First impressions influence perceptions, but even a short stay can give a sense of a place. During our stopover, we gained a brief feel for the city—and a delicious meal—without completely breaking the (Swiss) bank.

What can you do in a single evening in Geneva? I wondered how much we would learn about this place in just a few hours. My hope was to discover the vibe, sights, and flavors of this French-speaking Swiss culture.

Switzerland is generally not budget-friendly. On the other hand, it’s very scenic, clean, safe, well-maintained, and orderly, with a timely, well-connected, above-ground rail system. After all, this country is known for watchmaking, banking, and jewelry—not to mention, fine cheese and chocolate.

We were just passing through, only long enough for a taste. On our way to Italy with our two teenage boys, Aaron and I stayed overnight in Geneva, located in the far-western finger of Switzerland, before continuing our rail journey through the Alps.

Our quieter Swiss experience was greatly contrasted by our lively Spanish experiences that week in Barcelona, and before that in València.

It had been a long day.

Several trains out of Barcelona had been canceled that morning due to Catalonian political unrest. Our early train bound for Montpellier, France was among them. The woman at the help desk in Barcelona Sants kindly assured us we could get on the next train to make our connection, presenting us with handwritten tickets.

The generic passes were so unofficial, I was prepared to be questioned by authorities about whether they were legitimate, or perhaps we wrote them ourselves. But they weren’t bothered by the informality and clearly understood the situation. And our seats were equally convenient, so all was relatively well.

Luckily, I had built in a couple extra hours to explore Montpellier before catching our next train to our final connection in Lyon (beautiful, but recently visited, so not part this trip). Someday I’d like to return to Montpellier, since we didn’t have time to see the more picturesque areas beyond Gare de Montpellier Saint-Roch.

In the end, however, we were just thankful to make both our TGV (high-speed French train) connections. Our train climbed the tracks from Lyon along views of vertical cliffs in the mountains. Then, as planned, our train pulled into Gare de Genève in the early evening.

We finally arrived.

Though the rain had increased during our ascent into the mountains in France, once at the station, the showers subsided for our evening in Geneva.

Outside the station and bottleneck of customs in this non-EU country—which also keeps foreign policy neutrality, hosts UN peacemaking, and uses its own currency, the Swiss Franc—the city seemed alive as traffic buzzed through the streets.

The air was crisp, but not cold. Birds filled the sky in a show of twisting black ribbon patterns during our short walk to Hôtel Montana, our affordable, yet well-appointed, accommodations among more luxurious options on the newer right bank, Rive Droite.

We quickly checked into our spacious, updated room, but immediately took off on foot to explore. Daylight waned at the end of the workweek.

Though vehicle-traffic filled the streets, foot-traffic was very light. I’d attribute the quiet sidewalks to the damp weather, though this doesn’t seem to deter people in other wet cities. And as a native of Portland, Oregon, light rain didn’t stop us from enjoying the outdoors. Besides, it was now dry out.

Parks and monuments surround Lake Geneva.

Past the Brunswick Monument in Jardin des Alpes was La Rade (“the Harbor”). On the other side, Jet d’Eau, the city’s most iconic sight, shot into the air. Originally a smaller water spout that resulted when pressure was released from a jewelry machinery pipe valve, today the 145-meter-high water jet creates a cool, and very grand, fountain feature.

At the westernmost tip of Lake Geneva—one of the largest European fresh-water lakes, called Lac Léman by French-speaking locals—we crossed Pont du Mont-Blanc at the upper point of the Rhône. This river flows for over 500 miles. Glacial headwaters from the Alps above feed the waterway flowing into and through the lake, continuing beyond this bridge, down the mountains, through Lyon in the Rhone Valley below, running south through Arles, and finally spilling into the Mediterranean Sea.

The city seemed to empty as traffic crossed the bridge en masse at the end of a workweek. We became curious if anyone actually lived in the center.

Across the bridge on the Rive Gauche, we walked through Jardin Anglais, the waterfront park on this older left bank. Past the national monument, we came to the pristinely manicured flower clock, l’Horloge Fleurie, of which I quickly snapped a photo between posing tourists. Looking around, however, there were certainly no peddlers selling trinkets here, like in other touristy European cities.

