Geneva is rich in history and culture. Two days in Geneva is hardly enough time to see it all, but this Ultimate Guide to 2 Days in Geneva offers a few highlights.
Founded on the shores of Lake Leman in Switzerland, Geneva ranks among one of the most influential cities in the world. The United Nations Office is there as is the International Red Cross’ headquarters, and the city has almost 100 banks and 400 commodity trading companies, making it a dominant financial power. It is also home to the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN).
But that’s not why I came—and probably not why you’re considering it either. Geneva is rich in history and culture. Churches that played a role in the Reformation line the narrow streets of Old Town. Museums occupy beautiful homes up to 500 years old. Restaurants prepare the cuisines of the world, not to mention traditional cheese fondue. Two days in Geneva is hardly enough time to see it all, but these highlights offer a good sample.
Cultural Sights in Geneva
From public art to scientific innovation, Geneva overflows with the culture. You won’t be able to absorb it all in two days, but these attractions should give you a taste of what the city has to offer.
The Globe of Science and Innovation (CERN)
Founded in 1954, the European Organization for Nuclear Research boasts the world’s largest and most powerful particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider. You can learn about it and the other accelerators at the campus’ Globe of Science and Innovation, where exhibits explore particles and CERN’s experiments with them. CERN also offers tours of the facility’s first accelerator or ATLAS control room subject to availability.
The small Barbier-Mueller Museum in Old Town maintains the largest private collection of African, Oceanic, and Asian artifacts in the world. Even so, it probably won’t take you more than a half-hour to explore. That’s because “the largest private collection” is still small compared to what’s displayed in most art museums. Beware that there’s little, if any, English signage. However, if you appreciate carved masks and African art, it’s worth the stop.
Located across the street from the Red Cross Museum, the Ariana Museum houses more than 27,000 cups, plates, and other ceramic and glass art pieces from Switzerland, Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. You can read about most displays in English although some, like the one on the process of making ceramics, are only in French. In total, I spent about 45 minutes in the museum learning how ceramics evolved through the centuries.
Public Art to See During Your 2 Days in Geneva
Geneva has some exceptionally interesting pieces of art. Across the street from the United Nations, the 40-foot-high Broken Chair by Swiss sculptor Daniel Berset sits on a concrete square against a backdrop of choreographed water fountains. It commemorates the victims of anti-personnel mines by depicting the chair with one leg broken in half.
In the English Garden near the lake, the Geneva Flower Clock honors the Swiss tradition of watchmaking. The clock—made of 12,000 manicured plants and flowers—accurately tells time.
Near the University of Geneva, the Reformation Wall depicts key figures in the Protestant Reformation, including John Calvin and John Knox.
Historical Sights to Visit During 2 Days in Geneva
From its days as a Roman settlement to its role in the Reformation and the establishment of the Geneva Convention, Geneva has changed the world. Dedicate a good portion of your trip to exploring the city’s past, even if you’re usually not into history. These attractions are fascinating and well worth your time.
St. Peter’s Cathedral
This historic St. Peter’s Cathedral tops my list of best things to do in Geneva. You can step inside for free and view the chair John Calvin occupied when he preached here as well as the ornate and brightly painted Maccabee Chapel.
With a paid admission fee, you can climb into the towers for panoramic views of the city. (Note that the steps up are steep and narrow. And there’s no place to turn around. If you are not prepared to walk several twisting flights of stairs, skip this.)
While at the cathedral, take the self-guided underground tour to see the remains of the previous churches the current one was built on top of. The tour starts at the bottom of the staircase on the right side of the church. Between visiting the church, touring underneath it, and climbing the tour, plan to spend approximately two hours.
International Museum of the Reformation
Located inside the 18th-century Maison Mallet, just steps from the St. Peter’s Cathedral, the International Museum of the Reformation details the history of the Protestant Reformation through artwork, historic writings, and artifacts. Highlights include the film “The Reformation in…7 Minutes” and the Music Room where you can listen to the Psalms, chorales, and modern hymns.
