Things to Do in Geneva
Lake Geneva (Lac Léman) is Switzerland's largest body of water, though most of its southern shore lies within France. A crescent of blue hemmed in by the snowy peaks of the French and Swiss Alps, the lake is a year-round hotspot for outdoor activities, with a northern shore covered in picturesque villages, terraced vineyards, and medieval castles.
All visitors to Geneva should spend some time exploring the Old Town (Vieille Ville) area. It’s full of fascinating museums, churches, and atmospheric cafés, plus most of the streets are pedestrian-only, so you can wander aimlessly without a care.
Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the Empire State Building, and Geneva has the Water Fountains (Jet d’Eau)—a stunning feature in Lake Geneva launching water 460 feet (140 meters) into the air. Enjoy views and snap a souvenir photo from the waterfront, where the River Rhône meets Lake Geneva.
From Roman mosaics in the foundations to the neoclassical columns of its facade, St. Peter's Cathedral, or Cathédrale St-Pierre in French, is not only Geneva’s main house of worship, it is also a fascinating time capsule of the different influences that have dominated the city over the centuries. Depending on how you approach it, you could be forgiven for thinking the cathedral is actually a group of smaller buildings huddled together, as successive building programs – most notably Romanesque and Gothic – never completely wiped out previous traces.
St-Pierre is associated above all with the Protestant reformer John Calvin, who preached here in the 16th century; his rather uncomfortable looking wooden chair is still on display. And if you’re feeling energetic, just nearby is the entrance to the cathedral’s north tower, which will reward your 157-step climb with one of the best views of Geneva.
The Brunswick Monument in Geneva, Switzerland is a mausoleum for Charles II, the Duke of Brunswick. The Duke was an eccentric linguist, musician and horseman who came to Geneva after being driven out of his duchy of Braunsweig in 1830 and then building a fortune in Paris. He bequeathed his entire fortune to the city in exchange for such a monument being constructed in his honor. Never before had such a mausoleum been constructed in Geneva, so the monument’s construction was subject to great debate. While the Duke died in 1873, the monument was eventually built in 1879. Meant to be a replica of the Scaliger Tombs in Verona, Italy, it was designed in a neo-Gothic style and faces Lake Leman.
The United Nations has its European headquarters in Geneva, in the Palace of United Nations (Palais des Nations Unis). Guided tours of the offices offer a behind-the-scenes look at rooms like the Human Rights and Alliance of Civilizations Room, which was decorated by famous artist Miquel Barcelò, and the Assembly Hall.
The Flower Clock in Geneva is hard to miss. It's adorned with seasonal flowers, and known as the largest flower clock in the world, making this centrally-located attraction a tourist hot spot. Located in Geneva's lakefront English Garden (Jardin Anglais), the horticultural timepiece is one of the most photographed sights in the city.
Come learn everything there is to know about Switzerland’s famous 16th century reformation, where theologians like Martin Luther and John Calvin (a Geneva resident) broke off from the Roman Catholic church, effectively eroding the people’s faith in the Papacy and in many of the Catholic doctrines. The International Museum of the Reformation (Musée International de la Réforme) presents the history of Protestantism from its very humble beginnings right here in Geneva, explaining its conception of mankind and the world it lives in through diverse iconography and detailed chronicles, and addresses issues like polemics and various interpretations of the Bible; in fact, the museum is home to over 500 artefacts pertaining to the history of reformation in Geneva, including original scripts penned by Calvin and Luther themselves. An underground passageway even connects the IMR to the archaeological site under Saint-Pierre Cathedral next door, where the vote was taken for the Reformation in Geneva in 1536.
As the Reformation museum is located in the heart of Geneva’s most historic quarter, manycity tours will at the very least whizz past it, like this Geneva City Tour or this exhilaratingSegway tour of the Old Town.
