Switzerland › Things to do in Geneva

Geneva may only be home to 200,000 people, but it is at the heart of global affairs.

The city houses the United Nations' second largest office, after its headquarters New York, and more than 200 international organizations (like the Red Cross, the World Health Organisation and CERN). You will hear a myriad of languages in this very cosmopolitan place, spoken by people coming from all over the world.

Besides its international flair, Geneva is surrounded by breathtaking natural beauty. The Alps (accessed from the nearby Chamonix) and the Jura mountains provide the city with a backdrop that is not easily forgotten. On a clear day, Mont Blanc can be seen on the horizon. Lake Geneva complements the snow and rock zigzags and adds to the city’s pristine charm.

Museums, parks, gastronomy, and nightlife: Geneva has it all. Little wonder that many erroneously believe it is the capital of Switzerland (the capital is in fact the equally attractive city of Bern).

With or without this honorary title, however, Geneva is still one of the most exciting places in the country (the closest competition comes from Zurich). Here are the top 10 things to do.

1. The Botanical Garden

Water lilies in the Geneva botanical gardens (&coy; Lional Rajappa CC BY-SA 3.0) Geneva's Jardin Botanique (© Norbert Aepli, CC-BY-ASA-2.5 A peacock roaming Geneva's Botanical Gardens (© Tiia Monto, CC-BY-ASA-3.0).

The Botanical Garden is an oasis in the metropolis, and one of the city's largest green spaces.

Founded in 1817, the Jardin Botanique occupies about 28 hectares of land on the shores of Lake Geneva. It displays almost 15,000 specimens from about 250 species; its historical herbarium holds about 6 million samples; and its library houses about 100,000 books.

The garden is split into 13 different collections. We particularly recommend:

  • the Historic Rose Garden, which traces the evolution of the cultivated rose,
  • the greenhouses, which include the humid Winter Garden (growing palms and plants from the tropics such as coffee, coco and spices) and the glass-domed Temperate House (with vegetation from the Meditteranean), and
  • the Terraces of Medicinal and Useful Plants (growing spices, herbs and vegetables).

In addition, there are picnic areas frequented by groups of friends and families.

Deer, flamingos and peacocks wander around the grounds, accustomed to the respectful interactions they have with humans on a daily basis. There is also a carrousel that is quite popular with children, and small ponds that bring a splash of blue into the greenness.

If you want to enjoy a meal at the park, its restaurant, Le Pyramus, has delicious food and always leaves customers satisfied.

where? The Jardin Botanique is conveniently located close to the UN Headquarters. To get there, take bus lines 1, 11, 25, and 28 to the Jardin Botanique stop.

when? As in most European gardens, the schedule changes depending on the season. From October 25th to March 31st, the garden opens from 8:00am to 5:00pm. From April 1st to October 24th, it opens from 8:00am to 7:30pm. If you want to go to Le Pyramus, the summer schedule is from 8:30am to 7pm, and the winter schedule is from 9:30am to 4:30pm.

£$€¥ The park is free of charge to visitors, as are most of its attractions.  If you wish to eat at Le Pyramus, at least CHF25 per person is recommended for the self-service restaurant and CHF60 for the a la carte dining room.

2. Palais des Nations

The Allee des Nations, leading to the Palace of Nations (© Tom Page CC-BY-SA 2.0) Building A in the Palais des Nations, Geneva (© Moumou82, CC-BY-ASA 3.0) Parc Ariana, Geneva (© Moumou82, CC-BY-ASA 3.0)

The Palais des Nations—headquarters of the League of Nations, and the United Nations' second most important office—has witnessed some key moments in world history.

Background: the League of Nations

The League of Nations was an intergovernmental institution established in 1920 following the Paris Peace Conference held in the aftermath of World War One. Its aim was to guarantee the world "peace and security" through negotiation and mediation.

