Although I live in Switzerland, I have actually never managed to spend a day visiting the sites in Geneva. Crazy, I know, but I guess that is how it is when you live in a country filled with stunning vistas, lakes, mountains and yes, chocolate!
But recently I had to head down to spend some quality time at the Australian Embassy (yes, that’s a joke) so I thought I would make a day of it. A full day seeing the sites of Geneva and enjoying the French ambience that is always a pleasure to experience in the west of Switzerland.
So, if you happen to be on a trip to Switzerland, even if it is just a short one week or you a longer trip, this post will help you make the most of your time in Geneva.
This is a guest post from Roger of Expert World Travel.
How to spend one day in Geneva
Arrival In Geneva
Geneva train station and the surrounding area is nothing to write home about, so don’t be disappointed if you arrive by train. The jewels of Geneva are a little walk from the station, but worth the time and energy you are about to invest.
If you happen to arrive at the airport, getting to the centre of the city is easiest by train (like anything in Switzerland) so just hop on any train that has Geneva on the list of stops and you will be good to go.
Once you arrive in the station, head downstairs and then away from the station to start your journey to the stunning sites of Geneva.
Note: If you don’t have access to Google Maps, or have not downloaded the Geneva section before arriving, there is a handy booth just outside the train station with maps and all sorts of tourist offerings. Pop in and get your self oriented and some handy info or maps before you head out for the day.
And, Consider Getting A Bike
I wish I had known this before I had walked like a madman for 3 hours, but you can grab a “free” bike behind the train station at Geneveroule before you head off. This is a wonderful idea to help the jobless in Geneva and has since taken off and expanded to 9 locations around the city. Keep in mind that you can pick up and drop off at any of them.
Unfortunately they don’t all speak good English, however, there are explanatory signs on the wall to help and it’s pretty simple:
- Sign a form
- Pay $1 (1 Swiss franc actually) and 20 deposit (you get it back later)
- Grab a map of their locations
- Grab a helmet if you want (not mandatory)
The bikes are not the best I have seen, but for $1 for 4 hours it was a bargain. After 4 hours you pay about 5 an hour from memory, or you can just pay by the day (it’s super cheap – about 12 francs). They also have electric bikes, which if you are planning to head to the old town you may wish you had gotten instead of an old school sweat-inducing bike! Switzerland is hilly.
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Things to do in Geneva in one day.
Head To The Old Town
You will be tempted to head to the lake and go for a swim as soon as you arrive in Geneva, but resist until the afternoon. It’s worth it!
I headed across the main bridge and straight for the old town, one of Geneva’s highlights for sure.
At the bottom of the old town, before you are immersed in cobbles, spires and churches is a strip of shops with some brand names you may know. Why not do a little window shopping as you admire the likes of Tag Heuer, Rolex, Patek Philippe and other watch brands neither you nor I can afford. Mixed in are also some stunning clothes brands, as well as some tasty cafes and chocolate shops. So, keep your eyes peeled.
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A Walking Tour Of The Old Town
There is so much to see in the Old Town, that I had to restrict myself to the highlights, and perhaps you should to. It is quite small, so it’s an easy morning’s stroll with some time to explore the nooks and crannies that you tend to find in such places.
Here is the rough order I did things in:
- Place de Madeleine to Place Bourg-de-Four: this is an uphill walk along the base of the St Pierre Cathedral which is tantalising but hard to see in full. Stop at the top in the Place Bourg-de-Four and perhaps have a coffee or a croissant as this is one of the most peaceful and very French feeling squares in Geneva.
- Musée d’Art et d’Histoire and the Observatory Park: take a detour out of the old town to either visit or just soak up the architecture of the Art History Museum. This is also a nice spot for lunch later. I grabbed a sandwich and French pastry on the way up here at one of the sandwich shops on the street. Yum!
- Back to the Place Bourg-de-Four, head down the stairs on the side of the square and then hang a right towards the Reformation Wall, which is right in the Bastions Park and on the grounds of the Geneva University. This is a also very peaceful spot and you will find a lot of families, kids, students and the like enjoying some shade here on a hot summer’s day. The Reformation Wall itself is a monument to the reformers of the 16th Century including the likes of Calvin.
- Head out of the Bastions Park and then back into the old town from the opposite side of the road past the enticing (but expensive looking) Botega Restaurant. I then headed down Grand Rue back to L’Ancien Arsenal, which has some amazing guns and wall murals outside.
- Now it’s time to try to get an angle of the St Pierre Cathedral. If you are a budding photographer like me, it’s a bit of a challenge as you can’t get a shot from any distance. The best angle is from the side of the church, and you should also take a look at the imposing facade from the front.
Getting out of the old town from here is a bit of a challenge, as it’s a bit of a labyrinth, but you can either head to the back of the church and take the stairs, which lead back down to the street you took at the start, or go the long way around to Place Bourg again then down.
Now it’s time to head to the lake for a stroll, swim and a spot of photography.
Spend Some Time At The Lake
Because the lake is such a huge part of town you have to make a choice from here. You can head across the bridge you took on in, or an alternative way across the river is a small bridge a little upstream that has a nice lunch spot in the middle: Ile Rousseau.
If you take the right hand side bank, you can walk along the amusement park and check out the flower clock, which is pretty cool: it’s a working clock with a flower background to help you tell the time.
You can then walk all the way around to the Water Jet and try not to get wet as you get a close-up of this huge jet of water that is perhaps the most famous landmark of Geneva.
If you take the left hand side, there is a wide and spacious walkway (you could also ride slowly along it, like I did) that goes for miles along the lake, and is a great spot just to admire how stunning a location Geneva really has. Partway along the lake is a local swimming spot, that if I recall correctly was only a few francs to enter. Even if you just want a close up of the Water Jet from the other side, it’s worth checking it out.
Further (Away) Attractions
If you grabbed a bike like I suggested at the start, or if you fancy figuring out the public transport, then these highlights are also an option:
- The United Nations and The Broken Chair monument: Geneva is home to the United Nations and you can either take a photo from the outside if you are pressed for time, or book a group tour, the only way to get into the gates. Just outside on the square opposite is an intriguing monument, the huge broken chair (with only 3 legs) which was meant to only be there for 3 months, but 20 years later is another landmark in Geneva.
- The Patek Phillipe Museum: If you are interested in watches and their history, or just want to soak up a little Swiss culture, this is a great place to start. Patek Philippe is one of the original watch makers of Switzerland and their museum is well worth a visit.
Depending on where you are headed next, I would whole-heartedly recommend you spend some time in the mountains in a place like Zermatt, where the views, hikes and helicopter ride will blow your mind. Or, if you are heading North on the way to Germany or France, then pop into Lucerne and do the same. The views are stunning as are the activities in the area.
Switzerland has so much to offer, and Geneva is just the start! Enjoy your visit.
Roger is an Aussie expat living in Switzerland who spends as much time as he can traveling and visiting every corner of this amazing country. You can find him on Twitter here.