A Guide To A Grey Day In Geneva’s Old Town

Geneva’s dirty, busy, tram ridden high-street reminds me of Manchester in a strange kind of way. But the old town is beautiful and charming, and the red light district dizzying and gritty, and a neon soaked reminder of Switzerland’s open sex laws, but also a great place for Thai food.

Our my last visit to Geneva I found a grey mono sky covering most of the mountains and descending at a rapid rate towards the cobbled paths of the old town. While walking, it became apparent that this kind of weather does absolutely nothing for the city – not like places such as York and Venice, whose streets find a new lease of life during darker times. No, the streets of Geneva lacked a certain vigour. The life seemed drained from them and the lake? A large pool of lifeless grey waters mimicking the sky above (though shades of its usual blue were there … hidden). Tired from a late night and an early morning I headed to the old town to grab a coffee in one of the prettiest cafes by the old carousel.

Once in the Vieille Ville I found dank stoney streets and a pleasant, and almost empty old town, complete with beautiful old squares, antique bookstores and a lovely cathedral whose façades show a history that spans some 850 years.

The cathedral sits at the highest point of the Old Town, it was built in the 12th century, and had various bits and pieces added later beginning in the 16th century. On a bluer day I would suggest climbing the 157 steps up the north tower to take in the incredible views of the city and the lake.

The Maison Tavel or Tavel House is  the oldest house in the city and dates back to the 12th century. In the 14th century, some of the walls were destroyed and led to the delightful castle-like restoration of high grey walls and a large round tower that can still be seen today. And though it was built and maintained by the Tavel family the house now belongs to the city of Geneva and currently houses a museum that explores the history of Geneva through a series of exhibits and installations.

The Old Arsenal with its original 17th century canons and three frescoes by Alexandre Cingria, depicting different periods in Geneva’s history is well worth a strooll, especially if the rain hits. The arsenal was originally a granary built in the 17th century and later used as a military storehouse up until 1877. There are five cannons exhibited under the archways – each of which were still in use well into the 19th century. The building now houses the Geneva State Archives.

The 15th century Geneva Town Hall, built between 1555 and 1578 by Peter Desfosses is in a quiet and beautiful little square. Wrapped around the exterior is a unique access ramp, which is said to have been built in such a way as to allow access to the building on both foot and horseback. This building also houses the Alabama Room, the very room where the first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864.

The streets of Geneva’s old town are laced with beautiful minor sights. The Librairie Ancienne Antiquités for example is a stunning antique bookshop with bookshelves built into its exterior façade, while plaques commemorating the likes of of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Jean Calvin are dotted throughout the city’s walls. 

There’s a large collection of old antique stores, libraries and galleries dotted around Geneva’s old town – many of them with signage as old as the shops themselves, some grand and others minimalistic to the point of obscurity but none the less beautiful.

If you look carefully as you make your way around Geneva’s old town you’ll note lots of beautiful, ornate and intricate embellishments on the city’s architecture – the doors are mostly grand and wooden, many have beautiful keyholes in extinct shapes and door knockers scultped to perfection.