Beyond Stereotypes

Story by Dee-Anne Wessel, photos by Mark Wessel

When I think of Switzerland, the first images that come to mind are ski resorts followed closely by watches, chocolate and fondue. But with Geneva and Zurich ranking in the top 10 cities in the world according to Mercer’s 2018 Quality of Living Survey I surmise that there must be much more to discover and my husband’s 60th birthday gives us the perfect opportunity to do so.

Geneva’s Best Kept Secret: Beautiful Lakeside City is a Nature Lover’s Haven

As we make our way from the train station to the heart of the city, we feel like we have stepped into a postcard with dazzling Lake Geneva (Lac Léman to locals) the largest Alpine lake in Europe stretching out before us. Our destination is the Grand Hotel Kempinski Geneva, a five star oasis located directly across from the lake. Our large and luxurious suite surpasses all expectations with its stunning view of the Jet d’Eau (Geneva’s iconic harbour fountain), Mont Blanc and the French Alps.

As tempting as it is to linger here, we are scheduled to meet local Julia Cuénod at Le Cottage Café, a charming restaurant with a leafy terrace overlooking a fountain that is tucked away in a small park with a view of the lake and mountains in the distance. Over colourful quinoa salads she tells us, “The city is famous for business, but it has a lot to offer for leisure including activities on the lake, biking, hiking, snowshoeing and of course skiing. The real Geneva is a bit of a secret, if you don’t make the effort to learn about the city you will miss a lot.”   

After lunch, we visit Geneva’s lovely Jardin Botanique. An excellent way to immerse yourself in nature, the garden is a living museum and home to more than 16,000 different species of plants stretching across 69 acres. The tranquil setting with winding paths, streams and countless areas to relax will make you forget that you are in the middle of a busy international city.

The next morning we meet local fisherman Balthazar Witzig for a fishing experience on Geneva Lake. I scan the crowd for a weathered sea captain and am surprised when a young clean shaven man with dark shoulder length hair offers his hand in introduction. Part way through our excursion the fact that the fish are not biting provides us with the perfect opportunity to confess that we are more interested in just going along for the ride. Quick to accommodate, our charismatic captain packs away our fishing gear and shares his vast local knowledge while pointing out important landmarks and mansions that dot the shoreline.                                                                                                               

We see the city from a whole different perspective when we cross the French border and take a cable car up Mont Salève. Affectionately referred to as “Geneva’s home mountain”, it offers breathtaking views of the surrounding Alps and the city below and is a playground for outdoor enthusiasts offering everything from mountain biking to paragliding. I assume we will be enjoying a casual mountain top lunch but am pleasantly surprised to discover that Le Panoramique Salève Restaurant serves up gourmet cuisine and a wide selection of wines as well as stunning views from its outdoor terrace.

We take the five minute ride back down the mountain and venture out to the small, rural village of Soral to experience another of Geneva’s best kept secrets – wine. Founded in 1930 and handed down for three generations, Cave des Chevalières cultivates 19 varieties of grapes. Winemaker Sébastien Dupraz takes a break from preparing the family’s meal to introduce us to his Chasselas, a quintessentially Swiss white wine which he refers to as “the wine of friends”.

A short walk down the road is another local gem, Père Jakob Brewery. The craft brewery founded by Stefan Jakob and Fabien Claret is located in a new agricultural warehouse in the middle of scenic farm fields. All the lager, stout, bitter and dark beers that are brewed here are organic, unfiltered and additive free with 95 per cent of the malt coming from Geneva. Today it is a virtual beehive of activity with all hands on deck preparing meat pies for the evening’s special celebration.

Zurich – Historic City Full of Hip Surprises

The next morning we take a two and a half hour train ride to Zurich. Upon arrival, our attention is drawn to the Alfred Escher Fountain which was created by Swiss sculptor Richard Kissling in 1889 to honour the Zurich politician and entrepreneur. Even more fascinating to us is the fact that the monument is one of more than 1,200 free public drinking fountains located every few metres across the city, most of which are also unique works of art.

Our home base here is the Marktgasse Hotel, one of Zurich’s oldest inns. The boutique hotel that is located right in the heart of Old Town and surrounded by winding lanes and centuries of history has undergone extensive renovations and features 39 rooms, two restaurants and a bar. We’re excited to explore this lively area which contains an eclectic mix of shops, restaurants, nightclubs and residential space.                                                                                                                                                                           

Two of our favourite discoveries are Ass-Bar, a tiny eatery that is filled with a selection of sandwiches and baked goods at reduced prices. If not for the proudly displayed motto “fresh from yesterday”, you would never guess that the tempting array consists of first quality “day olds” from a variety of well-known suppliers. A few stores down, Urban.Food.Store offers a wide selection of food and gift items including Swiss wines and spirits, regional cheeses (most notably a two-year old Gruyère which is exclusive to the store) and exquisite chocolates which are sourced from small local producers.

In direct contrast to historic Old Town is modern Zurich West a former industrial quarter that has been transformed into the city’s trendiest district. At Im Viadukt, shops, galleries and restaurants are now located beneath the arches of the railway viaduct that was built in 1894 and at its centre Markthalle is a market and meeting place where locals buy fresh produce, meat and fish. Overhead, one of the viaduct’s retired train lines has been converted into a path for cyclists and pedestrians. Down the road, Frau Gerolds Garten is another popular hangout where old shipping containers house two bars and a kitchen. On this sunny day, we enjoy a drink on a terrace overlooking the urban garden and adjacent railway tracks before visiting Freitag’s flagship store, a multi-level marvel made from 17 recycled shipping containers with a stunning rooftop view.

During our stay we are introduced to two on-trend dining experiences. The Artisan – Kitchen & Urban Garden is a lively neighbourhood restaurant overlooking a communal neighbourhood garden that serves delicious locally inspired cuisine and a wide selection of artisanal beverages. And Haus Hiltl is a chic and elegant restaurant whose biggest draw is its extensive buffet which offers more than 100 hot and cold vegetarian and vegan specialties from all over the world in addition to à la carte and take away service. Established in 1898, it also has the distinction of being the first vegetarian restaurant in the world according to Guinness World Records. Fourth generation owner Rolf Hiltl jokes that his family was well ahead of its time, “When the restaurant first opened, nobody wanted to eat vegetarian food. It wasn’t until I took over in the 1990s that it became trendy.” 

The next morning as my husband and I stroll hand-in-hand along the Limmat River mere hours before our departure, I am reluctant to leave… but at the same time grateful to have experienced two amazing cities whose diverse experiences have far surpassed my preconceived notions of them.

If You Go:

Geneva Tourism:

Zurich Tourism:

Switzerland Tourism: