For most travellers, Geneva in winter is simply the entry point for ski trips. But Geneva has its own draws that make it perfect for a city break at Christmastime.
If you're looking for a little inspiration beyond good old German Christmas markets, here's why you should consider picturesque Geneva, and our tips on planning a trip for an early-winter getaway that will really get you in the Christmas spirit.
Like most European cities, Geneva has several Christmas markets dotted around, each with a slightly different character. The most traditional-style Christmas market is on Rue du Mont-Blanc, opening in late November with the usual range of stalls selling Christmas gifts, trinkets, local baked treats and vin chaud. Through December December the regular artisans' market at Place de la Fusterie takes on a festive vibe, with local designer-makers selling an interesting array of creations, including handmade ceramics, artworks, jewellery, candles and more. It's also worth visiting the market at Quai Général-Guisan for its beautiful lakeside setting, with the Jet d'Eau in the background.
For a larger, more full-on carnival-style market, take the train to Montreux. The journey takes just over an hour and is worth doing for the scenery alone – almost the whole train ride is along the shore of Lake Geneva – and Montreux's Christmas market is among the best in the country and there's a range of medieval-themed family events at the Chateau de Chillon.
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If you have some time, stop off in Lausanne too, or consider spending a night here – its Christmas market is also excellent, but the highlight is Lausanne Lumières, the city's festival of lights. If you explored the London edition of the festival in 2016 (it's returning in January 2018), you'll know what to expect. The city is lit up with light installations that are by turns fascinating, quirky and a bit weird – but all are seriously impressive, pretty beautiful and great fun for a wander around the city after dark.
Geneva goes all-in on its Christmas decorations, and the city is beautifully decked out in December. That includes the festive window displays of the city's excellent shopping scene, from the clothes shops and upmarket watch outlets of Rue du Mont-Blanc to the thoroughly traditional antique shops in the Old Town; even if you're the idlest of browsers, the wreaths and traditional decorations here are guaranteed to give you a proper festive feeling.
And if you need another classic Christmas activity to get you in the spirit, you can't do much better than outdoor ice skating in the park. Through the winter Geneva has a seasonal open-air ice rink in the leafy Parc des Bastions (admittedly rather less leafy this time of year, and all the more Christmassy for it). You have to hire skates, but entry is free and it's generally less crowded than the ticketed installations you might be used to in London.
Early December sees Geneva's weekend-long Escalade festival, when the city celebrates its successful defence against an attack by troops from Savoy on 11–12 December 1602. Escalade ('climbing') is named after the invaders' scaling of the city walls; supposedly the defence began when the now legendary Mere Royaume caught sight of the attackers and hurled her cauldron of hot soup at them – an event now immortalised in chocolate (naturally; this is Switzerland), as chocolate cauldrons are filled with marzipan sweets and ceremonially smashed.
There's general festival merriment with vin chaud aplenty, and the event's centrepiece is a period-costumed torchlight parade (think floppy musketeer hats and pointy helmets) through the streets of the old town. It's a bit like a citywide, large-scale Bonfire Night with more of everything – heavier on the history, but heavier on the merrymaking too. It's all a bit quaint and rather sweet for a city that usually revels in its sophisticated, cosmopolitan image; to locals it's a source of genuine pride and for visitors it's a lot of fun, culminating in a bonfire outside St Peter's Cathedral on Sunday evening.
In 2017 the Escalade festival will take place the weekend of 08–10 December, beginning on the Friday.
This is the time of year for indulgence – so dairy-heavy Swiss specialities really come into their own, and food in Geneva is even more of a highlight than usual. Just outside the city centre, Café du Soleil is legendary for its fondue. And for a special meal out there are several Michelin-starred restaurants in Geneva, such as Le Chat Botté, with its seasonal menu and lakeside setting on Quai du Mont-Blanc.
If you're in town the Sunday before Christmas you can see another of Geneva's more eccentric festive traditions, which has been running since 1934. The Coupe de Noël is Geneva's annual Christmas swimming race, where nearly 2,000 swimmers dive into the icy waters of Lake Geneva to swim 125m (water temperature is around 5°C, or fridge cold, this time of year). There's a competitive element, but most participants treat it as a fun swim – fancy dress is a common feature. Don't expect to see any neoprene though – wetsuits are not the done thing. Entries fill up early so you can't take part this year, but it's a hilarious spectacle. Be at the Jardin Anglais by the lake on 17 December 2017 from 0900.
If you're looking for a quick winter break with a little imagination, try a weekend in Geneva. Book your flights now or browse our Geneva city break offers to get a deal on your flights and hotel together.