Architectural Jewels, Geneva

Architectural Jewels (Self Guided), Geneva

Geneva has always been popular with tourists, drawn here, amid the variety of other attractions, by local architecture. The remarkable medieval and more contemporary buildings – Hotel de Ville, Cathedrale de St-Pierre, Schtroumph Buildings, and more – showing a mix of French and German influences, are fit to fascinate everyone. If you're interested in learning more about these and other architectural marvels of Geneva, take this self-guided walking tour.
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Architectural Jewels Map

Guide Name: Architectural Jewels
Guide Location: Switzerland » Geneva (See other walking tours in Geneva)
Guide Type: Self-guided Walking Tour (Sightseeing)
# of Attractions: 8
Tour Duration: 2 Hour(s)
Travel Distance: 2.6 Km or 1.6 Miles
Author: john
Sight(s) Featured in This Guide:
  • Hôtel de Ville (Geneva Town Hall)
  • Old Arsenal (Ancien Arsenal)
  • Maison Tavel House Museum
  • Cathédrale de St. Pierre (St. Pierre Cathedral)
  • Murs des Réformateurs (Reformation Wall)
  • Grand-Théâter
  • Tour de l'Ile
  • Schtroumph Buildings
Hôtel de Ville (Geneva Town Hall)

1) Hôtel de Ville (Geneva Town Hall)

For over 500 years, Geneva’s Town Hall has been at the heart of local and even international political life. As the seat of the government of the Canton and the Republic of Geneva, this place has witnessed a number of events of great historic importance.

In 1864, the building’s Alabama Room saw the signing of the very first Geneva Convention, the founding act of the International Red Cross. Also, in 1872 it was here that the international arbitration court ended a long-standing conflict between the United States of America and Great Britain.

The 16th century building boasts three stories of neoclassical design, with a large courtyard and a huge paved ramp. The ramp is a unique cobbled spiral staircase built between 1555 and 1578 enclosed within a square tower, allowing direct access to the upper floors on horseback. Today, visitors can walk up in their forefathers' “hoof-steps” only on foot!
Old Arsenal (Ancien Arsenal)

2) Old Arsenal (Ancien Arsenal)

The Old Arsenal (French: Ancien Arsenal) is a former militarily installation in the heart of Geneva's Old Town, located just a stone's throw from the Town Hall. Back in the day, it was used for storing arms and gun powder, but today serves a more peaceful function, housing the State Archives.

The building’s architecture, resembling a fortified mansion with five cannons set to defend the city against the attackers, recalls Geneva's distant warlike past. Under the Romans, this site was an open-air market, and was covered only in the early 15th century. In 1588, arcades were added, upon which a granary was built that was eventually transformed into a military depot, between 1720 and 1877.

Presently, underneath these arcades is a compact artillery museum with a collection of five period cannons, similar to those used to defend ramparts of the city, plus three colorful, battle-themed mosaics depicting key periods in the local history, namely: the arrival of Julius Caesar in 58 BC; the Fairs of the Middle Ages; and the reception of Huguenot refugees after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

Also, each year on December 11 or the closest weekend, visitors to the Old Arsenal can treat themselves to some vegetable soup served here in commemorative bowls during the historic Escalade festival, celebrating the ill-fated attempt to conquer the Protestant city of Geneva by the Catholic Duchy of Savoy in 1602-1603.
Maison Tavel House Museum

3) Maison Tavel House Museum

A unique testimony to medieval architecture in Switzerland, the Maison Tavel (Tavel House) is a listed historic building, one of the oldest in Geneva. The house was built in the 12th century by the Tavels, a noble Genevan family, hence the name. In 1334, it was reconstructed following a devastating fire, upon which it received an urban palace appearance. Having changed hands several times over the course of centuries between various influential local families, the house was finally acquired in 1963 by the City of Geneva, which undertook its thorough and exemplary restoration. In 1986, the property was turned into a museum of history of Geneva set to illustrate the city's urban development and various aspects of its daily life throughout centuries.