The League held an international architecture competition to design its headquarters in 1926, attracting 377 entries. The five most successful architects were commissioned to work together on designing the Palais des Nations, the foundation stone for which was laid in September 1929.

Though the League of Nations had 58 member states by the mid 1930s, it ended in failure. It was unable to control the Axis powers, with Germany, Japan and Italy all withdrawing from the League in the build up to the Second World War. The League was replaced by the United Nations in 1946.

The Palais des Nations today

The Palais has been extended twice since its initial construction. It is now more than 600 metres long, comprising 34 conference rooms and over 2,800 offices. It is here that the United Nations moderates and discusses global issues.

The Palais des Nations is perhaps Geneva's defining attraction. After all, it is its presence that attracts the international crowd and the political atmosphere that permeates every cobblestone in the city. It is also the reason why there are hundreds of governmental and non-governmental organizations that operate on a worldwide scale.

Gardens

The Palais des Nations is located in the 46-acre Ariana Park. Packed with well maintained lawns, trees and borders, Ariana also boasts three nineteenth century villas and a number of monuments. They include the tomb of Gustave Revilliod (a Swiss writer and publisher) and a Celestial Sphere (gifted by the Woodrow Wilson Foundation).

Guided Tours

To see what goes on behind the scenes, you can take a guided tour through the grounds. This includes the most important rooms as well as the gardens.

Tours usually last around two hours and provide insightful information into the UN.

where? All visitors must enter from the main gate located at 14 Avenue de la Paix. To get there, you can take bus lines 8, 28, F, V, and Z to Appia, or bus lines 5 and 11 and tram line 15 to Nations.

when? The schedules for visits vary greatly throughout the year. Check the UN's website for details. It is advisable to make reservations for tours and arrive 30 minutes early.

£$€¥ Tours cost CHF12 per adult, and CHF7 for children. Students, senior citizens, and disabled persons enjoy a discounted price of 10CHF. Swiss Pass holders can enter free of charge.

3. Geneva's Old Town

A fountain in Geneva's Old Town outside the Bourg de Four (© Shesmax, CC-BY-ASA-4.0) Tourists soaking up Geneva's Old Town (© Wouter Hagens, CC-BY-SA-3.0) Saint Pierre Cathedral, Geneva (© Yann (Talk), GFDL)

One of the most well-preserved historical centres in Europe, Geneva’s Old Town was also the home of the Protestant Reformation in Switzerland.

In the 1500s, Huldrych Zwingli followed the footsteps of Martin Luther and led the reformation in his country. This not only changed the political and social face of the nation, but also that of Geneva, which was the centre of the movement.

Today, the Old Town is architecturally similar to how it was back then. Cobblestoned streets, tiny shops, and boisterous bars breathe life into the quarter.

Far from being backwards, however, it is one of the most exciting neighborhoods in the city. You will find charming boutique shops, small parks, and enough cafes and restaurants to spend the entire day lounging, eating and people-watching.

The most iconic landmark of the neighborhood is the Cathedrale Saint-Pierre. Founded in the 4th century, Saint-Pierre became the adopted church of John Calvin (a pastor and leading figure of the protestant movement). One of his chairs is still found within the Cathedrale.

Underneath is found a recently excavated archaeological site, in which Roman remains have been found.

Saint-Pierre is also known for the 11 bells located in its two towers and spire. The largest, named La Clemence, weighs 6,238 kilogrammes.

Switzerland's other major cities, Bern and Zurich, have similarly delightful old towns.

where? The Cathedrale Saint Pierre is the most convenient place to start exploring the Old Town. It is located at Place du Bourg-de-Four 24. Bus line 36 will leave you right in front of the church at the Cathedrale stop.

when? You are free to explore the Old Town any time you wish. However, if you have a specific landmark or restaurant in mind, make sure you check the opening times for it before you head there. It is advisable to avoid the area at night when it is deserted.

