Straddling the Franco-Swiss border is the laboratory of the European Council for Nuclear Research – better known as CERN – the world’s largest physics lab and a place that’s frequently in the news for the activity (or not, as the case may be) of its Large Hadron Collider. The unfathomable LHC is an accelerator which sends particles shooting round a 27km underground ring in the hope that some of them may hit each other and recreate the big bang (or something). For a better explanation and a guided visit of the lab’s facilities (though not, sadly of the LHC itself) book yourself onto a tour – but think ahead as English tours fill up months in advance. Near the main lab, visitors can also stop by a spherical building called The Globe of Science and Innovation, CERN’s outreach building which hosts a small free permanent exhibition helping you get your head around particle physics. Perhaps the most relatable exhibit here is the computer on which Sir Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web.
The Paul Amlehn statues above the entrance of Marc Camoletti’s palatial neo-classical pile of 1910 depicting painting, drawing, sculpture and architecture are barely half the story. In Geneva’s largest art museum, you’ll find everything from Mesopotamian artefacts to modernist masterpieces by way of ancient suits of armour, ornamental musical instruments, Coptic wall hangings and a colossal statue of Pharaoh Ramses II. A collection of more than half a million exhibits spans four floors and 15,000 years of history, inviting visitors to explore archaeology, applied arts and fine arts. Signposting could be better, especially for non-French-speakers, although limited audioguides and suggestions for themed tours are available on the way in. These are a handy way to ensure you catch the vast collection’s real highlights, representing everyone from Picasso to Monet to Rubens to homegrown master Giacometti, and the museum’s acknowledged centrepiece, Konrad Witz’ 1444 altar painting ‘The Miraculous Draught of Fishes’ which masterfully balances Italian and Flemish influences. Unusually for Geneva, entrance, apart from for temporary shows, is free.
Surprisingly small for a major religious centre (Lausanne’s is far bigger), Geneva’s cathedral was built during the 12th and 13th centuries in a combination of romanesque, gothic, and neoclassical styles. It later became a place of protestant worship during the Reformation, brought to Geneva by John Calvin. Explore the rather austere interior – but for an elaborately gilded 15th century chapel – and then climb the 157 steps of the north tower for great views over Geneva’s Old Town and beyond. Don’t miss the archaeological site beneath the cathedral, which contains the remains of previous churches on this site as well as pre-Christian remains dating back to the third century BC.
It’s worth playing the tourist and joining the sometimes long queues to visit this huge 1930s building which houses the European headquarters of the United Nations – the largest UN centre after New York. Over 100,000 people a year take an hour-long guided tour of the place (available in 15 languages, natch) which, depending on availability, provides a glimpse of the Assembly Hall, the Council Chamber and the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilisations Room with its incredible ceiling painted by Spanish artist Miguel Barcelò. Combine your visit with a trip to the Red Cross Museum, just up the road.
Don’t fight it: as possibly the most recognisable image of Geneva (you can even see it from the plane), it’s practically the law to get your photo taken in front of the city’s giant water fountain. Originally built as a pressure release valve for Geneva’s water supply, rather than for any aesthetic reason, the jet d’eau spurts 500 litres of water per second some 140m (459ft) into the air, before thundering back into Lake Geneva. You can get up close to the refreshing spray by walking the path to the fountain from the lake’s left bank. The jet really comes into its own during the city’s annual August fireworks display, when the colours are reflected and refracted in the spray. The fountain is occasionally switched off in high winds.
Known as Geneva’s local mountain, the Salève is actually just over the border in France. But the Genevois are justified in staking their claim, as this natural haven is just 20 minutes by bus from the city centre. It’s refreshing to slip out of Geneva’s money-focused commercial centre and head so easily into nature. From the cable car at Veyrier it’s a short ride up to 1,379m from where you’ll gape at the city and lake sprawled far below. A number of hiking paths meander over the mountain, including one which leads through the woods and on to an open meadow, the perfect spot for a picnic or snooze in the sun with a view of Mont Blanc. The mountain is popular with bikers and paragliders, while the less adventurous can content themselves with eating and drinking in several restaurants and cafés dotted around the hill.
It’s a fascinating and rather humbling experience to visit this museum, which documents the work of the Red Cross from the humanitarian vision outlined by founder Henry Dunant in 1863, through its work during so many conflicts and natural disasters since then. Completed renovated in 2013, the museum’s permanent exhibition, entitled The Humanitarian Adventure, divides the experience into three sections: the first deals with the agency’s founding principles; the second explores how the Red Cross helps families separated by war or genocide; and the third details its work during and after natural disasters. Using an audio guide is essential, as the exhibits are based around hugely affecting video interviews with 12 'witnesses' to the Red Cross's work – from child soldiers and genocide survivors to doctors, volunteers and journalists. The immense scale of the work involved is drummed home by the museum’s extraordinary collection of six million record cards containing the fate of prisoners of war during World War I.