Today’s post is from my friend Sarah Carroll aka the first friend I’ve made in the US back in 2002. She treated herself to a one-day chocolate tour of Geneva in Switzerland last year and is now sharing her process so you can do the same in any city of the world. May this inspire you to travel the world through the lens of chocolate, too.
At the end of the summer, when I began researching a trip to Switzerland, I called up my friend Estelle to ask for inside knowledge related to Swiss chocolate tourism. I’d have preferred that she stowed away in my suitcase, but sadly, I was traveling for ten days without checking any luggage. As close as we are, I was pretty sure she would not qualify as a personal item.
So I turned to my other friend, Monsieur Google, to help me plan. I found a Choco Pass offered by Geneva Tourism, but I was going to be spending most of my time in Lausanne and in the Lavaux Vinyards, the north coast of Lac Léman (a.k.a. to outsiders as Lake Geneva). Having participated in a chocolate tour in Manhattan some years back, I knew that I wanted to craft my own experience. I didn’t want to be stuck with someone else’s choices of chocolate shops, limited to the designated tasting items, or listening to a guide who knew less about chocolate than I do – which, considering the number of years I have known Estelle, is pretty good, but not nearly as extensive as I would expect someone leading a local tour to be. Researching chocolate in Switzerland felt like trying to pick out Craft Beer in Pennsylvania – there is no shortage of producers and variety! It was a little overwhelming at first.
My stay in Lausanne was exceptional; it was heart-warming to visit with a university student who I had taught as a sophomore in high school. And the chocolate was divine, but I think my Geneva chocolate experience will be much more likely to inspire you! Here’s the 1-2-3 of creating your own chocolate tour.
1 – Use other people’s lists, to some extent.
A quick search for Chocolate Shops in Geneva led me to a list of articles written by others on what they thought were the best or the top 5. How did they determine their list? Did they actually visit every chocolate shop in the city?! Certainly not. If they did, they’d have commented on how exhaustive their research was to establish credibility. Did they try every kind of product that the chocolatier offers? Not likely, but possible – and if yes, I am very jealous! Do I trust their taste buds? Through regular chocolate club events with Estelle, I have slowly developed my tasting skills, but know nothing of the experience of the writers of these “top places” articles. Is chocolate just one of many travel topics they cover? Very often, the information in these “top chocolate shops to visit” was very superficial, limited to how long the shop had been open, who is in charge and something for which the chocolate shop is known. I read some of them asking myself, “Were they just checking off a to-do box by constructing this article, or do they really know Geneva chocolate?”
Still, other people’s lists are a great place to start. I plugged the names of the places into a spreadsheet for each article so I could see what names repeated. I then searched for the company website to virtually window shop. Interestingly, the French expression for “window shopping” literally translates to “licking the store window.” I could judge the chocolate shop by its cover (colors and shapes of products shown) and read a little about the history and current owners/makers. I felt like I could sense, just through the online presence, if the shop leaned more towards the bespoke craft chocolate experience or was more broadly commercial – each having its own benefits and limitations, of course!
2 – Read reviews, with several grains of sea salt.
Aside from the brief review listed in a “best of” article, take a look at the ratings and comments on Google or your favorite foodie site of the chocolate shops on your list – and take them with several grains of salt! I remember being in Paris with my daughter looking for an authentic bakery where I could find a traditional sandwich jambon-fromage. When you read reviews, particularly of places in such a tourist-laden city, you have to look for the hints that tell you what kind of person is writing the review.
Do they live in the city or are they tourists? Have they eaten at and reviewed many local places? Is their review about the product, or about the price and the quality of service? Sometimes the way a review is written tells you far more about the writer than the location! And I totally discount negative reviews made by tourists who lack the savoir-faire to say, “Bonjour!” when they enter an establishment. Again, looking for patterns will give you an appreciation for what kind of experience may be in store for you when you enter. You may choose to put an asterisk or smiley face next to one place on your list or cross off one of the less enticing ones – for whatever reason. After all, you only have so much time, and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it. (Couldn’t resist the urge to pay homage to Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka!)