Unfortunately, the museum was closed for renovations when I visited, but for history buffs who want to learn more about the impact the Reformation had around the world, this 14-room museum is a must when it reopens.
Built in the late 13th century, Maison Tavel is the oldest home in Geneva. Don’t miss it, especially if you are already at nearby Saint Peter’s Cathedral Geneva. Inside, you’ll see the artwork, weapons, architectural elements, and historic items relating to the city’s earliest days. The second floor recreates what the home might have looked like inside during the 18th to 19th centuries, complete with a kitchen, bedroom, and sitting areas.
Plan to spend up to an hour at this free museum. Staff can provide you with a visitor’s guide in English that provides context and many of the signs have English translations. After your visit, cross the street to the Hôtel Les Armures restaurant for lunch or a coffee. Or check out the cannons to the right of the hotel.
The International Red Cross Museum
This must-see museum tells the story of the International Red Cross, from its inception by businessman Henry Dunant in 1859 to the present day. Many of the displays are interactive, and free audio guides provide extra information about specific pieces. If you choose to skip the audio commentary, you can follow the signs in English and still appreciate the museum. However, one of my favorite parts of my visit was listening to the stories behind items made by prisoners and presented to Red Cross staff.
I also found it fascinating to learn how Red Cross staff kept tabs on prisoners of war during World War I. The audio guide provided step-by-step instructions for how to find the named soldier in the books, locate his card in the files, and learn his fate. I recommend planning to spend about an hour and a half in the museum. Add time to go across the street to the Ariana Museum or to walk past the United Nations building.
Guided Tours Offered by Geneva
The city offers several general and themed tours. For a first-time visit, consider a 30-minute TaxiBike tour that passes highlights such as the Geneva Flower Clock and Reformation Wall. Or go on an open-air, sunset tour of the city. If you have a specific interest, such as watchmaking or the Reformation, you can book a private tour for up to eight people for CHF 280 (about $290).
Since I was visiting for more than two days, I opted to take a day trip to Annecy, France, one of several day trips offered through the city. (I later learned Geneva city busses will take you to Annecy for much less than the cost of the tour.) I loved the trip. Annecy, the so-called “Venice of the Alps,” is beautiful, and the trip showcased how much you can do in the region. Other guided day trips included visits to Chamonix, Carouge, and Glacier 3000 near Montreux.
How to Explore Geneva
You can fly directly to Geneva or into Zürich and travel three hours by train to the city. Either way, Geneva is easy to explore without renting a car. The entire country of Switzerland has one of the best public transportation systems I’ve ever used. Not only are its buses, trams, boats, and trains on time and clean, but they come frequently. I never waited more than a few minutes for public transportation.
If you stay near the Cornavin train station, Geneva’s main train station, or in Old Town, you can walk to many of the attractions mentioned above.
But when you do need to take public transportation, you’ll likely ride for free. Many, if not all, hotels give guests passes to ride public transportation for free for the duration of their stay.
Before you go, consider purchasing a Geneva City pass, giving you access to more than 50 attractions for free. (It also provides discounts on some of the city’s tours.) You can purchase a 24-, 48- or 72-hour pass, which may or may not be worth it. For example, a 24-hour pass costs CHF 30. If you plan only to visit St. Peter’s Cathedral (free), climb the towers (CHF 8) and visit the archaeological site underneath it (CHF 8), you’d lose money on the pass. If you plan a busy couple of days in Geneva, it will totally be worth it to invest in the Geneva City pass.
More Adventures in Switzerland
You don’t have to end your adventures after exhausting the options provided in our ultimate guide to two days in Geneva. We recommend that you add in a few days to visit Switzerland’s largest city, Zurich, or visit the nearby city of Lausanne. Looking for more two-day itineraries? Check out our 2 Days Ultimate Guides.