Geneva is a cosmopolitan city in southwest Switzerland, mere kilometres from the Swiss-French border. Known as the centre of diplomacy, Geneva is home to the European United Nations headquarters. This makes it a city with an interesting mix of cultures, where people of all nationalities peacefully interact with one another. Although Switzerland is home to eight million residents, the population of Geneva reaches only 200,000. While it has the charm of a small town, there’s always something new to see and do.
This insiders guide to Geneva will let you in on all the must-see spots and best attractions in this sophisticated city.
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How to get to Geneva
There are plenty of ways to get to Geneva, Switzerland. As the city is considered a global hub, it is very easy to get to.
Geneva’s international airport is only four kilometres from the centre of the city. Trains depart every 12 to 20 minutes, with the trip taking only six minutes to Genève-Cornavin station. This major train station is connected to other Swiss cities, including Bern and Zurich. The Lyon-Geneva line makes it simple to get to Geneva via train from eastern France. You can also catch affordable buses from Lyon and Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.
If you’re staying at a major hotel, check to see if a free airport shuttle is offered. Buses 5, 10, 23 and 28 also leave the airport every 10 to 15 minutes if you don’t want to catch the train.
What to expect in Geneva
As a result of its close proximity to France, Geneva has a strong and notable French influence. This is most obvious with the language. While Switzerland has four official languages (German, French, Italian and Romansh), Geneva is within the French-speaking area of Romandy. Swiss French is almost identical to the French you hear spoken in France, with only slight differences. The main variation you may pick up on if you know some French are the different words for the numbers 70 and 90.
Due to the large number of expatriates and foreign nationals working in Geneva, you’ll find a lot of English speakers too. Since the locals are highly educated, English is a common second or third language among native Genevans.
Interestingly, Switzerland is not a part of the European Union. While neighbouring countries all use the euro, the currency here is Swiss franc. Tipping is not required in Geneva, as service charges are added to final bills at restaurants. If you’d like to leave a tip after receiving exceptional service, you can round up the bill. That being said, it is not required or expected at all.
How to get around Geneva
Those arriving in Geneva via plane are eligible to pick up a Unireso ticket from the baggage collection area. This pass grants 80 minutes of free travel within Geneva’s public transport zone. Remember to keep a copy of your plane ticket in case you run into any inspectors. You’ll also receive a Geneva Transport Card when you check into your accommodation, which can be used for all bus, train, tram and boat journeys.
You can easily rent a bicycle at the railway station if you want to keep active. Since Geneva is such a small city, you can walk and cycle many places without a problem. Riding a bike or going on foot is the best way to explore the winding streets of the Old Town. Genève Roule, the main bike renting service in the city, allows you to ride for free for up to four hours! Take advantage of this offer even if you only need to go a short distance.
Trams are the most commonly used public transport method in Geneva, and the route maps are easy to follow. All buses and trams within the city stop running after midnight, so if you’re out late, you can catch the Noctambus from 12:30 a.m.
The best time to visit Geneva
The peak time to visit Geneva is during the European summer holidays. The best weather and the most festivals occur during June, July and August. The two main events you will want to plan your trip around are the Lake Parade in July and Fêtes de Genève in August. If you want to try and avoid some of the other tourists, consider a visit during May or September when the temperatures are still reasonable.
Avoid winter unless you somehow love freezing winds and ice storms! Prices also increase significantly over the Christmas and Easter holidays, so wait until May to visit Geneva.
Things to do in Geneva
If you’re visiting Geneva during the summertime, you’ll want to spend most of your holiday enjoying the warm weather outside.
For free things to do in Geneva, take a wander through some of the gorgeous gardens and parks. The Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques is easily one of the most stunning spots to visit in the city. This 28-hectare botanical garden houses over 14,000 different plant species. You can see the different collections in the winter garden, arboretum and greenhouses. If you’re visiting with kids, there’s an Enchanted Forest Playground and a Fairy Tale Carousel. There’s also a cafe for a tea and coffee break.
Near the gardens is Musée Ariana, a one-of-a-kind museum dedicated to ceramic and glass artwork. The 19th-century building itself was architecturally inspired by Neoclassicism and the Baroque Revival.
Jardin Anglais is another peaceful park to sit and relax. If you grab a spot by the lake, you can see the famous Jet d’Eau. This landmark is known for pumping water into the air at a height of 140 metres and is colourfully illuminated at night. While you’re at the park, stop by L’Horloge Fleurie, otherwise known as the flower clock.
Perusing the Marché de Plainpalais (Plainpalais Flea Market) is one of the most enjoyable things to do in Geneva. There are two main parts to the market. On one side, you have the ultimate bric-à-brac adventure with an array of vintage clothes, second-hand toys and ethnic jewellery. On the other side, you’ll find a farmer’s market with fresh fruits, vegetables and Swiss cheeses. It’s open from 6:30 a.m. on Fridays, Saturdays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays, and 8:30 a.m. on Sundays.
To delve into Switzerland’s history, head to the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. It’s the largest art museum in the city and allows you to travel back in time through the archaeological and fine arts collections. From here, you can walk to the Reformation Wall. This historical monument is dedicated to significant individuals and events of the Protestant Reformation.
Places to visit in Geneva
The best place to get lost while in Geneva is the Old Town. You can easily spend an entire afternoon wandering the winding, cobbled streets and perusing the antique bookshops.
