Learn from my mistake
A couple days before we made our way to Geneva, we were going over our travel day logistics when we noticed that the hotel we booked had a shared bathroom. Naively, I had thought all bookings through Hotels.com would be an actual hotel, not realizing that you can book any sort of accommodation nowadays, including hostels. It also didn’t help that the name of the place was literally “Hotel St Gervais”, which was misleading since they really function more like a hostel.
Unfortunately we booked a non-refundable room so we could not cancel and instead had to call and upgrade our room to the only one they had that included a private bath for an extra 24 CHF per night, which was an in-room bathroom separated by a fabric curtain. While I loathed the significant extra cost and was furious at myself for not catching that detail while booking, I realized that with all of our travel, these small comforts (like potty time staying private time, though “private” in this case was slightly misconstrued) were crucial for our sanity. This was a big lesson for me to always double check bookings and get a second pair of eyes. There’s more to the story, but let’s just move on to better things!
Cheap Eats Can be found in Switzerland
Switzerland is notorious for being an expensive destination (and we can now confirm it) however you really don’t have to break the bank. The major costs to traveling are lodging, food, and transportation and unfortunately AirBnB is still fairly new in Geneva, so our choices were really either hostels or hotels. On the other hand, with any hotel or hostel booking in Geneva, visitors get a free transportation card, so with that you can save a little money while exploring. In the end, the most flexible variable will be food, which we found to be pretty expensive – think twice as expensive as the States.
Luckily we were told that there were some cheaper eats along Rue de Berne so that’s the first thing place we headed. Turns out there’s a number of Lebanese restaurants along the street, so we hop into the first one we find that looks busy, Parfums de Beyrouth, but when we actually step inside, we realize it is craaaacking! There’s a whole back section that you can’t see from the street and it was packed. Carl orders a chawarma sandwich and I order the falafel plate along with an interesting appetizer; a stuffed meatball dumpling, kebbe – the truth is, I can’t resist anything that’s called a dumpling. We’re reminded of Morocco when we notice mint tea on the menu, which may or may not have gotten us some cred with the waiter when we ordered. The kebbe turns out delicious and the falafels were wonderfully crunchy. Lebanese was definitely the cheapest sit down meal we had while in Geneva, you’ll want to stick with the sandwiches if you’re on a budget, but the plate was big and could have been shared. We’ll get into more cheap eats, but let’s stick to the story!
Tons of free things to do in Geneva
The beautiful thing about Geneva, other than the obvious natural beauty, is that most of its main attractions are free! So on our first full day we were able to visit a number of famous icons like the L’horloge fleurie and the Geneva Water Fountain, without spending a dime. Honestly those were fairly lackluster: when we reached the “flower clock”, we almost didn’t even notice it, it was so small. The water jet was just a jet, though the quai is a nice area to walk around, which we did to wait for the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire to open. Most of the permanent exhibits in Geneva’s museums are free every single day of the week, so you don’t have to worry about visiting on the right day or dealing with a huge crowd on free days – which was downright refreshing.
The museum had everything from artifacts from ancient Greece and Egypt to paintings from Ferdinand Hodler and other Swiss artists inspired by him. Our favorite part of the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire was the Hodler and Swiss warrior exhibit, which felt like walking through an armory where each sword or helmet inspired a video game character in my mind. It was fantastic to see all the metal work up close and also to realize that some of those swords were even longer than we were tall: we couldn’t imagine how a person could go about sheathing, swinging or really just having a whole person, hanging off their hip!
After the museum we wandered around Vieille Ville, Geneva’s old town, for a quick peek at St Pierre Cathedral and some lunch. The Cathedral has these beautiful stately columns in the front but inside feels quite cozy and intimate, which was magnified by the hushed conversations of a group of school children visiting the church. We sat a moment to admire the arches and stained glass until our bellies warned us that we’d spent enough time contemplating the historical and abstract. Luckily we didn’t have to wander far from the church before coming across Le Syracuse Navy, an Italian restaurant with a mild nautical theme. Carl ordered a burger, which came with the most well seasoned fries we’ve ever had, and surprisingly I ordered a calzone, which I demolished to the last bite, no regrets. While simple, this meal was on the pricier side, however the quality was excellent.
