Strolling around Geneva's quaint Old Town, it's easy to forget you're in one of Europe's most politically and culturally powerful cities. But you are. Home to the United Nations, World Health Organisation and Red Cross, this cosmopolitan Swiss city has a lot more to offer than the watches and chocolates for which it's famous.
Geneva: city layout
The iconic Jet d'Eau
water fountain marks the point where huge Lac Léman, or Lake Geneva, merges with the Rhône river. The French-speaking city hugs the lake's southwestern tip, straddling the river with seven bridges.
Crowning the Old Town is St. Pierre Cathedral
, which offers a bird's-eye view of Geneva if you can manage the 157 steps to the top. Below, a web of cobbled, winding lanes sprawls over a hill on the Rive Gauche
(Left Bank) of the Rhône. Southwest are Plainpalais
, known for its flea and farmers markets, and the arty, foodie district of Bains
. North towards the river and the Jardin Anglais
lie the shopping streets of Rue du Rhône and Rue du Marché.
The newer Rive Droite
(Right Bank) is where you'll find Genève-Cornavin train station
, the Palais des Nations
and the Palexpo
convention centres. Big businesses, NGOs and upmarket hotels are located in the loosely defined international district around Nations and Petit-Saconnex
. The "bobo" (bourgeois-bohemian) neighbourhoods of Pâquis
and Les Grottes
are also on the Right Bank.
Geneva's great outdoors
A hub for low-cost flights, Geneva Airport (GVA) is an hour or two's drive from French Alpine resorts such as Chamonix and Les Trois Vallées. Closer by, Mont Salève is a popular spot for hiking and paragliding.
The concierge recommends…
- Bains des Pâquis, a lakeside beach with a sauna, Turkish bath, massages and a buvette bar-restaurant.
- Wandering through the Old Town with its antiques shops and eateries serving fondues, crêpes and steaming bowls of hot chocolate.
- A tour of the Palais des Nations, headquarters of the United Nations.
- An afternoon in Carouge, browsing art studios and ethnic shops, people-watching in outdoor cafés and sampling the edgy nightlife scene.
Hotels in Geneva
Geneva's hotel scene leans towards the upmarket, with plenty of business-friendly properties. Hotels get booked up early during events at the CICG
conference centres. If you want to be near these, as well as the United Nations headquarters and most of the NGOs, stay in Nations
. From here it's a short walk to the banks of Lake Geneva or, across the Rhône, the Old Town.
Hotels near Geneva Airport
cater mainly to visitors heading to and from the Alps or Jura mountains. But with a direct train line from the airport to the city centre, hotels here are often the most convenient option for business travellers and city breakers.
If you're staying in a hotel in Geneva, you can get a free transport card covering trams, buses, trains and taxi boats. You'll find a ticket machine in the baggage claim hall of Geneva Airport.
Eating Out in Geneva
Restaurants in Geneva cater to international tastes, but the French influence is the strongest. In the steep narrow lanes of the Old Town you'll find bistros doling out entrêcote aux frites
and sole meunière
while the smell of thick chocolat chaud
and wafts from cafés.
You can try fondues, raclettes, tartiflettes and other variations on cheese, pork and potatoes at Les Armures
. Creative restaurants such as Café des Bains
have a more modern take on Swiss cuisine, focusing on seasonal produce and local wines.
In the Petit-Saconnex
districts are several high-end restaurants including La Perle du Lac
, which serves fish from Lake Geneva on a terrace with Mont Blanc views.
Just across the Arve river in Carouge
is a clutch of trendy restaurants including Ô Calme
, where locals meet for brunch in a leafy garden.
Many of Geneva's fine-dining restaurants serve affordable fixed-price menus at lunchtime.
The chef recommends…
- Fondue. A pot of gooey, oozy cheese or chocolate into which you dunk cubes of rustic bread. Deliciously naughty and usually mixed with white wine, Switzerland's national dish is ideal for sharing.
- Raclette. Another Swiss sharing dish, raclette is both the name of a cheese and of the grill that melts it. Potatoes and grilled vegetables are blanketed in the melted cheese and accompanied by pickled onions and charcuterie.
