We rely on several guide books and, of course, the internet’s resources when we travel, but we also use our instincts. The Rick Steves Switzerland guide barely mentions Geneva. In fact, he advises one to “skip the big, dull city of Geneva” and use Lausanne as your base town. I disagree—and I’m glad we decided to spend some time in Switzerland’s “smallest of big cities”.
Anyone who flies into Geneva should make a point of staying at least one or two nights in this pleasant and walkable city. It’s very easy to take the modern and efficient train for a ten minute ride to the main train station in Geneva. There are plenty of decent hotels close to the station or, one could take a bus or taxi for a short ride to the more upscale hotels along the lake. We found a basic, but very clean hotel across the street from the train station and found it easy to walk everywhere.
Although Geneva is a bustling city, it’s very easy to get your bearings. With the train station to your back, just head down Rue des Alpes toward beautiful Lake Geneva. On a clear day, you can admire the French Alps in the distance. As you head toward the bustling waterfront, you’ll pass by shops full of chocolates, fine watches and Swiss Army knives. You can admire the impressive financial buildings, monuments and colorful small parks and squares along the way. You also have the option of stepping into several tempting patisseries or French boulangeries before you reach the lake. The city has few high rises, so it feels friendly and not intimidating at all. Here are a few places to explore:
Lake Geneva-Lac Léman
Walk toward the lake and enjoy the English Gardens nearby. Be sure to find the colorful Flower Clock that provides perfect time—naturally. You can also explore several options for taking a boat ride on the lake. There are short rides that simply cross the harbor. However, there are several longer trips provided by the CGN Lac Léman, that can last all day where you can explore other fun cities such as Lausanne and Montreux. There are even some boat trips up the Rhone River into the countryside.
Jetée des Eaux-Vives
Walk towards the east end of the lake to the Jetée des Eaux-Vives breakwater for a closer view of the Jet d’Eau, a huge stream of water that gushes out of Lake Geneva. The 459 feet stream is so high that you can spot it from the air as you fly into the city.
Along the way, enjoy the views of the waterfront as you walk the wide sidewalks or stop for a refreshment or a gelato at one of the outdoor eateries nearby. There are also plenty of park benches for rest and relaxation. You can also rent bikes for exploring the lakeside and the city.
The Riverside & Shopping
As you approach the lake, look to the right (south) for the several pedestrian bridges that cross the Rhone River. On the other side of the river you will find the fashionable shopping district and and lots of choirs for restaurants with outdoor seating. This can be a fun area to spend happy hour, especially if the weather is nice enough to sit outdoors and admire the views.
Walk past the fancy shopping area and up the hill a bit to find Vieille Ville, the quaint old town of Geneva. This area has winding, narrow, cobblestone streets lined with lovely old buildings and fun restaurants. At the top of the hill is the Églese Saint Pierre, an important church of the Protestant Reformation. Although it has a stark interior, you can admire John Calvin’s chair and learn some history of the reformation movement in Switzerland. You can even climb the tower for some great views of the city.
The old town has several fun squares for relaxing and enjoying the peaceful setting. One of our favorite areas was the Place du Bourg-de-Fours, a lovely square with several good options for a nice meal. The old town is also the place to find small art galleries, antique shops and interesting boutiques.
CERN & other sites
In Geneva you can visit the headquarters for the United Nations as well as the Red Cross.
For science buffs, the best deal in town is the interesting site of CERN, where thousands of scientists are probing the fundamental structure of the universe (by splitting atoms). The two hour tour of the facility is free, but make a reservation in advance on their website. The facility is a bit outside of the city, however it’s a quick tram ride from the central train station.
For those who have more time, there are several worthwhile museums. The Musées d’Art et d’ Histoire has a nice permanent collection of antiquities, furnishings and paintings that include the works of Monet, Renoir, Van Gogh and others. Next to the UN is the Ariana Museum of ceramics and glass. The Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is located in an area of the city that has several worthwhile museums and art galleries. There’s even a museum of watchmaking, the Patek Phillipe Musuem.
Geneva is a good city for exploring and walking. Since we enjoy viewing different types of architecture, we walked behind the train station to find the Schtrumpfs Building on Rue Louis-Favre in the Les Grottes neighborhood. The buildings are named for the Smurfs cartoon characters because of the whimsical design. The unusual and colorful collection of buildings remind us of a present day Gaudi building.
The nice thing about visiting Geneva is that nothing is that far away. And, if you need a break from walking, there are efficient trams and busses throughout the city. If your travels take you close to Geneva, make sure to stop and stay awhile in this lovely city on Lake Geneva.