£$€¥ Since there is quite a variety of shops, restaurants, and bars, take money to treat yourself to something. If you wish to see the archeological remains underneath the Saint-Pierre cathedral, entrance is 8CHF for adults, and 4CHF for youth and students.

4. Saleve Mountain

Saleve Mountain offers stunning views over Geneva and the Rhone Valley (© Benoit Kornmann, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). Sunset over the Saleve Mountain (© Marc Mongenet, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). Handgliding from the top of Saleve Mountain is a popular activity (© Clément Bucco-Lechat, CC-BY-ASA-3.0).

Standing at 1,380 meters above sea level, Mont Saleve provides an incredible view of Geneva.

Though the mountain is actually on the French side of the border, in the departement of Haute-Savoie, this is definitely one of Geneva's top attractions.

Mont Saleve—also known as the Balcony of Geneva— is part of the Jura mountain chain and has a prominence of almost 600 metres. It provides a chance to escape from the city and the complications of global politics. This explains why nature lovers and worn-out city-dwellers find a sanctuary in the beauty of the mountain.

The view from the summit encompasses the entirety of Geneva, as well as the lake and the Rhone Valley. Without a doubt, it is one of the most inspiring views of the city and its surroundings.

Adventurers can enjoy mountain biking, hiking, and even paragliding. Those who want a beautiful view without having to sweat for it can take a cable car up to the top and sit at the scenic restaurant.

Mont Saleve has another claim to fame: it features in chapter 7 of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

where? To get to the base of the mountain, take the TPG to the Veyrier Ecole/Douane station. From there, a free shuttle will take you to the cable car. Otherwise, you can start on the path up the mountain.

when? The cable car operates every day May through September. Sundays through Wednesdays, the schedule is from 9:30am to 7:00pm, and Thursdays through Saturday it is from 9:30am to 11:00pm. From October to November 13th, and in April, the cable car operates Tuesday through Sunday from 9:30am to 6:00pm.

£$€¥ Hiking up the mountain is free, but if you decide to take the cable car the prices are €11,80 round trip for adults and €6,50 for children. Seniors and young adults get a reduced price of €8,60.

5. Carouge

A fountain in Place du Marche, Carouge (© Franck Schneider, CC-BY-ASA-3.0).

Known as the Little Italy of Geneva, Carouge is the alternative neighborhood of your bohemian dreams.

In a city full of diplomats, lawyers, and CEOs, sometimes you want to go where all the hippies are. In Geneva, that space is Carouge.

You won’t see anyone looking as if they just came from Woodstock, but you’ll be able to enjoy a more laidback culture that ditches the suits in exchange for bohemian cafes/restaurants (we recommend Le Bistrot Laz Nillo, Le Dix Vins and Café Des Négociants) and boutique shops (especially on Rue St-Joseph and Place du Marché).

What’s most charming about the neighborhood is its unique architecture, which makes you feel as if you were in an Italian Mediterranean town instead of Switzerland.

Like any self-respecting alternative neighborhood in a diplomatic city, this is where the best nightlife is.

where? One of the best places to start exploring Carouge is at the Eglise Sainte-Croix. To get there, take bus lines 11, 21, NM, and NO or tram lines 12, 14, 15, and 18 to Carouge GE Marche.

when? Exploring the neighborhood is great at any time of day. Mornings and afternoons are perfect for strolling around, sitting at cafes, and visiting churches, and nights are great for dining and partying.

£$€¥ While it is entirely possible to not spend any money in Carouge, indulging in gastronomy, shopping, and entertainment is recommended. Prices vary throughout the neighborhood, so bring according to your spending habits.

6. Parc des Bastions

Parc des Bastions, Geneva (© Gfuerst, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). L'allee Centrale, Parc des Bastions, Geneva (© Romano1246, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). Parc des Bastions, Geneva (© Alexey M., CC-BY-ASA-4.0).

As one of the most famous parks in the city, the Parc des Bastions is a grandiose tribute to the Swiss Reformation.

