This European City Has Been Called “Paris Without the Crowds”

This lakeside city is the most underrated place for a European vacation.

View of Geneva Ferris Wheel and Rhone River against a mountain background

Geneva is Switzerland’s second-largest city, located at the southern tip of Lake Geneva.

Photo by Anna Haines

When planning a trip to Switzerland, Geneva is usually not the first city of choice. Its approximately 10-mile distance to France is part of its character, most noticeable by the predominant use of the language and, of course, the locals’ adoration for cheese. But what distinguishes Geneva from other Swiss cities is its diversity—due to its role as a hub for international diplomacy—and its history. The result is a cultural milieu as rich as the fondue.

The steep, winding streets of Old Town invite travelers to slow down and admire the melange of medieval, gothic, and Renaissance architecture (not to mention the more than 140 places of worship). An efficient public transportation system whisks visitors from an 18th-century neighborhood built by a Sardinian king to a riverfront restaurant serving the city’s first omakase, offering the same enticing balance of antiquity and cosmopolitanism as European hotspots. A fellow traveler said it best as I strolled its empty medieval streets: Geneva is “Paris without the crowds.”

It’s why now is the time to visit, before everyone catches on. Here are six things to do in Europe’s most underrated city.

Man at a food stall in a farmers market in Old Town

Stop by the farmer’s market in Old Town for local delicacies.

Photo by Anna Haines

1. Travel back in time in Old Town

While Geneva’s heavy international business traffic makes it undeniably modern, its Old Town has a long history that spans from Roman settlement to its newfound reputation as “Protestant Rome” following the Calvinist Reformation in the 16th century. The greatest artifact of this latter period remaining today is St. Pierre’s Cathedral. Built in the 12th century, the original tower is worth the 157-step climb for panoramic views of the city. But the most interesting part of the church lies in the basement, where there is an archaeological site to explore, which includes the former cells of monks and remnants of 4th-century churches.

A few steps from the Cathedral, visit the International Museum of the Reformation to learn how Geneva came to be known as “Protestant Rome.” Nine rooms house paintings, manuscripts, books and pop culture memorabilia that survey the history of the protestant movement, spanning from the 16th century to present day. Within a 15-minute walk, discover the outdoor Passage des Templiers and indoor Passage des Lions, two of several secret passages that were used by both the military and residents as far back as the Middle Ages. End the journey back in time at Place Bourg-de-Four—the city’s oldest square is filled with bustling patios perfect for people-watching with a glass of Swiss wine.

Rushing water in front of a bridge with green mountains in the background.jpg

The secret beach, along the Arve river, is a great time to enjoy Geneva’s nature.

Photo by Anna Haines

2. Sunbathe by the beach

After a stroll along the Quai Wilson—a 3-mile long waterfront walkway decorated with public art exhibitions—indulge in some self-pampering at Bains des Paquis. The jetty sitting atop Lake Geneva is a popular spot for soaking and sunbathing in the summer, and steaming in the sauna in the winter. With an onsite hammam (steam room) and sauna, as well as a snack bar offering cheese fondue and a rotating lunch menu featuring globally inspired cuisine like an Indian salad and Vietnamese pork buns, the afternoon could easily be spent here. It’s also the ideal swimming spot for taking in the 460-foot-tall Jet d’Eau fountain across the lake.

Tip: For something more low-key, check out the hidden beach along the Arve river. Walking south on Quai Charles-Page, look for a staircase on the right side of Rue des Battoirs that leads to the water.

Chocolate fondue fountain at Kiosque Des Bastions’ Sunday brunch buffet

The chocolate fondue fountain at Kiosque Des Bastions’ Sunday brunch buffet is one way to enjoy the renown Swiss chocolate.

Photo by Anna Haines

3. Eat Swiss specialties, as well as international dishes

No trip to Geneva would be complete without trying Switzerland’s two most prized foods: cheese and chocolate. Cheese fondue is certainly not hard to find in Geneva, but for a real medieval feel dining in one of Geneva’s oldest period rooms, head to Restaurant Les Armures, where the menu is said to have remained the same since the 17th century. Chocolate lovers can make their own chocolate at La Bonbonniere, a century-old chocolate factory in Old Town, or just cut to the chase and indulge in the chocolate fondue fountain at Kiosque Des Bastions’ Sunday brunch buffet.

But Geneva doesn’t just do the Swiss classics well. With almost half of its residents born outside Switzerland, the city boasts 140 international restaurants. Colorful Peruvian plates like scallops floating in a rocoto (pepper) foam and refreshing pisco-based cocktails are served at Yakumanka, while the city’s first omakase is artfully prepared by Nobu-trained chef Mitsuru Tsukada at SACHI.

