Old Town, Geneva
Written by Jules Ritter Illustration by Marion Vitus
Geneva is a special place for local writer and blogger Jules Ritter, evoking memories of her first years living away from her home in England, and as the place where she met her Swiss husband. Here she takes us on a nostalgic tour of the old town.
The old town of Geneva is a labyrinth of cobbled streets, alleyways, historical sites, fountains, art galleries, antique shops, tearooms, and great places to eat. All of this nestled amongst the more serious, flag-bedecked government buildings. As a young, new arrival, I rented a tiny studio in Rue de la Cité. It was all so foreign, magical, and enthralling – and it still feels that way.
Having said that, there is nothing frivolous, pretty, or quaint about the old town of Geneva. There is a solemnity to the Swiss reflected in their architecture, and it is this purity and austerity that I love.
I start my tour at the foot of the old town at Place de la Madeleine. In the very cold winter months this is home to a charming and antique carousel. Here you are never far from the influence of Lake Geneva and the feel of life as one long holiday.
Restaurant Le Mortimer: Geneva is a university town, and this haunt for students is famous for its cheap but tasty ‘Petite Cuisine’. It has a lovely terrace lining the rampart wall in the summer.
The old Roman market square of Place du Bourg-de-Four is my favourite part of the old town. La Clémence is the café in Geneva to see and be seen. Here, the well-heeled dressed in fur and leather mingle with hoodie-clad students to sip hot chocolate or drink an apéritif on the year-round terrace.
Burgener Art Framers: The Burgener family have been selling original drawings and watercolours of Geneva for three generations, which make wonderful, original gifts.
Towering over the old town in the heart of the city lies St Peter’s Cathedral, Geneva’s most impressive architectural treasure. Buy a ticket for the tower and enjoy the best panoramic view of the city.
No tour of a Swiss city would be worth its cheese (!) without mention of a great place to eat fondue. I ate my first ever fondue in Les Armures. What I love about this eatery, apart from its wood-panelled interior, serious Swiss waiters, and starched-to-within-an-inch-of-their-lives white tablecloths, is their speciality: the tomato fondue. Eat it once and you will be a convert for life.
Take a look at the 1949 mosaics depicting major historical Geneva events behind the three cannons in front of the restaurant.
In 1602 a housewife spotted some of the Duke of Savoy’s troops attempting a surprise attack on Geneva by scaling the defensive walls with long ladders. Legend has it she ran for her largest pot, which happened to contain scalding hot vegetable soup, and beat them over the head with it. On or around December 12 every year the Escalade is celebrated with a torch-lit procession of medieval soldiers, drummers, and cavalry through the old town. Tearooms sell chocolate soup pots, ‘Les Marmites’, full of marzipan vegetables, to commemorate this event.