Geneva (French: Genève, German: Genf), Switzerland’s second-most populous city and the largest French-speaking city in Switzerland, is one of the world’s major centers of international diplomacy, having served as the site of the headquarters of the International Committee of the Red Cross since its foundation in 1863. Although the United Nations is now headquartered in New York, the organization still retains a large presence in Geneva at the Palais des Nations and many of its sister/child organizations, such as the World Health and International Labour Organizations.
Geneva, in the French speaking side of Switzerland, is the second largest city in the country with Zurich being the largest. Well known for the lake that it stands on, it is considered a global city because of all the international organizations that have their home here. The Geneva Conventions were signed here which deal with treatment of prisoners of war, and the United Nations and the headquarters of the Red Cross can also be found in this beautiful city.
1536, a young man named John Calvin, fleeing the persecution of Protestants in France, spent a night in Geneva. As it turned out, he was to do a lot more there than sleeping. After being expelled from Geneva for nearly three years, Calvin returned triumphantly in 1541 to help elevate the city to the rank of a Protestant Rome. The intellectual influence of the Reformation extended to all realms of Genevan life: politics, economy, and administration.
Geneva was an independent republic from at least the 16th century until it became a Swiss Canton on 31 Dec 1813. This is a point of some pride to the Genevois, who still refer to their Canton as the République et Canton de Genève. A favorite festival is the yearly celebration of the Escalade, which commemorates a failed attempt in 1602 by the forces of the Dukes of Savoy to invade the city by climbing and otherwise breaching the city walls. Having turned aside this invasion attempt at the cost of only 16 lives, Geneva had secured its liberty, since the House of Savoy was never again strong enough on this side of the Alps to attempt such an invasion.
Geneva is still a very proud city. Some find it downright stuffy, although there is quite a bit more life to be found if you look under the surface, especially if you speak some French.
Geneva is officially a French-speaking city, and the vast majority of the population speak French phrasebook (81% in 2014). All advertisements, information, and signs are in French. With the large international presence and a strong diaspora, English and Portuguese (both about 10%) take a close second. Spanish (7%), Italian (6%), and German (5%) speakers abound. You may also occasionally hear Serbian/Croatian, Albanian and Turkish as well as Arabic surprisingly often.
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History and Geography
The city of Geneva is located at the south-west end of the lake, just where it flows into the Rhone. There are two mountain ranges surrounding the area, the Alps and the Jura. In the lake itself, two rocks, the Pierres du Niton, stand out and these are thought to have been here since the ice age. This is the place that was chosen as the reference point for surveying for all of Switzerland. There is also a second river that flows nearby, the Arve River, which itself flows into the Rhone, just as the lake does.
Those who love winter sports are literally spoiled for choice here since Mont Blanc can be seen in the distance and is only about one hour away by road. However, Geneva itself, being at lake level, is usually quite mild in the winter and very warm in the summer.
Best time to go to Geneva
If it is meadows full of wild flowers and the kind of countryside one would imagine that Heidi lived in, summer is definitely the time to visit. However, if it is snow sports in the surrounding mountain ranges, winter is also a fun time.
Rain is adequate and pretty much spread out throughout the year with autumn seeing above average rainfall. In the summer, many visitors go swimming in the lake and there are several beaches to enjoy. June to September sees temperatures around the mid twenties with winter going as low as four degrees.
Getting Around in Geneva
The city is served by no less than two train companies – the Swiss network, SBB-CFF-FFS, and the French SNFC network. People can get here by train from as far away as Paris and Marseille or Montpelier and Lyon. There are also great motorway connections to France and the rest of Switzerland so expect to see European tourists here and there.
There is good public transport in the form of a bus, trolleybus or tram system that covers the city itself and the whole region. Some lines will extend into France too. There are boats which transport passengers across the lake and others that take people further afield.
Taxis are often a problem since they are usually booked in advance. They also tend to not take children or infants because of the stringent seating laws here. Car hire is a must if skiing holidays are being taken since visitors can spend time in the mountains during the day and enjoy the city and its entertainment at night.
Geneva is the transportation hub for the French-speaking Switzerland and the western access point to the Swiss Alps.
- Geneva airport (also called Geneva Cointrin). It is served by almost all European carriers and has good connections from most major Northern African and Middle Eastern airports. From North America there are a couple of daily direct flights from New York, Washington D.C. and Montreal and in addition to that Air China has four weekly non-stop flights from Beijing. Geneva is a hub for the low-cost carrier EasyJet serving a number of destinations in Europe including Amsterdam, Barcelona, Berlin, Edinburgh, London, Madrid, Manchester and Paris.
The airport has a UBS bank with ATMs and exchange machines in the arrival area. There is an American Express office just beyond passport control in the departure lounge. There are several cafés and duty free shopping as well, open 08:00-23:00.
To get into town from the airport, taxis cost approximately Fr. 30. The quickest way is by train which is the same price/tickets as with the buses. The number 10 bus leaves every 15 minutes from 06:00 to 23:00. Get off at the 22-Cantons stop for train station. Bus 5 also goes to the central railway station but along a different route passing close by the UN building and stopping at rue de Lausanne. Both buses then continue to the southern side of the city. All trains leaving Geneva airport train station stop at the main train/bus station. Train/bus tickets are around Fr. 3.50 (valid for one hour) and can be purchased at machines at the bus stop and in the train station. A free transport ticket to the city of Geneva can be obtained from the Geneva Transport (TPG) machine in the baggage claim area. This ticket is valid for 80 minutes anywhere in Geneva and suburbs, for trains, buses and yellow boats (with this ticket you can go as far as CERN or Anières or Veyrier). There is a change machine next to the UBS ATM. The best alternative is to take the free public transport ticket, hop on any train to Geneva (5 minutes) and either take a taxi from there or continue on the public transport system.