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Swiss gold: How to see Geneva on a shoestring
United Nations of expensive? Not so much when you follow our footsteps round the great Swiss city
If you think you need to break into the underground vaults of a Swiss bank to enjoy yourself in Geneva, think again.
Sure, a city where couture-clad jet-setters tool around in luxury cars and shop in high-end boutiques, and which is consistently ranked among the most expensive in the world, might be off-putting to the less well-heeled among us.
But you don’t have to be Croesus to really get a feel for Geneva. Au contraire: simplicity is the name of the game here, and as these experiences suggest, there’s no banking secret involved.
On your bike
Your passe-partout to Geneva has two wheels.
With a rental bike (and a map), you’re free to explore the different neighborhoods on both sides of Lac Leman and beyond at your own pace.
And when you’re tired out, hot and sweaty, it’s fun to park your bike on the quay, walk up to the Jet D’Eau fountain and stand right under it.
There’s nothing like the spray from Geneva’s most iconic landmark to refresh and reinvigorate a tired biker.
At Genève Roule, bike rentals start as low as CHF18 (US$18.50) for a day and are available at numerous locations throughout Geneva.
Convenient for the lake is the branch at Arcades de Montbrillant; 17 Place de Montbrillant, 1201 Geneva; + 41 (0) 22-740 13 43; open from 8 a.m.-6 p.m. October 29-April 29 and 8 a.m.-9 p.m. during the rest of the year; www.geneveroule.ch
All-day, al fresco
The utilitarian facade of the ubiquitous Coop supermarket chain is your gateway to a cornucopia of some of the most affordable on-the-go food options -- croissants, baguettes, dried meats, cheeses and pastries.
The next step is to take it all outside for a picnic in one of Geneva’s tree-filled parks.
It’s almost always easy to find space on a bench or, weather permitting, on the grass in, say, the Parc Bertrand; one of the largest “espaces verts” (green spaces) on the Rive Gauche.
After that it’s time to watch the sun filter through the greenery of the summer trees and listen to the expensive shoes of the Genevois crunching through mounds of crisp fall leaves as they walk their dogs.
Dinner al fresco? No problem -- just don’t forget to add a bottle of red wine from Coop’s decent selection to your basket before heading toward the Parc La Grange.
Right across from the lake, it has the most extensive rose garden in Geneva (every June, there’s a contest for new specimens) and is the venue for free jazz concerts throughout the summer months.
Coop sells croissants for CHF1 a pop, baguettes for as low as CHF 1.90; www.coop.ch
Walk on the old side
Geneva’s Vieille Ville is an uphill-downhill maze of cobblestoned streets lined with art galleries and high-end boutiques, but a slow walk through won’t cost you a centime.
Once you’ve admired the architecture of the stone buildings, marveled at the solid wood of doors that date back centuries and stood on the steps of the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, from where the reformist leader Jean Calvin once delivered rousing sermons, you’ll be ready for a beer at La Clémence.
Generations of cigarette-smoking Genevese students, lawyers and intellectuals have hung out and continue to do so because of the great atmosphere and low prices -- beers start at just CHF4.
La Clémence, 20 Place du Bourg-de-Four, 1204 Geneva; +41 (0) 22 312 24 98; open every day 7 a.m.-1 a.m., Friday and Saturday 7 a.m.-2 a.m.; www.laclemence.ch
The other pedal power
So you don’t own a yacht. Never mind: Geneva’s Lac Léman can still be yours -- if you’re willing to sweat it out a bit.
Pedalos are probably the best and most fun way to get a real sense of the lake.
From April to September, you can make your own way around the blue waters at a sedate pace, waving at the chosen few on their boats and stopping when you want to admire the mountains in the distance and feel the sun on your face.
