Geneva: This city of wealth by stealth.” ~ Robert Morley.
If you’re reading this, my guess is you’re thinking of spending one day in Geneva? This is a marvellous thought to have! This intriguing medieval city holds a number of secrets, many of which I was surprised and delighted to uncover during my visit.
Although the city boasts elegant architecture and water views, Geneva (French: Genève) doesn’t appear to be much on the surface. If you’re as curious as I am when travelling you’ll be rewarded when curating a Geneva itinerary because you’ll realise the meanings behind what’s hiding in plain sight.
From cobbled streets and buildings dating back to the Roman era to modern monuments and symbols of peace, the city is a great example of why there’s always much more than meets the eye.
If you’re interested in getting beneath the surface and discovering the captivating things to do in Geneva in one day, read on for more!
NOTE: This guide to discovering Geneva in one day is part of my larger 1 week in Switzerland itinerary. Take a look once you’re done here for more Switzerland travel inspiration.
This guide to spending one day in Geneva will cover:
This post contains some affiliate links, at no extra cost to you. I may earn a small commission if you click through and make a purchase.
Why visit Geneva?
As well as acting as a centre for diplomacy in modern times, Geneva has a rich history that dates back millennia to when the Romans captured it in 121 BC. Straddling the border with France, Geneva was under the realm of the Roman Empire until the 14th century. Through the Middle Ages, the city witnessed several revolutions and came under different spheres of influence before finally joining the Swiss Confederation in 1814.
As a global city, Geneva has quite a few notches under her belt. Not only is the city a modern financial centre and diplomacy capital, it’s also home to 21 international organisations including the United Nations headquarters and the World Trade Organisation.
The International Red Cross was established here and in the aftermath of WWII, the agreements relating to humanitarian treatment in war lead to the signing of the Geneva Conventions. It’s no secret that Switzerland has maintained neutrality throughout many wars, so it seems fitting that these organisations can be found here.
Where to stay in Geneva
As mentioned in my Switzerland itinerary, I personally visited Geneva as a day trip from Bern. But if you prefer to take your time on your arrival to Switzerland and end up arriving a bit later in the day, I’d recommend spending the night in Geneva. The beating heart of the city is north of Pont du Mont Blanc bridge.
I were to stay in Geneva tomorrow: Based on reviews, location, proximity to transport and within a mid-range budget I would recommend Hotel des Alpes. Click here to check your dates and book.
Need more information & pricing for Geneva hotels? Be sure to check out:
How to spend one day in Geneva
Often confused with Zurich as the country’s capital city (pssst, it’s actually Bern), Geneva is Switzerland’s second most populated city and wraps beautifully around the south-western shores of Lac Leman (often referred to as Lake Geneva).
This guide to spending one day in Geneva explores much of the Old Town. As I’ll explain in more detail below, you’ll get to explore the major sights as well as some gems hiding in plain sight dotted throughout the city. If you wish to explore more of the city and the surrounding region, I’ve included flexible options to add to your Geneva itinerary if you so wish towards the end of this guide.
Did you know? Switzerland has four official languages. Bienvenue, you’re in a French-speaking region of the country now!
Things to do in Geneva: A one day itinerary
With all the logistics out of the way, let’s jump into the amazing things to do in Geneva in one day! From the city’s main train station, Gare de Genève, follow signs towards the south and Pont du Mont Blanc bridge. This is where we’ll begin this Geneva itinerary.
Admire Jet d’Eau
Perhaps one of Geneva’s most popular attractions is the Jet d’Eau (Water Jet), shooting 140 metres above Lake Geneva below. It’s peak is visible over rooftops from some vantage points throughout the city and also from airplanes soaring above, so you may want to opt for the window seat!
Jet d’Eau shoots five hundred litres of water per second into the city’s skyline at 200 kilometres per hour. That’s some pretty impressive statistics. Originally created to release pressure from a nearby hydraulic plant in 1886, Jet d’Eau became so popular it was later moved to the centre of the lake to to celebrate the Swiss Confederation’s 600th anniversary.
