Today the world's largest centre for multilateral diplomacy and a hotbed of luxury shopping, Geneva was a postcard-perfect city known for enlightened tolerance long before Henry Dunant founded the International Red Cross here (1864), the League of Nations moved in (1919), the World Health Organization (WHO) set up shop after World War II, or the World Wide Web was invented here at CERN, the European Centre for Nuclear Research.
Once a place of refuge for the religious reformers Jean Calvin and John Knox, it has sheltered Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Alexandre Dumas, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley, offered safe haven to Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt, and expelled its native son Jean-Jacques Rousseau for being liberal way before his time.
Today a whopping 40% of the city's 189,000 inhabitants are not Swiss, but the more than 150 countries that maintain permanent missions to the United Nations Office in Geneva represent merely the most recent group of foreigners to descend on the city. Four hundred years ago it was wave after wave of Protestant refugees: the English fled Bloody Mary, Protestant Italians the wrath of the pope, Spaniards the Inquisition, French Huguenots the oppressive French monarchy—and Geneva flourished, under the iron yoke of its 16th-century reformer, as a multilingual stronghold of Protestant (specifically Calvinist) reform.
The city's history as a crossroads stretches back farther still. The Genevois controlled the only bridge over the Rhône north of Lyon when Julius Caesar breezed through in 58 BC; the early Burgundians and bishop-princes who succeeded the Romans were careful to maintain this control. The strategically placed (and wealthy) city-state fell to the French in 1798, then made overtures to Bern as Napoléon's star waned. Geneva finally joined the Swiss Confederation as a canton in 1815. But don't get too carried away with Swiss stereotypes here—they are as foreign to the Genevois as risotto or gnocchi might be to a resident of Bern.
Geneva's museums have drawn particular benefit from the city's unique perspective on history and cultural exchange: you can visit a military exhibit up the hill from the Red Cross's examination of the horrors of war; weigh the extremes of ancient and contemporary ceramics; browse archaeological finds from Egypt and the Far East; compare pre-Christian primitive art with its modern incarnation; relive the Reformation; or explore the fruits of human thought and creativity as expressed on paper, in science, and inside the case of a tiny pocket watch. The Palais des Nations forms the ultimate living (and working) museum of 20th-century history.
The early December celebration of the Escalade, a 17th century military victory that marked a turning point in Geneva's history, offers a unique peek at the city's core character; the early-August Fête de Genève showcases a different, more easily accessible modern identity and culminates in a fireworks extravaganza set to music that perfectly exploits the beauty of Geneva's physical setting. Mary Shelley conceived of Frankenstein's monster during a dark and stormy night in Geneva, letting him escape over the cliff face of the Salève, to the southeast of the city. But on a beautiful summer night with an ice cream in hand, the Alps glowing pink in the sunset and the harbour lights ablaze, it's hard to imagine anything but bliss.