Geneva is a city that doesn’t lack for things to do. A city that existed since 4 century BC, it consisted of a fortification in the old part of town until it joined Switzerland in the 19th century. Now it’s an international hub and home to prominent international organisations and a financial hub. There are many day trip opportunities from the city, although you definitely should make sure you get a chance to see Geneva as well.
- 1 A brief history of Geneva
- 2 Geneva Pass
- 3 Getting in from Geneva airport
- 4 Things to do in Geneva
- 4.1 Day 1: visit the iconic and historic Geneva
- 4.2 Day 2 Take a day trip!
- 4.3 Day 3: explore international Geneva
- 5 Best restaurants in Geneva
- 6 Where to stay in Geneva
A brief history of Geneva
Geneva’s history can be split into three parts: Roman occupation then going under the House of Savoy, the religion reformation led by John Calvin between the 15th to 18th century, and its assimilation into the Swiss Confederation in the 19th century.
Offered by the city’s tourism board, the Geneva Pass has a 24, 48, and 72 hours edition that provide you with free public transport, free museum and attraction entries, as well as various other discounts.
You can see the full list of what’s included here. It is worth it if you plan to take the guided tours and the cruise, but do check if your visit coincide with the tour since they run weekly not daily.
Note: you get a free transport card if you are staying in a hotel or hostel. However, if you are staying at an AirBnB, you might not get that, so it would be an extra bonus. If you have a Swiss Travel Pass, some of the attractions is included as well as public transport within the city. See here for a review on Swiss Travel Pass and more on it.
Getting in from Geneva airport
For those who are arriving by plane and staying in Geneva, you can get a free 80 minute transport voucher before you exit the luggage claim. There’s a machine left o f the door that will give you a ticket which is valid for the city area.
Things to do in Geneva
Day 1: visit the iconic and historic Geneva
The Geneva Station is in the center of the city and the airport is only a ten minutes train ride away. There are plenty of storage lockers for you to store your things and head out immediately to explore the city, which is exactly what I did! The tourism information center is only 5 minutes from the train station and a stone’s throw from the lake.
I did a guided tour of Geneva Old Town, which is free with the Geneva Pass, which departs weekly on Friday in July and August at 11am and Saturday 2pm the rest of the year. My guide Annette was extremely informative and I learned so much about Geneva’s past.
Free with Geneva Pass, CHF 15 adult, CHF 10 for children
The unmissable jet of water that extends up to 140m in the air, Jet d’Eau is a landmark of the city at the point where the River Rhone continues. It first started in 1886 as a water valve from a hydraulic plant and uses city water, but later modified to its current height, location, and using lake water. The official name for Jet d’Eau is the Geneva Water Fountain, and it’s best to admire it from afar as it is easy to get soaked if you are close by especially when the wind changes.
Although not directly related to the history o f the city, the Brunswick Monument is hard to miss as it sits across the road from the lakeshore in all its splendid glory. It was built in 1879 as a mausoleum for Charles II, the Duke of Brunswick (a duchy in south Germany), that was exiled to Geneva. He declared that he’d donate all his fortune to Geneva if they built him a monument similar to the Scaliger Tombs in Verona. Thus this little corner came to be, and the money from the Duke was used to build the new Opera House.
Bains des Paquis
Arguably the best swimming spot in town, Bains des Paquis is on the edge of the Geneva Bay built along the gyrone that protects it. It offers a great view of the old town as well as the Jet d’Eau, with pebbles, wooden docks, and boulders for sunbathing and a well priced restaurant.
It was first built in 1872, with the baths for male and female segregated back then. My tour guide told me that they had built it from old fortification remnants. The water in Lake Geneva is clearer than expected, graced by swans who seem unafraid of humans. Don’t miss the lighthouse at the back that was added in 1894.
Changing rooms and showers are available on the site, as well as spa treatments. Turkish baths and sauna are also available in the winter, which you can book and pay for at the counter by the changing rooms.