One of the most scenic places to view Jet d’Eau and the waterfront is from Pont du Mont Blanc bridge. It’s not to be missed when spending one day in Geneva and if you’re lucky enough to be around the waterfront in the evening from spring to autumn, you’ll be treated to a colourful night illumination.
TIP: If you’re feeling adventurous, it’s possible to walk the narrow pathway into the lake’s centre to get up close to Jet d’Eau… if you don’t mind getting wet, of course!
NOTE: Visiting Geneva in winter? If temperatures drop below freezing, Jet d’Eau is switched off (as well as during strong winds).
Appreciate the Flower Clock
Geneva’s Flower Clock (l’horloge fleurie) is the world’s second-largest working clock and boasts the longest second-hand on any clock in the world at 2.5 metres. As with the beloved Swiss watches the country is recognised for, l’horloge fleurie’s time is strikingly precise as it’s updated by satellite transmission.
Originally created in 1955 as a tribute to the city’s watchmakers, the flowers and plants surrounding the clock are ever-changing with the seasons. It will look different on any visit to Geneva.
You can find the Flower Clock located along the western side of English Garden (Jardain Anglais). It’s hard to miss because it’s made with over 6,000 flowers and small plants so it definitely is a stand-out Geneva attraction!
Take in the history of Place du Bourg-de-Four
Situated in the very heart of Geneva’s Old Town is Place du Bourg-de-Four. Since the 9th century, this historical town square has been a significant meeting point and market in Geneva. The square was once a cattle market during the Roman times and it’s said ancient roads that once led to Annecy in France and even Italy are buried beneath the grounds here.
Decorated with dozens of wooden window shutters, the buildings standing by the square today are home to a cluster of cafes and restaurants. The oval fountain in the centre of the square is a popular meeting point for local Genevois. It’s a great spot to soak up some history and a coffee, too!
Marvel at St Pierre’s Cathedral
St Peter’s Cathedral (St Pierre’s in French) is a marvellous treasure of Geneva, having been standing nearby Place du Bourg-de-Four since the 12th century. Although it has been rebuilt and added to in various architectural styles throughout the centuries, today’s cathedral stands on the site of a previous basilica from the 6th century.
With large Roman pillars decorating its exterior, the cathedral’s interior was largely destroyed during the Reformation of 1535 but luckily a few artefacts were saved and preserved. One such piece is John Calvin’s chair, more about him under the Reformation Wall below.
Visitors can climb the spiral staircases to the North and South towers to be rewarded with incredible views over Geneva’s Old Town. You can even see the waterfront and Jet d’Eau from there! Cost adults CHF 5.00 or free entry with the Geneva Pass. There’s even an archaeological site beneath the cathedral displaying various items dating as far back as the 4th century (cost adults CHF 8.00 or free with the Geneva Pass).
TIP: Try and visit on the hour to hear the Tower Clock play the Swiss national anthem to the tune of a glockenspiel. Also, Some of the best rooftop views in Geneva can be found in the narrow streets elevated behind the cathedral. You can even see Jet d’Eau peeping over the terracotta roof tiles from there!
NOTE: On Saturdays, some concerts are held within the cathedral and the towers are closed to visitors during this time.
Take a stroll along the Reformation Wall
Known formally as the International Monument to the Reformation (Monument international de la Réformation or Mur des réformateurs) the Reformation Wall was built into Geneva’s old city walls in 1909 to mark John Calvin’s 400th birthday. Calvin was a leader of the Protestant Reformation in Geneva during the 15th century.
Overlooking the green lawns of Bastions Park (Parc des Bastions) the four giant sculptures carved into the stone wall are John Calvin, William Farel, Théodore de Bèze and John Knox, leaders who helped to spread Protestantism Reformation throughout Europe. If you’ve watched any historical shows on European history, you’ll probably be familiar with a few of these names but if not, learn more about these figures. Today this wall forms part of the University of Geneva.
