People that spend an extended period in Geneva seem to love or hate it and I definitely fell into the former category. Geneva is one of my favourite cities in the world and my stint in Geneva last year is one of the best times in my life so far. Geneva isn’t that big in terms of population or size; most things are within walking distance and, if not, the public transport system will get you anywhere, precisely on time of course! But it feels much, much larger. Geneva is host to the headquarters of the UN and the Red Cross, more international organisations than in any other city in the world… and a fair share of banks, too! The homeland of Protestantism and the place where the Geneva Conventions were signed… Geneva has a sense of history, internationalism and global significance that is perceptible all over the city. Centred around water (Lake Geneva and the rivers Le Rhone and L’Arve) and surrounded by mountains (the Alps on one side and the Jura on the other) – Geneva is really pretty. But be warned – as one of the most expensive cities in the world, a few days in Geneva might cost you a pretty penny.
Geneva is divided by Lake Geneva the River Rhone. If you think of the part where Lake Geneva runs into Le Rhone as the centre of the city, the main suburbs (quartiers) cluster around the water on the left and right banks. Each of Geneva’s suburbs has a distinct character and its own attractions.On the Left Bank are the City (home to many banks and designer stores) and the Old Town (home to St Pierre Cathedral and, purportedly, the longest bench in the world), Plainpalais (home to the Plainpalais markets, university bars and the Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art), Eaux-Vives (home of the Jet d’Eau and many a delicious pizza restaurant), and Carouge (Italian architecture, bohemian boutiques and art). On the Right Bank are Servette, Petit-Sacconex, Paquis (the souvenir district by day and the ‘red light’ district by night – home to cuisine from around the world, small bars and nightclubs) and Nations (home to the international organisations, including the UN, and the fabulous Red Cross Museum).
See and do
Geneva’s iconic fountain. Get to the shore of Lake Geneva (Lac Leman) in the middle of the city, and you can’t really miss it (as it’s about 150 metres in height…)
L’horloge flourie (the flower clock), Quai du Général-Guisan, 1204 Genève
A tribute to the city’s history with watchmakers, this clock is made entirely of flowers. The whole clock changes overnight a few times a year, when the flowers are pulled out and new ones are replanted!
Palais des Nations, 1211 Genève 10
A.K.A the headquarters of the United Nations. A beautiful building on beautiful grounds. Take a guided tour – there are several each day at 10.30am and 2.30pm and more times in summer. My hint would be to walk past the UN along Avenue de la Paix (you will pass the Red Cross Museum on your left) and take a right at the first available side road. This will take you around the back of the UN – from where you will get a amazing view of the lake – and down into Jardin Botaniques. If you’re going to the UN by bus, catch bus 8 (to ‘OMS’) or train 14 from the main station (Gare de Coravin) and disembark at stop ‘Nations’.
Red Cross Museum, Av. de la Paix 17, 1202 Genève
The best museum I’ve ever been too! I’m willing to bet you will love it, even if you aren’t particularly interested in caring for the injured, displaced and vulnerable and even if you don’t like museums! It’s an incredibly well thought out and well put together museum. It’s interactive, uses all sorts of engaging mediums and you could easily spend the best part of a day there.
The broken chair sculpture in front of the UN
This huge broken chair sculpture, a reminder of the impact of land minds and cluster bombs, is likely to be one of the first things you will spot when you arrive in Nations. While you’re in Nations (the international organisations quartier) check out some of the organisations, such as the World Health Organization (my old stomping ground) and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights.
If you walk or jog along Le Rhone (away from the lake) for about half an hour you will reach La Jonction. This is the meeting place for the two rivers of Geneva, Le Rhone and L’Arve. Le Rhone is super clear and L’Arve is foggy – there is a really clear distinction between the two rivers where they meet.
CERN, Route de Meyrin 385, 1217 Meyrin
If you watch Big Bang Theory, you might recognise CERN as the place that Sheldon has wanted to visit since he was 9 years old. Yep, it’s got to do with science and it’s got to do with physics and it’s super cool and might just blow your mind. Visiting CERN made me rethink the universe. I can’t explain it in a way that will do it justice – just go.
Plainpalais markets, Plaine de Plainpalais
Check out this wonderful market on a Saturday (for antique treasures) or Sunday (for fresh provisions).
Parc des Bastions, Les Bastions, 1205 Genève
Not too far from Plaine de Plainpalais is this lovely park, home to the Reformation Wall (featuring larger-than-life carvings of the fathers of Protestantism). In keeping with the oversized theme, there are giant public chess boards by the entrance.
St Pierre Cathedral, Place du Bourg-de-Four 24, 1204 Genève
Check out the home of Protestantism (and the beautiful cobbled squares and streets surrounding it).
Home St Pierre, Cour St. Pierre 4 CH-1204 Genève
In terms of location, this is one of the best hostels I’ve ever stayed at! It is literally right next door to St Pierre Cathedral and, I must say, I loved waking up in the morning and opening the doors to one of the most iconic buildings in Geneva. Plus, the massive green spire of the Cathedral is really helpful in finding your way home through the grid of steep, cobblestoned streets in Geneva’s hilly old town.
