Geneva is Switzerland’s second-largest city, and an international world-class and wealthy business centre. It is quite busy during the weekdays, but it can seem a little quiet during weekends. However; there is a lot to discover.
But before listing its main attractions, there are three great benefits for tourists that you should know:
- Free public transport tickets. The hotels will give you a card for free, which is valid for all transport.
- The airport is 10-15 minutes away from the city centre. And you can get a free ticket from a machine in the arrivals area.
- Free bicycles. You can rent a bicycle at no cost for the first 4 hrs. More info here.
And the top things to do in Geneva are:
Take a picture of the iconic Jet d’Eau
The Jet d’Eau is can be considered Geneva’s most iconic attraction, and it is even visible from the air as you fly into the airport. It is a fountain that shoots up water 140 meters into the air with incredible force (200km/h, 1360 horsepower) and a few times a year is illuminated with colours.
It was built in 1951, after two others built in 1886 and 1891. The surrounded area is beautiful and good for a walk or cycle, including the Promenade du Lac and the Pont du Mont-Blanc, where you can admire the expansive Lac Léman (Lake Geneva).
Explore the Old Town
Geneva has a traditional and beautiful old town like most cities in Europe. It comprises the area around the Cathedrale Saint-Pierre, which is known as the adopted home church of John Calvin, one of the leaders of the Protestant Reformation.
The main street is the Grand-Rue, where you can find the Maison de Rousseau et de la Literature at No 40, where the 18th-century philosopher was born. And the best place for a coffee is the pedestrian Place du Bourg-de-Four, the oldest place in Geneva and house of numerous cafés and restaurants, including the popular Café La Clémence and Café du Bourg-de-Four.
Learn Geneva’s International role
For various reasons (location, neutrality) Geneva is home to many international organisations. The Palais des Nations, the European seat of the United Nations (since 1966), is one of them and offer guided one-hour tours (bring photo ID) to see the building and the surrounding 46-hectare park.
The other organisation is the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, which contains all kind of information (films, photos, sculptures and soundtracks) about the humanitarian work carried out by the organisation, and it is also well known for showing moving (and sometimes shocking) exhibitions in which visitors are invited to engage in an awareness-building experience. The goal of these experiences is to bring knowledge and reflection to visitors through emotions.
Visit Carouge, Geneva’s Italian area
Carouge was constructed by Italians architects from Turin in the 18th century and was originally a separate town. Nowadays it still looks different, as if you’ve stepped into a different city, and it also feels different.
There is a more relaxed vibe all around, with a great variety of second-hand bookshops, markets, antique restorers, glass blowers, watchmakers and indie clothes designers. And there is also an area to hang out, with a vast number of bistros, cafés bars and restaurants (learn more in the “Go out” section below).
Walk or cycle around Parc de La Perle du Lac
Parc de La Perle du Lac is a beautiful and quiet park known for panoramic views, with a biking and walking path, a playground, a restaurant, a fountain, a couple of pretty buildings (such as the Geneva Academy Of International Humanitarian Law And Human Rights), a garden full of dahlias and even public toilets.
It is a great place for a picnic, with benches and hills with green grass overlooking the lake. My recommendation is to hire one of the free bicycles and head to the park, as it is only 7 minutes by bicycle from Pont du Mont-Blanc, and the path overlooks the lake. If you prefer to walk, it is only 25 minutes anyway.
At the end of the park, you can find Geneva’s premier botanical park, which celebrated its bicentenary in 2017 and shows over 12,000 species of plants from around the world, arranged in a series of themed gardens. Highlights include an impressive collection of roses and Animal Park, protecting ancient species of animals, chickens, goats, sheep, peacocks, flamingos and deers.
Relax at the Bains des Pâquis
Bains des Pâquis is an artificial peninsula surrounded by a beach that is very popular during hot summer days. There is enough space to lie down and sunbathe, and a magnificent view over the lake.
Paquis baths (Bains des Pâquis) are essentially two saunas, hammam and Turkish baths; together with a restaurant serving fondue, among other things.
It has good facilities as well, such as showers, toilets, changing cabins, free WiFi and for variety of sports: table tennis, table football, zipline (not every day), water volleyball net, water slide for children and gymnastic bars. There are also events all year, including early-morning music and poetry readings in summer.
It is free during winter but not in summer, which prices are: CHF 2 for adults (16+), CHF 1 reduced price (children) and free for children up to 6 years old.
Learn about the universe at CERN
The European Organisation for Nuclear Research (CERN) is a European research organization that operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world. It is located 8km west of Geneva and you can get there by taking the tram to the district of Meyrin.
