You’ve probably heard all the stereotypes about Geneva. But it’s only when you come that they can be challenged. Yes there’s wealth, fondue, chocolate and watchmaking. But Geneva is also charged with diversity and creativity, in neighbourhoods like Les Grottes or the Italian-flavoured Carouge.
Lake Geneva and its iconic plume of water will draw your eye on promenades and lush waterside parks, while Mont Salève is a slice of the Alps in the background. Geneva is still a beacon of diplomacy, where organisations like the United Nations and the Red Cross convene. Experts of a different kind come together to answer the great scientific questions of our time at CERN. And hundreds of years ago the course of European history was changed in Geneva during the Protestant Reformation.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Geneva:
1. Lake Geneva
The largest lake in Central Europe brings the drama and awe-inspiring natural splendour of the Alps to the centre of the city.
Nobody could blame you for wanting to get out and experience it, and the easiest way to do that is to catch a boat from the quay at Genève-Mt-Blanc.
These shoot off to a host of places on the shores of the lake: You could keep it local on a “mouette”, shuttling to the other side of the city, or go long distance and cruise to Lausanne in three hours.
The lake’s beauty has affected the design of the city itself, as a promenade was built around the shore in the mid-19th century.
Next to the water are tree-lined promenades with palatial townhouses or serene parks like Eaux-Vives, Jardin Anglais, Perle du Lac or Mon Repos.
2. Jet d’Eau
At the city centre, where the Rhône continues on its course into France is La Rade (The Roadstead). Here, at the end of a long jetty, is a much-imitated monument known the world over.
The Jet d’Eau is five hundred litres of water per second propelled to a height of 140 metres.
If you do want to get a closer look, take care as the plume is susceptible to the wind and you may get wet.
The jet has been at its present spot since 1951, and originally had an important practical use: It started in 1886 as a safety valve for the hydraulic power plant, and became a permanent monument as the city loved the way it looked.
3. St Pierre Cathedral
Geneva Cathedral is one of those religious buildings that needs as much time as you can afford.
Beyond the recent Neoclassical facade things are much older, with architecture that dates to the 12th century.
From 1541 it was the home church of John Calvin, and his personal chair looks like he just got up from it.
The cathedral was constructed on top of much older buildings , among which is a basilica from the 4th century.
This and a variety of ancient vestiges can be explored underground at the archaeological site.
You can also go up the cathedral’s towers to view the Alps, Jura and Geneva against its lake: The south’s viewing platform is open-air, while the north is in a closed room and might be more suitable in winter.
4. Vielle Ville
Allow a couple of hours to satisfy your curiosity in the largest historic centre in Switzerland.
The Vielle Ville twists around the hill capped by the cathedral and was once enveloped by defensive walls.
Getting around on these steep cobblestone streets and stairways is tiring but worthwhile: The old centre is densely packed with intriguing little corners, fountains, terraces with lookouts, as well as places of real historic value.
The 18th-century polymath Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born here, while Bourg-de-Four has a row of evocative historic houses on a friendly square where cattle markets traded in medieval times.
West of the centre of Geneva, in the suburb of Meyrin, you’ll come to the headquarters for the European Organization for Nuclear Research.
Needless to say, this is where historic scientific experiments are being conducted at the world’s largest particle physics laboratory.
The visitor centre offers tours of parts of the facility explaining the mind-bending science in more digestible terms.
There are also two museum exhibitions about the facility and its research.
One explains the current practical applications of CERN’s work, in the field of medical imaging for instance.
And the other goes into detail on the particle accelerator and the hunt for the Higgs boson.
6. Patek Philippe Museum
An early 20th-century factory is the stage for a museum delving into five centuries of watchmaking.
The star is the amazing exhibition of musical automata, watches and portrait miniatures from the 1500s to the 1900s, mostly assembled in Geneva and Switzerland.
But you can also track the origins of Patek Philippe, set up in 1845 by a partnership between the watchmakers Antoni Patek from Poland and Frenchman Adrien Philippe.
On the ground floor are reconstructions of workbenches with all of the instruments needed to make a timepiece, and you can even see a watch-maker on the job in a workshop.
7. Palais des Nations
After New York, Geneva has the second most important United Nations office.
The Palais des Nations dates to the 1930s and was the headquarters for the League of Nations, the UN’s predecessor.
The complex is in constant use, hosting thousands of intergovernmental meetings each year, but is open for hour-long guided tours in 15 different languages.
Your level of access is contingent on the meeting schedule, but typically will involve the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, the immense Assembly Hall, the Salle des Pas Perdus and the Council Chamber, where epoch-making negotiations have taken place between nations.
8. Bains des Pâquis
Poking out into La Rade and close enough to the Jet d’Eau to feel the spray, the Bains des Pâquis are public baths along a pier on the west shore of Lake Geneva.
This isn’t just somewhere to exercise, as people meet up to socialise at Bains des Pâquis and cultural events take place in summer.
The outdoor pool is wildly popular when it’s warm, and you can sunbathe on the pier and grab lunch at the restaurant terrace.
In this season there are free poetry and classical music recitals at the baths first thing in the morning.