We made a short stop just down the street at the International Monument to the Reformation, known also as the Reformation Wall, just at the edge of the Promenade des Bastions. It was rather brisk and the park was empty except for some workers using some big blowing machines to pile up the fallen leaves, so we did not linger. Only a few minutes walk away was the Tavel House, the oldest private residence and now the Museum of Urban History and the Everyday Life of Geneva. Noticing a pattern yet? During the winter season in Europe, we’ve found the ideal itinerary alternates between outdoors and indoors. Not only was the building itself pretty neat, but they had an interesting collection of special wooden doors and ornate door knockers shaped like animals and faces. Sections of the house were encased in glass; a diorama of the kitchen giving us a glimpse into the domestic world of days not too long ago in this very city.
When in Switzerland, one must fondue
Fondue is probably the most signature Swiss meal and it was especially perfect during the winter season. We made reservations at a local favorite for fondue Cafe la Coulouvreniere, a super cozy restaurant with the most fantastic cheese themed classic art; like Mona Lisa holding a fondue stick or fondue served at the Last Supper. We had an early reservation but the room quickly filled, brimming with conversation and laughter. Each time the door opened and someone walked in, it sounded as if they were regulars – we felt rather envious, imagining some sort of special fondue club. Luckily the aroma of our shallot and bacon fondue arriving to our table quickly eased our disgruntled spirits; our mouths salivated as we watched the cheese bubble in the pot.
We quickly dug in, alternating between dipping bread chunks, cornichon pickles, and potatoes into the decadent cheese, then taking a slice off the meat plate to wrap around a pearl onion. The fondue was so rich that we welcomed the sharp zing from the pickles and the onions. Only half way through the cheese and we could already feel the heaviness slow us down, but luckily Rick Astley’s “Never gonna give you up” started playing. We laughed, emboldened as he sang “never gonna let you down”, plunging yet another piece of bread into the cheese, twirling it and watching the glorious cheese drip thickly. By the time we finished, Carl declared he was “cheese drunk” so we sat watching the tea light under the fondue pot flicker slowly; our little table grew warm and the food coma started to set in.
The Best Winter Activities in Geneva
Other than eating comfort food (fondue) and hiding out in museums, we’ve found that botanical gardens are great places to visit in the wintertime. We took the tram out to Palace of Nations to see all the flags and the Broken Chair, a monument that started as a reminder of the treaty against the use of landmines and later expanded to represent the victims of all war violence. Next we headed to the Conservatory and Botanical Garden of the City of Geneva, which was at another park just next to the Palace of Nations.
The animal park was modest with some deer and ducks, it was fairly inactive though some of the animals might have been taken in due to the cold. There was a lovely educational garden organized by plant type such as medicinal, aromatic or fibrous, but with the chill in the air we zoomed over to the botanical greenhouse, where we soaked in the warm humid air and pretended to be somewhere tropical instead. I fell in love with the main atrium of the greenhouse, which was quite tall and had a set of stairs laden with leaves that we took up to the upper rim where obtuse yellow lily-like flowers bloomed with red centers that looked almost like blood stains. Though slightly alarming, it just added to the strange magic of being able to look down upon the treetops.
We headed back to the city center for lunch and decided to check out Manor, which our hotel concierge recommended for cheaper eats. Manor is actually a whole department store, but on the bottom floor it’s a grocery store with plenty of ready made food, similar to Whole Foods back at home. During the weekend lunch hour it was very busy and it was a little overwhelming with both the grocery shoppers and the lunch-ers. We grabbed some salad, a made to order cheesy pasta and a savory carrot and cumin soup.
