Geneva is an elegant and sophisticated, modern and ancient city that will surprise you with its ability to perfectly combine a medieval soul with a young and modern attitude. Located on the shores of Lake Geneva, a stone's throw from the French border, the city is famous all over the world for its humanitarian vocation and for being the headquarters of the United Nations and the Red Cross. But in spite of its institutional character, in Geneva you will find many attractions worth visiting and many opportunities for leisure and entertainment, all mixed with the undeniable charm of the French language and culture. We were here during a sunny February weekend and in this article we suggest the eight must-see attractions for a weekend in the city!
Geneva, Switzerland’s most famous French-speaking city, is located on the shores of Lake Geneva, where the Rhone River leaves the great water mirror to continue its journey first to France and then to the Mediterranean Sea. The elegant and sophisticated city, both modern and ancient, is famous throughout the world for its humanitarian vocation and for being the headquarters of the United Nations and the Red Cross. But despite this strong institutional character, you will certainly be amazed by its ability to perfectly combine an ancient soul with a young and modern attitude. In Geneva you’ll find many attractions not to be missed and lots of opportunities for leisure and entertainment. And don’t forget that French is spoken here: a language with undeniable charm! We were in Geneva during a sunny weekend in February and in this article we point out the eight must-see attractions for your weekend in the city!
Arriving by train
Geneva is easily accessible by train from major cities in Switzerland and neighboring countries. From Lucerne, a direct train takes you to the city in about three hours. Zurich and Bern are also of course served by direct trains, which reach the city in 2 hours and 45 minutes and 1 hour and 45 minutes respectively. From Basel, the trip to Geneva takes about 2 hours and 45 minutes, but in this case it will be necessary to change the train in Bern or Biel/Bienne. Finally, from Lugano the trip is much longer and takes about 4 hours and 45 minutes with a train change in Olten or Zurich.
Geneva station, known to locals as ‘Gare de Cornavin‘, is located within walking distance of the old town, which is easily accessible in just 10-15 minutes. The area around the station also offers good accommodations options ideal for those arriving by train: this way you can easily leave your luggage and get around the city. Train tickets can be purchased through the SBB website or through the SBB app and, as always, we suggest to check in advance the updated timetables and the different travel options.
Arriving by car
Geneva is of course also reachable by car through the excellent highway network that connects it to major Swiss cities. From Lucerne, Zurich and Bern it is possible to get to the city in about 2 hours and 50 minutes, 3 hours and 1 hour and 50 minutes driving on the A1. From Basel, the journey by car takes about two hours and 45 minutes driving along the A2 highway and then the A1 highway. Finally, from Lugano, if you do not want to cross the national border, it is advisable to reach Lucerne and then to follow the A1 to Geneva. In this case, the journey takes about 4 hours and 45 minutes.
The city offers many paid parking areas, some of them in the city center or nearby, but as always, we recommend to get here by public transport and leave your car at home: in the city you will not need it! However, at this link you will find information on city parking and its costs.
Arriving by plane
Geneva has an international airport and is therefore easily accessible by plane. The city airport is located about 5 km from the city and close to the French border. It is reached by many flights from Europe, including low cost airlines, and some non-European destinations. From the airport, all departing trains stop in the center of Geneva and reach Geneva-Cornavin Station in just 7 minutes. The “unireso zone 10” ticket costs CHF 3.00. Alternatively, it is also possible to use a bus service or the Taxi service. The taxi service costs between CHF 35.00 and CHF 45.00, depending on the traffic along the route.
Must-see attractions in the city
La Vieille-Ville, the old heart of the city
La Vieille-Ville – the old town of Geneva – is a little gem! You’ll love strolling through its cobblestone streets, looking inside the windows of the craft stores and art galleries. This part of town is a true open-air historical museum, where ancient buildings are mixed with innovative realities. Among its streets, you will also find the Maison Tavel – the oldest private residence in the city and today home to the Museum of Art and History – the city Cathedral, the Hôtel de Ville and the famous Place du Bourg-de-Four, for a coffee or lunch in Parisian style.
If you feel like getting really lost in exploring the city, we challenge you: try to find at least three of the many covered walkways that connect the streets of the center together!
Saint-Pierre Cathedral and the Chapel of the Macchabees
Located in an elevated position right in the center of the city, Saint-Pierre Cathedral is certainly a must-see attraction, both for its ancient and rich history and for the little gems it hides. Built between the 12th and 13th centuries, the cathedral today shows a predominantly Romanesque-Gothic style, but a more attentive eye will not miss the presence of many architectural styles, which are already evident in the columns of the arcade and in the two bell towers. The building has in fact been rebuilt and modified several times over the centuries, a circumstance that accentuates its specificity. But the church is famous not only for its architectural features, but also for being the place where the Protestant reformer John Calvin used to pronounce his sermons. Inside the church you can admire, in fact, the simple wooden chair on which Calvin used to sit.
But the real jewel of the cathedral lies in a hidden position, just before the exit door: it is the surprising Chapel of the Maccabees. Built at the beginning of the 15th century to house the mortal remains of a cardinal, the chapel is certainly the most richly decorated part of the cathedral. Its colors will surprise you!
The entrance to the church, as well as to the chapel, is for free. You can find all information at this link (french only).