As overlooked as Geneva’s culinary pluralism are the region’s vineyards, which—due to a unique microclimate created by their proximity to Lake Geneva and the Rhone River—produce world-class gamay (red) and chasselas (white) varieties. Taste these and other Geneva wines like pinot noir and chardonnay on a 20-minute tuk-tuk ride from the city (yes that’s right, there are tuk-tuk tours in Switzerland).

Antiques on display under tents and on tables in a flea market in Plainpalais

Look for antique watches at the Patek Philippe Museum, or hunt for your own at the nearby market.

Photo by Anna Haines

4. Lose track of time in the Plainpalais neighborhood

Switzerland’s reputation for exceptional craftsmanship extends to its high-quality watches. Just take a look at the vast collection of 2,500 watches, enamel miniatures, and musical automata on display at the city’s Patek Philippe Museum. Covering five centuries of Genevan, Swiss, and European horological art and housing a library with over 8000 publications on time, visitors can easily lose track of time here. Their ‘Rare Handcrafts’ models showcase the delicate art of hand engraving under a binocular microscope, creating a newfound appreciation for the meticulous work of jewelry and watchmakers.

A few minutes’ walk from the museum is a 50-year-old flea market every Wednesday, Saturday, and the first Sunday of the month, filled with antiques, jewelry, and clothes, as well as food trucks offering everything from regional Thai food to Colombian empanadas. If you miss the market, the neighborhood has plenty of shops to explore: Check out Les Recyclables for second-hand books with a side of coffee and Les Enfants Terribles, which is a design workshop, vintage shop, and café all in one. Shop at Pourquoi Pas for chic clothes and Grain de Sel for home décor (that can fit inside a luggage bag, of course) a few doors down.

Entrance of International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent in Geneva Switzerland with logo

Created in Geneva following the Second World War, the Geneva Conventions is one of many pieces at the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent museum.

Photo by Keitma/Shutterstock

5. Visit the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum

Geneva would arguably not be the hub for international diplomacy it is today without its historic role in putting humanitarianism on the world stage. Learn more about the history of humanitarian aid at the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, where at least an hour can be spent exploring the permanent and rotating exhibits that align with an annual theme (this year’s is mental health). One artifact in the permanent collection not to be missed is the Geneva Conventions—a set of treaties and protocols that govern international laws for humanitarian treatment in war.

Downhill from the museum is the Broken Chair, an over-10,000-pound wooden monument honoring populations harmed by armed violence. From the Broken Chair, continue along the long row of flags to the European headquarters of the United Nations—the Palais des Nations. One of the largest diplomatic conference centers in the world, the grand building is an impressive example of 20th-century architecture.

White, decorated ceiling of Eglise Saint-Croix Church in Carouge

With sights like the 18th-century Eglise Saint-Croix Church, Carouge is a far cry from the North American conception of a “suburb”.

Photo by Anna Haines

6. Explore an 18th-century village within the city

In the 1760s, the King of Sardinia built Carouge with the intention of making it a separate city that would rival Geneva. While it remains a separate municipality today, locals consider it a suburb of Geneva, as it’s an easy 20-minute tram ride from downtown. With its cobblestone streets embellished with stucco facades, ornate doorways, and decorated moldings—signature characteristics of Sardinian architecture—it’s no surprise Carouge is protected as a Swiss National Heritage Site.

Must-visit spots include the 18th-century Eglise Saint-Croix Church and Cinema Bio, an art-house movie theater that opened in 1912. Nearby, the lines at Gelatomania and MANU Gelato are worth the wait. Head to one of Carouge’s oldest bistros Bistrot du Lion d’Or for refined French-Swiss cuisine with Mediterranean flair (think, red mullet fish stuffed with fregola and Iberian chorizo), or go for something more fun like EnVie Vegan Food, which serves photographic plant-based dishes like the ‘Dark Knight Cheeseburger’ featuring a bun made of activated charcoal.

Exterior of the Mandarin Oriental on the water at dusk.

While there are plenty of charming old hotels in Old Town, rest up at the Mandarin Oriental for something refreshingly contemporary.

Photo Courtesy of Mandarin Oriental

Where to stay in Geneva

Set overlooking the Rhone River, the 178-room Mandarin Oriental, Geneva offers views of the area against the snow-capped Alps both from guest rooms (many of which have private terraces) and the impressive ‘Royal Penthouse’, which comes complete with a private hammam.

The hotel upholds Geneva’s high level of care for sustainability by eliminating single-use plastic, using low-energy electricity and heating, and donating its soaps to be recycled and distributed to the needy and unhoused.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated Geneva’s distance from France being 200 miles instead of 10.

Anna Haines is a journalist and photographer. She currently writes about wellness, style, and beauty for Forbes and was previously a travel writer for Buzzfeed’s Bring Me! vertical.
From Our Partners
Sign up for our newsletter
Join more than a million of the world’s best travelers. Subscribe to the Daily Wander newsletter.
More From AFAR