We came to a quiet, storybook village.

In the center of La Place at Temple de la Madeleine sat an exquisite little carrousel like a bejeweled music box magically turned life-size. This was Friday night, but the historic center seemed buttoned up.

Continuing up the cobbled street of Haute-ville (upper city)—the hill of the medieval and Renaissance center—past Place du Bourg-de-Four and several delicious looking restaurants, we came to Cathédrale Saint-Pierre Genève topped by a lovely oxidized copper spire. A Neoclassical portico entrance in Cour de Saint-Pierre had replaced its old medieval facade in the 18th century.

The setting was out of a fairytale, but seemed void of many characters. As opposed to the energetic Spanish streets we had just left, here everything was quiet—and peaceful. The gray skies and warmly lit streets created a cozy appearance.

Fondue seemed obligatory.

I had in mind a traditional Swiss restaurant for dinner. Scanning menus from several options along our old town walk, it became evident that a basic meal in Geneva wouldn’t come cheaply. In addition, the relatively empty streets were deceiving; we hadn’t realized the importance of dinner reservations.

It was still relatively early in the evening, especially compared to our late Spanish dinners, but already restaurants were filling. After spending too much time trying to find something affordable, options dwindled. We doubled back to my first choice.

Reservations were clearly expected—and probably necessary. So without them I used my best conjured French in an attempt to charm le monsieur for a table at Les Armures, a quaint hotel restaurant set in a 17th-century building. After graciously trying, he apologized for being unable to squeeze four of us inside their cozy space. Merci, quand même.

I tried again around the corner at Hôtel-de-Ville where I was luckier. The maitre-d’ ushered us through a corridor in back and upstairs to a table in a vacant room next to a lovely window overlooking the artillery museum colonnade.

Though charming enough, this was clearly overflow space for naughty patrons who lacked reservations. We were left there to be amused by our quirky waiter engaged in an ongoing conversation with himself.

The food was really good, but nothing extravagant. Our shared salad and fondue—a wonderful, though simple, pot of bubbling cheese served with bread—with one glass of a delicious Rhône valley wine, and one crock each of lasagne and onion soup, cost us around 125 Swiss Francs (nearly $130). The ingredients used in our dishes were fresh and well-prepared.

Fondue moitié-moitié (half-and-half) uses two kinds of excellent cheese, Gruyère and Vacherin, and is served with a basket of sliced baguette. At an additional cost, we could have ordered it with mushrooms, boiled potatoes, or air-dried beef slices. Crisp baby lettuce and herbs in our Salade Genevoise were topped with caramelized lardons, croutons, and a soft-boiled egg. If not not cheap, the modest meal was at least quality.

Our time was limited.

It would have been nice to get to know the culture of the people who live in Geneva. As the second largest Swiss city, apparently only one-third of the population is native Genevoise, another third is from elsewhere in Switzerland, and the remaining third is foreign.

Perhaps more people stroll the streets in warmer months. Or perhaps they just prefer to drive like in the US—though it seems a shame not to experience the beauty of the city on foot.

The charming streets of the historic center were even quieter as we left the restaurant that night. Our path was bathed in warm lighting like a page out of a storybook.

Back at the lake, neon lights reflected off the rippling water. Retailers like Rolex, Hermès, Versace, Gucci, and Chanel lined the waterfront avenues. Among other luxury hotels, the Ritz and the Fairmont overlooked the lake on the opposite bank, down the street from our own.

Making our way back to the hotel, we found a chocolatier still open and stocked up on creamy, dark Swiss chocolate. Having gained a taste of Geneva—high-quality cheese and velvety dark chocolate, unspoiled facades and high-end industry, antiquity juxtaposed by modernity—we felt ready to catch our train through the Alps early the next morning.

After a comfortable night’s sleep, we awoke to a full (and included) breakfast spread in the dining room, complete with sous-vide eggs, lox and bagels, ham and cheese, and a juice and espresso bar. We fueled up and headed out in the rain.

As we walked back to the station for the next leg of our journey through Switzerland into Italy, we felt confident that our train would be punctual.

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