Beyond the Cliché: 48 Hours in Geneva

A fondue-free weekend guide to exploring Switzerland’s glacial lakeside city.  
Beyond the Cliché: 48 Hours in Geneva 9
Swiss artist Daniel Berset's "Broken Chair" was installed in August 1997 as an appeal to countries to sign a treaty for the banning of landmines. Photo by: Inna Felker/shutterstock

It’s taken me three trips over a decade, almost half a year’s savings converted into Swiss Francs and a whole host of local and expat friends to unearth the under-the-radar Genève. Because far from the crowds and clichés of the posh tourist mainstays—starring the super-rich, Michelin-star eateries, chic boutiques, artisanal chocolatiers, luxury watch museums, flashy convertibles and seriously rude waitstaff—lies a colourfully warm and real, slightly bohemian side to Switzerland’s second most expensive city.

Apart from tiny secrets I’ve shared in this fondue-free weekend guide, here are a few more gems imparted by the locals: It’s not Lake Geneva, it’s Lac Lèman. Only tourists call it Lake Geneva. Some buildings and landlords won’t let you use the loo after 10 p.m., so remember to read your accommodation rules carefully. Marijuana was legalised, sans any fanfare, earlier this year. And finally, natives like to lunch on filets de perches (perch fillets), served fried, à la meunière or in a light white wine sauce; not cheese and chocolate.

Day 1 – Saturday

9 A.M. Cook and Make Friends 

While volunteering and Switzerland aren’t words that any traveller would ever think to string together, you should start Saturday with self-introductions to a small slice of Geneva’s English-speaking community at Feed the Needy soup kitchen. Your mission for the morning is to cook lunch for the underprivileged, along with 10 to 20 expats, students and residents. You’ll be assisting finance and debt specialist-by-week and chef-by-weekend, James Hall to shop for and prepare a meal of rice and chilli con carne (a hearty meat stew made with chilli peppers, tomatoes and beans). You will also help prepare a healthy coleslaw and fruit salad for the 150-200 homeless folk who regularly eat at the refurbished old eatery, on every third Saturday of the month. But before that, a word of caution for spice lovers from coordinator Rohan Oberoi: “This crowd tends to get very vocal when the curry is too spicy so we won’t entertain any chilli-crazy helpers.”

(www.glocals.com; join the Geneva Volunteering Group to sign up. Feed the Needy is open to public.)

 

12.30 P.M. Lunch Like A Local, Read For Less 

Photo by: Denisfilm/istock

Photo by: Denisfilm/istock

After an indoor morning, it’s time to soak yourself in the sun with an al fresco lunch. Food, like everything else in Geneva is expensive, so remember to pull a local and ask the garçon for a plat du jour (day’s special), during the week. On weekends, opt for a portable picnic lunch from Geneva’s best bakery, Boulangerie des Bains or their annex in Old Town called Pierre & Jean run by an award-winning, baker-pastry chef duo, Pierre-Alain and Jean-Claude. I dare you to steer clear of their signature breads (notably, the olive or fig-and-walnut), artisanal Viennese pastries, jams (take home the Fruits de Bois, which won Gold at the Swiss Bakery Trophy) and head for the freshly baked goods and sandwiches, instead. So will that be a curried chicken sandwich or ham quiche with those brownies, éclairs and strawberry passion mousse?

(www.boulangeriedesbains.ch; open Mon-Fri 4.30 a.m.-6.30 p.m., Sat 2 a.m.-1.30 p.m.; CHF30/Rs 2,000 for two.)

 

3 P.M. Calling Comic Connoisseurs  

Photo Courtesy: Papier Gras Facebook Page

Photo Courtesy: Papier Gras Facebook Page

Fans of Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Will Eisner, Stan Lee, Dave Gibbons, Jean Giraud and Osamu Tezuka can pour in and talk in hushed whispers over the works of their favourite comic creators at Roland Margueron’s unusual, semi-circular, gallery-cum-comic book store, Papier Gras. Here, the comic king of Geneva supplies the populace and tourists all the classics, with a spectacular view of the Rhône no less. He also doubles the 30-year-old ambi-dextrous space as an art gallery. It is well known for openings, exhibitions, discussions, readings and performances based on the “ninth art.”