The oldest example of domestic architecture in Geneva, the Tavel House (Maison Tavel) traces its origins to the beginning of the 14th century, with its layers revealing the wealth and prestige of its various owners and the growing importance of the city. As you approach, stone heads peer down at you and a corner tower lacks only Rapunzel to complete the fairy tale impression.
Once inside the distinctive dark stone walls you can explore the house from top to bottom. The cellar contains excellent examples of woodcarving and ironwork through the centuries, while the attic boasts a superb model of Geneva in the mid-19th century, when its fortifications were still intact. In between you’ll find displays of domestic interiors, including the surprisingly light and airy private quarters, fully outfitted kitchens, and displays including suits of armour and coins, highlighting the importance of finance to the city.
A green oasis in the center of Geneva’s historic Old Town, Bastions Park (Parc des Bastions) is as famous for its art and culture as it is for its floral displays, tree-lined walks, and perfectly-shaded picnic spots in summer. Gigantic, black-and-white chess sets located by the park's imposing main entrance gate make for a popular attraction among visitors to the city, as does the famed Reformation Wall—an open-air stone monument honoring the leaders of Switzerland's Reformation and designed by French sculptors Henri Bouchard and Paul Landowski in 1909. The University and Library of Geneva and the Neo-Classical Palais Eynard are also located within the park.
Home to a few cafes, an up-scale restaurant, several family play areas, sunbathing spots during summer and a free skating rink in winter, Bastions Park is always abuzz with activities and visitors. Explore the park and its lakeside promenade by Segway or on foot to get the most out of your visit to Old Town Geneva.
More Things to Do in Geneva
The Red Cross is one of the numerous international bodies associated with Geneva. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum pursues its progress from the mid-19th century, when local businessman Henry Dunant first conceived of a transnational group which would help the afflicted in times of need. The chronologically arranged exhibits follow this great humanitarian organization through the unparalleled destruction of the 20th century to the present day, where the Red Cross (or Red Crescent in Muslim countries) represents a banner of hope in trouble spots and scenes of natural disaster the world over.
Exhibits tell the story through text, video, sound, interactive displays, as well as an archive of some seven million index cards documenting prisoners of war, a testament to the ideals of the Geneva Convention. It is a monument to humanity’s best impulses in the face of its worst.
Where the River Rhône meets Lake Geneva, where the city’s north and south shores face each other, you’ll find Rousseau Island (Ile Rousseau), the green, serene heart of Geneva. Four centuries ago this was a highly strategic position, and the island owes its unusual “arrowhead” shape to its original function as a fortress.
Things are much calmer now; with Italian poplars, weeping willows and stunning views of the city, this is a place for rest and contemplation, and a pavilion restaurant is on hand to provide food for thought. Appropriate, then, that the island should be named for local boy Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the great 18th century philosopher whose statue has been standing guard here since 1835.
Switzerland is famous for its high-quality chocolate, so a visit to the oldest chocolate manufacturer in the country should be on your itinerary. The Maison Cailler—a renowned chocolaterie—offers informative and interactive guided tours that are fun for the whole family, even members without much of a sweet tooth.
In a leafy park along the scenic banks of Lake Geneva is the Ariana Museum–a palatial, three-story mansion home to over 20,000 glass and ceramic objects. The museum features a private collection of ceramic vases, cups, statues, stained glass windows and paintings, plus a room of contemporary ceramics on the second floor and a display of temporary exhibitions in the basement. Though most descriptions are in French, the free museum is still worth a visit for its beautiful surroundings.
Held in an impressive, Baroque-meets-classical-style building, the museum gives way to high-vaulted ceilings, rich burgundy walls, massive columns and an accessible balcony overlooking the Parc de l'Ariana. There's also a tea room (similar to a cafe) and an outdoor patio offering lunch (though you'll need reservations).
