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Outside the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. (©Genève Tourisme) Outside the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum. (©Genève Tourisme)
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If it's a toss-up between Geneva and the larger city of Zurich (and you have time for only one stopover), make it Geneva. Many patriotic French feel this French-speaking city of elegance and charm should belong in France. It does indeed sit on the doorstep of France. But in some respects Geneva is international, belonging to the world with its 250 international organizations based here, the most important being as the European headquarters for the United Nations, the World Health Organization, and the International Red Cross.

It's the most orderly and serene of all major European cities (or sterile in the view of those who'd like more local color, nightlife, and excitement).

Because of its ideological and geographic isolation from Switzerland, Geneva appears almost like one of those old European "city states." Locals used to burn books here by Rousseau until Voltaire arrived and set them straight. Those romantics Shelley and Byron came here seeking inspiration from the surrounding mountains, but Lenin failed to convert anyone to communism.

As one local and very wealthy lady told us, "Geneva is one of the few places on the planet I can walk around in my white sable without fear I'll be hit by a rotten tomato by an animal rights fanatic, or else have it stolen from me by some poor wretched down and out." She actually said that.

Geneva is located in the Rhône Valley at the southwestern corner of Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman, in French), between the Jura Mountains and the Alps. It's the capital of the canton of Geneva, the second-smallest canton in the Swiss Confederation.

Switzerland's second-largest city has an idyllic setting on one of the biggest alpine lakes and within view of the pinnacle of Mont Blanc. Filled with parks and promenades, the city becomes a virtual garden in summer. It's also one of the healthiest cities in the world thanks to prevailing north winds that blow away all air pollution.

Surrounded by French territory, Geneva is connected to Switzerland only by the lake and a narrow corridor. The city's strong French influence shows in its mansard roofs, iron balconies, sidewalk cafes, and French signs.

Did You Know?

  • Geneva didn't enter the Helvetic Confederation until as late as 1815.

  • Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in Geneva in 1712, and his archrival, Voltaire, lived here from 1755 to 1759.

  • During the Dark Ages, the kings of Burgundy made Geneva their capital.

  • John Calvin, the reformer, settled in Geneva in 1536, turning it into the "Rome of the Protestants."

  • Napoleon slept in the Old Town on May 9, 1800, and Geneva remained part of France until December 31, 1813.

  • Geneva's annual Escalade celebration still commemorates a victory over the duke of Savoy's troops in 1602.

  • Villa Montalegre in Cologny, outside Geneva, was the birthplace of the horror story Frankenstein.
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