Perhaps since we’re only half-way through the year, the declaration of Geneva being my best trip of the year could be a tad premature. That said, for me this trip couldn’t have been more complete: I got to fill my gullet with copious amounts of wine and cheese, and to top it off, I was reunited with my best friend after two long years apart.
The last time I saw Andrea, at the Cordoba Patio Festival in 2015
A lot of travelers are wary of Switzerland, and with good reason. It’s freaking expensive! Being a budget traveler, this trip was made much more accessible because I was able to stay with a friend. That’s the great thing about living abroad and traveling – you end up with some hot ticket friends in cool places willing to put you up! Because I was able to stay with a semi-local (Andrea is working for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) for 6 months), I’ve got the inside scoop on how to enjoy the city for less. Get on Couchsurfing to save some accommodation dollars, because Geneva is amazing! Here’s why:
1. You can chill out at the lakeside spa
With Swiss prices sitting much higher than in most neighbouring countries, it’s easy to feel like a bit of a bum when in Geneva. However, even the budget traveler can treat himself to a day at Les Bains des Pâquis on Lake Geneva – 20 CHF in the winter (13 on Mondays) or 10 in the summer months. This price gives you access to 2 saunas, a Turkish bath, and 2 hammams (one of which is women-only). If you’re feeling brave, take a dip in the lake!
Warning: it’s a mixed bathhouse, so you
might will see some very naked men. If you’re squeamish about seeing stranger ding-a-lings, the baths offer a female-only day on Tuesdays.
Due to all the nude men, I couldn’t ethically take photos, but here is the lake where you can bathe.
Afterwards, if you can afford a little extravagance after a grueling day at the spa, indulge in a little cheese fondue. Is there anything better than melted cheese and bread? (Or potatoes if you’re gluten intolerant like my friend)? Yes, there is – pair it with chardonnay and you’ve got yourself an Instagram photo to be envied by all.
Bit pricey, but this is the best value in town – 23 CHF per person, and we splurged 35 CHF on the bottle of wine. Luxury comes at a price, but no regrets!
Beachside at les Bains de Paquis – Crack open your supermarket wine here and enjoy the sun!
2. Wine, glorious wine!
It was completely by accident that I found myself in Geneva for the 30th anniversary of Les Caves Ouvertes. About 90 vineyards in the Geneva region open their doors to the public for a wine tasting. It’s a great deal – you pay 10 CHF for a glass (that is yours to take home) and can sample as many varieties of wine as you desire. Rosé, pinot noir, merlot, chardonnay, cava… you name it! If you like a particular wine, they are available to purchase, but for the traveler paying his way on a non-Swiss salary it’s a fantastic way to sample Switzerland’s best wine for basically nothing. The villages are so picturesque, and there are even free shuttle buses to visit them all safely. This event only happens once a year in May, so book your trip accordingly!
3. All the bubbly cheesy goodness!
If you think the fondue should have been enough cheese, you are very very wrong. Nothing can satiate my desire for cheese! Feast your eyes on Switzerland’s most prized dish, raclette:
I’m pretty sure if you don’t have raclette while in Geneva, there’s a hefty fine you have to pay. Could be an urban legend, but I’m not taking any risks.
Do you think this would take up too much counter space?
Bubbly, toasty goodness!
Served with potato, pickles and pickled onions. Mmmmmm!
4. Picnic lunches are totally budget-friendly
Switzerland gets a bad rep for being pricey… and I’m not going to kid you, it deserves it. Even a falafel platter at the hole-in-the-wall Kebab will set you back around 20 francs (roughly 18 euros or 20 US dollars). However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the food in grocery stores isn’t insanely priced. Sure, it’s more expensive than its neighbour France, but you can make a decent meal for a reasonable price. Migros is one of the cheaper options, and a simple picnic-style lunch like the one pictured set us back about 15-20 francs between two people (minus the wine… I saw some wine on sale for 6 euros, but generally expect to pay at least 10 CHF for a decent bottle).
Picnic on the balcony: Hummus, olives, wine, cheese and veggies . What more could you wish for?
