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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Bates

Checking out Geneva and it's namesake lake

Updated: 6 days ago

Lake Geneva (also known as Lac Léman in French) is Switzerland’s largest lake as well as one of the largest lakes in Western Europe and on the River Rhône (which the river runs from the mountains east of the lake, through the lake, then into southeastern France through Arles and into the Mediterranean just in case you are wondering). The lake lies 60% in Switzerland and the other 40% is in France. In this post I will be writing about some stops along the shoreline which have to be hit up and as regular visitors to the region, I will be adding more in the future. I can assure you, Lake Geneva is worth a visit and has a little something for everyone.

L'adolescent et le cheval, Geneva
The statue of L'adolescent et le cheval, by Heinz Schwarz in Geneva

There are wineries, boat trips, outdoor activities, historical sites and some pretty towns on the way. I have done all sides of the lake (mainly by car and train) and all of it can’t be done in a day. There is so much to do! When I drive from Geneva to the eastern end of the lake (before heading off into the heart of the Swiss Alps), it doesn’t take the usual 1h20 minutes to do the 104km (65 miles) along the autobahn, I can guarantee that a lot of first timers in the region will be driving either the lakeshore route or stopping in the services/laybys to check out the viewpoints (not all of them have a viewpoint, just want to make that clear). The first time I was here, I drove from Geneva to Gyron (in the mountains not too far from the eastern end of the lake) and it took Olga and I nine hours (I think), as we drove along the lakeshore and stopped off at castles, picnic areas etc). That is to give you a rough idea. 

Map of Lake Geneva by Google
Map of Lake Geneva - (C) Google Maps

The lake itself is about 73km (45 miles) and at its widest (north to south), it's 14km (under nine miles). With this in mind, I will start with how to get around. First off, by car, if visitors don’t own a car and are coming in via Zurich and Geneva, then hire a car at the airport. As there is a autobahn (autoroute, highway) which runs alongside the northern side of the lake, make sure the car has a vignette (it's a toll sticker which allows drivers to drive on the autobahn). More information can be found here.  


Driving in Switzerland is safe and easy and if in doubt, check up on the rules before you get in the car. One note, do not speed, the fines here are one of the highest in the world. I was fined...er….about two or three times on my visits to Switzerland, one of them was slightly over the limit on the Autobahn and was fined 150 Euros (by post). I still paid it as I am a regular driver in Europe and I don’t want to be thrown in prison on my next visit. The French side of the lake there are no tolls or stickers but brush up on the rules if you have never driven in France.

Water fountain in Geneva

There is a railway line which also goes along the northern side of the lake. There are some fast trains and some slow ones. The line starts and finishes at Geneva Airport and the main stops are Geneva, Nyon, Lausanne, Vevy, Montreux. The line split before Lausanne and the mainline carries onto Bern and Zurich. Whilst the other line which goes through Montreux carries onto Sion, Brigg and into the heart of the Alps. More information on the regional trains on this side of the lake can be found here.

Château de Chillon on Lake Geneva
A view from Château de Chillon on Lake Geneva

On the southern side of the lake there are slow trains from Geneva which goes to Annemasse, Thonon-les-Bains and terminates at Évian-les-Bains. At Annemasse, passengers can change there to go more south into the French Alps towards St Gervais-les-Bains-Le-Fayet and another direction towards Annecy with its beautiful Lake Annecy. More information on the regional trains on the southern side of the lake can be found here. Also to note there are TGV services from Geneva towards Dijon and Paris. 


Don’t forget that there are also buses which go between each town and cycling along the lake in the summer is also a very good option. One transport option I haven’t done yet is the boats across the lake but if looking to do that, information can be found here.  

