The only reason I came here was because a friend of mine found round trip plane tickets from Madrid (where I was living at the time) to Geneva for 35 EUR. Geneva doesn’t tend to be top-of-mind when planning a Eurotrip… but if the flight only costs 35 EUR, I’ll go just about anywhere!
Geneva, Switzerland In 60 Seconds
Switzerland can be divided into 2 basic linguistic pieces. There is a side of the country that speaks French, and there is a side that speaks German. (And there are also small pockets that speak Italian towards the southern border, as well as even smaller pockets that speak a native language called Romansh, but those make up extremely small portions of the population). Between French and German, it is German that pulls the most weight in Switzerland. Some people would say that French-Switzerland is not the “real” Switzerland. Of course, the mere concept of certain parts of Switzerland not being the “real Switzerland” is, in itself, very Swiss (stereotypically). This distinction is something that I heard harped on a lot during my time in Geneva. You see, Geneva isn’t just the nucleus the French side of the country, it’s pretty much the only thing on the French side.
So, here’s another way to say all of the above: there’s the side of the country that speaks German… and then there’s Geneva.
If you look at the map below, you’ll see that Geneva is on a weird slice of territory that juts awkwardly out into France. In fact, Geneva’s metro area (which has 1.26 million people in it) actually extends into France in many places. So the ties between Geneva and France are substantial. Why isn’t it just part of France instead? I get the impression that there were long periods of time where this city really could have gone either way. Historically, Geneva has had an on-again-off-again political relationship with what is modern-day France. It was the end of the Napoleonic Wars that saw Geneva’s admission to the Swiss Federation in 1814, and that brings us to today.
So have you ever considered coming to Geneva? I’m betting the answer is no. Geneva isn’t a common stop-over in European travel, because it has a reputation for being super expensive and (tbh) kind of boring. It’s mostly a hub for international organizations like the World Health Organization (WHO), World Trade Organization (WTO), Doctors Without Borders, and quite a few different UN offices. It’s also got a reputation for being home to a lot of “old money.” So this is a city that really does matter in the world… but might not be quite as relevant for your average traveler.
However, that doesn’t mean the city isn’t still gorgeous! Geneva is surrounded the Alps on all sides, and sits on the southernmost shores of Lake Geneva. It’s just a hop, skip, and a jump from some of the most beautiful terrain in the world, and the city itself is also very pretty. Picture in your head what you would imagine a combination of mountains, Switzerland, and France to look like—whatever is in your head is probably not far off from Geneva. Here’s the map for you to play with:
A Weekend Trip To Geneva
Our flight into Switzerland was so early in the morning that we hadn’t bothered sleeping the night prior. The plane took off from Madrid Barajas in total darkness, and the sun was only just making an appearance as we reached Swiss airspace. As our plane began to make its decent into Geneva Airport from cruising altitude, there was a thick, menacing layer of cloud beneath us. Once our plane was fully submerged in these clouds, things got scary for a few minutes. The plane bounced around like a jeep speeding down a road full of potholes. Out the window, the flashing lights on the wings of the plane illuminated a fast-moving world of water vapor that was dark and brooding. And then, quite suddenly, we broke through the floor of this cloud world, and found ourselves sailing smoothly over Lake Geneva. The scene was so dramatic that I scrambled for my little point-and-shoot camera and managed to take the following series of pictures out the window:
Whew! Following a descent that would go down in the history books, we soon found ourselves speeding over Swiss countryside below. After months spent in Spain’s arid interior, the green was overwhelming. However, when we stumbled out of Geneva Airport, beleaguered and bleary-eyed, the rain waiting for us outside was also a bit overwhelming. After successfully navigating Geneva’s public transit system to our hotel, a nap was in order.
Fast forward 4 or 5 hours and we were back on our feet. The rain had faded to a drizzle, and we decided to go out exploring. Even through the precipitation, Geneva was still enchanting. The French style architecture was a defining feature as the picturesque cityscape unfolded before us like a pop-up book. And that’s when we decided we’d stop for a pot for fondue. When in Rome right?