- Papet Vaudois. After a day of skiing or hiking, you may appreciate this local winter favourite: cabbage-stuffed sausages, potatoes and leeks cooked slowly in lard. Promise.
Shopping in Geneva
Geneva's version of the Champs-Élysées is Rue du Rhône
, lined with luxury brands, jewellers and watch shops. You can window-shop west towards Place de la Fusterie
and its markets, then pop into the Malbuisson Passage
to see a chiming clock with 42 parading bronze figures. Heading back east along car-free Rue du Marché
, you'll soon reach La Halle de Rive
covered food market.
At the other end of the retail spectrum is the Plainpalais flea market
on Wednesdays, Saturdays and the first Sunday of every month. This large square hosts a food market on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, as well as occasional funfairs and circuses.
The Old Town
's cobbled lanes are lined with antiques shops. For contemporary arts and crafts, head over to Carouge
. Rue des Pâquis
has quirky vintage shops selling one-of-a-kind Swiss gear.
Independent boutiques mostly close at lunchtimes and on Sundays, but large malls such as Centre Balexert
and the Swiss department stores of Manor
are open throughout the day and week.
Swiss souvenirs and where to buy them
- Chocolate: Every artisan chocolatier in Geneva claims to sell the finest Swiss chocolate. Looking for something that won't melt or squish? Pick up amandes princesse (chocolate-covered almonds) from Auer on Rue de Rive.
- Swiss Army knives: Victorinox's flagship store is on Rue du Marché.
- Watches: Rue du Rhône has the best selection of watches, from glitzy timepieces at Patek Philippe to chunky, colourful Swatch wristwatches.
Culture & Nightlife in Geneva
By day, Geneva's cultural scene revolves around its many museums, mostly clustered in and near the Old Town. Here you'll find the contemporary art installations of MAMCO
in an old factory, the history of watchmaking in the Patek Philippe Museum
and insights into the city's development and Swiss urban life in the free Maison Tavel
On the Right Bank, the Red Cross Museum
offers a moving exhibition on the history of humanitarian action. Over the road by the Palais des Nations, the Ariana Museum
showcases glassware and ceramics in an imposing dome-topped building with a pleasant café.
By night, the Rococo Victoria Hall
is an impressive setting for classical music performances. The Grand Théâtre
is a replica of the Opéra Garnier in Paris and offers much the same fare.
If you prefer concerts that feature a drumset and amp, Le Chat Noir
in Carouge offers DJs, dancing and regular live shows. Carouge's hip reputation extends to its cultural scene, with the galleries of Art7 Carouge
clustered around café-lined squares.
In July and August, the whole city turns into an outdoor concert and performance venue with the Musiques en été
Live music venues in Geneva
- Geneva Arena in the Palexpo complex hosts concerts by big names such as Sting and Rihanna.
- AMR. A jazz school by day and club by night, featuring jam sessions and concerts.
- Thêatre du Léman in the former Grand Casino puts on comedies and plays as well as concerts.
Visiting Geneva with a Family
Geneva's outdoor spaces make it a fun destination for families, and its cosmopolitan restaurants mean there'll always be something for picky eaters.
Little legs can take a rest on the mini train that tours the Old Town from March through December. If those little legs have energy to burn, you can rent bikes from Genèveroule
and pedal along the lakeshore.
Boat trips on Lake Geneva, whether cruises or simple crossings on the buzzing yellow Mouettes Genevoises
taxi boats (free with a transport card), are always a winner. If the kids want to splash about in the lake as well as sail on it, Bain de Pâquis
has swimming facilities and an outdoor bar so adults can supervise over a cold beer.
Parks and outdoor spaces for families
- Parc des Bastions. This large and leafy park by Place de Neuve is famous for its Reformation Wall commemorating key figures of the Protestant Reformation. But kids will most likely love it for its outdoor restaurant in a former bandstand and its giant chess boards with life-size knights and pawns. In winter, there's a free ice-skating rink.
- Parc la Grange. Famous for its rose garden, this lakeside park has plenty of space to play, picnic and paddle. In summer there are performances and free concerts in two theatres.
- Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques de la Ville de Genève. Despite its grand name, Geneva's botanic garden guarantees fun for kids in the form of a child-friendly "touch and smell" garden, a playground and a picnic area.