A weekend in Geneva
Everything you need to know for 48 hours in this Swiss city for all seasons
Why you should visit Geneva in summer
Switzerland’s second city is renowned as a centre of international business and diplomacy and also as the gateway to some of the world’s best winter sports locations. But this beautifully-located pocket metropolis has much to offer the international traveller at any time of year.
Set on Lac Leman (only tourists call it Lake Geneva) and nestling beneath the Jura mountains and the Alps, Geneva offers a very picturesque setting for a wide range of museums, galleries, historic and cultural sites, shopping, gastronomy and access to nature which would make many larger cities envious.
Then, of course, there are always the watches, clocks and chocolates. This former city-state which fought off foreign invaders for centuries now welcomes travellers with open arms and not just in the colder months.
Top attractions: things to see and do
Jet d’Eau and Lac Leman
You can’t miss Geneva’s most famous sight. The Jet d’Eau throws water from the lake 140 metres into the air, higher than the Statue of Liberty, and dominates the views. A trip on the lake is a must, whether it’s a full cruise on a luxury steamer or a quick crossing on one of the yellow “mouette” water buses.
We enjoyed both and became adept at crossing the lake by boat to save walking in the very untypical sweltering July heat. A promenade along the lake shore, with a stop at one of many bars and cafes, is also a fine way to while away a little time and get the feel of the city.
Take a taxi-bike tour
To get the lie of the land we took a taxi-bike tour, passing renowned sights such as the Flower Clock, comprised of 12,000 blooms and Swiss precision engineering next to the delightful lakeside Jardin Des Anglais. The taxi-bike also stopped at the Reformation Wall in Parc des Bastions beneath the high fortified walls of the Old Town. John Calvin and other fathers of the Protestant Reformation still cast a stony glance and exert an influence on this city of tradition and modernity. We made it out as far as Carouge, a Mediterranean-influenced suburb with a lively bohemian feel.
Visit the Old Town
The taxi-bike can’t make it up the steep climb, but it’s well worth the short hike up to the medieval Old Town leading to the Cathédrale Saint-Pierre where Calvin preached. We climbed the tower through ancient roof timbers for probably the best views across the city and Lac Leman to the mountains beyond. The charming surrounding streets offer shops, bars and restaurants which invite exploration.
Geneva boasts world-class shopping opportunities as well as offerings for more modest budgets. Along the lakeside, Rue du Rhone and surrounding streets elite brands such as Louis Vuitton, Rolex, Hermes, Tiffany, Patek Philippe, Breitling and Cartier, (to name just a few), jostle side by side and vie for the attention of well-heeled customers. But shoppers be warned: Sunday is still a day of rest in Geneva and most shops will be closed. You’ll have to get your retail therapy in before the stores close on Saturday.
Get a Geneva Resort Pass
Keen to promote the city as a summer destination, Geneva Tourism has created a Geneva Resort Pass for July and August which gives visitors unlimited free public transport and free entry or discounts at dozens of attractions and experiences for one, two or three days. Fancy paragliding? Chocolate tasting? Watchmaking? Museums? A walking tour? A wine tasting e-bike tour? Those are just a few of the options on offer.
Museums, galleries and other attractions
For those looking to explore more of the city’s history and culture, the United Nations, CERN, home to the large hadron collider, the Red Cross Museum, the Patek Philippe Museum (clocks, watches and much more), the Ethnography Museum and MAMCO (contemporary art), and the Jardins Botanique are all popular and open through the summer season. Unfortunately, we found so much to do in our short time in Geneva that we left with the distinct sense that we’ll simply have to go back and see those another time.
Get on your bike and sample some wine
Keen to get into the countryside and to sample some local wines we joined an e-bike wine tasting tour starting a short tram ride from the city centre. The e-bike made the hills easy and will reward riders with fine scenery and a quick education in Genevoise viniculture by one of the small local producers whose products mostly go to local restaurants and private buyers direct from the caves. We also had the perfect encapsulation of this city of tradition and modernity as we cycled alongside the CERN nuclear research lab on one side of the ride and a small plantation of old vines stretching out on the other.
Hotels and accommodation
The four-star Rotary Hotel Geneva-MGallery is just a short walk from Cornavin station and 150 metres from the waterfront. This boutique hotel is an Art Deco gem conveniently situated for the lake, shops and attractions. Our comfortable and spacious room was furnished with period pieces, with an overall effect of calm refinement and elegance. The staff were unfailingly helpful and pleasant and there’s a fine breakfast buffet with cooked options to set guests up for the day’s explorations.
For those looking for lakeside views, the Hotel D’Angleterre, and Beau-Rivage are ideally located. Or, if money’s no object, the Four Seasons Hotel des Bergues will make for an unforgettable experience. For a budget option the Hôtel International & Terminus is well situated by Cornovin station.
Where to eat and drink
An evening dinner cruise aboard the Belle Epoque paddle steamer Savoie is a real highlight. We enjoyed a seafood menu created by Michelin-starred chef Jean-Marc Bessire, and began with champagne and caviar before the main event which featured perch and trout-like fera fish from the lake with other seasonal ingredients. The elegant vessel, stunning scenery and excellent food make for an evening of glamour, indulgence and a very special experience.
Near the lakeside on Quai de Mont Blanc, by the Brunswick Monument, the rustic Cottage Cafe offered a pleasant al fresco lunch salad and pasta made with fresh local ingredients. It’s also a good stop for coffee and pastries.
Determined to sample some traditional Swiss fare, we headed to the Old Town and the venerable Le Restaurant de l’Hôtel de Ville (also known locally as Chez L’Pere Glozu) which over many years has played host to foreign dignitaries, politicians and film stars whose pictures adorn the walls. Onion soup, followed by a mushroom fondue and tarte tatin proved a very pleasing – and filling – experience.
A Sunday lakeside stroll taking in the sculpture Biennale brought us to the modern, airy beach-side Restaurant de la Plage in Eaux-Vives, which on a hot summer’s day, was pleasantly open to the elements. Our lunch was exceptional. Starting with a shared plate of lake-caught crayfish and moving on to fera for my companion and quenelles de brochet in a thick parsley sauce. A plate of restaurant-made ice creams and sorbet completed a meal memorable for a great location, delicious food and friendly, unfussy service.
Outside the city we also managed a pleasing lunch in the garden of the gastronomic Cafe de Peney in Satigny.
Transport: how to get there
Geneva is a well connected city with flights from most major international hubs. National airline Swiss flies from Heathrow, while easyJet departs from Gatwick and Manchester. There are also flights from several UK regional airports. By rail, Geneva can be reached via a high-speed train from Paris connecting with Eurostar.
Getting to the city centre from the airport must be one of the world’s easiest transfers. From the rail station at the arrivals terminal it’s a six- or seven-minute ride to Geneva’s central station Cornavin, which is close to most central hotels, sights and the waterfront.
Public transport, including airport transfers by train or bus, is free to visitors using the Geneva Resort Pass (or through hotels) which gives access to all the city’s trams, trains and buses centred on the hub at Cornovin.
Special mention should be made of the city’s yellow “mouette” shuttle boats which cross the lake along four lines and makes getting around the extensive waterfront much simpler – they also give great photo opportunities of the Jet d’Eau and the Geneva skyline. It’s an efficient and well-integrated network, making it easy to get about.
What the locals say
“It’s a great city – it’s beautiful and it’s so safe and friendly,” said Karim, our taxi-bike tour guide. “The people are kind. We have people from everywhere and everybody gets along together. In the winter you can ski in the mountains and in the summer you can swim in the lake. Wouldn’t you want to live in Geneva?”