In winter you’re also free to bathe in the outdoor pool before warming up in the sauna and hammam.
9. Mont Salève
When it’s overcast in Geneva there might be blue skies and sunshine at this mountain peak on the edge of the city.
A big wall of rock on the horizon, Salève is billed as the “balcony of Geneva” and rises to just shy of 1,400 metres.
If that sounds daunting there’s a cable-car that will whisk you to near the summit in just five minutes.
This has been operating in some form since 1932 and replaced the world’s first electric rack railway, completed in 1892. If you’re a hardy walker you’re also free to take the hiking trail to the top.
At the summit are cafes, constant knockout views of Geneva, the lake and Mont Blanc in the distance.
From the peak you could follow a trail into alpine meadows where cattle wear cowbells.
10. Conservatory and Botanical Garden
Geneva’s botanical garden is on the western lakeshore across the railway tracks from the United Nations Office.
Keen gardeners will be spellbound, in a park that contains 14,000 plant species gathered from all over the world.
The gardens’ herbarium catalogues more than six million specimens.
While outside you can lose yourself in flowerbeds, an arboretum, ponds and the graceful metal and glass greenhouse that holds the winter garden.
One themed garden features plants that evoke our senses of smell and touch, while the rose garden is sensory overload in June and July.
The park also has a zoo for conservation, housing deer and waterfowl.
11. International Museum of the Reformation
As the home of John Calvin Geneva is in a unique position to tell the story of the Reformation.
It’s a defining chapter in the city’s past, and is retold at this museum next to the Cathedral of St Pierre.
The exhibitions are given real historical weight thanks to the rich archives of documents that were already in Geneva: There are manuscripts, engravings, paintings and early printed materials to study, as well as a modern 15-minute film outlining the driving forces.
The location is significant too, as the museum is on the site of the Cloître de Saint-Pierre where the vote to approve the reformation of Geneva was taken in 1536.
12. Art and History Museum
At Les Tranchées in the centre of the city, this attraction has vast exhibitions of fine arts, applied arts and archaeology.
The museum’s forte is Swiss and Genevan art, and you can immerse yourself in the work of the portraitist Jean-Étienne Liotard or caricaturist Rodolphe Töpffe.
The work that must not be missed is the 15th-century Miraculous Draft of Fishes by Konrad Witz.
This was on an altarpiece at St Pierre Cathedral and is credited as being the first ever faithful depiction of a landscape in European art.
Byzantine icons, textiles, silverware and musical instruments are in the applied arts section, while the archaeology collection stands out for its 3,000-year-old Egyptian mummy.
13. Natural History Museum
The largest Swiss museum in its field opened in a modern building in the 1960s.
In the collections are insect specimens collected by the 18th and 19th century entomologist Louis Jurine.
But what catches most people’s attention is the army of taxidermies on the ground floor.
The museum also has living animals, and you have to meet Janus, the spur-thighed tortoise with two heads which was born in incubators at the museum in 1997. The first three floors is dedicated to the animal kingdom, while the top two cover everything from geology to astronomy.
At the top you can check out moon rocks and a bronze statue of an Australopithecus fossil (an ancestor of early man, dating back 3.2 million years).
14. Musée Ariana
In a Neo-Baroque palace near the UN’s Palais des Nations is a museum all about ceramics and glassware.
Musée Ariana was set up in the 1880s by the art collector Gustave Revilliod, and named after his mother.
There are 20,000 pieces of ceramics and glassware in the galleries, covering 12 centuries and extending to all corners of the globe.
All forms of ceramics are here, from earthenware to stoneware, china, porcelain and pottery.
Perhaps most interesting is the exhibition of Japanese and Chinese porcelain from the 1500s to thee 1700s, crafted for export and shedding light on trade and the relationship between cultures in that period.
15. Parc de la Grange
The largest of Geneva’s city parks is possibly the most beautiful, on the shore of the lake at Quai Gustave-Ador.
Parc de la Grange is laid out over terraces, with stairways that have been cut from the bedrock.
This space has been settled by wealthy residents for 2,000 years, as the ruins of a Roman villa sit behind the 18th-century villa there now.
In 1918 the villa’s last resident bequeathed the park to the city.
There are two theatres in Parc de la Grange, both staging several productions from May to September.
But the star in summer is the rose garden, which grows more than 10,000 bushes from 200 varieties.
16. Maison Tavel
A branch of the Art and History Museum, Maison Tavel is a historic house on Rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre in the middle of the Old Town.
This is the oldest private home in Geneva, dating mostly to the 14th century after it was rebuilt in the wake of a fire that devastated the city in 1334. Each room tells you something about the history of Geneva.
On the top floor there’s a video projected onto a relief model of Geneva’s natural landscape to show the city’s growth.
Spaces in the house like the cellars, kitchen and apartments are decorated in styles from different epochs, all with period furniture, paintings and everyday utensils in place.
17. Jardin Anglais
In 1854, when the waterfront was being spruced up, an English-style garden was plotted on reclaimed land north of the Old Town.
