Geneva, the heart of Europe

December 7, 2011 (Last Updated: March 3, 2023)
by Carolyn
Lake Geneva

As the world headquarters for the Red Cross, the International Olympic Committee, World Health Organisation and the European seat of the United Nations, Geneva is a truly international city.

Situated on the border of France and Switzerland, Geneva is a mix of both countries and whilst this it is officially in French-speaking Switzerland, most residents are also fluent in German, and often many other languages as well.

In fact, with so many international organisations housed here, there’s barely a language you won’t hear!

Because of the number of nationalities, you’ll frequently see Geneva referred to as Genf (German) and Geneve (French), whilst the French know Lake Geneva as Lac Leman and the Germans call it Genfersee.

Geneva is the most popular arrival point for those arriving from abroad who are planning to visit Mont Blanc.  In this article, you can read more about planning your own Tour du Mont Blanc.

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The best way to see Geneva is by foot. With the city being so compact, it’s easy to shop till you drop in the Old Town and then be by the lakeside in only a few minutes.

Read on to discover why a visit to Geneva should be included in your trip to Switzerland.

Admire the beauty of Lake Geneva

Jet dEau Geneva

The city is rightly proud of its lake, which is Europe’s largest Alpine lake, and its emblem, the Jet d’Eau. The fountain spurts water 140 metres above the lake at 200 km/h, making a spectacular sight, and is the city’s most photographed attraction.

Beside the lake is l’horloge fleurie, the flower clock, which was created in 1955 as a symbol of Geneva’s watchmakers and is located in Jardin Anglais.

About 6,500 plants, which are changed each season, are used in the eight intersecting circles of the clock face.

The flower clock, which has a diameter of five metres, is the second largest in the world (it was beaten by Tehran’s 2005 installation), and its second hand is the longest in the world, measuring 2.5 metres. 

Geneva's Flower Clock

Boat trips are popular on Lake Geneva and visitors have the choice of cruising on an historic paddlesteamer or travelling from shore to shore on one of the ‘mouettes’ (shuttle boats) that traverse the lake.

Tip: If you have time, take a boat cruise to the pretty village of Yvoire on the French side of Lake Geneva.

For fabulous city views, climb the 175 steps up the north tower of St. Peter’s Cathedral and take in the panorama of Lake Geneva and the city.

And for views further field, you can take the cable car up to Salève (in France) and enjoy the 360-degree views that stretch across the Alps to Mont Blanc and even as far as Annecy.

Pay your respects at the Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum

The international aid organisation, Red Cross, began in Geneva in the mid-1800s and the museum is dedicated to documenting the work of this important organisation.

In 1859, local man Henry Dunant had just returned from a battle in Solferino, northern Italy, that left 40,000 soldiers dead or wounded. Dunant was overcome by the suffering he saw and on his return to Geneva he set about establishing an organisation that would help the war wounded.  This organisation was to become Red Cross.

The museum’s theme ‘The Humanitarian Adventure’ is divided into three sections – defending human dignity, restoring family links, and reducing natural risk. Displays include a collection of 7 million cards which record the details of prisoners taken during World War I.

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum is open daily year-round (except Mondays and four days at Christmas/New Year).

Geneva as seen from the lake

Visit the Palais des Nations

The European headquarters of the United Nations is also worth a visit. Most visitors are keen to see the impressive display of flags that line the entrance to the Palais des Nations, representing each member state of the UN.

Some areas of the building are open to the public, including the Assembly Hall and the Consultation Hall which features beautiful frescoes.

See the Fathers of Swiss Reformation

Reformation Wall Geneva

Geneva’s Reformation Wall, in Parc des Bastion, pays homage to the four men who were leaders in the Swiss push for reformation in the 16th century. 

Statues of the four – Jean Calvin, Guillaume Farel, Theodore de Beze and John Knox – stand 5 metres tall, whilst the motto of Geneva ‘Post Tenebras Lux’ (after darkness, light), is engraved on the stone wall below them.

The wall extends for 100 metres and was inaugurated in 1909 for the 400th anniversary of Calvin’s birth.

The monument’s sculpture, Paul Landowski, is also renowned for his work on the iconic ‘Christ the Redeemer’ statue in Rio de Janeiro.

Parc des Bastions can be found beside the University of Geneva.

If you have time to travel beyond Geneva city itself, consider this popular excursion.

Visit the fairy tale-like Chillon Castle

Chillon Castle

Head to the far end of Lake Geneva (between Montreux and Villeneuve), to Chillon Castle.  The fairytale-like castle features sturdy walls and turreted towers and it sits on a small peninsula jutting into the lake.

Formerly a fort, a summer residence for the Counts of Savoy and a prison, Chateau Chillon has a long and fascinating history. 

It can be reached by public transport from Geneva.  Click here for more information.

Further reading: Things to do in Montreux, Switzerland

Getting to Geneva:

  • Geneva International Airport is served by many European airlines as well as Emirates and Etihad who fly from Australia via the Middle East.
  • Rail connections to and from Geneva are excellent. The TGV operates between Paris and Geneva with a travelling time of around 3.5 hours.
  • Trains and buses are just two of the ways you can travel between Geneva Airport and the City Centre (distance approximately 6 km).

Where to Stay in Geneva:

I recommend the Novotel Geneva Center. Click here to check current prices.  For real luxury, consider the Ritz Carlton Hotel de la Paix – read this post to learn more.

You can read my review of Novotel Geneva Center here.