There are short term and long term options in separate buildings (I stayed in the short term, 10 person female dormitory for two weeks). It’s got all the necessities – hot showers, warm rooms in winter, bedside lamps, a fridge and some cooking utensils (albeit, very basic ones). There is access to the rooftop in the longterm building and the views over the city are gorgeous.
I am a massive advocate for airbnb as there are some gorgeous options. I spent four weeks of my stay in a bright and airy room that I found on airbnb and I couldn’t have asked for anything more… The apartment was in Eaux-Vives (the Jet d’Eau was at the end of my street) on the fourth floor of an 18th century apartment block, with timber floors and high ceilings, and great housemates.
As a suburb to stay in, I would highly recommend Eaux-Vives. It’s pretty quiet (a plus if you happen to be in Geneva to work, like I was!). It takes less than five minutes to walk to the lake or the Old Town. The main train station (Gare de Coravin) and Paquis are both just over the lake, within a twenty minutes’ walk. While staying in Eaux-Vives, I frequently walked to the Old Town or Paquis for dinner and drinks; the Plainpalais markets for fresh produce, antiques and French lessons; and nearby Parc La Grange (even by European standards, this park is fantastic!) Eaux-Vives is full of Italian restaurants – there were two on my street alone!
Eat and drink
Fondue at Bains de Paquis, Quai du Mont-Blanc 30
Whilst in Switzerland, it’s a given that you must try fondue somewhere. There are different views amongst people living/working/from Geneva as to which is the best (some rave about Cafe du Soilel, in Petit-Saconnex). I think Bains des Paquis is unbeatable. In the summer time, the Paquis baths are a place for Genevois (residents of Geneva) to cool down. During the winter season, the cabin below the diving platforms becomes warm from the fires of wooden cooking stoves and the body heat of Genevois packed side-by-side to eat fondue.
Fondue is their speciality; it’s all they do apart from some basic side dishes and mulled wine. In my opinion, it’s the atmosphere that sets it apart. Like a canteen, the cabin is filled with long, shared wooden benches. It’s not fancy. But fondue is kinda messy. And set on a pier on the lake, Bains de Paquis offers a gorgeous view of the Jet d’Eau when it’s on.
Winter specialities; roasted chestnuts by the river and mulled wine from Plaine de Plainpalais markets
For me, roast chestnuts and mulled wine (together or separate) are the ultimate winter warmers while in Switzerland. Grab roast chestnuts from any of the small stalls around the city (there are usually several along the river – try near Rue des Moulins).
Several vans/kiosks at Plaine de Plainpalais sell mulled wine… the perfect way to cap off a day shopping at the Plainpalais markets.
The Luigia Petalo at Luigia, Rue Adrien-Lachenal 24, 1207 Genève
A friend of mine recommended that I try this while in Geneva. It’s cheesy, indulgent, and so good.
The many, many Fairtrade items on offer
There are countless Fairtrade (or Max Havelaar, as the certification is called in Switzerland) goodies available from any of the supermarkets in Geneva, particularly the big ones Migros and Coop. There were the usual suspects (coffee, tea, sugar, bananas), ones I’ve seen online (nuts, rice) and ones I’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE (yogurt! coconut milk!) I was in heaven. And that was before I reached the chocolate aisle…!
Stock up on some amazing Swiss Fairtrade chocolate, grab a baguette and gruyere cheese and a bottle of Swiss wine. Then take yourself off to one of the parks overlooking the lake (such as Parc La Grange) and enjoy!
On the border with France, Mount Saleve is a mountain that offers magnificent views over Geneva (and some lovely hikes). Because its technically in France, remember to bring your passport! You can get there from Gare de Coravin on bus number 8 (to ‘Veryier Douane’ – the opposite direction from ‘OMS’) and get off at the last stop. From there you can see a cable car. The base of the cable car is about a 5 minute walk from the bus stop. It costs around 10 euro to get to the top of Mount Saleve by cable car (you can also pay in Swiss francs). There is often snow atop Mount Saleve if it’s been cold in Geneva!
Ferney-Voltaire Market, Avenue Voltaire, Ferney Voltaire, France
Do not eat before coming here! There are so many delightful things to try – from juicy fruit and fresh baked bread, to olive tapenade, honey roasted nuts, steaming coffee, smoked meat and more types of cheese than you probably knew existed. A tip if you’re on a budget: the food here is much cheaper than in neighbouring Switzerland, so bring your shopping bags! By the way, because the market is in France, you will be paying in Euros (and, like for Saleve, you’ll need to rememember to bring your passport!)
There are also clothes vendors at the market (I bought a coat that was made in Italy).
Get there by catching Bus F from Gare Coravin to Ferney-Voltaire. It takes about 20 minutes.