5. It’s home to the United Nations
It’s been four years since I graduated with a degree in International Studies, but the poli-sci student in me had a little bit of a freak out when I realized I would be granted access to the United Nations. Even if you consider yourself apolitical, I think the UN Palais des Nations is worth a visit. There aren’t many places where you can see such a mosaic of people from so many different places, many of whom are sporting the typical apparel of their country.
Entrance to the Palais des Nations
Through Andrea, I received a guest pass, but anyone can receive a one hour tour for 12 CHF. If you have a student card handy, you can get your ticket for 10 CHF. There’s a lot of gorgeous art to be admired, all donated by different member countries. This one particularly stood out to me:
A gift from Iran to the United Nations Human Rights Council
This painting was gifted to the Palais des Nations by Iran. The translation is haunting and humbling:
“Human beings are members of a whole in creation of one essence and one soul. If one member is afflicted with pain, other members uneasy will remain. If you have no sympathy for human pain, The name of human you cannot retain.” (Saad, Persian poet, 1210-1291)
Another attraction is the ceiling to the UNHRC conference room. It was designed by the Majorcan artist, Miquel Barceló, and imitates stalagmite rock formations and sea waves, merging two opposite worlds together. Each part is painted in different colours, so from wherever you stand you see the work from a different perspective. Barceló deems it a metaphor for our complex world. A gorgeous, yet terrifying piece, I couldn’t help but imagine that it also serves as a warning to delegates to be on their best behaviour, else a sharp rock formation should happen to fall…
6. Its history is so quirky!
Geneva’s historic buildings are quite unpretentious due to the Protestant Reformation that took place in the first half of the 16th century. Fancy, extravagant churches like those of Roman Catholics were rejected, and you can see a return to modesty in the architecture. Some houses in the old quarter don’t even have shutters to keep out the light because it was considered suspicious if people wanted privacy from they neighbours. For what was there to hide? To preserve this piece of history, new tenants still are unable to shield their windows.
A scene from the old quarter of Geneva
However, there are some fancier monuments to behold. The one that really impressed me was the Brunswick Monument that sits right on Lake Geneva. You would think that this Brunswick guy must have done something really effing great to merit this spectacular commemoration on such prime real estate, wouldn’t you? Well turns out, he was just some filthy rich Duke who had no family to bequeath his enormous fortune to when he died, so in 1862 he offered the city of Geneva what today would be worth 1 billion euros. His sole condition? That they build a big ass monument in his name. It’s got lions guarding it and everything. Damn.
The Brunswick Monument
And you know what’s even more hilarious? This custom of making a big donation with strange strings attached is fairly commonplace in Geneva! The final descendant of the Revilliod de Rive family donated his 46-acre park to the United Nations, but his catch was slightly more down-to-earth than Brunswick. The UN must ensure that his peacocks and their descendants are taken care of and able to roam freely on the grounds.
The Lord of the UN grounds
I learned all of these fun facts on the Heart of Geneva tour given by Free Walk tours. Our local guide, Alex, was really charismatic and knowledgeable. It’s a great way to see a lot of the city on the cheap (but c’mon, throw in a tip, they’re usually students).
7. I saw my best friend after two long years
Reunited with wine in hand!
The top reason why this trip was special to me was because I got to see my best friend, Andrea! This girl cannot stay in one place, and I’d get mad at her if she weren’t doing such great things. After completing a Masters in Peace Operations, Humanitarian Law and Conflict in Galway, Ireland, she’s been teaching English in Spain, giving gender equality workshops and helping women set up businesses through cooperatives in Rwanda, trying to free human rights defenders in Dublin… and finally working with the UN in Geneva. She’s a freaking superstar and I have no idea where she gets all the energy from . (She credits dark chocolate and chai tea, but I don’t buy it! 😉)
Really, Andrea, Geneva could have had a wine and cheese shortage, and I would have still had the best time. Thank you so much!
Have you reunited with a friend overseas? What are your tips for traveling in expensive countries?