The exhibits – artifacts and historical objects focusing mostly on Geneva's medieval period – are spread over six floors and an underground section. In front of the museum there is a line of huge canons. The highlight of the exhibition, on the top floor, is a multimedia presentation on screen and a huge 3D map of Geneva outlining the city's history from the early days through the modern times, called "Geneva, history made-to-measure", with an audio provided in English, French, and German.

On the ground floor there is a reception desk. Free Wi-Fi is available throughout the building. Toilets and cloakroom, resembling a cave, are in the basement. There is also an exposition of historical measurements and machine weights, as well as an impressive 6,300-liter wooden barrel.

Operation hours: Tuesday - Sunday: 11 am - 6 pm.
Cathédrale de St. Pierre (St. Pierre Cathedral)

4) Cathédrale de St. Pierre (St. Pierre Cathedral) (must see)

The St. Pierre Cathedral is probably one of the best-known religious sights in Geneva. Originally built as a Roman Catholic cathedral, St. Pierre became a Reformed Protestant Church during the Reformation, and was actively used by the reformists for their daily sermons. It is known as the adopted home church of John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation; inside there is a wooden chair he used.

The history of this church, however, goes back to the 12th century, hence the mix of Roman, Gothic and Neoclassical architecture. Although there had been a cathedral on this site since the fourth century, the present building was begun under Arducius de Faucigny, the prince-bishop of the Diocese of Geneva, around 1160. The interior of the large, cruciform, late-Gothic church was stripped of its rood screen, side chapels and all decorative works of art, leaving a vast, white-washed interior contrasting sharply with the interior of a typical Roman Catholic Church.

A Neo-Classical main façade was added in the 18th century. In the 1890s, Genevans redecorated a large, side chapel adjacent to the cathedral's main doors in polychrome, Gothic revival style. In 1444, German artist Konrad Witz painted here the so-called “Miraculous Draught of Fishes”, which is now held in the Museum of History in Geneva.

Each summer there are bilingual services held in the cathedral for both German and French speaking worshipers.

Inside, you can find an exquisite little chapel with astonishing carved figures and a beautiful organ - Chapel of the Maccabees.
Underneath the cathedral there is an interesting archaeological site.

Opening Hours:
Mon-Sat: 10am-5:30pm; Sun: 12pm-5:30pm (Oct-May); Mon-Sat: 9am-6:30pm; Sun: 12pm-6:30pm; carillon concert: 5pm; organ concert: 6pm (Jun-Sep)
Free admission. Last entry to the tower: half an hour before Cathedral's closing time.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Murs des Réformateurs (Reformation Wall)

5) Murs des Réformateurs (Reformation Wall) (must see)

The International Monument to the Reformation, usually known as the Reformation Wall, pays tribute to the key figures of the reformist movement, and is regarded somewhat as a religious site since it depicts important periods in the evolution of the movement, as well as different notable personalities who had contributed to it.

At the center of the monument there are four 5-meter statues of Calvinism's main proponents: Jean Calvin himself (1509–1564), Guillaume Farel Théodore de Bèze, and John Knox. Calvinism is a major branch of Protestantism that follows the theological tradition and forms of Christian practice set down by John Calvin and other Reformation-era theologians. Calvinists broke away from the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.

The Wall sits on the grounds of the University of Geneva founded by Jean Calvin, and was erected in 1909 to commemorate 400th anniversary of Calvin and the 350th anniversary of the university. It is built into the old city walls designed to solidify the role of Geneva in the Reformation process.

During that period, Geneva was the center of Calvinism, and its history and heritage has been closely linked to Protestantism ever since. Due to the close connections to that theology, the individuals most prominently depicted on the Wall are Calvinists; however, key reformation figures in other countries are also featured here.

To the left of the central statues, facing the Wall, there are 3-meter statues of Frederick William of Prussia, William the Silent of Neitherlands, and Gaspard de Coligny of France; to the right, there are similar statues of Roger Williams of America, Oliver Cromwell of England, and Stephen Bocskai of Hungary.

6) Grand-Théâter

As with many other opera houses, the Grand Théâtre de Genève is both a venue and an institution. The majestic edifice, towering over Place Neuve, officially opened in 1876; partly destroyed by fire in 1951 and reopened in 1962, after extensive refurbishments, it houses the largest stage in Switzerland. As an institution, it is the largest production and host theatre in French-speaking Switzerland, featuring opera and dance performances, recitals, concerts and, occasionally, theatre.

