in its basement venue, Le Box.
Just behind the main train station and close to downtown is the decidedly bohemian neighborhood of Les Grottes. This area, which at one time had a gritty, run-down air, has been cleaned up (a bit) and gentrified. It’s a multicultural neighborhood that teems with artist studios, vintage shops, cafés, bars and farmers’ markets.
As you walk its narrow streets and explore its leafy squares, you can admire the colorful façades and turn-of-the-century apartment buildings. Check out the funky Schtrumpfs Building on 23-29, Rue Louis-Favre, a 1980s Gaudi-esque apartment complex with a hodgepodge of styles and clashing colors.
Every Thursday, the Place des Grottes comes alive with a vibrant evening market where local vendors sell vegetables, bread, cheese, wine and beer. Wind up the night at one of many bars and restaurants in the Grottes – Les Trois Phéniciens, Le Quai Des Grottes, and Nomades are popular spots. The Parc des Cropettes hosts a contemporary jazz festival every March.
MAMCO (Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art) is a must-visit for any art enthusiast. Opened in 1994, Switzerland’s largest contemporary art museum is housed in a cavernous four-story factory building. Drop in for a rotating program of experimental modern art, or check out the evocative installations from well-known artists (mamco.ch).
MAMCO is part of Geneva’s Quartier des Bains, an association of 17 cultural entities including art galleries, museums and cultural institutions. Three times yearly, the Quartier hosts La Nuit des Bains, an evening of art appreciation when MAMCO and the art galleries in the area stay open until 9:00 PM. It’s a great way to discover new local and international artists as you weave in and out of galleries, a glass of wine or beer in hand. La Nuit des Bains are scheduled for May 14 and September 17. quartierdesbains.ch
While it’s only fitting and proper that you should surely splurge on fine watches and luxe chocolates in Geneva, you must also make time to scour the flea markets in the Plainpalais neighborhood. This is one of Switzerland’s biggest flea markets offering a wealth of antiques, vintage clothes, second-hand furniture and other bric-a-brac. It’s held at the Plaine de Plainpalais every Wednesday and Saturday, and also on the first Sunday of every month. The square also hosts a huge farmers’ market every Sunday from early morning until 5:00 PM.
For more upscale retail, head to Rue du Rhône, the city’s most glamorous shopping street, which is home to designer flagship boutiques like Louis Vuitton, Chanel, Prada, Gucci, and more. Major watch brands like Omega, Piaget, Patek Philippe, Bucherer, and Hublot also house their boutiques on this street.
For trendy high street brands like Bershka, Mango, and Jack and Jones, stop by at Rue du Marché. On the other side of the Rhône River, Rue du Mont-Blanc has independent Swiss boutiques as well as the famous department store Manor. You cannot visit Geneva and not come back with hoards of Swiss chocolates. The city is home to several historic boutiques that are known for their handmade chocolates; try Auer Chocolatier, Du Rhône Chocolatier, Favarger, and Teuscher.
Drink and Dine
There’s no dearth of dining options in Geneva, from casual cafés to fine restaurants. A popular spot is Cottage Café, a charming restaurant in a former gardener’s cottage located in the heart of Brunswick Park near Lake Geneva. For a more traditional experience, drop in at Café Papon in the heart of Vieille Ville (Old Town); the restaurant dates to 1808 and is located in a historic building with a sun-washed terrace.
But to truly get a pulse of the city, turn your attention to Geneva’s burgeoning cocktail scene. L’Apothicaire cocktail-club and L’Atelier cocktail club serve imaginative craft cocktails in relaxed lounge settings. You can also try the lively Barbershop with a colorful Cuban flair or the shabby-chic speakeasy La Verre à Monique.
Nearby is Bleu Nuit, a hip restaurant with a hidden bar called Le Frigo, which is accessible through a vintage refrigerator door. End the night in the Pâquis neighborhood, Geneva’s red light district that has seen a surge of cool bars and restaurants popping up with some regularity. Here, try Kampai for upscale Peruvian-meets-Japanese Nikkei cuisine accompanied by a mean yuzu-infused pisco sour.