History Lessons in Geneva

Museums aren’t usually my top priority when I travel. Too often they end up being something that has to be ticked off my list. Mona Lisa…check, Sagrada Familia…check (you get the point).

I’m more of a wanderer, preferring to dip in to this or that café or shop that calls to me from the street. But from time to time I want to dig a little deeper — find out the history behind a certain place, when the old town was built, why a landmark is so popular.

When I visited Geneva, I knew a handful of things about the city already: I knew it was an important financial center, the home of the Red Cross (founded there in 1863), and a United Nations hub. But what else had shaped its history? To find out, I decided to visit not one, but five museums.

Here’s where I went and what I learned: 

1. It’s hard to think about Switzerland without thinking about watches. Fittingly, on Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers you’ll find the famous Patek Philippe Museum, which covers 500 years of watch-making in Geneva, Switzerland, and Europe. Lose track of time perusing the impressive collection, which includes one of the oldest known watches with a minute indication, pendulum time-pieces, and a watch in the shape of a human skull.

2. Don’t miss the cutting edge of creativity at the Contemporary Art Building (shared by the Centre d’Art Contemporain and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), where quirky projects, photo exhibits, and futuristic video installations challenge all five senses.

3. Next to the Saint-Pierre Cathedral, you’ll find two museums connected by a passageway. Check out the archeological site of Saint-Pierre Cathedralone of the largest of its kind in Europe, where you can see the results of years of excavations — from pre-Christian remains to churches layered one on top of the other (the oldest is from the 4th century).

Then zip across to the International Museum of the Reformation (built on the site where the people of Geneva voted to adopt the Reformation in 1536) to learn the story of one of the most influential movements to sweep across Europe and the often surprising personalities behind it.

4. See some of Europe’s finest masterpieces — including works by artists from the Genevan and Swiss Schools — at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, the largest art museum in the city. But don’t miss the impressive antiquities collection from Pharaonic Egypt (including a mummy from the 9th century B.C.), the Roman Empire, and Ancient Greece. The Regional Archaeology collection stretches from 13,000 B.C. until the 11th century.

5. What was daily life like in Geneva hundreds of years ago? Find out at the city’s oldest private residence, the Maison Tavel (Tavel House). Built in the late 13th century, but destroyed by fire  soon thereafter, only the cellar remains fully intact (along with some medieval graffiti).

The rest of the 12-room house has been painstakingly rebuilt, but what’s inside — appliances, wallpaper, furniture, dishes, toys, and more from the 16th-19th centuries — will instantly transport you through time. And admission is free.

Finally, make sure to soak up the flavor of everyday life in the Geneva of today. Pop your head in to the many cafés, bars, and shops around the beautiful old town, walk along the boardwalk, feel the spray of the Jet d’Eau on Lake Geneva with Mont Blanc as a backdrop.

Trust me, it’s a timeless experience — and admission is 100 percent free.

Hanna Snarberg (a Swede) and her partner, Alex (a Ruskie), share their wanderlust on their travel blog, Sam and the Dunes (“Sam” is their lovable pooch).