Omni Traveller

Budget Backpack Travel in Europe

Geneva: Young Traveller’s Guide

Lake Genèva (Lac Léman) with Genèva’s Most Well-Known Landmark, le Jet d'Eau (the Water Jet)

Lake Genèva (Lac Léman) with Genèva’s Most Well-Known Landmark,
le Jet d’Eau (the Water Jet)
 Photo: Martin Alvarez Espinar

Geneva, Switzerland, was never on my “to visit” list. I knew it was the home of the United Nations and the Red Cross, but I never thought I’d go to the fifth-most expensive city in the world as someone on a student budget. A friend of mine wanted to go there on our spring break, so I booked my trip in order to meet up with her; but when she got sick and had to cancel, I was stuck with a non-refundable ticket to a city that I didn’t really want to go to. Although I knew I’d have to be extra careful with my money, I went and fell in love with everything about the city (except the prices).



Geneva is a city of about 200,000 people in Romandy, the Swiss-French speaking Cantons of western Switzerland. The city is very international (about 40% of residents aren’t Swiss nationals), and English is also commonly spoken— however, it would be helpful to pick up a few basic French phrases before you arrive.

Switzerland does not use the Euro as its currency. Instead the Swiss use their own currency, the Swiss Franc. One Swiss frank (written as Fr1, SFr1, or CHF1) is at the time of writing this article worth about $1.06 USD (€0.83, £0.66). Although the exchange rate might not seem scary, the prices in Geneva are astronomical. A medium coffee at Starbucks was Fr 5, so bring enough money to get you through your stay and don’t forget a student ID card (if you have one) for possible discounts.

There aren’t many youth hostels in Geneva. When I was booking my trip, I only found two. But I had a great experience at City Hostel Geneva, which is in walking distance from both the train station and many restaurants, pubs, and attractions. Because Geneva is so expensive, what I really liked about this hostel was the free public transportation card good for the duration of your stay, which gives you access to the wide-ranging tram and bus systems. You can also pick up a free public transportation ticket if you arrive at the airport, but it’s only good for a little over an hour. However, it’s just a short train ride between there and Carnavin, the train station in the city center, so save your money and grab this ticket.


Getting Your Bearings

Geneva is a picturesque city. It is situated on Lake Geneva, which has the famous Jet d’Eau fountain, and has spectacular views of Mt. Blanc, the highest peak of the Swiss Alps. The Rhine River splits Geneva in half and there are countless bridges on which to have some fantastic photo-ops!

The city is very walkable, and I was particularly struck by the really exotic-looking trees that line many of Geneva’s streets and the waterfront. There are also plenty of public and green spaces that are packed with residents and tourists alike, such as:

A quiet residential neighbourhood in the heart of Genèva

Residential Neighbourhood in Genèva
 Photo: Payton Chung

  • The Jardin Anglais is a park that hosts Le monument national and L’horloge fleurie (the Flower clock), plus several pavilions, a sculpted bronze fountain by Alexis Andre and a cafe.
  • Parc Alfred Bertrand is next to Parc La Grange that has very old and tall trees and a large rose garden.
  • Parc des Eaux Vives,
  • Plainpalais is a neighborhood that has a massive flea market twice a week.
  • The Jardin Botanique (Botanical Garden) is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been (and it’s free!). It not only has a vast amount of flowers and plants, but also animals, walking/running trails, playgrounds, and the Conservatory.
  • Parc des Bastions is my favorite park in Geneva. Upon entering, I was greeted by life-size chess sets being played by people of all ages right near a cute café/restaurant. Ask someone to play—it’s something you can do for free that doesn’t require knowledge of French! This park also features the Reformation Wall, which is a gigantic monument honoring the founders of the Protestant Reformation, that’s really worth seeing,
  • Treille Promenade is right above Parc des Bastions; it is a lovely walk with great views and the longest bench in the world.

Geneva has some unique museums that celebrate its history, commerce, and culture— museums you can’t really find elsewhere.

Musée Patek Philippe, for example, celebrates Switzerland’s history of the art of fine watch-making— it offers an extensive collection of ornate wristwatches and time pieces from this Geneva-based, and very high-end watch company. Each piece was more elaborate than the last.

Musée international de la Croix-Rouge (International Red Cross Museum) is another main attraction you may wish to visit.

L’Organisation des Nations Unies (The United Nations) maintains an administration headquarters in Geneva. The tour of the U.N. was the best Fr10 (franks) I spent in the city. Going through those buildings and being able to stand in the Assembly Hall was truly a one-of-a-kind experience that I recommend. But if this tour isn’t your style, go up to the Palais des Nations, it’s impressive.

Cathédrale Saint-Pierre de Genéve (St. Pierre of Geneva Cathedral) isn’t like other cathedrals you may have seen— the entire bottom is an archaeological site. For Fr4 (for students), you receive an audio tour and embark on a maze through centuries-old ruins that teach you so much about the city’s religious and political history. I hadn’t expected to like it as much as I did, but in fact it became one of my favorite things in Geneva.

There are also many places to visit for art and music lovers.

A view from a park ontp Genèva Harbour on Lac Léman (Lake Genèva)

Genèva Harbour on Lac Léman (Lake Genèva)
 Photo: RachelH

  • Musée Ariana is the only museum in Switzerland devoted to ceramics and glass— it’s relatively cheap and near many other attractions, so it’s certainly worth seeing.
  • Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (Museum of Art and History) houses some spectacular art and archaeological items, and is also completely free.
  • Musée Rath has fine arts and archaeological collections, costs Fr5.
  • Orchestra de la Suisse Romande plays at the magnificent Victoria Hall. They were playing when I was there and a student ticket was Fr10.
  • Grand Théâtre de Genève (The Grand Theatre of Geneva) has opera, ballet, and recitals.
  • Le Contretemps is the place to go if you prefer jazz.

I’m so glad I went to Geneva. The tour of the U.N. still remains one of the best things I’ve ever done, and the views of Lake Geneva and the Swiss Alps are unforgettable. Don’t pass up an opportunity to go to Geneva—it’s a truly unique city.