Top 10 Things to Do in Geneva

This amazing European city is a true gem of Switzerland and is full of history, beautiful architecture and fascinating sights.

Geneva lies at the southern tip of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman), Western Europe’s largest lake, and is surrounded by the Alps and Jura mountains. Close to the border with France, the city has views of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in the Alps, and the combined views of lake and alpine mountains are stunning.

OLD TOWN

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As Switzerland’s biggest historical city and the home of the Reformation movement, Geneva’s Old Town is the most traditionally scenic part of the city. Clustered on a hill around the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre (see below) and the pretty pedestrian Place du Bourg-de-Four, the meandering, cobbled streets give glimpses of the city’s past.

Place du Bourg-de-Four is on the site of the Roman forum. It is possibly the oldest square in the city and certainly its most charming and atmospheric. The area has numerous cafés and restaurants, many with outdoor seating for relaxing and people watching.

CATHÉDRAL SAINT-PIERRE

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Part-Romanesque, part-Gothic, part-Neoclassical, St. Pierre Cathedral dates from the 11th century, although its Neoclassical facade was added in the 18th century giving it an unusually eclectic appearance to this Old Town landmark.

The cathedral has survived centuries of turmoil. It’s most notable chapter occurred in the mid-16th century when it was used by John Calvin as a vessel for the Protestant Reformation. Inside the church there is still a wooden chair once used by Calvin.

The interior of the cathedral is lined with 4th century mosaics, 12th century columns and 15th century frescoes. Do see the Chapelle des Macchabées, from 1406, as it is a superb example of High Gothic religious architecture with beautiful window traceries.

The cathedral is open seven days a week to visitors and entrance is free. There is a small charge to climb the tower or to explore the Archaeological Museum below the cathedral. If you are here in the summer, the cathedral has free concerts between 5pm and 6pm.

Restoration work during the 1970s laid bare the ancient foundations and, after the cathedral received a new concrete supported floor, this area was made accessible. Visitors can explore the foundations and remains of several Roman buildings as well as several churches that preceded the present cathedral. There are also 4th-century mosaics and a 5th-century baptismal font. Models, graphics, and audiovisual displays further explain the ruins and history.

And ninety six spiralling steps lead you up the 13th century north tower offering spectacular panoramic views of the city from the top.

JET D’EAU

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This huge water fountain finds its base at the end of a jetty on the left bank of Lake Geneva. Jet D’Eau can be seen from any point in the city and you can go to the pier to get really close to the water jet but you will get drenched. Boats on the lake can also get quite near too (the Mouette taxi-boat goes the short distance from right bank to left bank).

At any one time, 7 tonnes of water is in the air propelled at about 500 litres a second. Two or three times a year the fountain is illuminated pink, blue or another colour to mark a humanitarian occasion.

Like most great inventions, the Jet D’eau was actually created by accident. In 1886, when Geneva’s artisanal hydraulic power machines stopped being used, a valve designed to relieve over-pressure by letting water escape created a 30 metre jet towards the sky. In 1891, Geneva City Council decided to turn the water jet into a tourist attraction and it reached 90 metres high. In 1951, new waterworks built to use the lake allowed the jet to reach the 140 metres we see today.

LAKE GENEVA

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Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman) is a large, crescent-shaped lake shared between France and Switzerland. Overlooked by the Alps, the lake is a central focus of the city and has fantastic lakeside promenades for a gentle walk or cycle.

There are plenty of boat tours available and you can easily go across to France (much of the southern shore is located across the border). In the summer months there are also a whole host of watersports available.

Lake Geneva is formed from the Rhône river and it is worth going to the Jonction bridge (Viaduc de la Jonction) to see where the Rhône and Arve join. The rivers have different colours of water as the Arve is faster and the Rhône is slower and darker.

JARDIN ANGLAIS

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On the south side of Lake Geneva, Jardin Anglais (English Garden) is a pretty park of grass and woodland that was landscaped in 1854. It’s a great lakeside spot to watch Jet d’eau (see above) or to just find peace in the city.

Most people visit to see the emblematic floral clock L’Horloge Fleurie. Planted with interlocking circular flowerbeds to represent the city’s connection to watch-making, this massive functioning clock is made from more than 6,000 flowers and plants. Set on a slight slope, which helps for photographs, the clock is about 5 metres wide. The second hand is 2.5 metres long and is said to be the world’s longest.

The clock was first created in 1955 and the floral design changes every year. As you would hope and expect, the flower clock is not only pretty, it also tells the time with Swiss precision.

