Whether you’re flying in for work or stopping in on a European tour, Geneva is a nice place to visit for a few days. Its central location makes it easy to connect to an itinerary, and there are a number of fabulous day trips to medieval towns and Alpine landscape you could take, but be sure to enjoy the city center, too. After all, it isn’t all banks and watch shops here – Geneva has significant history, a remarkable old town, and some well-kept secrets to keep you engaged. Check out these top spots in Geneva for a true glimpse into the city’s past and present.
Geneva’s Flower Clock is a famous photo op, but it’s not the most impressive flora the city has to offer. Across the street from the Palais des Nations you’ll find acres of plants from every continent, organized in scenic plots with ponds, bridges, forest pathways, and grassy knolls. The beautiful layout makes for a thoroughly enjoyable stroll in any season, and you’ll find lots of plaques and descriptions as you move along. There’s also a glassed cactus house, and the water plant displays – with floating lilies and lotus blossoms – are particularly impressive. In a city with plenty of traffic, concrete, and corporate hubbub, this is the perfect escape for a breath of fresh air.
Place du Bourg-de-four
When you’re ready for a break, find a table at one of the small cafes that line the Place du Bourg-de-Four, in the heart of the old town. Sip a glass of wine or enjoy a coffee on the terrace with the sound of the trickling 18th century fountain, and enjoy the serenity of this little oasis in the busy city center. This hidden square is a good bet for affordable, local fare, too: order a rosti or fondue to sample authentic Swiss cuisine. You can while away a good long lunch here, without the noise or exhaust of street traffic.
A big part of Geneva’s charm is its waterfront, with a wide and winding walking path that hugs the shore for kilometers. Lake Geneva (or, Lac Léman to French-speaking locals), is the feather in the city’s cap, so to speak: it’s stunning to look at, it houses the famous Jet d’Eau, and it’s the gateway to the surrounding spa towns. Hop on a ferry or pleasure boat for a day trip to the medieval village of Yvoire, Evian, or Nyon, or take a sailboat out to tour the still water and enjoy a great view of Geneva. If you prefer to keep your feet on solid ground, take a picnic lunch to a grassy patch and enjoy the lake like the locals do.
St. Pierre Cathedral
This cathedral is most famous for being the headquarters of John Calvin and his Protestant Reformation in the 16th century. You’ll see an array of different architectural styles around the facade, since the building has been dismantled and rebuilt through the ages, but the real interest lies within – and below. First take a look at Calvin’s chair, a humble piece sitting in the center of the cavernous building, then walk around the church to the archaeological site: a small entrance fee will get you into one of the most interesting excavation sites north of the Alps. Here you’ll see remains of previous churches, dating back to the 4th century, but also objects that can be traced all the way to the 3rd century BC.
Musee d’Art et d’Histoire
The largest museum in Geneva, you can identify the building by the sculptures mounted above the entrance that depict the four arts – painting, drawing, sculpture and architecture. The exhibits represent a good range of European artists, from Rembrandt and Cézanne to Rodin and Picasso, but there’s more to see than European masterpieces. The collection includes some impressive Egyptian relics, including a mummy dating back to the 9th century BC, and a sizeable armory of Savoy items. Admission is free, which makes this museum a good stop even if you can’t devote an entire afternoon to it.
This 100 meter stretch of sculpture is on the grounds of the University of Geneva, built into the remains of the old city walls to commemorate John Calvin, and by extension, Geneva’s integral role in the Protestant Reformation. You probably won’t run into a more grandiose testament to Protestant history than this, but the structure is impressive regardless of the religious association: four figures stand in the center, each five meters tall, while the three statues to the right and three to the left are each three meters tall. Visiting the Reformation Wall gives you a good excuse to stroll through the pleasant Parc des Bastions.
Natural History Museum of Geneva
If you’re looking for a place to take the kids, head to the animal and gemstone exhibits of the Natural History Museum. It’s helpful to know a bit of French to read about the items on display, but children will appreciate getting up close to the well-preserved animals and the sparkling crystals. The African Safari exhibit is a favorite, as is the dinosaur exhibit, and the meteorites warrant a closer look, too. The amenities of the museum make for a comfortable visit: helpful staff will answer your questions, and the café offers good fare with a great view of Mont Blanc.
Fêtes de Genève
The Fêtes de Genève is the biggest event of the summer, bringing hundreds of thousands of visitors to the shore of Lake Geneva. There are plenty of festivities, from carnival rides and food fair to live bands and artisans set up around the city, but the massive fireworks display is definitely the highlight of the event. From forty firing stations around the lake, 30,000 rockets are shot into the air to the sound of music, and the spectacular show goes on for an hour. Although Geneva is a relatively quiet Swiss city for most of the year, it virtually explodes with revelry in August – and you won’t want to miss that!
As a Swiss city, Geneva generally has upscale amenities with prices to match. Hotels aren’t cheap and dining out can cost a small fortune if you’re not careful, but there are ways to enjoy the sights and tastes without breaking the bank. Take advantage of the free admission sites (there are quite a few!), and enjoy local cheese with crusty bread for some meals – local meats, cheeses, and chocolate bring incredible value.