A view of Lake Geneva from Montreux
A view of the lake from Montreux

OK, so now you know how to get about. Now to my favourite part, history! Well, it’s different this time round as it's a natural feature of the lake surrounded by rolling hills to the north and mountains to the south. However the bit I was fascinated by is why it is called Lake Geneva. Well, it isn’t, the name kinda stuck because that is what the British and Americans as well as the international community calls the lake. No history behind that I am afraid, however, it’s proper name Lac Léman has a meaning. The exact origins are unknown but on researching, the name of the lake was Lacus Lemanus during the Roman Times. The name Lemanus comes from the word Lemannus in Ancient Greek and means ‘Port’s Lake’. Then afterwards it became Lacus Lausonius (which means and describes towns and districts on the lake), and then Lac de Lausanne in the Middle Ages. When Geneva as a city came along, the lake was known as Lac de Genève but the locals called it Lac Léman. It was also used on all the maps. It is still called this till today but English speaking visitors or anywhere else in the world still use the name Lake Geneva (even some locals do as well). There you have it. 


Now for the sights. What can you expect from doing a trip around Lake Geneva? As mentioned, I will keep updating this post every time me and my family visit this stunning part of Switzerland. But for now here are my top sites which are worth checking out. 

Olga in Geneva, Switzerland

Starting from the western tip and heading eastwards along the northern shoreline, the main starting point is Geneva. The gateway to Western Switzerland, Geneva (or Genève in French), is one of those cities which has charm, beautiful buildings, stunning surroundings and a heck of a lot of watch shops. For Olga and I, it is one of those cities where we either fall in love with her or hate her immensely as we have been several times. The very first time we came here (flying into the nearby international airport), we hired a car, drove into the centre as the city was the first stop on our road trip around Central Switzerland, parked in an underground car park, went upstairs to street level and whilst on the pavement as I was looking at a map in my hands, a pigeon shat on my head. I had pigeon poop all over my hair and shirt. Welcome to Geneva I was thinking. Was this going to be the theme for my visit to the city in general? Was the pigeon warning me that I might suffer ‘open wallet surgery’ because of the amount of money I could be spending. Was I going to get Swissed by the locals (a common term used by the English when they get outdone by the locals, either in wit or cash), Well, not really. I had further mishaps with the locals and nature in other parts of Switzerland later on and on other visits to this beautiful country, however Geneva was kind to me and us after that moment.


Geneva is one of those cities (like the other cities in Switzerland) where you might just need a day or two. I always say to people who are thinking of coming to Switzerland to go for nature, not the cities. Get into the mountains or besides a lake and just enjoy the fresh Alpine air. If you are like me, one day is enough here if you don’t do museums and art galleries (or spending several hours deciding which watch you want to buy) and a lot of the trip can be done on a budget. This might sound a bit crazy but out of all the cities I have been to in the country (and I have done a lot of Swiss cities for some unknown reason, rather do a lot more hiking but hey ho), Geneva was actually the cheapest for us. I didn’t stay here (I stayed in a hostel in the mountains not too far from Lake Geneva) and I didn’t pay any money for attraction entrances etc. I think we had McDonalds to keep the cost down, brought a postcard, an ice cream (as it was a lovely warm summer day) and that was it. I didn’t even buy a watch (and for those who know me well, I always buy Swiss Watches, however that was to come later on in all our trips, I think I have four now, still in good condition and locked up in the safe). Then on our other visits to Geneva, we kinda did the same again and probably only spent around 20 British Pounds (around 25 Swiss Francs - CHF).

Swiss watch in Geneva

So why do people come to Geneva? I have to admit I didn’t do our research on our first visit to the city but I knew it was on the western end of Lake Geneva, it has international organisations such as the United Nations and the Red Cross based here and that is a French-speaking city within Switzerland. Of course as time went on, I got to know the city a lot better so why did I want to come here? To be frank, it was just for lunch by the lake but we didn’t even do that, it was a McDonalds on the shopping street on our first visit. As I walked around the city it became clear why people visit the city. Standing by the lake, I saw the mountains to the south, calm waters in front of us, a few people walking about (or running, cycling), hardly any noise, did I come here on a good day or is Geneva like this all the time? If so, then the city is one of the calmest I have come across on my European adventures. I could see a lot of locals doing water sports on the lake such as paddle boarding (which visitors can also do as I found out). You get the picture now, the locals love the outdoor lifestyle.