Admission fee: CHF 2 adults, CHF 1 kids
Opening times and other costs can be found here
Place du Bourg de Four
Geneva’s oldest square and a former marketplace, Place du Bourg de Four is in the heart of the old town and a little smaller than expected. It emcompasses the medieval charm with a fountain, flowers in carts, and colourful houses. There are several outdoor restaurant seating as well.
The oldest college in Geneva, Calvin College was founded in 1559 by John Calvin, the father of Calvinism (a branch of Protestant Christanity). It is built atop a small hill near the old fortification in Geneva.
Rue de l’Hotel-de-Ville
On the top of a hill in the old town is a road that’s called Rue de l’Hotel-de-Ville, which essentially means the City Hall Road in English. The Neoclassical buildings are beautiful in their own rights, but combined with the different flags of Switzerland’s region and Switzerland itself, it makes for a curiously pretty scene. The street is also surprisingly devoid o f traffic, with many tourists and pedestrians strolling in the middle. i f you’re wandering around, definitely make your way down and soak in the importance of all the different district offices.
St Pierre Cathedral
Once a Roman Catholic Cathedral, the St Pierre Cathedral became a Reformed Protestant Church during the 16th century reformation. While a cathedral had occupied the land since the 4th century, the gothic style cathedral was built in the 12th century, but was stripped of its decoration during the reformation.
Remnants of paint can still be found around, and a glimpse of its previous splenda can be seen in the Maccabees Chapel to the right of the church entrance.
The chapel was added along with other Neoclassical structures were added in the 18th century, giving it a blend of styles and the Parthenon-like front entrance.
You can climb the spiral staircase up to see a panoramic of the city from its towers. It’s a one way system. There are two towers, and i f you only want to spend energy climbing one, make it the north (which is the one nearer to the staircase down) since it offers a better view.
To climb the tower, it’s CHF 5 (2 for under 16), the fee is included in the Geneva Pass
Opening times: varies depending on the season, see the timetable here
The oldest house in Geneva, Maison Tavel – which means travel house – is now a museum that showcases what life in Switzerland is like. It was built in the 12th century, although it was rebuilt after a fire in the 14th century. Its distinctive black stone facade is difficult to miss and the exhibition also includes multimedia screens and models.
Free entry with Geneva Pass, permanent exhibition is free, temporary exhibition CHF 3
Opening times: close Monday, 11:00 – 18:00
The Old Arsenal is not far from Maison Travel, housed in an archway by the street with several cannons. But the star attraction is the trilogy of mosaics that depicts key historical scenes from Geneva’s past. The first shows Julius Caesar arriving in 58 BC, then the reformation led by John Calvin in the 16th century, and lastly the city joining the Swiss Confederation.
Near Maison Travel and behind the city hall is the Trielle Promenade, home to a 22 m dark green wooden bench that is the longest outdoor wooden bench in the world. It overlooks the mountains and surrounded by chestnut trees, making it an idyllic spot for a relaxing read or chat with friends.
A wall at the edge of the Parc des Bastions that borders the Geneva University, the Reformation Wall is a 100m long stretch o f the old city wall with relieves of historically important figures in the Reformation. Built in 1909, you can find William Farel, John Calvin, Theodore Beza, and John Knox in the center.
The park itself is a lovely space with many university students and chess players.
Day 2 Take a day trip!
There are so many day trip options from Geneva that I ended up doing a separate post on it. From mountain escape in France or visiting a castle featured in Lord Byron’s poem, here are 9 options to choose from.
Day 3: explore international Geneva
Palais des Nations
The Europe headquarter o f the United Nation, the palace was built in the early 20th century with an iconic row of flags at the entrance, and the square full of water fountain at the front. The palace is located on the northern end of the city, a ten minutes bus ride from the train station.
The park it houses in is the Ariana Park, which was donated to the city under the condition that it’s always free for the public to visit. You can visit with a guided tour to see inside, which usually includes the Assembly Hall, Salle des Pas Perdus, as well as gifts from other nations.