Enjoy some tranquility in Bastion’s Park
Along Promenade des Bastions is the green oasis of Bastion’s Park (Parc des Bastions). Fancy playing an oversized game of chess? Take your pick of one of the many life-sized chess boards and pieces found here!
The site of Geneva’s first botanical garden, Parc des Bastions neighbours the University of Geneva. A former botanical glass house has been renovated into a lovely little restaurant here, too.
During the warmer months, locals take time out and relax in the sun on the lawns, have a picnic and play spectator to the chess games.
Christmas in Geneva at Parc des Bastions
In the lead up to the festive season, the park transforms into a magical winter wonderland of Christmas markets to celebrate Swiss traditions, called Noël aux Bastions . Kids will love the ice rink and many activities in the Children’s Pavilion while adults can indulge in mulled wine, wintery cocktails, lobster rolls, raclette and other Christmas treats under night illuminations.
TIP: Noël aux Bastions is a must during a Christmas in Geneva to support the local producers and artisans!
Step back in time at Hôtel de Ville
This elaborate building comprising of pillars and archways will have you transported back to the Renaissance era! This City Hall houses Geneva’s government headquarters and dates back to the 15th century. Apparently, nobles used to be able to ride up the cobbled ramp to the highest floor on horseback!
Behind the arched pillars of this building is where some of history’s most important documents have been signed, such as the four Geneva Conventions and the act that founded the International Red Cross.
Discover the Old Arsenal, a gem hiding in plain sight
Wondering why these cannons are sitting beneath the archways of the Geneva State Archives building? This area is known as the Old Arsenal (Ancien Arsenel) and is located in the maze of cobbled streets in Geneva’s Old Town.
Originally a market during Roman times, the area was converted to a military store in the 18th century to defend Geneva from neighbouring enemies. The cannons here today serve as a reminder of the times.
Don’t forget to take in the beauty of the detailed frescos painted beneath the archways – they’re absolutely stunning and depict events throughout Geneva’s history, such as Julius Caesar’s arrival in Geneva, portrayal of markets from the Middle Ages and events that shaped the Reformation.
Shop up a storm in the City Centre
If you love a spot of shopping (or window shopping) and are in the mood to pick up some souvenirs from Switzerland, the parallel streets of Rue du Marché and Rue du Rhone are your best bet. These stretches of pedestrian-friendly streets are lined with a large assortment of stores to satisfy even the most discerning shopper. Discover, department stores, cosmetics, fashion boutiques, bookstores, Swiss watches and international high-end designer stores around here.
Rue du Mont Blanc is where you’ll find traditional souvenirs from Switzerland such as Swiss army knives, chocolates, timepieces, cigars and more. The mazes of narrow streets within of the Old Town are always full of surprises. Antique stores here are rumoured to contain treasures from the city’s medieval times. Now that would be a unique souvenir!
If you’re on a tighter budget, Geneva’s open air markets might be just what you’re after. Plaine de Plainpalais in the city’s south is the largest flea market, loaded with pre-loved goods, homewares, clothing, paintings and more.
Don’t miss Molard Tower in Place du Molard
Decided to spend the evening in Geneva? Make sure you head to Place du Molard (Molard Square) with its medieval clock towering above the cobbled square below. The clock tower itself was used by the military in the 14th century and was part of the original city walls. Today, Place du Molard is surrounded by restaurants and a cosy wine bar is actually located within the tower!
What’s special about Place du Molard itself is the illuminated cobblestones scattered throughout the square that come alive at dusk. When shining on the ground, it’s said the colourful stones resemble stars in the dark night sky.
If you have some extra time in Geneva
Obviously spending one day in Geneva means your time will be limited. When visiting a few of the attractions below, it may be worth your while to purchase the Geneva Pass in advance to receive free entry once you’re there. If you like spending in-depth time at an attraction to learn more about the city’s cultural heritage, here are some ideas beyond the Old Town:
- Trek to the United Nations headquarters located in the city’s north. Also known as the Palace of Nations (Palais des Nations) it’s possible to take a guided tour and discover the Human Rights Room, Assembly Hall and much more, adults CHF 15.00. More info at the Palais des Nations website.