Apart from a pigeon sh**ing on my head and describing the calmness of Downtown Geneva, it’s time for me to give you the lowdown on what you can do on a one day visit. 

Shopping street in Geneva.
A typical shopping street in Geneva

But first, a quick run down of the history. Yes, my readers who know us, know that I love a bit of history. I give you a quick rundown on Geneva’s past, so it all started out as a settlement (built by the Helvetii tribe) a couple of hundred years before Christ was born before the Romans came along and took it. After the Romans introduced Christianity to the region, it stayed within the Holy Roman Empire until around the 14th century when it got a bit messy. The House of Savoy came to rule the city (and ruled the area of northwestern Italy and the Cote d’Azur in southeastern France) and this lasted under two hundred years before the Savoy’s got kicked out and the city aligned itself with the Swiss Confederacy. Whilst land borders were changing all the time, so was religion. Christians, then Catholics and then protestants came and went (I won’t go too much into this). In the 18th century, as Geneva lies on the border of France, the French tried to take the city by influencing the town folk which didn’t work for years, however in 1798, the French got fed up and annexed the city. Geneva was now part of France (during the period Napoleon decided to go on a rampage across Europe and conquer many lands, some successful and some not so), but at the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1814, Geneva returned to Switzerland. All has been peaceful since then, the city has flourished, international organisations are based here and everyone is happy.

St Pierre Cathedral, Geneva
St Pierre Cathedral

Now to the present day and what visitors can do when going walkabouts in the city. I'm going to start in the area known as the Old Town (that is what I call it). The best way to describe how to get to this area is if visitors are in the Jardin Anglais (English Garden) which is a small park area next to the shores of the lake, turn around and there is a hill. Just walk straight, passing a couple of the blocks, up the hill and this is the Old Town area. (Or you could just follow the tourist signs for the cathedral or find the road Rue d’Italie and turn right after a couple of blocks...makes sense right?). In this area you will find cute little squares with small cafes and quaint shops. However the main building in this area is St Pierre Cathedral. I always check out the main cathedrals if I can and see the architecture. However, for this place, it is also one the better places to grab a view of Lake Geneva down below. On warm sunny days, head up to the south tower as it has an open air balcony but if the weather is not so kind, head to the north tower where it's a little bit more warmer and sheltered. The views from here are amazing and worth checking out.


Another place worth checking out is the park area on Rue de la Croix-Rouge (just east of the University of Geneva grounds). Here there are giant chess boards to be enjoyed, a ‘reformation wall’ which celebrates and honours the ‘Protestant Reformation & its founders), however, it’s the Banc de la Treille. Not only is it a viewpoint to see the amazing rooftops of the city down below but this is also the place for the world’s longest bench. Can’t miss it, it’s a green wooden bench which goes all the way along the terrace.

Geneva Old Town, Switzerland
A view towards the lake from the cathedral in Geneva

A top tip for me around this part of Geneva, wear comfortable walking shoes. It's all cobble streets and a bit hilly. If you need a rest or want a lunch, there are a lot of places around here which serve Fondue (another tip, you must have wine with the melted cheese!) It is a must whilst in Switzerland. 

Jet d’Eau, Geneva
Jet d’Eau

Back at the lake shore, the highlight has to be the Jet d’Eau (sounds a lot better in French doesn’t it? In English it translates into ‘Water Jet’ which is a bit of a meh!). Not much to say about it apart from the fact it is a water fountain chucking up thousands of litres of water up into the air. If you stand near it on a windy day, please take an umbrella or at least have a spare set of clothes on you. You will get rather wet if caught out. 