We parked our butts in a charming little Swiss café, and ordered one pot of fondue, with glasses of water all around. Seems like a pretty innocent order, right? Well at the end of the meal, the bill was something like 125 CHF (~127 USD). And that’s how we learned just how expensive Geneva can be. We were eating out of grocery stores for the remainder of our time in Switzerland.
The clouds moved off that evening, and after a failed attempt to participate in (or even locate) Geneva’s nightlife scene, we woke the next day to a gorgeous sunny city. The streets of Geneva were perfect: warm with a cool mountain breeze to keep us comfortable. And nowhere did I feel more comfortable than in the middle of one of Geneva’s street markets. I’ve been to quite a few of these sorts of things in my day, and there were 2 items here that stood out to me as regionally significant. There was a TON of cheese that looked pretty incredible (I ate many free samples), and there were lots of jars of jams and jellies, packaged with unique, colorful pieces of cloth tied over the lids. This is the sort of thing you have to go to Amish country in America to get. It made for some amazing browsing. However, the main item on our itinerary for the day actually took place outside the city.
On this day, we would be taking a quick trip OUT of Geneva, into France, in order to ride a cable car up to the top of the Salève Ridge (also called Salève Mountain). The cable car is called Téléphérique du Salève. I was not the orchestrator of this excursion, so the idea of crossing an international border like it was no big deal felt pretty counter-intuitive to me. I mean, crossing a border is supposed to be a big deal, right?
Well, after a ~30 minute bus ride out of the city, we found ourselves walking down a quiet rural road towards a government checkpoint sitting right on the border line. It looked kind of like a toll booth. Except that the booth was completely empty. In fact, it seemed like we were the only people within eyeshot. With a shrug, we just kept on walking—into France.
From there, it was about a 5 minute walk to the lower station of Téléphérique du Salève. Passage up to the top of the ridge costs 13.60 CHF (13.80 USD) per person. You can find the full list of times and prices associated with this cable car here. However, this isn’t your only option to get to the top of the mountain. I know it’s relatively easy to hike up to the top as well. It’s a 1,100 meter climb.
Cable cars are just part of the lore that goes along with the Alps. My parents did some traveling around this part of the world, so I was vaguely aware that this was going to be part of the deal, but I was still a little nervous. I don’t like heights, but once I got onto the cable car, everything was fine. The ascent was actually very pretty, and the views from the top were even better.
From the top of Salève, there is a 360 degree view. Looking back down to the north, Geneva and Lake Geneva stretch out into the distance as far as the eye can see. However, the mountain ridges on the other side of the valley are also clearly visible. It’s definitely a formidable piece of topography, but the clearest view to the REAL Alps is to the south. On the other side of Salève, off in the distance, we could see the snowy peaks of the French, and eventually, the Italian Alps. The sight of them was powerful and ominous, and is still to this day the closest I have come to these mountains. One of these days I’ll take the dive into the Alps, but it wasn’t this day.
Back on the brighter, sunnier northern side of the ridge, we decided to do some hiking. We immediately began seeing little runways that ran straight off the side of the ridge. Standing on these runways, we saw people heavy-laden with aeronautical gear, and what looked like parachutes attached to their harnesses. Then, without warning, one of them took a running start towards the edge of the cliff, and jumped. And that’s when I realized what I was seeing: paragliding. There were tons of people doing this.
Prior to our arrival in Switzerland, one of our posse had actually found a company that would take us skydiving in cow suits. The pictures would have been hilarious (and very Swiss), so we entertained the idea for a while. Ultimately financial factors prevented us from partaking, but up here on the ledge skydiving entered back into the conversation. “Technically we might still be able to make this happen if we go right now!” This all looked really fun! I still hate heights… but come on! Look at this stuff…
I should have just coughed up the money to skydive in those damn cow suits. That would have been epic. But I know that I’ll do something like that eventually. Anyway, this was a great little day trip! And weirdly enough, I actually got to talking with somebody up on the top of this ridge that knew somebody who was in my high school class back in Ohio. Small world.
So that’s a little taste of Geneva! It was very pretty—definitely a great weekend—but still not the most exciting as a city. Next time I come to Switzerland, I’m flying into Zurich.
Next up, we have Amsterdam! Hold onto your hats!