As a major international city, Geneva makes a great weekend destination which combines a city, lake and mountain break all in one.
I got to explore Geneva all by myself recently when I went there on my very first solo trip, and had a total blast. The city has a lot to offer, and I recently spent three nights there making the most of it all. Whether you’re going by yourself or with someone else, here’s everything you need to know to spend a weekend in Geneva.
Exploring the city is not only easy to do, but it’s also free if you stay in a hostel or hotel. You’ll get a complimentary transport card at check-in which can be used throughout your stay, and you can even catch a free train into the city from the airport too – just pick up a ticket at baggage collection for 80 mins of free onward travel.
Things to do in Geneva for free/cheap
Yes, Geneva is an expensive city. There’s no point in denying it when half a pint of beer can cost you about 8CHF! But, there are always ways to keep costs down when sightseeing, and luckily there’s plenty to do in Geneva even if budget is tight.
Tip: If you’re planning on visiting a few museums in the city, take a look at the Geneva Pass which might save you a bit of money on entry fees.
Explore Old Town
As the name suggests, the Old Town district of Geneva offers some of the city’s most historical buildings and sights.
Place du Bourg-de-Four is at the heart of the Old Town, and is a lively square lined with cafes and restaurants which makes a perfect place to stop, relax, and people watch. Take a wander from here past the Old Arsenal, once the city’s old military storage, to see five cannons which now lie under the archways and the beautiful mural walls which tell stories of Geneva’s past.
Maison Tavel also stands out nearby among the historical buildings, and is a free museum which documents life in Geneva throughout the years. There are several floors of displays inside which are definitely worth a look if you have the time, but unfortunately I didn’t get to learn as much as I’d liked as the info plaques inside are only in French.
Visit St. Pierre Cathedral
Also located in Old Town Geneva is the St Pierre Cathedral, something that’s not to be missed. Entry is free and the inside of the cathedral is really stunning, especially the small chapel extension by the right of the entrance which has some beautiful stained glass windows, and detailed paintings from floor to ceiling.
The highlight of the cathedral though is going up into the church’s two towers. For only 5CHF you can get a ticket to see what is probably the best view of Geneva, but be warned, there are many, many steps to the top and no lift. But don’t let that put you off, because the panoramic views are well worth the climb.
Just outside and underneath the cathedral is also the Archeological museum, which makes a fascinating stop if you’re interested in finding out more about the history of the cathedral, and of Geneva. Entry costs 8 CHF and comes with a free audio guide.
See Reformation Wall
One of the main monuments in Geneva is the Reformation Wall, which can be found carved into the old city walls in Parc des Bastions. It marks the important figures and events which occurred during the Protestant Reformation, and stretches 100m in the lush green space behind the university.
Tell time at the Flower Clock
Switzerland is famous for their watch-making, and in Geneva you can marvel at an outdoor clock that’s intricately decorated with fresh flowers. The arrangements change every three months, so you’re guaranteed to see something different throughout the year.
Probably the most iconic sight of Geneva is this powerful water jet which shoots up nearly 30 meters high. It was originally built to relieve pressure in the city’s water pipes, but it became such a popular tourist attraction that they moved it right onto the lake and made it even bigger.
You can get up close to it too if you dare, but it’s also great to see from a distance, especially over the rooftops around the city.
Tour the UN and see the broken chair
Referred to as the ‘capital of peace’, Geneva is home to the United Nations which is unsurprisingly one of the city’s main attractions. The flags outside the building make for a nice picture stop, but you can also take a guided tour of the inside twice a day. It costs 12 CHF to do so, but you’ll need to bring your passport for a few security checks first.
In front of the UN is also the famous ‘Broken Chair’ statue, a large sculpture which commemorates those who have been hurt or injured as a consequence of war.
Relax at the Botanical Gardens
Adjacent to the UN is also the city’s botanical gardens, which not only houses a diverse range of plants but also a small animal park! Here you can spot peacocks, flamingos and even some deer – it’s the perfect place to stroll through after a visit to the UN.
Sail down Lake Leman
Taking a boat down the vast lake in Geneva is a really enjoyable way to spend a couple of hours, and see the city from a different perspective. There are cheaper tours, but I forked out a hefty 36 CHF to join the lunchtime trip on board one of CGN’s steamboats to Versoix and back. If budget is tight but you’d still like to get onto the water, look out for the yellow public transport boats which will take you on a short journey across the lake for free as part of your transport ticket.
Join a ‘free’ walking tour
I think pay-what-you-want walking tours are a great way to get to know a city, especially on a short city break. In Geneva, Free Walk tours run daily around Old Town and the UN.
I did both and especially enjoyed the former, but in hindsight I would’ve skipped the UN one for a tour of the inside instead. If you’re interested in finding out more about some of the other political organisations nearby though, their guide is great.
Take a day trip to the alps
OK, so this one isn’t free (or cheap), but if budget allows then I can highly recommend a day trip across the border to Chamonix and the French alps. The mountains were what drew me to visit Geneva, and the day I spent there was utterly breathtaking and worth every penny. If you need any convincing, here’s my guide to Chamonix and Aiguille du Midi.
Climb Mount Salève
For a cheaper and easier way to see the mountains, there’s also a direct bus from Geneva that’ll take you to Mount Salève, the beautiful backdrop of the city. From here, you can get a cable car to the top, and if you’re feeling adventurous, hang glide back down!
Other things to do
If all that wasn’t enough, here are a few more ideas which I didn’t have time to do…
- For those who love watches and want to find out more about them, check out the Patek Philippe Museum.
- Close to the UN, you can also visit the headquarters of the Red Cross to learn about the important work they do.
- If you’re visiting Geneva during the summer, you can also go for a swim at Bains des Pâquis, an outdoor swimming spot located right off the pier into the lake! There’s also a sauna here in winter to enjoy.
Where to eat
Food in Geneva is unsurprisingly not cheap. To keep costs down I stuck to supermarket bakes at breakfast and lunch, but enjoyed a lovely dinner at Chez ma Cousins one night (succulent roast chicken) and the Hamburger Foundation on another. For a main course and soft drink, the bill came to roughly 28 CHF at each restaurant, which are both still at the budget end in Geneva.
Fondue is the dish not to be missed in the city, and Cafe du Soleil is where I was recommended to try it. I must admit I didn’t end up doing so though as I’m not a big cheese eater, so didn’t want to have a whole pot to myself!
Where to stay
There are plenty of hotels to choose from in the city, especially if you’ve got cash to flash. But if you don’t, then I can recommend Geneva Hostel which is located not far from central station and the lake. This was my first time staying in a hostel, and I had a very positive experience thanks to their great facilities and friendly staff.
And there you have it, my complete guide to a weekend in Geneva!