After refueling we decided it was high time we tried some of this famous Swiss chocolate, so just around the corner we found Martel Cornavin, a chocolate shop with an elegant looking tea room. We felt a bit out of place and we weren’t sure how to go about our purchase, but the man behind the counter was very pleasantly mannered and we were able to browse a menu of their chocolates and choose each one we wanted. We ended up with a box of about 15 pieces – pretty much one of each dark chocolate they had, ‘cause that’s how I roll: my favorites were the Tonka (textural surprise) and the Piémont (lovely vanilla flavor).
Though chocolates are good any season, they are crucial for the wintertime as they can alleviate the darkness and warm the soul, which is likely the same idea as Christmas Markets. By the time we got to the Market it was well after nightfall, but the park was lit up with innumerable lights and crowded with families and large groups of friends. Turned out Saturday was a great day to go to the Geneva Christmas Market, as it appeared that most of the city center was closed by evening, and the weekend definitely brought more people out, which normally we don’t enjoy, but the extra bodies helped us stay warm while outdoors.
Curiously, the Geneva Christmas Market had a nice international variety of food stalls. We tried momos, a bifanas and a pastel de nata, which was good but served cold (which was disappointing after our trip to Lisbon, where they’re always served warm and the bifanas are only about 2 euros!). We sampled the bites while listening to a live band, lamenting the Swiss pricing, but lack of Swiss quality we were starting to expect, however it was still a great time trying out the stalls. The drinks however, were very strong, and probably more worth the Christmas Market price. We took our hot cocktails to the ice rink and watched the families and couples slipping around bravely across the ice while we tried to keep our hands warm around the paper cups. Amusingly, most of the Christmas music we heard played throughout our time in Europe was American, which makes sense I suppose given it’s one of our biggest exports. That night when we get back to the hotel, it starts to rain and even snow just for a few minutes.
Be prepared for Sundays
Like most of Europe, Sundays in Geneva are super dead: most shops and restaurants are closed. While it’s not ideal for us visitors, we’ve found it inspiring for a culture to commit to a day of rest and emphasize a balance in work and life. Unfortunately for us, we were a little unprepared and wound up wandering around the city looking for someplace to grab lunch. We walked over to the quai, where there was some sort of lake plunge event. Hundreds of gutsy (or just plain crazy) costume and swimsuit clad adults huddled onto the pier to jump into the lake for maybe a 50 meters swim in the freezing water. Crowds of us looked on and there was even a projected screen so you could see up close the swimmers as they poured lake water on themselves, attempting to acclimate their bodies before jumping in. It was great fun watching (and not participating) but it made us all the hungrier for something warm and cozy. Sadly we ended up going to Starbucks for a quick sandwich when we couldn’t find anything else open close by.
More Free Education
While I understand that it’s not always possible, I found it truly inspiring that Geneva’s museums were free to visit; each time we went we saw groups of school children or families with their kids and maybe I’m extrapolating but it felt like a society investing in its people and especially its youth by providing a means to some free education and free exposure. Idealogic comments aside, we also really enjoyed our visit to the Natural History Museum of Geneva. While it was a little creepy with all the taxidermy, it was also kind of neat to be able to see all those animals up close. We have heard about the long problem of rhino horn hunting but it shocked us when we saw a sign in the museum next to the rhino telling people the real horn has been replaced with a replica, and we realized that it really was an epidemic. There was also an impressive mineral rocks exhibit, with some of the largest pieces of semi-precious stones, a huge variety of minerals that took on surprising characteristics like appearing fibrous or having unique shapes. There were stones that were made up of multiple minerals or even ones that glowed in the dark! Carl also played his way through a very cute kid’s game exhibit about parasites, which earned him a souvenir photo at the end.
Our last evening in Geneva we found a Chinese restaurant, Jiawei, for dinner. A large Russian family was out celebrating and took up a whole corner of the restaurant, while a handful of other couples sat around us. There were complimentary fried rice crackers, which we tried to eat quietly while observing those nearby, but the crackers crunched too loudly so we gave up trying to be discreet and just chatted together instead. We ordered our favorite noodles, Braised Beef soup noodles and Zhajiangmian (Beijing Style Noodles), which were decent, but definitely the most we’ve ever paid for such dishes.