To say that the Reformation was an important part of Swiss history would be a gross understatement. This religious movement away from the Catholic church effectively shaped the country in many ways. Taking this into account is important as you walk through the beautiful Parc des Bastions.

This green space is perfect for reading on a bench, picnicking on the grass, or walking and cycling around. It is usually a favorite thing to do for families and intergenerational groups, since a day in the park is always good fun for everyone.

Reformation Wall

What attracts most visitors, however, is its famed Reformation Wall. This 100 meter wall was commissioned in 1909 and is decorated with impressive statues, plaques, and sculptures featuring some of the key figures of European Protestantism- in particular Calvinism.

At the centerpiece of the wall you can find Calvin himself, surrounded by other theologists and standing tall over the moto “Post tenebras lux” (after darkness, light).

where? The Parc sits behind the University of Geneva. To get there you can take several tram and bus lines to either the Place de Neuve stop or the Palais Eynard stop.

when? As with most open green spaces the park is open during daylight hours. Early morning is best for those wishing to share the park with few other people, but noon and early afternoon usually have the most pleasant weather.

£$€¥ There is no charge to enter the Parc des Bastions, and most activities to be enjoyed are completely free. There is a restaurant located in the park, which has moderate pricing.

7. Victoria Hall

The exterior of Geneva's Victoria Hall (© Gfuerst, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). The Geneva Symphony Orchestra (© François Rudhard, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). A pianist playing at Victoria Hall, Geneva (© Gilles BRUNEAU, CC-BY-ASA-3.0)

Set in the heart of Geneva, this concert hall fills the city with music.

You would not expect to find a tribute to the English Queen Victoria while in Geneva, and yet the Victoria Hall has become one of the city’s most emblematic landmarks.

Its construction finished in 1894 after being commissioned by the English consul—who no doubt wanted to get into the Queen’s good favours. The hall quickly became renowned for its excellent acoustics, a reputation that it continues to uphold.

The Victoria Hall was renovated in 2006 to accommodate an increasing number of concert-goers, and to provide a better space for musicians to grace the city with their art. Today, it is one of the most popular things to do for anyone who is culturally inclined and who appreciates classical music.

Unlike other concert halls, this one has yet to include modern music in its repertoire, preferring to open the stage to its world-famous orchestra.

Besides its musical attributes, the hall itself is absolutely breathtaking, with a grandiose architecture that astonishes all expectators without fail.

where? The Victoria Hall is located on Rue du Général-Dufour 14 at the city centre. The closest public transportation station is Cirque, which is serviced by several bus and tram lines.

when? Hours of operation vary depending on the season’s repertoire. Some concerts and plays, especially those for children, start in the morning. However, most start from around 8:00 or 9:00 p.m.

£$€¥ Ticket prices vary depending on the show, day, and seats. You can find discounted tickets for fairly cheap but most tickets are at least $100 per adult.

8. Musee d’Art et d’Histoire

The Art and History Museum, Geneva (© Sanyam Bahga, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). The interior of the Art and History Museum, Geneva (© Sailko, CC-BY-ASA-3.0). A van Gogh at the Art and History Museum, Geneva

With over a million pieces in its collection, this museum is one of the three largest museums in Switzerland and the largest in Geneva.

Open officially since 1910, the Geneva Museum of Art and History was built with a collection from existing institutions. The museum covers art, history, and archaeology. The art wing focuses on pieces from the Middle Ages to the 20th century, and boasts works by masters like Rodan and Rembrandt.

It also includes Medieval and Renaissance icons, textiles, instruments, and other objects. The natural history section exhibits artifacts from ancient Greece and Egypt, as well as Pre-History in Europe, and early civilizations in the Middle East.