One of the most popular attractions in the Old Town is the Saint Pierre Cathedral. Construction of the church began all the way back in 1160, though it has since undergone many architectural changes. To reach the top of the towers, climb 157 steps and be rewarded with a stunning panoramic view of the city.
The area is also home to Place du Bourg-de-Four, the oldest yet liveliest city square in Geneva. With a ton of outdoor restaurants and a quaint fountain, it’s the perfect location for people watching. When you’ve wandered enough, stop for a cup of coffee at Café Papon, open from eight in the morning until 11 in the evening.
Les Pâquis is another interesting neighbourhood to get to know. The colourful and eclectic area has become known as Geneva’s hipster hangout, with quirky boutiques and bistros offering a range of cuisines. It’s an easy place to get to, as it’s right by the main railway station. While you’re in the area, stop by the Mausolée Brunswick, a stunning Gothic-style monument built in 1879.
You’ll want to make Bains des Pâquis a priority while you’re here. This is the ultimate spot to take a refreshing swim in the lake and meet some local Genevans. If you’re in town while it’s a little colder out, the baths turn into saunas. If you’re willing to take a dip at six in the morning, free music concerts are put on throughout August. For those who prefer to sleep in, fear not, as there’s something going on here at all hours. Pop by at any time and you’re sure to find a poetry reading or film screening. Regardless, it’s a gem of a place to simply swim and relax under the sun.
What to eat in Geneva
Swiss cuisine has been heavily influenced by France, Germany and Italy. You’ll find that many dishes in the French-speaking part of Switzerland include cheese, potato and bread. Here are some recommendations of local foods to sample and where to find them.
Taste some fondue and raclette in the leafy courtyard of Café du Soleil. If you’re in the mood for something sweeter, sample some Swiss meringue at Saint-Gervais. Restaurant Roberto and Le Lyrique also have some delicious raspberry and lemon tarts.
For dinner, try some papet vaudois at the family-friendly Le Thermometre. This famous dish in the Lake Geneva area is made from potatoes, leek, cabbage and pork. Restaurant Les Armures is the perfect place for a late night meal of rösti, another iconic potato dish.
Where to stay in Geneva
Geneva has an abundance of extravagant hotels that are conveniently located. You’ll probably find it difficult to choose between them all! That being said, you shouldn’t spend all your planning time worrying about where to stay, so here are two suggestions you’re sure to love. We have also written an extensive guide on Where to stay in Geneva.
La Cour des Augustins is a well-designed boutique hotel right by the area of Plainpalais. Your options here range from standard single and double rooms to loft suites and two bedroom apartments. The walls are adorned with contemporary artwork, and you’ll have access to a sauna and fitness centre on-site. Since it’s close to the University of Geneva, you’ll find a lot of affordable bars and places to eat in this area. It’ll take you five minutes to walk to the Old Town, and a tram stop is only 100 metres away.
9 Hotel Paquis is an affordable yet luxurious accommodation option that’s ideal for a weekend in Geneva. It’s perfectly located in the Paquis district and only 350 metres away from the main train station. The renovated rooms are impeccably designed and guarantee a well-rested stay. The hotel is within walking distance to many attractions in the Geneva city centre. You can book a double room, a suite or a family room, but you’ll undoubtedly want to spend most of your time relaxing in the jacuzzi!
Tours to do in Geneva
Geneva sits on the edge of Lake Geneva, a picturesque, crescent-shaped body of water shared between Switzerland and France. Regardless of the weather, you won’t regret taking a boat tour. La Compagnie Générale de Navigation (CGN) is definitely the company to book your lake cruise with, as they’ve been operating for over a century.
The best option for tourists is the one-hour horizons cruise. You’ll get to see all the best views, including the Mont Blanc mountain and the Jet d’Eau. On their breakfast cruise, you can enjoy a classic or extra healthy morning meal while taking in the fresh air. There are even gourmet fondue cruises departing from Geneva-Mont-Blanc every Friday evening.
Day trips from Geneva
As mentioned earlier, Switzerland has a fantastic train system that can get you to nearby towns and cities. If you want to explore other Swiss cities, take the train from Genève-Cornavin station. You can be in Bern in under two hours, or reach Zurich in less than three. If you want to stay a bit closer to Geneva, it’ll only take you 35 to 50 minutes to get to Lausanne. The city also sits along Lake Geneva, and is worth a visit for the 12th-century Gothic cathedral and 19th-century Renaissance-style palace.
If you want to hop over to France for the day, catch a one-hour FlixBus to Annecy. Discover the Château d’Annecy and stroll along the Pont des Amours. Alternatively, you can get to Lyon via train in only two hours to look at all the marvellous basilicas and cathedrals.
I hope this travel guide has inspired you to visit Geneva in the future. If you’re looking for a travel destination full of culture and charm, you’ll certainly fall in love with this city.
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Recommend budget tours in Geneva
- Geneva City Tour
- Chamonix and Mont Blanc Day Trip from Geneva
- Day Trip to Gruyères including Golden Panoramic Express Train
- Geneva Old Town Segway Tour
- Chamonix Sightseeing Tour from Geneva
- Chamonix Day Trip and Geneva city tour
- Chocolate Flavours: 3-hour Tasting and Culture Tour of Geneva
- From Geneva to Montreux through Lausanne
- Geneva City Private Guided tour & Boat Cruise
- Glacier 3000 Gold Tour, Aperitif and Montreux Day Trip From Geneva
- Private trip from Geneva to Annecy in France
- Day Trip to Montreux, Chaplin’s World Museum and Chillon Castle
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