Cost: CHF 15 adult, discounts available
The guided tours runs either at 10 am and 2pm, more information here
Also in the Ariana Park is the Ariana Museum. While it is by Palais des Nations, you have to go around the outside of the park to get to the entrance. The museum was built in the late 19th century to house a private collector’s glass and ceramic collection, hence why it’s also called the Swiss Museum of Ceramics and Glass.
The building itself looks almost like a palace with its pistachio green and cream Neoclassical facade. The collection spans three stories and twelve centuries, with items from far and wide. They also have a cafe on the second floor that overlooks beautiful hallway inside or the park outside.
Free entry, CHF 8 adult for temporary exhibition, which is free with the Geneva Pass or Swiss Travel Pass
Opening times: Closed Monday, 10:00 – 18:00
Botanical Garden Greenhouse
About ten minutes from the Palace of Nations is Geneva’s Botanical Garden. Between the greenhouses and the expensive grounds o f the park, there are over 16,000 species of plants.
On the northern end is a cafe restaurant that’s great value for money, as well as a shop and a little carousel.
Also known as Geneva’s Little Italy, it’s a beautiful little neighbourhood known for its shopping and vibe. It is worth a walk around if you like quaint little places and boutiques, otherwise there’s not a massive amount to do. If you are interested in learning more about the region, there are guided tour every Saturday at 11 am.
You can get there by tram number 18 or 12 from the train station in about 20 minutes
CHF 10 for guided tour, free with Geneva Pass
Cruise on Lake Geneva
Taking a short cruise around Lake Geneva close to the city is a great way to unwind and relax while getting some sightseeing done. There are numerous options:
A short cruise that takes 50 minutes, the Mermaid’s Cruise hits the sweet spots looping around the northern shore of Lake Geneva. It goes past the Mermaid Statue (hence its name), going up to the UN building before coming back down.
Included in Geneva Pass, CHF 13 adult, CHF 7 <16
See here for timetable as it varies according to the season
A longer alternative, the Geneva Tour Cruise lasts an hour and operate on a similar route with audio guide available as an app!
Included in Geneva Pass, CHF 18 adult, CHF 9 <16
See here for timetable as it varies according to the season
Best restaurants in Geneva
Admittedly, I didn’t end up eating out that much because Switzerland is notoriously expensive. However, I knew I had to try cheese fondue:
Auberge de Saviese
A cute alpine style restaurant with indoor and terrace seating, it’s about two blocks from the lake shore east of the train station. I love the friendly waiters, who welcome my order of cheese fondue for one. Although most are designed for 2 and I was barely able to finish mine.
The house cheese fondue is 24 CHF, coming in a reasonably sized red pot accompanied by bread. They also taught me how to eat it properly: by dipping a small lump of bread it using the small fork and swirl it around the cheese. I’m a fan of cheese, but I got to say that it is quite a heavy meal! The restaurant gave me free tap water and don’t have a service charge.
Address: Rue des Pâquis 20, 1201 Genève, Switzerland
Opening times: 12:00 – 23:00
Where to stay in Geneva
I would definitely stay in the center o f the city, preferably by the train station, too. The city center is fairly walkable anyway, with public transport making it easy to reach all attractions within 30 minutes. Here are some top picks:
Budget: Hotel Central is true to its name, being smack in the middle of the Old Town. while the rooms are on the smaller size, you won’t get a better value for money with its good break fast and clean rooms as well.
Midrange: You can stay a stone’s throw from the train station at Hotel International & Terminus. It’s a good choice if you need to commute early. If you want a bit more Swiss Charm, Hotel de Geneve is closer to the lake and well reviewed.
Splurge: Hotel Bristol is a 4 star hotel by the lake that ticks all the boxes. Close to all the attractions, spacious and beautifully decorated rooms – and of course, good breakfast.