Overall we were pleasantly surprised by our trip to Geneva and the fact that we really only paid for food and lodging. That said, those came at a pretty high price for what you got. We spent 4 nights and felt that was plenty of time to enjoy the little city. Browse our photos for inspiration or read on for more things to know before going to Geneva and other logistical information or jump down to the details on all the places we recommended.
Geneva in December is pretty cold; we saw quite a bit of rain and light snow in the evenings but not enough for a snow covered ground. While French and German are the official languages in Switzerland, Geneva will be primarily French with plenty of people knowing English. We found tons of places closed on a Saturday evening while walking through city center and almost everything is closed Sundays.
If you’re visiting Switzerland in December, be sure to check out the local Christmas markets, the one in Geneva was really nicely arranged. While you can definitely get away with mostly using a credit card, we found it useful to have cash for the Christmas markets.
Vaccinations: Routine Vaccinations
Mosquito problems: None while there
Problems for tattoos: None
Traveling as a woman: Standard Precautions
Where we stayed in Geneva
We stayed in a hostel-hotel called Hotel St Gervais Geneva, which we don’t really recommend. The majority of their rooms share bathrooms per floor, while they do have two rooms at the top which have their own bathrooms – that are only separated from the bedroom by a fabric curtain, definitely not that private for a “private bath” and fairly expensive at an extra 24 CHF a night.
Our first night there we checked in only to find that our room stank of smoke, even though the hotel was deemed a non-smoking hotel, there were clearly cigarette butts piled outside under our window. We notified the front desk, telling her it wasn’t just that the smell bothered us but that Carl’s asthma was kicking in, but they told us they couldn’t do anything that evening and would air out the room first thing next morning. Apparently they have “just the thing to fix this sort of problem because they have done it before”… so it really isn’t a non-smoking hotel.
After a rough night for Carl, we stayed clear of the room for a full day and when we returned, they had the windows opened and there was a strong scent of air freshener in the room. The cigarette butts were still outside, but Carl was able to breathe, so we stuck it out for the remainder of our time.
The only redeeming quality of our stay here was that during breakfast, if you order a hot chocolate the lady will actually steam the milk for your hot chocolate packet. I know, it’s a random tidbit, but I was scrounging for something positive in a not so ideal situation.
Getting Around in Geneva, Switzerland
Geneva is a very walkable city and there’s great public transportation if you need it. Booking a hotel in Geneva gets you a free public transportation card for the duration of your stay, which is pretty nice, but we only used it a couple times.
Currency: 1 CHF = 1 USD
Tipping in Switzerland is not necessary, but appreciated. Tax is already included in their pricing, so the price you see is what you pay. Switzerland has some of the highest prices for anything, however we did find that the quality of the food never disappointed.
$80-100/person: This was for 4 evenings in Geneva in a centrally located “hotel” that included a transportation card and breakfast. We took advantage of Geneva’s many free museums and other public attractions so our money was really only spent on food and lodging.
Some typical costs
- 150g of chocolates: 20-25 CHF
- lunch at a sit down restaurant: 15-25 CHF pp
- fondue meal: 30-40 CHF pp
- hotel: $93/night
How to save money in Geneva
The easiest way to save money while in Geneva is to check for the free days at various attractions (many museums have a free day of the week) and be careful with your food expenses. Normally we would try to cook our meals in, but AirBnB isn’t that popular in Geneva yet and not any cheaper than hotels. The most affordable food we found was Lebanese food, otherwise you can get ready-made food in the grocery section of Manor. There are also countless Starbucks (surprising, we know!) in Switzerland, which we wound up resorting to on a Sunday when nothing else was open at all.
Hotels charge a city tax per person per night, which was 2.5 CHF during our stay. One helpful thing about booking a hotel is the free transportation card you get for the duration of your stay, though we only used it a couple times as many places were walkable.
