Known globally as an international hub with a high cost of living, Geneva also has its own charming local flavor and history. The city is centrally located minutes from the French border and only about 45 minutes by car from the Italian border, making it an easy place to travel to and through. Geneva is home to the United Nations and many associated international organizations resulting in a diverse demographic of diplomats and a very ex-pat heavy workforce within the city and its surrounding suburbs. However, there is definitely a “local” vibe among the proud natives of Geneva and a history that is marked by specific celebrations.
Why to go: Unless you’ve found a great bargain on accommodations, I wouldn’t recommend spending more than a few days in Geneva proper. However, since it’s very easy to pass through Geneva on your way to/from many other destinations, it’s definitely worth the stopover.
When to go: If you’re visiting as a detour on a trip to various other locations, you will be able to find something to do at any time during the year. However, if you have certain activities in mind, make sure to check the regional/local calendars so that you plan your timing correctly. The city has big celebrations during the summer for the Fêtes de Genève and in the winter for the Escalade – both mentioned below. In terms of weather, Geneva tends to have a relatively mild winter with occasional snow in the city (much more snow only 20 minutes away in the mountains). Summers also tend to be mild with an occasional week-long heat wave.
What to do: Two popular sites for tourists are the Jet d’Eau which is the spout of water icon of the city, and the flower clock just at the edge of the Jardin Anglais. They’re located on the same side of the lake but the Jet d’Eau is actually best viewed from the opposite side. Of course, there are many other historic sites. You’ll find Vieille Ville at the highest point in the city – this is the historic heart of Geneva and highlights include: Cathédrale St-Pierre, city hall, little cafes and antique shops. It’s a quaint area for a leisurely walk (once you get up the hill to reach it). This is also the center of the famous Escalade festivities. The Escalade celebration takes place every December in memory of the city’s self-defense from the Duke of Savoy’s army attack in 1602. The army attempted to attack the city by scaling the walls during the night. Legend has it that they were heard by a woman who poured a pot full of boiling soup on them from above and in doing so, woke the city and saved it from being overthrown. You’ll see the present-day symbol of chocolate pots filled with vegetable-shaped marzipan for sale in celebrations throughout the city. The other celebration occurring in Geneva is the Fêtes de Genève which takes place during the first 2 weeks of August when the city basically morphs into a carnival with rides, games, fireworks, etc.
Other places you might want to visit include:
- Palais des Nations (the UN building behind a massive iron gate and lines of flags from around the world.)
- The Red Cross Museum, Musée Ariana and many other impressive museums
- CERN – European Organization for Nuclear Research
Where to detour/extend the trip: There are so many great spots that are only about 1-2 hours from Geneva. You can easily take a little boat trip to other lakeside towns such as Lausanne or Yvoire. There’s great skiing nearby in Chamonix or many other hill town resorts in the area. The French towns of Annecy (known as “the Venice of France”) and Lyon (known for its incredible gastronomy) are also both an easy drive away.