The second-largest city in Switzerland after Zurich, Geneva has an enviable position on the southwestern end of Lake Geneva, in the French-speaking part of Switzerland. With the Jura Mountains to the north and the French Alps to the south, the city offers stunning scenery on all sides. As the European headquarters of the United Nations and the home of the International Red Cross, it's the diplomatic center of Switzerland and all of Europe. Geneva is also known as a wealthy and cosmopolitan city and a destination for luxury shopping and lavish 5-star hotels. Historically, Geneva was the center of the Swiss Reformation and played a significant role in the formation of modern Switzerland.
Visitors to Geneva will find an expensive, clean and elegant city, with an enticing mix of museums, monuments, and outdoor activities. Here are 15 of the best things to do in Geneva.
Catch the Spray From the Jet d'Eau
Installed in 1886 to control the outflow of water from a nearby power plant, the Jet d'Eau (water jet) soon became a symbol of the city of Geneva. It shoots water nearly 460 feet (140 meters) into the air and is the tallest fountain in the world. Unless winds are too strong, the Jet d'Eau runs every day and is illuminated at night. It's visible from almost every part of the lakefront, but the promenade in front of the Jardin Anglais is one of the best spots for seeing it day or night. If you get close enough, or if it's a windy day, you'll get hit with a refreshing (or cold!) spray from the jet.
Constructed in the 1930s as the headquarters of the short-lived League of Nations, the Palais des Nations (Palace of Nations) is the second-largest UN headquarters outside of New York City. It's a vast campus of grand administrative buildings amid a parklike setting. Visitors are free to wander the grounds or may jump in on an hour-long guided tour of several of the buildings and assembly halls. Highlights of the tour include the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, the main Assembly Hall, and the Council Chamber.
There's been a church of some form on this site since the 4th century CE, and the present church, mostly from the 15th century, is an architectural wonder. But St. Pierre Cathedral's history is most famously linked to the Protestant Reformation. The church was the seat of tireless Reformist John Calvin from 1541 until his death in 1564. Today, it's possible to tour the extensive archaeological site underneath the church, hear the massive pipe organ, visit the elaborate Chapel of the Maccabees, and climb 157 steps to the cathedral roof for sweeping views of the city and lake.
Adjacent to the park surrounding the Palais des Nations, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum traces the more than 150-year history of the international humanitarian movement, which was founded in Geneva. Exhibits offer a mix of historical data and artifacts, as well as poignant and thought-provoking installations that confront the causes and effects of human conflict.
All roads in Geneva seems to lead to the Jardin Anglais—the English Garden—the small, prettily planted lakefront garden in the center of Geneva. Crowds flock here for the flower clock (the horloge fleurie), an oversized timepiece planted with seasonal flowers. Plenty of sitting areas, mature shade trees, and a monumental central fountain make this a relaxing place to take a break from sightseeing.
Stroll the Lakefront and Riverside
The Jardin Anglais is just one of several places to admire the lake and the Jet d'Eau. The entire lakefront is strollable, thanks to wide promenades and quays made for walking. Geneva and its close-in bedroom communities wrap around the whole southwestern tip of Lake Geneva, and there are 6 miles of pedestrian-only walking and bike paths along the entire lakefront. Where the lake empties into the mighty Rhone River, the city is built up on both sides. Sidewalks on both sides of the river allow for pleasant walking. Swans paddle by during the day, and at night, the riverfront and surrounding buildings are romantically lit.
Wander Through Vielle Ville (Old Town)
Set in a defensive position high above the lake, the Vielle Ville, or Old Town, is where Geneva was founded by Gallic tribes in the 2nd century BCE or earlier. The Romans later took the settlement, and it then fell into the hands of the Franks and the Burgundians. Its center was Ville Ville, and today, most of Geneva's most important historical sites are located along these narrow, stone-clad streets and alleys. Here you'll find St. Pierre Cathedral, Place du Bourg-de-Four, and the Museum of the Reformation, as well as art galleries, gift shops, and restaurants. Nearby, Rue du Marche (also called Rue de la Croix-d'Or or Rue de Rive) is Geneva's busiest shopping street.
Pause in an Outdoor Cafe at Place du Bourg-de-Four
Place du Bourg-de-Four probably began life as a 9th-century cattle market, and today remains the oldest and most historic square in the Old Town. It's lined with sidewalk cafes, and in good weather, it's one of the prettiest places in Geneva to take a break and enjoy a coffee or a cocktail. The fountain in the middle of the square is from the 1700s.
CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, is the world's largest physics lab—home to the Large Hadron Collider, the birthplace of the World Wide Web, and the site where the Higgs boson particle was identified. Parts of the vast campus are open to the public for free tours, include the massive Globe of Science and Innovation, with exhibits that explain the heady work of CERN, testing facilities, and simulators. CERN is about 5 miles outside Geneva in the suburb of Meyrin.
As in every city in Switzerland that has a lake or river, Genevans take advantage of warm sunny weather by jumping in the water. There are swimming across the lakefront, but the Bains des Pâquis, on the western shore of Lake Geneva, are among the largest and most popular. A bain, or public bath, in Switzerland is as much a social center as it is a place to take a dip. At Bains des Pâquis, there is a sandy beach and a concrete pier for sunbathing, lake swimming, and four protected pools into which lake water flows. There's also a snack bar, spa services, and a sauna and steam rooms. In the summertime, concerts, fairs, and other special events take place here. In the winter, the courageous can take a dip in the lake-pool before (or after) warming up in the sauna.
On 18.5 acres within the larger Parc de l'Ariana near UN headquarters, Geneva's Conservatory and Botanical Garden contain more than 14,000 plant specimens from around the world. There are endless, colorful flowerbeds, mature shade trees, ponds, and 19th-century greenhouses, as well as a playground, a bookstore, and a restaurant. A small zoo is home to woodland fauna.
Geneva's stunning, modern National History Museum is the largest of its kind in Switzerland. It has a vast collection of taxidermied animals and insect specimens, but they are presented in engaging and informative displays. Exhibits also explore the origins of human life and the history and future of the natural sciences. There are plenty of hands-on activities for kids and adults, as well as a museum shop, a cafeteria, and grounds with picnicking areas.
The oldest private home in Geneva, Maison Tavel is now a museum tracing centuries of daily urban life in the city. Set across six floors of an Old Town building dating to the 13th and 14th centuries and filled with antiques, the museum recreates historic household rooms and objects related to everyday life. A highlight is the detailed scale diorama of medieval Geneva.
Tour Lake Geneva via Mouette or Steamer
On a clear day or a balmy evening, a boat ride on Lake Geneva is a nearly-obligatory activity. If you just want to get from A to B, or take to the lake like a local, catch a mouette—one of the cheerful yellow shuttle boats that transport commuters from one side of the lake to the other. For a cruise that takes in other parts of the lake and includes narration, and the options of lunch, dinner, or a sunset cocktail cruise, try CGN, whose fleet of historic steamships ply the length of the lake.
Have a Seat on the World's Longest Bench
You'll likely always find room on the Treille Bench—at 393 feet, it's the world's longest bench. Called the Marronnier de la Treille in French, the bench was first built in 1767 and has been hosting tired walkers ever since. Set near Old Town, the bench offers lovely views over the rooftops of Geneva and to the distant Alps.