The Ariana Museum is located alongside the entrance to the Palace of United Nations and opposite the Red Cross Museum, so you'll be able visit all three attractions in just a few hours. Visitors with a Geneva Pass can enter the museum for free, with the added benefit of free, unlimited public transportation and admission to over 40 other city attractions, including the Red Cross Museum.
Located in the town of Pregny-Chambesy outside of Geneva, Switzerland, the Penthes Estate (Le Domaine du Château de Penthes) is a luxurious property that is home to two museums: the Museum of the Swiss Abroad and the Geneva Military Museum. The property is set in the middle of the hilly Empress’ Park (named in honor of Josephine de Beauharnais, wife of Napoleon I) and offers excellent views of Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps.
The Museum of the Swiss Abroad is devoted to showing the history of Swiss citizens who have affected the history of other countries, including artists, explorers, bankers, inventors and many others. The collection includes documents such as military patents and letters of dismissal, letters, journals, newspapers, photographs and stamps, as well as books, portrait, sculptures, uniforms, flags, medals and other personal belongings.
The Geneva Military Museum showcases weapons, uniforms and other papers from the Swiss military.
Some 20 percent of Geneva is covered in parks, of which the most popular is the English Garden, or Jardin Anglais. Boasting a superb position on Lake Geneva, this space has served as a prime meeting point for locals and tourists alike since 1854, its grand trees, stately fountains and sculptures of the city's noteworthy artists evoking the elegance of an unhurried age. A bandstand hosts concerts in the warmer months.
A national monument commemorating Geneva joining the Swiss Confederation in 1814 is another highlight, while the star attraction of over 50 years is the floral clock, one of the city's best-known symbols. These days, it's a delightfully eccentric display, with the passing of time marked not only by the hands but also by the seasonal flowers that make up the arrangement. And at around 2.5 yards, the second hand is the longest in the world.
The Geneva Ethnography Museum (Musée d'Ethnographie de Genève), aka MEG, holds the largest ethnographic collection in Switzerland–its 80,000 objects and 300,000 documents are beautifully arranged in exhibits highlighting all parts of the world. With rotating exhibitions, an extensive anthropology library and an upstairs gallery featuring music from around the globe, there is enough material to interest an expert and entertain those taking a look around. Though most of the descriptions are in French, the new museum is worth a visit, having reopened in 2014 in an iconic, Swiss-designed pavilion reminiscent of an Asian-style pagoda.
Though the building looks small, its peaked roof gives way to huge exhibition spaces below. The permanent exhibition covers two rooms and is free to enter, while the temporary exhibition changes yearly and is paid for. A tour of both is a good way to spend an hour in the city, with less people around in the morning.
Visitors with a Geneva Pass can enter both exhibitions for free, with the added benefit of unlimited public transportation and admission to over 40 other attractions, including Geneva's Natural History Museum and Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art.
It's no coincidence that the Baur Foundation is Geneva’s Museum of Far Eastern Art (Fondation Baur, Musée des Arts d'Extrême-Orient). The museum boasts over 9,000 East Asianartworks and artifacts in a private collection that covers a thousand years of history. The exhibition, which focuses mainly on China and Japan, is organized by country and includes some of the finest samurai swords, porcelains and jade ceramics in Europe.
Set in an elegant manor in Old Town Geneva, the Baur Foundation is frequented by art-lovers and passersby, alike, but is rarely crowded. A variety of temporary exhibitions, including a past exhibit on Cartier, and the museum's location within walking distance from Geneva's Art and History Museum makes it a great stop on any city museum tour.
Visitors holding a Geneva Pass can visit the museum for free, with the added benefit of free, unlimited public transportation and admission to over 40 other city attractions, including the Museum of Art and History and guided walking tours through Old Town.
