“Gevena? That’s an unconventional choice!” joked more than one of my friends on Facebook when I announced where I was going for a weekend break.
Unwittingly (OK, maybe with a bit of wit), they encapsulated precisely the challenge, from a tourism point of view, the Swiss city is facing.
Thanks to its reputation as a centre for international business and politics, the home of the Geneva Convention is thought of as a place for work, not pleasure – a misconception I feel very smug about as I look out over acres of majestic countryside in the Canton of Valais, the peaks of the French Alps nestled in the horizon like the top of an icecream.
In truth, Geneva is one of the most relaxing and attractive places for a weekend break (or an extended business trip) near to London, less than two hours from all the major airports.
The fact so few people have realised that is, for now, part of the attraction. Arriving at nearly one in the morning, famished after a delayed flight, I walked into a bar near my hotel (the uber trendy and highly recommended Hotel N'vY) and asked, in almost non-existent French, for a beer and the food menu.
When the cheerful barman told me food was finished I slumped in defeat, only for him to return five minutes later with a plate of ham, cheese and bread (all delicious), plonked down in front of me with a smile. He wouldn’t take a penny. In more popular European cities, saturated with Brits on tour, it's far harder to find examples of such good will.
Geneva sits alongside the mouth of the Rhône, one of the major rivers of Europe, with water so remarkably clear water you can swim in it if you like (most un-Thames like). The docks, populated by dozens of surprisingly modest boats, is lined with laid back outdoor bars when you can enjoy simple but strong cocktails and take in the view of the distant mountains. A regular boat journey – almost comically short – transports passengers from one side of the river to other, past the Jet d'Eau (picture above), Geneva’s giant water spout and, since 2003, its ever-flowing landmark.
Dinner options, incidentally, are great. We ate at Cottage Café, an wonderful open air tapas restaurant sat in a small Gothic plaza near the South side of the Rhône. Nicole Boder and her team reopened the vacant cafe in 2008 and transformed it into one of the hottest tables in town, where the focus is on fresh seafood (and more great cheese). If you ask for anything, make it the octopus.
But Geneva’s real secret weapon is her vineyards. Wait, don’t laugh, I’m serious. The reason we don’t think of Switzerland as a wine country is that production is so small – 200 growers share just 800 hectares – there is barely enough to export. The small amount they do make the Swiss quaff at home, thanks very much, making it one of the best-kept secrets in the industry.
Each year in May, the small family producers dotted around the stunning countryside that surrounds the city participate in a tasting weekend called Open Cellars. Starting early in the morning, locals travel (usually by bicycle) from vineyard to vineyard clutching their sampling glass. Alongside cheerful Pinot noirs and Merlot (and a particularly enjoyable local white called Chasselas), they gorge on plates of thick cut salami, bread and (you guessed it) cheese. The views along the way are, in the manner of Bordeaux or Tuscany, breathtaking.
Geneva has made some innovative steps in recent years to attract visitors with suitcases, not briefcases in their hand. There's the Jet To Geneva campaign, a series of challenges and competitions (including one to turn on the Jet d'Eau) that runs. And thanks to a massive subsidy by the tourist board, each visitor is greeted on arrival at Geneva Airport with a free travel card that lasts a few hours, getting them to wherever they are staying and eliminating one of the more frustrating aspects of arriving in a new city.
It’s an understated and clever gesture (try and imagine TFL doing the same), underlining why right now is such a great time to visit the city for a short holiday or romantic break. Geneva wants you to enjoy its unheralded beauty and sample its underrated wine, but it’s by no means desperate for you to stop by.
This article originally appeared on Esquire in 2014.