The view from the bell towers of the Cathedral
But before you leave Saint-Pierre Cathedral, there’s still something you can’t miss: climb the 157 steps of the bell tower to admire the magnificent view of the city and the lake from above. To reach the top you’ll have to buy a ticket at a cost of CHF 7.00 per person and work hard. Access is through the south tower, inside which there is an ancient spiral staircase, narrow and steep, regulated by small traffic lights that indicate whether the way is free or not. During the ascent, you will have the opportunity to take a break in a small side terrace. But the widest and most beautiful view is certainly the one from the North Tower, which sweeps from the mountains around the city to the lake and the Jet d’Eau that is on display. A curiosity: before reaching the terrace of the north tower, stop for a moment to observe the imposing wooden structure that holds the roof of the church below you!
The Jet d'Eau
It is the true symbol of the city, clearly visible even from the planes flying over Geneva, and a must-see for a first visit here. The Jet d’Eau, the water jet, is not a simple fountain, but a powerful column of water projected 140 meters high and at a speed of 200 kilometers per hour. This symbol of the city has a curious history. It was born at the end of the 19th century, in the middle of industrial development, with the aim of acting as a safety valve to expel excess water (and pressure) from the supply circuits of the hydraulic plant of La Coulouvrenière. This first Jet d’Eau barely reached 30 meters and was located far from its current position. It was only in 1891 that the Jet d’eau found its actual location, on the city’s lakefront just beyond the Jardin Anglais. It is visible every day during the day, but be careful: the season and the wind conditions can modify the operating hours!
The bravest ones can walk along the pier leading to the jet and get very close to it. But be careful, because a sudden change in the wind could turn into an unexpected shower! More infos are available at this link.
The Hôtel de Ville
The political heart of the city, the Hôtel de Ville is still today the home of the government of the Canton and the Republic of Geneva. The ancient building with its spiral staircase is certainly one of the most fascinating and “Instagrammable” places in the city. The building has an ancient heart that dates back to the fifteenth century, but it has been modified and enlarged several times over the centuries. Here, moreover, important peace treaties were signed, such as the one of 1872 between the United States of America and Great Britain, and the first Geneva Convention, the founding act of the International Red Cross in 1864.
The Hôtel de Ville, at least in its external structures, can be visited free of charge every day and is also accessible on Sundays. Don’t miss the opportunity to walk the monumental stairs leading to the upper floors for a special view of the inner courtyard!
Promenade de la Treille and the longest bench in the world
Not far from the Hôtel de Ville stands the elegant Promenade de la Treille, a panoramic viewpoint that offers a wonderful view of the city and the Park of the Bastions below. The Promenade has ancient origins and dates back to the 16th century, when it was built as an additional fortification for the nearby government buildings. Today, the Promenade is the balcony of the city, a place of meeting and leisure and a small green lung, together with the underlying Park of the Bastions.
But the undisputed attraction of this corner of the city is certainly the Banc de la Treille, the Guinness World Record wooden bench, 120 meters long!
The wall of the Reformers
From the Promenade de la Trelle, take one of the two pedestrian walkways on either side to reach the Parc des Bastions, right below you. Here, right in the heart of the park, stands the imposing International Monument to the Reformation. This huge wall represents, in the form of sculptures and bas-reliefs, the main protagonists of the Reformation: John Calvin, William Farel, Theodore of Beza and John Knox and other personalities who helped to spread it in Europe. The sculptures have an austere but undisputed charm.
If during the visit you wish to have a coffee or a snack, not far inside the park you will find a small kiosk.
The glittering domes of the Russian church
The last unmissable stop in the city, perhaps the least known, is the beautiful Russian Orthodox Church. Located above the Quartier des Eaux-Vives, its golden domes are visible from every slightly elevated area of the city, making it a sparkling landmark. The small church was built in the mid-1800s at the wishes of Geneva’s Russian Orthodox community, which also financed its construction. It’s a bit off the usual tourist routes, but for this reason we recommend visiting it during a walk in the city!
Guests who decide to stay in one of the hotels of the city will receive the Geneva Transport Card. With this card, which will be given to you when you check in at the hotel, you will be entitled to unlimited travel on the Geneva UNIRESO public transport network: bus, train (including the return trip from Geneva to the airport) and boat (Mouettes Genevoises) for the entire duration of your stay.
If you are traveling here in spring or summer or, why not, on a sunny winter day, we suggest you have lunch or breakfast at the Cottage Café, a café-restaurant located just behind the Monument for Charles II of Brunswick. Here you’ll find great food and a decidedly holiday and relaxed atmosphere. The outdoor terrace is large and well organized, while the interior spaces are rather limited, so the advice is to book in advance. If, on the other hand, you prefer to have lunch quickly and at a more affordable price, we suggest you take advantage of the excellent Crepes offer of Crêperie du Molard, at Rue Neuve-du-Molard 19.
The area under the great cathedral of Saint-Pierre has for many years been the object of archaeological excavations that have brought to light the ancient structures and foundations of buildings that existed before the current cathedral. The archaeological excavations are open to the public by purchasing an entrance fee of CHF 8.00 per person inside the Cathedral. Combination tickets are also available for all of the Cathedral’s attractions, including the archaeological area and the climb up the bell towers. We, unfortunately, had to forgo this visit due to time constraints. What about you? If you have been here or if you plan to visit the excavations, let us know by leaving a comment in the box below or, if you like, by writing an article to be published on our blog!