3 – Map it out! Keep your options open.
Believe it or not, I was in Geneva to see more than just chocolate shops. The Old City and St. Pierre Cathedral are gorgeous, not to mention that the view of the city from the cathedral tower is breath-taking. The 100+ steps will help diminish any guilt you may feel over so much chocolate consumption. I have a favorite stationery store in town, and my friend and I had to walk by the water to visit the Christmas Market that had recently opened.
Oh, and I really wanted to check out a certain bookshop café! The limitation of a city-pass valid for 24 hours is that only the participating chocolate shops are part of the program, and the locations may not be convenient to the rest of your plans.
When I had decided on the list of most interesting-to-me chocolate shops to visit, I tagged them in my Google maps. My friend and I only had two days in Geneva (well, one full day after we had to schlep back to the apartment in Lausanne where she left her passport!). Before going to bed on that emergency-extra-travel night, I planned out our walking route for the next day. I liked knowing that depending on what else struck our fancy along the way (i.e. swans and buskers near the lake), or if our plans changed mid-day due to the ever-threatening-November-rain-clouds, I could easily look up where the closest chocolate shop was to our revised path. We ended up visiting five different shops that Saturday, and though they were not the same shops as on the city pass, they did offer a diverse selection of chocolate experiences (see list below).
Bonus Tip: To thy own self be true: know your chocolate preferences
Why are you entering the chocolate shop? Do you want to taste something deliciously decadent that you can’t get at home? Are you looking for a gift? Do you plan on writing a guest article on your friend’s site? No, I did not have that in mind when I planned my trip! I wanted to craft the kind of experience to which Estelle introduced me, one where I can apply all my yoga experience in mindfulness to the chocolate consumption experience. I wanted to be able to bring some product home to share a Swiss chocolate experience with my husband who so courageously cared for the dog and the teenager while I was away.
I realized after my Swiss chocolate adventures that there is no way to publish a “best of” list when chocolate preferences are so very personal. I can do without floral flavors like rose or lavender in my chocolate, and my mother doesn’t waste her time with milk chocolate while my daughter loves soft interiors of boxed chocolates and my husband is always intrigued by chocolates with peppers or black teas.
You might have no interest in putting this much work into something that is part of a relaxing vacation, and that’s why people like Victoria of Cocoabeantown in Boston are here. You might savor the interaction with the chocolate educator extraordinaire as much as the chocolate itself, and that’s awesome! But here’s the upside to my self-crafted experience: I loved the flexibility of not paying for a pass upfront and then feeling like I just had to get my money’s worth within the 24h validity of the pass, I loved being able to pick out exactly what I wanted to taste at each location based on what I saw and smelled when I first entered rather than being relegated to what was included in the chocolate pass experience, and I appreciated that. Unlike at the Manhattan chocolate tour, my friend and I didn’t go straight from chocolate shop to the next chocolate shop – my taste buds had time to rest and recover before our next chocolate savoring experience.
As confident as I am in my new-found ability to create my own Choco-City Tour, I would still prefer the company of my dear friend Estelle for anything chocolate!
In chronological order of our Saturday in Geneva:
About the guest author: Sarah Carroll is a Teacher-Trainer-Creator based in West Chester, Pennsylvania. She is a former teacher of classroom French K-12, culinary enthusiast, and community builder who currently works as a French coach; she helps your kid pass French and can be reached at MainLineFrenchTutor.com or via LinkedIn. She also supports worthy causes by selling stationary that features her photography at her Etsy Shop, ShopCardsThatCare.
Sign up to the 37 Chocolates newsletter to be notified of blog updates and upcoming online chocolate tastings. For corporate and private tastings, please fill out this form and I’ll get back to you within 48 hours.