The Jardin Anglais (English Garden) by the lake shore is a nice place to take a stroll (maybe after eating a lot of fondue) and is famous for the Flower Clock which has been here since it was created in 1955 (ok, the design may change now and again). The clock is made out of plants and flowers and is simply stunning. A great creation. It is now one of the most visited attractions in the city, however it is quite small so don't expect too much from it. See it work (it is a proper functioning clock) and take the touristy photo but then move on around the garden and down the promenade. 

Jardin Anglais, Geneva
Flower clock at the Jardin Anglais

Other things to do and see: Check out one of the ninety wineries in the area. The Geneva region is the third largest wine producing region in Switzerland. Mont-Salève is located outside the city. Take the cable car up the mountain for views of the surrounding area. This is also a great area to do outdoor activities such as mountain biking and hiking. Even cross-country skiing takes place here in the winter. There is also a lot of chocolate made in the city, so go and check out a chocolate factory to see how Swiss chocolate is produced. It’s true, the chocolate in Switzerland is one of the best in the world. 


Geneva Advice


Make sure you leave the airport at the right exit: If you're new to geography in this area and you're probably wondering why we mention this. Geneva airport is located in France as well as Switzerland. The border goes through it. So, when going to passport control, customs, baggage reclaim etc, make sure you go to the Swiss exit. If you go through the France exit, you land up in some sort of industrial estate with car rentals and it's not pretty for a few miles (however, it’s France, so if going to this part of France, Geneva airport may be an option for you and the car hire is cheaper). 


Transport to and from the airport: The airport lies a few kilometers away from the city centre and is easy to get to by bus and train. (However, if you get a taxi, it's going to cost you!). 


Tips about driving in the city: If renting a car or driving a car from a neighbouring country, make sure you have a license and the necessary paperwork. Driving around the city is pretty easy and is not too busy during the daytime. Parking up here can be expensive, but when we did this, we parked in the underground car park, Parking du Mont-Blanc on Quai du Général-Guisan (which is very near the lake shore and the Jardin Anglais). 


The Geneva Pass: If visitors are looking to spend a few days here and want to visit museums etc, then buying the Geneva Pass will suit you. It is a money saver. 


  • Free admission to over thirty attractions in the city.

  • Free public transport in the city.

  • Free tours & equipment rental including a lake cruise, kayak rental, open bus tour & walking tours

  • Discounted city tours & day trips outside the city

Buy it online and there is a 10% discount. All the information you need for the pass can be found here.   


Another transport money-saver: I have been told about this and seen this online but I can honestly say I haven’t tried this but thought I would mention this. If visitors book accommodation in Geneva (such as a hotel, hostel or a nearby campsite), visitors are entitled to receive the Geneva Transport Card for free. This will give visitors free journeys on the trams, buses, trains and the taxi-boats (they are the yellow ones on the lake), within Geneva. Just ask for it when checking in at your accommodation. 

Lausanne, Switzerland
Checking out Lausanne

The northern shore of Lake Geneva


Rolle, a small town which is about 40km away from Geneva (33 minute drive or a 30 minute train journey), is worth stopping at. Why? The main feature is the Château de Rolle (Rolle Castle) which was first built in the 13th century by the Lords of Mont (a powerful family/organisation around this time) to protect the area around this part of the lake. A city was supposed to be built near the castle but it didn’t really materialise. The Count of Savoys came along and took over it to which they finally built a small city, the present day town of Rolle. However the locals from up the road in the Bernese Region came along, attacked and burned down the castle before claiming the land. Bernese rule lasted from 1536 to 1798 when the French came along during the French Revolution (which lasted about six months) before returning to the Swiss. From then until 1974 it was used as the seat of government for the area and now it is a tourist site. From here beautiful views across the lake look out towards Thonon-les-Bains in France and the Chablais Alps.

