Set around glittering Lake Geneva, this gateway to the Alps is also the European headquarters for the United Nations.
Sidestep the flashy billboards and you’ll discover a slick, quietly cool city with a burgeoning food scene, a rich history of religious turmoil and a clutch of fascinating monuments and museums.
Arriving at Geneva Airport
GVA has only one runway, tucked up against the craggy Jura mountains. But whichever approach you make – over the mountains themselves, the foothills of the Alps, or sweeping across Lake Geneva – it’s a picturesque one.
Getting away from the airport is very simple. There is a CFF train station attached to the main terminal and all trains go to Gare Cornavin, Geneva's main station (the journey takes about seven minutes). From there, you can easily connect onto Geneva's bus and tram network.
You can also take the number 5 or 10 TPG (Transport Public Genevois) bus from the airport – go up to the ground-floor check-in level, exit the airport and turn left towards the train station entrance.
Avoid taking an expensive taxi from the airport into town (a run between the airport and the city centre can cost CHF35—45, without luggage). Trains and buses are free if you pick up a ticket in the baggage reclaim hall. It’s best to pre-book car-hire if you need your own wheels (although traffic within Geneva itself is heavy and parking is expensive).
Get under the skin of the city with a stroll around the Old Town, a jumbled mix of cobbled squares and plunging stone stairways. At its centre, the atmospheric 9th-century Place du Bourg-de-Four is the perfect place to start. Wend your way outwards and spend a sedate morning passing bric-à-brac shops, wine taverns, pretty fountains and antique dealers. You’ll also find some great old brasseries and cafés in which to plant roots and partake in a healthy dose of people-watching.
Next, head to Saint Pierre cathedral on the peak of the hill. Climb the 157 steps to the top of the tower for an amazing panorama of the city and the lake then descend below ground to view the archeological remains housed underneath.
Finish your morning moseying along the promenade for lovely views of the Bastions park below and the Jura mountain range in the distance.
Get to grips with the city’s centrepiece, Lake Geneva (known locally as Lac Léman). The city’s scenic focal point is home to one of its most famous landmarks, the mega-spout known as the Jet d’Eau. Starting from 10am, the fountain, formerly a relief valve, spouts seven tons of water high into the air at any one time. Pass by to take some pictures before heading to the Cité du Temps nearby. This former water-pumping station hosts edgy art exhibitions and a gallery dedicated to watchmakers Swatch.
Spend a lazy afternoon at Bains de Pâquis, a charming 1930s-style swimming pool complex with retro changing rooms on the shores of the river. Here, you’ll also find the sultry Turkish baths (bubbling with confidently naked Swiss folk) and a lovely little buvette (bar) serving up salads and risotto in summer and superb fondue in front of roaring log fires in winter.
On your second morning explore some of Geneva’s best museums. There are two top-notch institutions within walking distance of Plaine de Plainpalais. The first is the Patek Philippe Museum on Rue des Vieux-Grenadiers, dedicated to the legendary watchmaker. Then there’s the excellent Ethnographic Museum of Geneva with a permanent exhibition exploring the similarities and differences of our planet’s many cultures.
From the museum, walk across Parc des Bastions to enjoy the Promenade de la Treille (Rue de la Croix-Rouge), a raised outdoor walkway where you can look out towards the Jura Mountains. It’s also where you’ll find the world’s longest wooden bench, at 413ft (126m) from end to end.
Spend the rest of the afternoon meandering around the Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques, a major botanical garden with more than 12,000 species of plants from around the world, meticulously arranged in a series of beautiful themed gardens.
Start your trip with the outstanding International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, with a moving and sometimes shocking permanent exhibition charting the organisation’s crucial humanitarian work. Then take a guided tour of the Palais des Nations, the European seat of the United Nations, for an insight into how the biggest issues facing the world today are tackled.
Jump in the lift to the top floor of the World Meteorological Organisation on Avenue de la Paix. The café here, with lovely views of Mont Blanc, remains something of an insider secret in Geneva.
Take it easy with a leisurely jaunt around the Conservatoire et Jardin Botaniques. Having celebrated its bicentenary in 2017, Geneva’s botanical garden is renowned for its splendid conservatory.
Spend your day brushing up on particle physics at CERN, a tram ride out of town in the district of Meyrin. The European Organization for Nuclear Research, one of the world's largest and most respected centres for scientific research, is home to the colossal Large Hadron Collider. CERN is open for guided tours, and while you may not see the Large Hadron Collider itself (it’s closed to the public when operational), you’ll take in various other fascinating accelerators in the lab.
Take a morning walk in the leafy loveliness of Parc des Bastions, home to the Reformation Wall – a giant sculpture illustrating the forefathers of the Reformation movement that transformed Geneva into a protestant heartland in the 16th century. Duck into a local café for lunch before whiling away the afternoon at vintage gem swimming pool complex Bains de Pâquis.
Head out of the city for a spot of skiing (or hiking, paragliding and mountain biking in summer). The delightful French resorts of Chamonix, Samoëns and La Clusaz are just an hour away, while Saint-Cergue, in the Jura mountains, is even closer. If temperatures drop low enough, try snowshoeing or even ice-skating on the frozen Lac de Joux, just 90 minutes from Geneva by car.
Make for the 19th-century Jardin Anglais, a bewitching lakeside garden on Quai du Général-Guisan that houses the most famous clock in the world – the Geneva flower clock, made from more than 6,500 blooms.
Spend the afternoon at the imposing La Cité du Temps. Once a pumping station and electricity plant, this warehouse-type space now houses contemporary art exhibitions alongside the world’s largest collection of Swatch watches. Create your own design before tucking into an early dinner at the chic Au Phil du Temps restaurant.
Keep it local on your last day by exploring the cobbled streets and knick-knack shops of the Old Town, followed by a hike up the steps of its towering 12th-century cathedral for stunning panoramic views of the city and lake.
In the afternoon, grab a picnic and settle down on the banks of Lake Geneva with the iconic Jet d’eau fountain in your sights, before decanting to a cosy street-side café to share a bottle or two of wine as the sun goes down.