An evening stroll along the Pont des Bergues pedestrian bridge took me by surprise. It was a relaxed kind of surprise. The crew from Real Rail Adventures: Swiss International Hubs and I had just finished dinner. The evening light was soft and golden, and a busking marimba player was hammering out a mellow soundtrack, the gently lapping water a low obligato.
The gentle surprise that came over me was a feeling that everything was right in the world or, at least from my privileged vantage point, could be made right with time, creativity, and ingenuity. Geneva is a place that brings together problem solvers from around the world who earnestly and expertly apply themselves to the betterment of humanity. Somehow, that feeling has seeped into the cobblestones and now imbues the whole city with calm, empathetic confidence.
Located on the western tip of Lake Geneva (or Lac Leman, as it’s known by the Swiss), where the Rhone flows away toward the French border, the city of Geneva is one part international meeting place, one part quaint altstadt, and one part festive lakefront. Your challenge is to experience all of that during your stay, so I’ve put together a list of experiences to help you do just that.
This museum, dedicated to the history of humanitarian action around the world, reminds us that we, as humans, have to make daily choices about how to support this action. From historic exhibits like millions of World War I prisoner of war records written on index cards to the original Geneva Convention treaty to a computerized simulation of decision-making during a humanitarian crisis, it tells stories of inhumanity and disaster as well as the ongoing, painstaking work being done to help victims. Is it sometimes difficult to take in? Yes, but it left me with the hope that we humans may eventually build the kind of society that doesn’t need a Red Cross/Red Crescent society to begin with. Admission tickets are 15CHF for adults but free with your Swiss Travel Pass (STP). An added bonus: The Broken Chair monument on the plaza opposite the gates to the United Nations is a short, ten-minute walk away.
The Swiss watch has a long and interesting history and is still considered among the best in the world. At Initium, located in Geneva’s old town, you can participate in a ½-day or day-long workshop to learn the history of Swiss watchmaking, how to assemble a fine Swiss watch, and then select components to create your own, unique timepiece which becomes your souvenir and lifelong reminder of your dream Swiss vacation. 2500CHF-3500CHF
There’s chocolate and then there’s chocolate. It’s well known that Swiss chocolate is celebrated for its excellence, but what chocolates do the Swiss celebrate? Favarger has been a Geneva chocolatier since 1826. It’s known both for its strict adherence to quality standards, of course, but also for the manufacture of chocolate cauldrons full of little marzipan vegetables which are smashed as part of Geneva’s annual Fête de l’Escalade each December. The festival celebrates the defeat of the Savoyards who, while viciously attacking the walled city in 1602, had their evil plans foiled by Mère Royaume. She’d been cooking the evening meal when, upon hearing the enemy trying to sneak up the city walls, threw her scalding pot of vegetable soup down on them, alerting the rest of the city and foiling the attempted attack. Visit the Favarger shop and tour the facility, which is supposed to open to tourists in late 2023.
Geneva is, like so many European towns, best experienced on foot. A simple walk along the waterfront, with stops for refreshment, is a great way to take it all in. Two highlights are the Jet d’Eau (Water Fountain), a 460-foot-tall fountain that rises up out of the Lake, and the Jardin Anglais (English Garden). The Jet d’Eau was originally created by a safety valve from a nearby hydraulic facility, but its aesthetic value was eventually realized and it became an integral part of the waterfront. Make sure to stroll out on the jetty toward the Jet d’Eau and, if it’s a windy day, expect to get a little damp if the wind shifts.
The Jardin Anglais is worthy of spending an hour or so wandering its paths to see L'horloge Fleurie (flower clock) and have a coffee. In the middle of summer, you can ride the Ferris wheel for sweeping views of the city and the lake.
Boat Ride on Lake Geneva
Whether you spend an hour or two in a pedal boat or splurge on a dinner cruise, getting out on the lake can give you a different perspective of the city. The easiest boat ride of all is to pick up one of the regular ferries that take people from one side of the lake to the other. They leave every few minutes from both sides of the lake and are included with your Swiss Travel Pass. Up for an even longer trip? Your Swiss Travel Pass also covers travel by boat to Lausanne and Montreux on regularly scheduled routes with no reservation required.
There have been houses of worship on this site for more than 800 years. The neoclassical facade and soaring interior of St. Pierre Cathedral are beautiful and inspiring, but spend a few CHF to climb the 157 steps of the towers. From up high, you get sweeping views of the city and lake, while paying attention to the intricate stonework will give you an appreciation for the artistry of stone carvers who worked with only hand tools and at great heights to create such a masterpiece.
No Swiss city worth its salt is complete without some form of public bathing. In Zürich, it’s floating the Limmat River. In Basel, it’s the Rhine. In Geneva, the place to meet your local friends (or make new ones) is the Pâquis baths. Located on a long spit just opposite the Jet d’Eau, it’s a great place for a swim on a hot day. Swimming costs just 2CHF for adults and 1CHF for children, and make sure to have a snack and a drink at the bar. A sauna and Turkish bath are available in the winter months for 22CHF. The baths also host all manner of concerts and art exhibits, so check the website for current offerings.
If you’re spending a couple of days in Geneva, you can mix and match these activities to fill your time. Rain or shine, there’s something here for everyone.
Have you been to Geneva? What were your favorite activities and experiences? What would you do again and what would you avoid? Let us know in the comments below and remember to subscribe so you don’t miss a thing!