The first stone in its foundation was laid in 1875, and the official inauguration took place in 1879 with a performance of Rossini's William Tell opening the season. The new building was rated among the ten best opera houses in Europe, close behind the recently completed Palais Garnier in Paris, from which it drew considerable architectural inspiration, in its Second Empire (Neo-Baroque) style.

The first Grand Théâtre was not only lavishly decorated; its technical infrastructure was also state-of-the-art for the period, featuring a stage curtain powered by hydraulic pressure from the nearby Usine des Forces Motrices power plant on the river Rhône, and electrical lights replacing the gas lighting during performances.

On 1 May 1951 at 12:08 pm, while stagehands were preparing a set for the third act of Wagner's Die Walküre, a terrible fire broke out, destroying the stage, fly loft, grid and gangways and their mechanical and electric machinery.

After the disaster, the City of Geneva commissioned several reconstruction projects. The reconstruction was finally conducted between 1958 and 1962. The Grand Théâtre reopened in December 1962, with the French version of Verdi's Don Carlos. Since this revival, several renowned directors have managed the Geneva opera house, including Marcel Lamy, Herbert Graf, Jean-Claude Riber, Hugues Gall, Renée Auphan, Jean-Marie Blanchard, and Tobias Richter.
Sight description based on Wikipedia.
Tour de l'Ile

7) Tour de l'Ile

One of the main cultural and architectural heritage sites of Geneva, Tour de l'Ile (“Tower On The Island”) is what's left of the fortified Castle de l'Ile completed in 1219 by the Bishop Aymé de Grandson, who once ruled the city as a Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. The castle played an important role in the defense of the city and was originally built to provide additional control over the strategic Rhône crossing – placed on the small island which for many years was the only checkpoint en route between northern and southern Europe, thanks to the Le Pont de l’Ile bridge spanning the river banks. Julius Caesar, who met Divico, King of the Helvetii, here in 58 BC, had this bridge destroyed.

In 1842, renowned watchmaker Vacheron Constantin moved in the Tour de l'Ile replacing the previous tenants, the Geneva police department. He took up residence in the tower in 1844 and his company remained here until 1875. After nearly a 140 year hiatus, in 2012, Vacheron Constantin firm re-established their quarters here again.

There has been a clock, in one form or another, on the top of the tower since 1538. Today it has been restored to the appearance it had when the first mechanism was replaced in 1680, complete with the Latin motto, "Post Tenebras Lux" (After Darkness, Light) on the dial.

The entire tower underwent extensive renovations, as well as archaeological excavation of its foundations, in 1898, and again in 1938 and 1957. Presently, several floors of the building are occupied by private apartments. On the right, just by the main entrance, there is a statue of the Genevan patriot Philibert Berthelier, who was beheaded in 1519 for defying the Dukes of Savoy; above him is a most interesting sundial: a Noon Mark sundial, with an analemma carved into the masonry. This particular type of sundial shows you when it's noon, any day of the year.

The located nearby Brasserie des Halles de l’Ile makes a perfect spot for a break!
Schtroumph Buildings

8) Schtroumph Buildings

Designed and built between 1982 and 1984 by Swiss architects Christian Hunziger, Robert Frei and Georges Berthoud, this odd-looking housing complex with whimsical details – irregular angles, curved walls and wrought iron railings without a single straight line, and with pops of color, both inside and out – was clearly inspired by Catalan architect Antoni Gaudì.

The sheer surrealism of the architecture prompted the locals to jokingly refer to it as the “Schtroumpf” buildings, a made-up word translated into Dutch as “smurf”, taken from a Belgian comic franchise centered on a fictional colony of small, blue, human-like creatures who live in mushroom-shaped houses in the forest.

The four buildings complex contains 170 city-subsidized apartments for rent, plus a number of office spaces on the ground floor, a pole dance studio, doctors’ offices, a small theater and a café.

Albeit open to viewing only from the outside, the peculiar buildings are quite fun to look at. On Thursdays, there is a very funky local market at La Place des Grottes.

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