At Les Corsaires, one-hour pedalo rentals go for CHF20 for a group of two or four; 33 Quai Gustave Ador, 1207 Geneva; +41 (0) 22 735 43 00; open every day 10 a.m.-9.30 p.m.; www.lescorsaires.ch
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Plaine de Plainpalais
At the flea market on the Plaine de Plainpalais, you’re quite likely to see a woman with blue eye shadow and orange hair hawking a rack of polyester dresses.
That’s the spot to poke through boxes full of photos and books from another era, dig around for estate jewelry and maybe chance upon rare recordings of Edith Piaf before you grab a crepe from a food stand and people-watch.
Feeling brave? Perhaps try skateboarding at Geneva’s first official skate park at the far end of the Plaine, where many a young Swiss daredevil will be happy to give you a free lesson.
The flea market is on Wednesday and Saturday; 8 a.m.-6 p.m.
Hang out at Bain des Paquis
In the summer, this rocky lakeside “beach” is the place to be and you’re as likely to find a young banker perfecting her tan on a lunch break as you are to find a burnt-to-a-crisp sexagenarian just hanging out.
While winter swimming is becoming more popular, the Hammam, sauna and Turkish baths may be better options. Admission to the beach costs CHF2; kids under six are free.
The baths are also likely to work up your appetite for the Bain des Paquis’s cheese specials -- Fondue au Cremant.
Priced at CHF22 and laced with sparkling wine, it’s one of the city’s cheapest and most delicious fondues.
Bain des Paquis, 30 Quai du Mont Blanc, 1200 Geneva; +41 (0) 22 732 29 74; open September-April from Monday-Saturday 9 a.m.-9.30 p.m, Sunday 8 a.m.-9.30 p.m; May-August every day 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Book ahead for the fondue; www.aubp.ch
We all know it. Simply popping into any chocolaterie and inhaling that beautiful aroma as you choose from the dizzying array of truffles, pralines and pavés, is a treat.
Chocolate in all its avatars is an art form Geneva, but let your indulgence be Café Mortimer’s Fondant au Chocolat.
Cooked on the outside and molten on the inside, it’s a chocolate cake to die for and well worth the CHF8 you’ll pay for it.
Café Mortimer, 2 Place du Bourg de Four, 1204 Geneva; + 41 (0) 22 310 13 98; open Monday-Saturday 6 a.m.-midnight.
Geneva from above
On a fine day, a simple activity can be the best, even one that involves a quick hop abroad.
Many locals like to ride the public bus from the center of Geneva to the foothills of Mont Salève -- also known as “the Balcony of Geneva” -- in neighboring France.
There, they can hop a téléphériquecable car up to the top and look down for great photo ops of that ubiquitous Swiss fountain before hitting one of the Saleve’s numerous hiking trails; all free.
Check the local-transport website for all public-bus information; www.tpg.ch
The téléphérique cable car costs €10.80 (US$14) for a round-trip ticket; www.telepheriquedusaleve.com
For locals, as well as for visitors, a glass or two of wine are de rigueur at the end of the day, and they’re best enjoyed in a genuine Swiss Bar à Vin.
There are so many of these popular establishments across the city, it’s hard to go wrong, wherever you try.
Both Boulevard du Vin and Cottage Café are great options for either taking away a treat or sitting down to sip, respectively.
Glasses from a very reasonable CHF6.50 -- must-try: chilled Pinot Blanc from the vineyards around Geneva -- and bottles from CHF20 or so make the drinks that much sweeter.
Warm hosts and those notoriously friendly and international Swiss only make it that much harder to leave.
Boulevard du Vin, 3 Boulevard Georges-Favon, 1204 Geneva; +41 (0) 22 310 91 90; open Monday-Friday 11 a.m.-11 p.m.; www.boulevard-du-vin.ch
Cottage Café, Rue Adhémar-Fabri, 1201 Geneva; +41 (0) 22 731 60 16; open Monday-Friday 7:15 a.m.-midnight, Saturday 10 a.m.-midnight; www.cottagecafe.ch