(www.papiers-gras.com; open Mon-Fri noon-7 p.m., Sat 10.30 a.m.-5.30 p.m.; free entry.)

 

5 P.M. Go Crate Diggin’

Photo Courtesy: Bongo Joe Records

Photo Courtesy: Bongo Joe Records

To take a step back into the 1970s, head to the best-kept secret in Augustins’ neighbourhoods, Bongo Joe Records. Locals usually meet here to flip through vintage LPs (33t-45t), cassettes, CDs and books on sale, and grab an in-store show, while sipping local Genevian craft beer. Manned by Cyril Yeterian, Geneva’s grooviest LP shop, which is also an independent record label, holds only a handful of tables, a tiny chalkboard menu of hot and cold drinks and an extensive vinyl collection spanning folk, blues, soul, funk, rock, garage, psych, world, country, disco, jazz and Latin. Your hunt for the hippest place to start an early apéro hour ends here.

(www.bongojoe.ch; open Tue-Sat 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; entry free.)

 

Photo Courtesy: Chez Henri

Photo Courtesy: Chez Henri

8 P.M. Slurps Up

Reserve the evening for farm fresh oysters at a backroom bar called Chez Henri. The chic, speakeasy-style spot, which is tucked inside the trendy Hamburger Foundation, offers up cool green-and-white interiors finished with tall, copper tabletops. Start with freshly shucked, seasonal molluscs—sourced daily from the family farm in Brittany— before sampling the smoked salmon and sardines paired with bespoke wines.

(www.chezhenri.ch; open Tue, Wed and Sat noon-2 p.m. and 6 p.m.-11.30 p.m., Thu-Fri noon-2 p.m. and 6 p.m.-midnight; CHF60/Rs 4,000 for two.)

 

10 P.M. Let the Music Play

Photo Courtesy: La Graviere

Photo Courtesy: La Graviere

A decade ago, music in Geneva meant mainstream hits, jazz, classical and the occasional live concert. Only of late, the posh banking and diplomacy hub seems to be morphing into an alternative music Mecca, with something for everyone. For local and metal acts, head to the slightly underground, L’Ecurie or The Stables. Then check out Geneva’s hottest nocturnal destination, Village du Soir. Located inside a warehouse, this literal “evening village” packs three terraces and stages, one distillery, eight bars, one night club, one deli converted into a musical bar and a few food trucks. Although, my personal favourite is
La Gravière, which is home to music programming that spans funk, rock, techno, hip-hop, house, black metal, post rock, tropical grooves, disco folk, Balkan beats and electro swing. It’s slated to close in 2018—to make way for a police station—so make sure you find your way to the former Firmenich petrochemical store for at least one set before that.

(L’Ecurie www.lecurie.ch; open Tue-Thu 4 p.m.-midnight, Fri-Sat 6 p.m.-2 a.m., Sun 6 p.m.-midnight; entry free; Village du Soir www.villagedusoir.com; open Thur 6 p.m.-3 a.m., Fri-Sat 8 p.m.-5 a.m.; free entry before 11 p.m.; La Gravière www.lagraviere.ch; open Fri-Sat noon-6 a.m.; CHF8-12/Rs 700.)

 

Day 2 – Sunday

Photo by: Ingolf Pompe/Dinodia photo library

Photo by: Ingolf Pompe/Dinodia photo library

9 A.M. Offer Sun Salutations

To spend Sunday like a native head to Geneva’s pier-esque public baths, Bain de Pâquis. This dramatic, old-school beach park dates back to 1890 and extends to the middle of Lac Léman’s glacial waters. Slow risers can swim, sunbathe and sauna while eager beavers can leap off a 32-foot-high dive platform or rent a motorboat, sans license (www.bateau-location.ch). Once you’ve worked up an appetite, breakfast—at the attached La Buvette des Bains—with a full spread of freshly pressed juices, handmade bread, bircher muesli or a fruit salad, and a hot drink.

(www.bains-des-paquis.ch; open daily 7 a.m.-11 p.m.; adults CHF2/Rs 134, children CHF1/Rs 62.)

 

11.30 A.M. Foraging For Food

Photo by: Elisabeth Mes/Alamy/India Picture

Photo by: Elisabeth Mes/Alamy/India Picture

One of the rare exceptions to the sleepy Sunday rule that seems to blanket the Genevois is Marché de

Plainpalais. The weekly market for farm fresh fruits and vegetables, flowers, furniture, trinkets and crockery is held at plaine de Plainpalais every Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. My selection of curious market finds include organic heirloom produce, lavender, ginger and apple syrups, plus food trucks plating up snacks from around the world. Look out for the rotisserie chicken van, alongside Swiss cheesemongers, rows of olives, dried fruit and spice stands.
(Plaine de Plainpalais, 1205 Geneva; open Sun, Tue & Fri, 8.30 a.m.-6.15 p.m.)

 

5 P.M. Tea Time With Sean Connery 

Ceilings draped in ornate purple silks, muted classical music, antique chandeliers and candelabras throwing mood lighting, overstuffed chaise lounge chairs and a mish-mash of vintage crockery—welcome to madame Véronique Cadot’s La Vouivre or Geneva’s most eclectic tea room. This small, baroque-themed shop is the quirkiest spot for an afternoon pick-me-up packed with warm pains au chocolat, freshly baked plum crumble, Swiss-style savoury ramekins with cheese, Viennese coffee and cold pressed juices. All this, with the esteemed Sean Connery for company, or more correctly, his gilded, mirror mounted 007-days portrait.

(www.tearoomlavouivre.ch; open Tue-Fri 7.07 a.m.-6.33 p.m., Sat 7.33 a.m.-6.33 p.m., Sun 8.01 a.m.-6.11 p.m.; 30CHF/Rs 2,000 for two.)

 

8 P.M. Explore The Alternative

Photo Courtesy: Cinema Spoutnik

Photo Courtesy: Cinema Spoutnik

Cinema Spoutnik is an experimental movie theatre space that is part-cinema hall, part-living room and part-bar. Located in a former gold-roughing factory, next to the Rhône in the Jonction district, this anti-mainstream projection room—along with the Theater of the Usine, space Forde, the multi-purpose Zoo and the KAB and Post Tenebras Rock (PTR ) concert halls—makes up a self-managed mixed cultural centre, and l’usine or factory. Midnight movie screenings, check. Showcasing different format (Super-8, 16mm, 35mm, video) and length films, check. Outdoor sessions in unusual places such as a swimming pool, a garage and a particle accelerator, check.

(www.spoutnik.info; open daily; tickets from CHF12/Rs 800.)

 

Till 2 A.M. Midnight Munchies 

Photo by: Peter Forsberg/Alamy/India Picture

Photo by: Peter Forsberg/Alamy/India Picture

In the food business, location is everything. So, while there is no dearth of kebab pushers in Geneva’s trendy Pâquis district, Hussein Jouni’s late-night Lebanese institution, Parfums de Beyrouth, is the longest reigning king. Ask any resident, diplomat or financier, where they go for their midnight fix and just about every clique will start by calling out their Jouni favourites. My suggestion? Start with a assiette mixte or mixed Lebanese plate, which comes piled high with falafel, hummus, labneh, salad, plus lamb and chicken. End with ashare-a-chawarma (shawarma). It comes stuffed with slow-spitroasted spiced lamb or chicken shavings and is topped with shredded lettuce, tomatoes, onions, pickled radish, tahini and a super-secret garlic sauce.

(parfums-de-beyrouth.business.site; open Sun-Thur 11 a.m.-2 a.m., Fri and Sat 11 a.m.-6 a.m.; CHF30/Rs 2,000 meal for two.)

  • Jharna Thakkar is a hospitality, travel and lifestyle writer. A trained chef, she has written for publications like the Hindustan Times, Condé Nast Traveller, Time Out and Mumbai Mirror. Currently, she portions her time into freelance writing, cooking Goa sausages and pickling seasonal vegetables.

Psst. Want a weekly dose of travel inspiration in your inbox?