In association with Switzerland Tourism
‘I’ve always dreamt of opening a steak house in Geneva,’ says Swiss chef Philippe Chevrier. ‘For me, this is the equivalent of the Parisian brasserie — a place of conviviality, exchanges, meetings in a warm atmosphere…’ Here at Chez Philippe, it certainly feels that way. It’s Monday lunchtime and the place is packed with people, all tucking into his juicy Swiss steaks.
Philippe was born and raised in Geneva and he still lives here, with his wife and family. However, his culinary influences are international, like the cuisine of his hometown. Geneva is a cosmopolitan city, with residents from all around the world — you can eat virtually any kind of food here. Apparently, it has more restaurants per capita than any other European city.
For lots of Britons, Geneva is just a business destination — but if you’re dropping in on business, it’s hard to get a flavour of the city. If you spend a few days with time to wander around, though, this mini-metropolis comes alive.
The first thing that hits you is its beautiful location. Geneva is on Lake Geneva — no surprises there, although this English title is actually a bit of a misnomer. Locals call it Lac Léman, and it is huge – one of the largest lakes in western Europe, 45 miles from end to end and eight miles wide. The ferries start from here, stopping at every port along the lake. If you have a Swiss travel pass, you can ride them all for free. Even the modern ferries are pretty, but some of these ports are served by exquisite belle epoque paddle steamers, at no extra charge.
If you’re here in summertime there are loads of places to swim in the lake, even in the city centre. Don’t miss the Bains des Pâquis, built on a breakwater that stretches right out into the lake, beneath the arc of Geneva’s iconic fountain, the Jet d’Eau. You can strip off in comfort in its art deco changing rooms, get a drink or grab a bite to eat, or treat yourself to a sauna, a hammam or a massage. The entrance fee is just two Swiss francs.
You can walk along the lakeside, but to take the city’s pulse you need to head inland. With its winding cobbled alleys, the Old Town is a lovely place to get lost in. If you prefer somewhere a bit more edgy, head for MAMCO, Geneva’s stark and striking modern art museum, housed in an old factory. The Musée International de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge charts the history of the Red Cross. It’s an inspiring story — traumatic yet uplifting.
My favourite part of town is Carouge, a short tram ride from the city centre. Built by Turinese architects in the 18th century, it’s an Italianate enclave in the heart of this Francophone city. During the 19th century it became a refuge from the austere Calvinism of old Geneva, and even though Geneva is no longer a religious city, Carouge still feels like a place apart. Its quaint streets are lined with little bars and cafes, boutique shops and cosy restaurants. Get off the tram at Place du Marché and simply follow your nose.
So, to finish where we began, what does Philippe Chevrier like best about his hometown? ‘Geneva is a small town with a great gastronomic offer,’ he says. ‘The diversity of cultures is reflected in the kitchen.’ Apprenticed at 15, he spent his first three months washing dishes. He now runs five restaurants in Geneva, including the Domaine de Châteauvieux, with its two Michelin stars, but the ambience here at Chez Philippe is refreshingly down-to-earth.
As I retrace my steps to the train station, I think of all the business travellers who fly in on an early flight for a day of boring meetings and then fly home again that evening. They don’t know what they’re missing.