Welcome to free Geneva

In this guest post, Margaret Doherty illustrates that, contrary to popular belief, you don’t need to deplete your Swiss bank account to have a great time in Geneva, as there are a host of free activities on offer.

“When was that last time you visited a city that made you feel really welcome? I mean, not just for your tourist bucks, but actually made an effort to make your visit just that bit easier and more pleasurable? Not that easy, is it?

Jet d

The spectaular fountain the Jet d’Eau, the emblem of the city

I certainly didn’t expect Geneva – cosmopolitan, wealthy, sophisticated – to do just that but on my first and recent visit that’s exactly what happened. First there was the free ticket into the centre of town dispensed at the push of a button from an automatic ticket booth just before you go through customs at Geneva airport. A smooth and virtually silent six minute train ride later I arrived at Cornavin Station, the hub of the train, tram and bus network that serves the city. Then, on check in at my hotel a stone’s throw from the station I was given (as are all hotel, youth hostel and campsite customers) a free Geneva Transport card valid throughout my stay on the entire Geneva Public Transport system (TPG buses and trams, CFF trains and the little yellow ‘mouettes’, the ferry boats that traverse Lake Geneva).

With transportation sorted there’s no excuse not to explore all that the city has to offer. Parks, gardens, great shopping, excellent museums and a thriving café culture make this compact French-speaking though multi-lingual city easy to negotiate.

Here’s my Geneva highlights – and none of them costs a Swiss franc.

Lakeside walk.

Here you’ll find the city’s big draw, its superb location on the south western tip of Lake Geneva surrounded by pretty promenades and lakeside gardens where you can sit and watch the world go by among the locals and visitors taking a stroll, having a picnic or trying a spot of Argentine tango on the bandstand. On the north bank, lined with grand five star hotels, are the Paquis Baths, a series of pools, diving boards, sauna and Turkish baths that jut out into the lake and have been a favourite with the locals since the 1930s.On the south bank is the spectacular 140m water fountain, the Jet d’Eau, adopted as the city’s emblem, and many lakeside gardens including the English Garden with its famous working Flower Clock made of different flowers depending on the season.

Explore the Old Town

Once a walled city, the heart of the Old Town is the Place du Bourg de Four, the market place during the Middle Ages which stands on the site of the old Roman forum. Today it is surrounded by 16th century buildings that had extra floors added to accommodate the flood of protestant refugees that doubled the city’s population in the middle of the 16th century. Nearby is the Arsenal, a former granary, and as its name suggests, later a munitions store. Today it contains five canon from the 17th and 18th centuries and three mosaics completed in 1949 depicting key moments in Geneva’s history including the celebrated Medieval Fairs held in the Bourg de Four.

The Arsenal, Geneva

The Arsenal with its commemorative mosaics

Maison Tavel

The oldest private house in Geneva, the recently renovated Maison Tavel dates from the 12th century and now houses the museum of Old Geneva. Rebuilt and extended over the centuries by the Tavel family and subsequent owners it contains the original vaulted cellars that opened directly onto the street now containing weights and measures from the time when Geneva was the medieval centre for European trade routes. Other floors contain decorative objects salvaged from other Genevan buildings from the 15th to 18th centuries – painted inn signs, intricately carved wooden doors, two columns from the original Library of the Academy founded by John Calvin in 1559 – and more domestic rooms decorated and furnished in the style of the 16th -19th centuries.

Botanic Gardens

With over 16,000 species in 28 hectares, greenhouses full of tropical plants, a conservatory and countless small garden areas the Botanic Gardens are a real gem. Great for the kids too – plenty of space to run around and a small animal park with deer, peacocks and exotic birds.


Pick up some local produce, a quirky keepsake or gifts for friends and family at one of the many outdoor markets. A large Flea Market is held every Wednesday and Saturday morning at the Plaine de Plainpalais but there are plenty of other markets held in the local squares.

Museum of Art and History

Not far from the Place du Bourg de Four this imposing building contains a collection of archaeology and fine and applied arts that spans prehistoric finds to contemporary art. The Egyptian Gallery typifies the collection – a varied selection of items beautifully presented so that the objects can be properly appreciated. From the tiny mummified crocodile to the exquisite painted reliefs and elegant statuary it’s a pleasure to walk around the surprisingly quiet galleries. Check out the work of some Swiss artists while you’re there such as the 18th century pastel portraits by Jean-Etienne Liotard and the dramatic 19th century landscapes of Francois Diday.

Parc des Bastions

This was the original site of the city’s Botanic Gardens created in the eighteenth century outside the city’s ramparts. Today its most imposing monument is the 100m long Reformation Wall which commemorates the Reformation in Geneva and its leading figures – Guillaume Farel, Jean Calvin, Theodore de Beze and John Knox.


Carouge s only a ten minute tram ride from Cornavin Station but its location on the far side of the river Arve and its historic association with the King of Sardinia who commissioned architects from Turin to build in the Piemontese style in the 18th century gives Carouge a more Mediterranean feel. Often regarded as the place where the more reserved Genevois went to have fun, today it is a shoppers’ paradise. Individual retailers and artisans sell and produce everything from hats to handbags, jewellery to chocolates in an elegant little town. It’s a great place for a leisurely lunch and it has an award-winning bakery too.

Carouge, Switzerland

Cafe Culture in Carouge

Take a mouette across the lake

Your free transport card covers you for trips on the mouettes or ferry boats that cross the lake throughout the day and give you another perspective of the city.”

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