Lausanne, the second biggest city on the lake (and Switzerland’s fourth largest city after Zurich, Basel and Geneva) is worth a day trip. Known for its sport (it has the International Olympic Committee based here and since 1994 the city is known as the Olympic Capital, a museum about the Olympics is also located here), and the Court of Arbitration for Sport (which deals with a lot of lawmaking within sports in Europe). I think there are around fifty five international sport associations, so if you love sports, you're gonna love Lausanne. The city is surrounded by the Jura Mountains to the north-west and there is a lot of wine making which takes place there. On the lake shores facing south, visitors can see the French town of Évian-les-Bains. To note, from Geneva, Lausanne is 62km (39 miles) east and takes about forty-five minutes to an hour to reach by car or train. 

Danik and Olga in Lausanne in Switzerland - Lake Geneva shoreline
So loved up in Lausanne!

For transport lovers, the city has a metro system with twenty-eight stations on it. This makes it the smallest city in the world to have a rapid transit system. A bit of history, the city started as a settlement during Roman Times and was called Lousanna. Then the Counts of Savoy ruled the area, the French came along before the city joined Switzerland in 1803. The city is also famous for the venue where the Treaty of Turkey was signed in 1923 which created the formation of modern-day Turkey.

Lausanne Cathedral, Lake Geneva
Statues on the facade of Lausanne cathedral

When walking around the centre of the city, the dominant feature overlooking the lake is Lausanne Cathedral. Check out the inside as the interior is beautiful but also climb the steps to the top to get even more amazing views overlooking the rooftops down below and out towards the lake. The cathedral has stood here since the 13th century and was built by the Catholics. One of the oldest traditions in the city still happens to this very day and it’s the night watchman. Every night since 1405 (we can’t quote you the exact date as we don’t know), a watchman has called out the hours between 22:00 and 02:00 (that’s 10pm to 2am) from the tower. When this first started, the watchmen were on the lookout for fires burning down houses as most buildings back then were made of wood. Until this very day, they are still letting the locals know that there are no fires (as well as keeping everyone awake).  

Lake Geneva - Lausanne
A view of Lake Geneva from Lausanne

The city is kinda split into two parts. The top of the hill is where visitors will find the Old Town, townhouses and the cathedral at the bottom are parks, the lake shoreline, restaurants, more of a feel to nature than an urban city. One area to check out is Ouchy which is about a thirty minute walk down the hill from the Old Town. However there is a metro line which goes from the Old Town to Ouchy (so this is the chance to ride on the metro if you don’t like hills). This part of the metro line is also the world’s steepest line on any metro line in the world. Olga and I loved walking along the shoreline here and as well as the views of the lakes and the snow-capped mountains on the other side, there is also the beautiful facade of Château d'Ouchy (Ouchy Castle) which these days is a hotel. 

Château d'Ouchy on Lake Geneva shoreline
Château d'Ouchy

Further east along the shoreline is the town of Montreux and the area known as the Montreux Riviera. Olga and I only spent a few hours in the town itself which looks nice, clean and all flowery in the summer months and would like to come back here soon also. Not because we missed so much but we love being outdoors and Montreux is a beautiful place to walk or cycle around. The main feature for me has to be it’s promenade. OK, it is a bit long as it stretches from Château de Chillon to Vevey and takes about two and a half hours to walk. Plenty of time needed but allow a bit more time on top as there are plenty of viewpoints and if sunny, take some food and enjoy a rest beside the lake. 

Freddie Mercury statue in Montreux
Freddie Mercury statue in Montreux

The views from here are nice. Looking across the lake (as Montreux is on the eastern side of the lake), is the Chablais Alps and the French shoreline of the lake. However, turn around and look away from the lake, Montreux is at the foot of the Swiss Alps. To get amazing views of the city and the lake in this area, go up the hill side (or stop in a layby on the Autobahn if you have a car and pass through the area. It is truly worth it, especially late in the evening when the sun is setting over the lake). Also don’t forget to check out the Freddie Mercury (the lead singer from the British rock band Queen) statue located in the centre of town, he used to live here before his death in the early 1990s. 