This took the place of an old wooden harbour and was enhanced a few years later when the Pont du Mont du Mont-Blanc was completed on the west side in 1862. The centrepiece is the fountain, cast at a foundry in Val d’Osne in France in 1862. The park’s curving paths radiate off this monument, out to the promenade where you can get a photo of the Jet d’Eau and contemplate the lake.
Look for the Horloge Fleurie, an outdoor homage to Geneva’s watchmakers from 1955, in the form of a working clock with a flowerbed for its face.
18. International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum
This museum for this international humanitarian network goes back to 1988. At the start of the 2010s it was given a complete overhaul and reopened in 2013 with the innovative “Humanitarian Adventure” exhibition.
There are three main areas, each representing one of the organisation’s remits: Defending Human Dignity, Reconstructing Family Links and Reducing Natural Risks.
Each of these sections was drawn up by a world-leading exhibition designer.
They communicate information in unconventional ways, intended to elicit more emotion than if you were looking at plain artefacts and statistics.
19. Parc des Bastions
This park got its name because it was wedged between the 16th-century fortifications and those that followed a century later.
Next to Place de Neuve it is also home to the oldest university building, erected in 1873. On June 21 the Parc des Bastions puts on concerts as part of the international Fête de la Musique.
Life-sized chessboards are available to all passersby, and there are also ping-pong tables and then a skating rink in winter.
You have to spare a moment for the Monument international de la Réformation, erected along the 16th-century defences in 1909. Against a long wall stand the figures of John Calvin, John Knox, Theodore Beza and William Farel, all of whom were instrumental in the Reformation.
20. Quartier des Grottes
One tenth of all Genevans live in this neighbourhood near the centre.
Les Grottes might clash with your notions of Geneva as a posh and ordered city, as this quarter is chaotic, young and bohemian.
From the 1960s it was the home of anarchist communes and squats, and although Les Grottes has been gentrified in recent years it is still a very affordable place to live considering the centre is so close.
Explore this area for cafes, theatres, cinemas, left-field independent shops, but also to see Les Schtroumpfs.
These are housing blocks from the 1980s with sinuous colourful facades that look like they could have been designed by Gaudí.
Before 1816, this quarter just south of the Vielle Ville was a separate town.
As we see it now Carouge is the product of a wave of construction initiated by the King of Sardinia in 1786. The townscape was modelled on Nice, then also Italian, and the Italian accent endures in its palazzos, the Baroque Holy Cross Church and rows of painted townhouses with wooden shutters.
No shock that Carouge is often called “La Cité Sarde”, the Sardinian City.
In a leisurely ambience Carouge abounds with handicraft shops, vintage boutiques, antiques dealers and a market at Place de Marchéon Wednesdays and Saturdays.
22. Plainpalais Market
Geneva’s main flea and famers’ market trades on Wednesdays and Saturdays, as well as the first Sunday of the month.
If you’re out hunting for a bargain there are scores of stalls selling antiques, furniture, handicrafts, books, jewellery, homeware and clothing.
As with any market your chances of making a discovery hinge on luck and patience, as well as when you visit: On Saturdays for example the traders tend to be more upscale.
But if nothing catches your eye can always console yourself with international street-food from Peru to Morocco.
23. Museum of Far Eastern Art
Switzerland’s biggest hoard of oriental art is in store at a sumptuous turn-of-the-century townhouse.
Many of these Japanese and Chinese items were curated by one man: Born in 1861, Alfred Baur was employed by a trading company and posted in Sri Lanka.
Over the course of his travels he nurtured a love for oriental art, and he proved to have a discerning eye.
When he returned to Switzerland he brought back invaluable Chinese jade, porcelain and ornate snuff bottles dating from the 700s.
In Japan he picked up miniature sculptures (netsuke), swords, woodprints, lacquerware and fine sword fittings.
The exhibition has expanded to more than 9,000 pieces after donations over the last hundred years.
Call it a cliché, but if you find yourself in Geneva in winter there’s no excuse not to go for fondue.
Not just a Swiss creation, fondue was born in the western French-speaking regions.
So there’s no better city in Switzerland to order this steaming pot of melted gruyère combined with wine, garlic and seasoning.
The dish may have rustic associations, but gruyère has never been cheap and so towns like Geneva are where fondue would have first been served.
For somewhere unpretentious and reasonably priced you can’t go wrong at La Buvette in the Bains des Pâquis.
Also good for families are Café du Soleil at Place du Petit-Saconnex in the west, and le Gruyèrien on Chemin de la Bessonnette to the east of the centre.
The big annual event in Geneva happens in December to commemorate the defence of the city in the face of an attack by the Duke of Savoy’s army in 1602. According to legend the “Escalade” took place on the night of December 11-12 at 02:00 when the duke’s crack troops attempted to scale the walls and sneak into the city.
They were seen by humble cook Catherine Cheynel, who dumped a pot of hot soup on them, alerting Geneva’s guards and preventing catastrophe.
The celebrations all go down on the closest weekend to 11 December, with parades in period costume.
The best bit for kids is when they get a “marmite”, a pot made from chocolate and filled with marzipan vegetables as a nod to the Catherine Cheynel’s soup pot.