Be aware that in Switzerland, it is not uncommon for restaurants to charge for tap water, so ask first or simply order an actual drink! The tap water is safe to drink in Switzerland and there are many potable water fountains throughout the city so you can always fill up your bottle.
Parfums de Beyrouth, parfums-de-beyrouth.business.site, Rue de Berne 18, $-$$ – Really busy Lebanese restaurant with plenty of options. Stick with the sandwiches if you’re on a budget. Their falafels are excellent and try their kebbe!
Musée d’Art et d’Histoire, institutions.ville-geneve.ch/fr/mah, Rue Charles-Galland 2, Free – The permanent exhibits are always free, but the temporary exhibits will require a fee.
Geneva Water Fountain, ville-geneve.ch/plan-ville/patrimoine-tourisme/jet-eau/item/lieu/jet-deau, Quai Gustave-Ador, Free – The iconic water jet, but wasn’t very impressive.
L’horloge fleurie, institutions.ville-geneve.ch/fr/mah, Quai du Général-Guisan 28, Free – The iconic flower clock, rather small and also unimpressive.
St Pierre Cathedral, saintpierre-geneve.ch, Place du Bourg-de-Four 24, Free – Beautiful church in Old Town, stately exterior and cozy interior.
Le Navy Syracuse, navyglozu.ch, Place du Bourg-de-Four 29, $$-$$$ – Mildly nautical themed bar and restaurant serving Italian and Swiss food, including pizza. We had a calzone and a burger and fries: best fries we’ve had throughout Europe so far, they were perfectly seasoned and did not need ketchup! Beware that they will charge you for tap water, so order an actual drink instead!
Martel Cornavin, martel-chocolatier.ch/boutiques-tea-rooms, Rue de Cornavin 16, $-$$ – This location is also a tea room, but we simply bought a box of chocolates from their counter. Though it’s elegantly furnished, we were pleased with the unpretentious service. We were able to look at their menu and pick which chocolates we wanted and simply paid by weight.
Manor Genève, manor.ch, Rue de Cornavin 6, $-$$ – We only came to Manor for their grocery store at the lower level. They have ready-made food similar to Whole Foods, so it’s a great budget or time saving option. Note that they’re closed Sundays.
Café de la Coulouvrenière, facebook.com/coulouvreniere/?rf=144759622237225, Rue de la Coulouvrenière 29, $$-$$$ – Popular and cozy fondue restaurant, reservations are highly recommended. Come hungry because it is a lot of cheese and fondue is always ordered per person. Definitely try their meat plate. Word of warning that the street it is on was rather quiet and had a lot of young men standing around on the corner supposedly trying to sell things, it didn’t feel dangerous but did make us feel uncomfortable.
Geneva Christmas Market, noelauxbastions.ch/lemarche, Parc des Bastions, $-$$$ – Open December 6-31, 2018. They had international food stalls and plenty of bar stands, but be prepared to for the Swiss costs. The food quality at the market was decent but not particularly notable. This Christmas market was one of the largest and most well-decorated ones that we’ve been to.
Jiawei, jiawei.ch, Rue de Lausanne 56, $$-$$$ – Definitely the most expensive Chinese restaurant we have ever set foot in, but typical pricing for Switzerland. Decent noodle dishes, casual vibe, and it seemed like plenty of locals in the joint.
Tavel House, institutions.ville-geneve.ch/fr/mah/lieux-dexposition/maison-tavel/, Rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre 6, Free – Fascinating little museum preserving the every day of old Geneva
Conservatory and Botanical Garden of the City of Geneva, ville-ge.ch/cjb/jardin.php, Chemin de L’Imperatrice 1, Free – Large park that’s lovely to explore, including gardens and a small animal zoo. There are special paid exhibits as well.
Natural History Museum of Geneva, institutions.ville-geneve.ch/fr/mhn, Route de Malagnou 1, Free – The permanent exhibits are always free, but the temporary exhibits will require a fee. They had a stunning Mineral & Gem exhibit when we went.
The International Monument to the Reformation, Prom. des Bastions 1, Free