- At the entrance to the Palais des Nations, take a moment to reflect at the famous Broken Chair sculpture. Created by local artist Daniel Berset, this three-legged chair was made to protest against the global use of landmines and it pays tribute to handicapped landmine victims.
- Visit the important research centre, CERN. Standing for “European Organisation for Nuclear Research”, CERN gets its initials from the French words Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire. If you’ve always been fascinated by physics and the universe, visiting CERN would be a great idea! While you can explore the permanent exhibitions by yourself, guided tours are also available. The best part is the guided tours are free and available to book from two weeks in advance. More info over at CERN’s website.
- Have you a love for Swiss watches? The Patek Philippe Museum is a must. The museum showcases over 500 years of watchmaking, including the first watch ever made. Having produced some of the world’s finest timepieces since 1879, you’ll be able to witness the evolution of Patek Philippe’s antique wristwatches and pocket watches to what they are today. Guided tours are also available, adults CHF 10.00. More info on Patek Philippe’s website.
How to get to Geneva
Getting from Geneva airport to the city
Transit from Geneva Airport to the city centre is simple as it’s short 4 kilometres away. The airport is located within Zone 10 of Geneva’s public transport network and adult tickets cost CHF 3.00 one way (valid for one hour). You’ll need to purchase your ticket at a dedicated machine before you get on board as there aren’t any ticket machines on buses or trams.
By train: 6 minutes to Gare Cornavin station in the city centre via SBB Rail
By bus: 20 minutes to downtown, covered by the Swiss Travel Pass.
Getting to Geneva from within Switzerland
I’m yet to mention how in love I am with the Swiss high-speed trains! SBB Rail connects all major Swiss cities in a giant spiderweb-like network, making getting around fairly simple and time efficient.
The costs listed are per adult when travelling with the Swiss Half Fare Card (more on this in my detailed 7 days in Switzerland itinerary). Use the below times as a guide if you’re planning to do a day trip to Geneva from other Swiss cities via SBB Rail:
- From Lausanne: 40 mins one way, CHF 9.20
- From Bern: 1 hour 50 mins one way, CHF 16.60
- From Zurich: 2 hours 45 mins one way, CHF 24.20
- From Interlaken: 3 hours one way, CHF 25.20
- From Lucerne: 3 hours one way, CHF 34.00
Day trips from Geneva
If you decide to spend the night and would like to explore the surrounding region’s beauty the next day, here are some popular day trips from Geneva to consider:
- Lausanne: 45mins by train
- Montreux: 1 hour by train
- Lavaux vineyards: 1 hour 20 mins by train
- Vevey: 1 hour by train – A stunning lakeside town with a giant fork poking out of Lake Geneva
- Mont Blanc: 1 hour by car – Europe’s highest mountain peak! This guided tour to Mt Blanc includes Chamonix, too.
- Gruyeres: 2 hours by train – Indulge in a cheese and chocolate tour in the picturesque town of Gruyeres.
- Chamonix (France): 1 hour 15 mins by train
- Yvoire (France): 30 mins by car
- Annecy (France): 45 mins by car – The colourful wooden buildings in Annecy are right out of a fairytale! Enjoy a half day tour from Geneva to Annecy and enjoy exploring this medieval town.
Concluding my one day in Geneva itinerary
Now you know the meanings behind prominent landmarks and attractions throughout Geneva, you’re all set to make the trip! I hope you enjoyed learning how to spend one day in Geneva and will add many of these gems to your Geneva itinerary. And remember to explore the beauty of the Geneva region if time permits, too.
If you haven’t already, don’t forget to pick up your Geneva Pass, Swiss Travel Pass for free travel & museum entry or Swiss Half Fare Card to receive 50% off your train, bus, boat and even cable car rides throughout Switzerland!
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Until next time,
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