Regularly dubbed the best cultural attraction in Switzerland, the Geneva Museum of Art and History (Musée d'Art et d'Histoire de Genève) is home to over 650,000 works of art and artifacts spread over five massive floors. The building itself is a splendor in its own right, a gem of Neo Classical architecture flanked by soaring Grecian columns, a series of allegorical sculptures representing various arts, like drawing, painting, and architecture, as well as a top frieze depicting the names of illustrious local artists. The museum’s diverse collections found inside, which have continuously been enriched since it first opened under the name Musée des beaux-arts in 1826, are a testament to applied arts and beaux-arts, as well as archaeology – painting-wise, some of the sought-after headliners include Rembrandt, Modigliani, Cézanne, and Rodin. In addition to all that, MAH also hosts a dozen temporary exhibits throughout the year, ranging anywhere between Picasso to Akhenaton.
Patek Philippe is one of the most prestigious names in timekeeping, and their watches having graced many a royal wrist since the company’s inception in 1839. The Patek Philippe Museum accordingly devotes much attention to the brand’s own products, from the present day’s precision pieces back to exquisitely detailed pocket watches of the early 19th century. Early examples were frequently jeweled, enameled and emblazoned with the arms of the owner.
The Antique Collection turns the clock back even further, tracing the development of timekeeping devices back to approximately 1500. The museum also houses a significant archive and library dedicated to timepieces and related mechanisms, and the whole complex is housed in a handsome early 20th century building distinguished by enormous windows.
Geneva's Museum of Natural History (Muséum d'Histoire Naturelle de Suisse) is Switzerland’s largest natural history museum, and will make visitors believe they are travelling to several different ecosystems all in one place, thanks to highly immersive dioramas. It’s home many of Louis Jurine’s (one of Switzerland’s most notable entomologist and naturalist) collections, notably the hymenoptera, the coleoptera, and the hemiptera sets. The multi-storey museum has an entire floor dedicated to lifelike stuffed regional fauna, which will undoubtedly have visitors do a double take - noteworthy specimens include polar bears, penguins, and even whales. If taxidermy is not your forte, the superior floors focus on the evolution of mankind and the evolution of astronomy. And although every single item hosted by the museum is fascinating in its own right, the real star of the show is Lucy, a bronze statue of the famous Australopithecus and oldest known human fossil. The earthquake simulator is also a big hit – especially with families.
Geneva’s Rath Museum (Musée Rath) is the oldest museum in Switzerland built specifically for art and one of the first buildings in Europe designed to host art exhibits. Built in the 1820s, it was designed as a temple of muses, inspired by the temples of ancient Greece. While it was originally used for permanent art exhibitions, teaching and other cultural events, by the late 19th century it became too small for its collections. Since the larger Musee d’Art et d’Histoire opened in 1910, the Rath Museum has hosted smaller exhibitions of Swiss and international art and archaeology, including temporary exhibits of the Musee d’Art. The most recent exhibition is Nightfall: Gothic Imagination Since Frankenstein.
Established in 1974, the Geneva Contemporary Art Center was the first contemporary art institution in the French speaking part of Switzerland. Designed as a space for production, research and experimentation, it has no permanent collection but instead has hosted more than 300 temporary exhibitions since its founding. The center is known for discovering new talent and introducing emerging Swiss and international artists to Geneva and the rest of the country. It shares space with the Centre de la Photographie Geneve, the Musee d’Art Moderne et Contemporain and the Fonds d’Art Contemporain and features a 1,000-square meter exhibition space, a cinema, an artist’s residency, a library and a children’s workshop.
Geneva’s Museum of Modern and Contemporary art—or MAMCO—is a vast contemporary art museum located in a former physical laboratory in an up-and- coming area filled with dozens of trendy art galleries and hip coffee shops; a veritable hub for Geneva’s creative types. The museum itself is specialized in experimental exhibits and notoriously non-traditional, keen to push the limits of originality by continuously coming up with bold ideas and novel styles. While MAMCO does have a mindboggling and acclaimed 4,000-item permanent collection, what really sets it apart is the four temporary exhibits it welcomes every year in order to keep things diversified and unexpected.
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