The Jardin Anglais is open every day, and admission is free. To see the clock with less crowds it is best to visit before breakfast or later in the evening.

MONT SALÈVE

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Considered Geneva’s local mountain (even though it is actually just over the border in France), going to the summit of Mont Salève provides stunning views of Geneva in its entirety. The best way to enjoy a visit it to catch a bus from the city centre and then take the cable car to the top.

Located just 20km from the centre of Geneva, Mont Salève is a haven of tranquillity with breathtaking scenery. Whether you are looking for a relaxing escape or local sports, this is a delight. On the summit you can hike, try paragliding, go mountain biking, bird-spot, picnic or just sit in one of its cafés and contemplate the view. And even if Geneva is overcast and rainy the weather at the mountain’s peak is often nice and sunny.

In the winter this is a popular destination for cross-country skiing with magnificent views.

INTERNATIONAL RED CROSS AND RED CRESCENT MUSEUM

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The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum (Musée international de la Croix-Rouge et du Croissant-Rouge) has a moving, and sometimes shocking, permanent exhibition. Redesigned in 2013, Interactive exhibits keep visitors remain engaged throughout the exhibition as it charts the vital humanitarian work carried out by the organisation for the past 150 years.

The Red Cross was founded in 1865 by Geneva businessman Henry Dunant. It is an international humanitarian movement with over 97 million volunteers, members and staff worldwide. Their mission as a neutral aid provider is to protect human life, ensure respect for all human beings and to prevent and alleviate human suffering.

Housed within the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the museum chronicles this legendary organisation and its efforts in both World Wars, the Great Depression, civil wars in Africa and the Middle East crisis.

PALACE OF NATIONS

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Close to the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum (see above) is the Palace of Nations (Palais des Nations). It was constructed at the end of the 1920s as the headquarters for the League of Nations (the UN’s predecessor). Today, this massive complex of marble buildings is home to the United Nations’ European office and is the world’s largest centre for multicultural diplomacy.

Guided tours are offered on weekdays throughout the year and on Saturdays too in the summer months. Security is strict so do bring ID and it is worth booking in advance.

On a one-hour tour, you get to visit the 2,000-seater Assembly Hall where the UN General Assembly gathers. The two heavily gilded bronze doors at the ends were brought back from Italy by Napoleon, and presented to the League of Nations by Clemenceau.

The wall and ceiling painting by J. M. Sert in the smaller Council Chamber was a gift from Spain, completed in 1936, showing themes of technical, social, and medical progress and world peace.

After the tour, do enjoy the 46-hectare Ariana Park. It is a beautiful city oasis complete with free roaming peacocks. Do also see the poignant, 12 metre high Broken Chair monument. It is a symbol of Swiss opposition to cluster bombs and landmines.

CERN

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It seems incredible that a world-renowned physics laboratory that is attempting to solve the secrets of the universe should be open to public. Yet we are all able to book a tour of CERN and learn about particle physics.

Founded in 1954, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, 8km west of Geneva, accelerates protons down a 27km circular tube of superconducting magnets (the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s biggest machine) and the resulting collisions create new matter.

CERN is a tram ride out of town in the district of Meyrin. The tours of the lab take two hours and there are two exhibitions that shed light on its work too. Remember to wear flat shoes (no sandals) and bring ID.

CAROUGE

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Just a short tram ride from the centre of Geneva, Carouge feels as though you have stepped into a different country. This area was developed by Italians from Turin in the 18th century so the architectural style is Italian with stone archways, painted shutters and red roofs.

The area is a bohemian haven, often to compared to New York’s Greenwich Village. It’s great for shopping at independent stores, antique dealers, second-hand bookshops and markets, and then people watching from the numerous bistros, cafés and restaurants.

Carouge is also a popular evening destination for the many bars.

MAKE A SWISS ARMY KNIFE

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I know this is a ‘Top 10’ list but here is a bonus idea as it was just too good not to include.

At the Victorinox Geneva flagship store there is a knife self-assembly station where you can put together your own personalised Swiss army knife. Apart from chocolate or a new watch, what could be a more iconic souvenir of Switzerland?

At just 3 minutes walking distance from the Quays of Lac Geneva, Fraser Suites Geneva is situated within the vicinity of the International Convention Centre, Geneva Old Town, Palais des Nations Geneva, St Peters Cathedral Geneva, and many other attractions in Geneva. 

Surrounded by an excellent public transport network that comprises trams and trains, getting around for work or for leisure is easy and convenient. A free transportation card will be offered when staying at our stunning serviced apartment in Geneva.

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