Its main attraction is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which is the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, the most complex experimental facility ever built and the largest single machine in the world [Wikipedia]. It is a 27 km circular tube which aim is to allow physicists to test the predictions of different theories of particle physics, including the amounts of matter and antimatter that were created in the Big Bang.
Fortunately, CERN is open to the public, offering two-hour guided tours in English (and 2 slots in French as well). Although the LHC is closed to the public when operational, there is a lot more to see. Tours need to be booked at least 15 days in advance here and a photo ID is needed on site.
Go out for cocktails or beer
We found three different and good areas to go out for a drink.
One is around Rue Henri-Blanvalet, especially on that street between Rue de la Mairie and Rue du 31 Décembre, where you can find a good variety of cocktails pubs. I can recommend a few such as Atelier Cocktail Club, Bottle Brothers, Maison Balkii and Yvette de Marseille, all quite close to each other.
The second area is around Boulevard Georges-Favon. There are 2 cocktails pubs, L’Apothicaire Cocktail-Club and Barbershop, and a wine and cheese bar, Cave Genève. There is also another recommended restaurant and brewery a few minutes away called Les Sales Gosses.
The third area is in Carouge, the Italian neighbourhood. There a few spots on Rue Vautier, between Place du Marché and Rue Roi Victor Amé. Some of them are Vert Bouteille, La Plage, Bar Jet Set and Chat Noir (live music and comedy nights). Additionally, and not far away you can find Bar du Nord and The Cheval Blank.
Eat a fondue or raclette
After a extensive research and a couple of tastings, we strongly recommend Auberge de Savièse. They offer the best fondues and raclettes in Geneva as well as other Swiss specialities. Delicious cheese for moderate prices, that’s his formula and it seems to work because it is normally busy, so better to book in advance.
The picture above shows one of his raclettes. It may look empty or as if it is missing something, but it’s not and it’s delicious. You can order one of those together with a Malakoff, a ball of fried cheese typically found in Western Switzerland. Or you can go for the more traditional fondue. They also offer excellent variations to just cheese, such as fondue with Champagne, Cognac, mushrooms, shallots and others.
Other recommended places are Café du Soleil, Le Gruyérien, Les Armures and La buvette des Bains des Paquis.
Climb the Salève
Salève is Geneva’s local mountain, also called “The Balcony of Geneva”. It is 1,379 m (4,524 ft) high and only 40 minutes away (20 km) from the city centre by bus or car, just over the border in France.
It offers magnificent views over Geneva, Lake Geneva, the south of the Jura mountains, the Prealps, Lake Annecy and the Mont Blanc. The hike to the top funicular takes around 2 hours, and it is not as hard as it may look like. The alternative is to take the cable car from Veyrier station.
In summer you can hike, paraglide, bird-spot, picnic or just sit in one of its cafés and contemplate the view.
Take a day tour to Annecy
Annecy is a beautiful town only 35 km (22 mi) south of Geneva. It is sometimes called “Venice of the Alps“, due to the three canals and the Thiou river lying through the old city and whose initial role was to protect the city and to empower its handicrafts.
The surrounding views are stunning, with the Annecy lake (one of the cleanest in Europe) and the mountains Mont Veyrier, Semnoz, Tournette, and Parmelan. The municipal environmental policy managed to keep 40.3% of green spaces and the city was awarded the “Golden Flower” in 2015, given to the nine most-flowered French cities.
There are cycling and walking paths around the lake. On Sundays there is a market in town, offering a good variety of cheese, fruits, vegetables, souvenirs and even second-hand clothes. So for a day tour during summer, I would recommend this day of the week. We took the “Annecy Half-Day Tour from Geneva” tour and we really enjoyed it. Our tour provider KeyTours has also more available to visit Annecy and other places from Geneva.
The Annecy basin is one of the world’s leading locations for paragliding (it hosted the Paragliding World Cup in 2012). Due to its proximity to the lake and the mountains, Annecy is also popular for watersports (sailing, rowing, wakeboarding, water skiing) and winter sports (alpine skiing, snowboarding, Nordic skiing). For the latter, the closest ski resorts are Le Semnoz (35 minutes), La Clusaz and Le Grand Bornand (40 minutes).
Visit Jorge Luis Borges grave
This one will probably make more sense for South Americans (especially Argentineans), or people who like literature or have read Borges, because I doubt an unknown person’s grave can be of any interest.
Jorge Luis Borges was an Argentine short-story writer, essayist, poet and translator, and a key figure in Spanish literature. His best-known books are Ficciones (Fictions) and El Aleph (The Aleph). His works have contributed to philosophical literature and the fantasy genre.
His grave is in Cimetière de Plainpalais, just minutes away from the city centre.