Montreux and Lake Geneva
A viewpoint overlooking Lake Geneva and Montreux

To the south of Montreux is Château de Chillon (Chillon Castle) is a castle which stands on a small island. With its origins as a Roman Outpost, the first mention of a castle being constructed is around the tenth century and was once used as a prison since then. Walking around, the castle is nice and worth checking out, however what makes this castle worth visiting is the views and its location. Get the right spot and visitors will capture some truly amazing photos.

Montreux, like many other parts of this lake, is known for its vineyards. A lot of wine is produced around here. We checked out some in the nearby town of Aigle (just southeast of Lake Geneva) which was beautiful to walk around. The town’s name in French means Eagle so we thought that was nice but there was no eagle to be found.  Also here we checked out the castle which was pretty nice to walk around on a late summer evening.

Going along the southern shoreline of Lake Geneva, we can only bring you Évian-les-Bains at the moment. Located in France, this town is known for the famous spas, casino, relaxation and drinking water. Walking along the shoreline was one of the highlights and taking in the views across to Switzerland but whilst here we managed to check out the information centre of Évian mineral water which is located in the centre. The water comes from several sources nearby which all flows into the lake. This was discovered in the 19th century and has since become one of the leading mineral water companies in the world. 

Conclusion


As I said, Lake Geneva is huge! For the outdoor sporting types and hikers, there is so much to walk, run, cycle, sail here, it will take a pretty long time. For the French-Swiss culture, there is plenty of that and the cuisine is bloody marvellous. The buildings are beautiful and nine times out of ten, the locals are very nice and welcoming (I say nine times out of ten as we have never forgotten the argument we had with an elderly gentlemen when I was pulling out of a car park in Montreux, he decided to tap on the window of the car and just went pure mental. I know I didn’t break any laws so I had to get out, had a few words, he still wasn’t listening and by this point, he was waving his walking stick about, so I just got back in the car and drove off. Still don’t know what he was arguing for but I really don’t care. Never forgotten it. Olga and I love this part of Europe and always come back here when we get the chance.


Going elsewhere in Switzerland? Check out my blog posts on:




Advice and tips 


Time of year to go: It is best between May and September, especially when July and August are the warmest months. It can get a bit breezy on the lake if you are on a boat. Remember to take a suitable jacket at any point of the year as the weather can get changeable but in the middle of summer, there are still plenty of sunny days with an average temperature of +24. 


Currency: Swiss Franc is the money talker here however some shops and restaurants will take the Euro currency but be wary of an admin-fee if any. Credit cards are accepted everywhere. 


Language: It’s a French speaking part of Switzerland (the locals have the Swiss-French dialect but understand ‘French’ from over the border down the road). But don’t worry if you do not speak French, they also speak English, or should I say American because Switzerland learns American English and not British English. This is because of the business and finance sectors between the United States and Switzerland.


Watch out for: keep an eye on your bank account, Switzerland is one of the most expensive countries in the world. Dress and take clothes for all weathers. Remember to drink wine with a fondue!

 

Flying into this area? Then I would recommend using Skyscanner to find flights as that is my first point of call. Then if necessary use the airlines directly to find a good deal. I sometimes use Momondo as well to compare prices before booking.


Travel insurance: Need insurance? Safety Wing offers coverage for a lot of adventure activities as well as emergency medical, lost luggage, trip cancellation and so forth. I never travel without travel insurance. I highly recommend them for those who need travel insurance.


Need a visa for Switzerland? Always check if you need a visa when coming to Switzerland, especially for those who come from outside Europe.


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Lake Geneva, Switzerland - Voyager avec Danik

Please note that while I was not working with any company based in the Geneva region, my review and experiences written about in this post are 100% genuine. I value my readers too much to lie to you. My blog would be nothing without you and your continued support! There maybe some links above which are affiliate and are at no additional cost to you. If my readers use them, I earn a commission to buy their products and remember, I only mentioned products and companies I use. The income from this keeps this website going. Thank you.

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