Besides its permanent collection and exhibits, the museum has a research lab and an expansive library. It is a landmark that no history lover with an interest in European and Swiss art can miss.

where? Centrally located next to the University of Geneva, the museum is very easy to access. It is at Rue Charles-Galland 2 and can be reached on bus lines 3 and 7 at the Musee d’art et d’histoire stop.

when? The museum is open every day except Mondays from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. Dedicate at least half a day to exploring its collections as there is much to see. Museum enthusiasts might want to do multiple visits.

£$€¥ As a testament to Switzerland’s commitment to public education, the entrance to the permanent collection is free for everyone. Temporary exhibitions charge $5-$20 for anyone over 18 years of age. However, you can see exhibitions for free on the first Sunday of the month.

9. Chapel of the Maccabees

The ceiling of the Chapel of the Maccabees (© Yann, CC-BY-ASA 3.0). The stone exterior of the Chapel of the Maccabees Choir stalls in the Chapel of the Maccabees (©  Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net), CC-BY-ASA-3.0)

With a story of turmoil and perseverance, this chapel is a distinctive section of the Cathedrale Saint Pierre.

Located on the South-West wing of the famous Saint Pierre Cathedral, the Chapel of the Maccabees is often overlooked by visitors. Those unfortunate enough to walk past it lose out on one of the most beautiful sections of the church, and one of the most interesting places of worship in the city.

Though small, the chapel has had a story as tumultuous as that of the city. When the Reformation took over the religious and political landscape of Geneva, the Chapel of Maccabees was overtaken and turned into a storage room for salt and powder. For years it was forgotten until scholars saw it better fit as a venue for lectures on philosophy. By the 19th century, it had undergone a series of expansions and renovations, including the Neo-Gothic restoration that still marks its facade today.

While it is mainly used for services and as a quiet space for followers of the faith, the chapel is also a venue for concerts, marriages, and other ceremonies. Its most distinctive feature are the elaborate stained-glass windows that beautify its interior while tacitly telling stories.

where? The chapel is located right behind the Cathedral Saint Pierre in Old Town Geneva. To get there, take bus 36 to the Cathedrale station.

when? Opening hours for the chapel vary during the year. From June to September it is open Monday through Saturday from 09:30 a.m to 6:30 p.m., and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. From October to May, hours are Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 am. and Sunday from 12:00 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. If possible, it is best to go on a sunny day, when you will be able to appreciate the full beauty of the colored light as it filters through the windows.

£$€¥ Like most places of worship, entrance to the chapel is free for everyone. Visitors are encouraged to contribute a donation but it is entirely optional.

10. Place du Bourg-de-Four

The Heinz Schwarz statue of Clementine in Geneva's Place du Bourg-de-Four (© Traumrune / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-3.0).

A living memory of the city’s past, this square is the most important and iconic in the city.

Though it was once located just outside the city limits, the Place du Bourg-de-Four has been a central part of Geneva for hundreds of years. Decorated with fountains, restaurants, and tightly squished houses, it is undeniably one of the most charming squares in the city.

People come and go in a constant flux of traffic- some in passing on their way to somewhere else, some seeking to take in the Old Town charm that seems to be perfectly defined by the square.

Restaurants and high-end shopping are popular attractions. In fact, this is one of the best places in the city to do enjoy some retail therapy followed by a delicious meal.

The international cuisine and glamorous shops almost contradict the square’s weathered face, but this juxtaposition of times only adds to its peculiar beauty.

where? The Place du Bourg-de-Four is located next to the famous Cathedrale Saint Pierre, and it is often a stop for visitors right before or right after they visit the church. To get there, take one of several bus lines to the Bourg-de-Four station.

when? As it is in open-space, the square never closes down. You can enjoy its beauty at any time of day or night. However, most of its places of commerce follow regular business hours, and its restaurants close at reasonable hours. Like anywhere else, it is best to avoid it when it is dark and void of people.

£$€¥ Its reputation as the central square of Geneva means that prices tend to be high. Of course, visiting the square and its surroundings is completely free, but if you wish to buy souvenirs, do some shopping, or have a meal, be prepared to pay a higher price than in other places in the city.