I took a fast-paced 8-day solo Couchsurfing trip through much of Switzerland and Liechtenstein to see the region’s historic cities, mountain views, and top-notch hiking without breaking the bank. Follow my blog in its entirety or click here for a travel guide to Switzerland.
Photo: St. Pierre Cathedral
After a journey through Toronto (where I enjoyed my 5-hour layover) and Montreal, I arrived at Geneva International Airport in the late morning on a Saturday. My Couchsurfing host had kindly agreed to pick me up from the airport – it was fun to walk out and see him holding a sign with my name on it in the waiting area. We got in his car and drove into the city.
Geneva is known as being one of the most global cities and hosts the headquarters of many international organizations, including the World Health Organization, the Red Cross, and Doctors Without Borders. We began our exploration of the city in the business district where many of these organizations are located.
We first parked and walked over to the Broken Chair, a gigantic chair with one leg partly missing meant to represent the destruction caused by landmines across the world. It’s a stunning sight and it’s in a nice plaza directly across the street from the United Nations. You must arrange a visit ahead of time if you’d like to go inside. I hadn’t, but it was fun to peek through the fence at the rows of flags from all of the member countries in front of the building.
We drove a few minutes to the Geneva Botanical Gardens and Conservatory (Jardin Botanique), where we took a nice stroll, relaxed on a bench for a bit, and took a spiral staircase to the top of a greenhouse. It was not too distinct from botanic gardens I’d been to before but a very pleasant park.
Geneva is located on huge Lake Geneva (also known as Lac Léman), the largest lake in Switzerland and a stunning body of water with views of the Alps. We drove over toward the lake, passing the Church of the Holy Trinity – a shockingly unique building that’s shaped like a hand grenade/ball. I don’t know why it was designed like that, but it’s quite a sight to see!
We parked near Parc Mon Repos, a tranquil lakeside park with flowers and grassy lawns. From there, we walked along the Lake Geneva boardwalk for about 10 minutes until we reached Bains de Paquis, a series of public baths with a popular eatery and great areas for sunbathing and relaxation (admission: 2 franc). Hungry, we lunched at La Buvette des Bains, an outdoor restaurant within the baths. I enjoyed a hearty 12 franc Greek-style tomato salad with Italian dressing (it was literally 90% tomatoes and I loved it) and they served delicious French-style baguettes on the side. After lunch, we walked around and admired the baths, relaxing a bit in some beach chairs before continuing onward.
Next, we re-joined the boardwalk and continued walking west until we reached Pont du Mont Blanc, a beautiful bridge lined with flags that connects this north end of the city to the Old City on the other side.
My new friend befriended a couple ladies on the bridge who were visiting from Zurich for a medical conference and knew even less French than me 😉 That’s something I find fascinating about Switzerland – it’s 75% German speaking, but the western end of the country primarily speaks solely French (and English) and the German side doesn’t speak much French. To make matters even more confusing, there’s a small region in the South that speaks Italian and a few small communities that speak the obscure Romansh language. It’s not uncommon to meet Swiss people who speak 3, 4, 5, or even more languages – which is an impressive and wonderful thing.
When we reached the other side of the bridge, we were in the beautiful Jardin Anglais, a lakeside park that hosts the Flower Clock (L’Horloge Fleurie). It’s a clock on the side of a small hill formed of colorful flowers – a wonderful and unique landmark. At this point, my Couchsurfing host and I separated as he left to meet a friend for coffee. Before my friend left, he helped me connect to Geneva’s public wifi, which is free and accessible throughout much of the Old City. As with many of Switzerland’s free wifi hotspots, you have to receive a code via text which is impossible for travelers like me on Airplane Mode, but luckily my friend let me send the text to his phone.
I continued through Jardin Anglais toward Jet d’Eau, one of the tallest fountains in the world that was actually created as a safety valve but kept for asthetic reasons. It’s visible from most parts of the city and definitely Geneva’s most recognizable landmark. I took a short walk to Jette d’Eaux Vives, a dock that allows you to walk right up to the Jet d’Eau and feel its mist on your face.
The Old City
I maneuvered my way through random streets toward the Old City, a section of Geneva with historic buildings, cobblestone streets, and tons of interesting landmarks. I began to notice that Geneva is a very typical European city with cute storefronts, classic architectural style, and sidewalk eateries.
I first entered Maison Tavel, a free museum located inside the oldest house in Geneva. It has several levels to explore with super old-school furnishing, views of the city and Jet d’Eau, and a basement crypt with just a tad of spookiness. After a few minutes of perusing, I left and walked a couple blocks to Park Promenade de la Treille, which contains the longest wooden bench in the world. I had seen this on a recent season of The Amazing Race in which contestants had to measure the bench without any measuring instruments. Luckily, I just got to sit, relax, and enjoy the great view of the city and surrounding hills from this very special green bench.
From the bench, I walked downhill to Parc des Bastions, once of the largest parks in Geneva that features several full-size chess and checker boards, lots of areas to relax, and a great view of the Reformation Wall (Monument international de la Réformation), a wall just below the de la Treille bench that has stone figures of the four leaders of the 1500s-1600s Protestant Reformation, of which Geneva was one of the hotspots and a refuge for Protestants escaping Catholic countries.
At this point, I randomly ran into my Couchsurfing host who I had planned to reconnect with later in the afternoon – a clear sign that Geneva is not all large of a city. Reunited, we walked back into the center of the Old City and he sat down for a coffee while I visited St. Pierre Cathedral, the most famous church in Geneva. It has a typical Romanesque style you’ll find in many European churches, but its dramatically large size makes it a very special spot. For 5 franc, you can climb to the top of both of the church’s towers. Enthusiastically, I followed a spiral staircase to the top of the first tower, finding myself rewarded with epic views of the city. I came back down and then went up to the South Tower, where there were better views of the lake and Jet d’Eau. These twin climbs were tough, but so worth it!
An Evening in Nyon
We took a 45-minute walk back to my host’s car and then drove 20 minutes to Nyon, the town in which he lives – located halfway between Geneva and Lausanne (Switzerland’s other primary French-speaking city on the other end of Lake Geneva which I visited on the last day of my trip). It’s a quick train ride to either city, so it’s basically a suburb but quite cuter than American suburbs.
We relaxed at my host’s apartment, sitting on the balcony with his neighbor who didn’t speak much English, giving me the chance to practice my French which is ok but not nearly as good as I want it to be! Soon, it started raining and we watched the rain from the balcony while eating sandwiches with Swiss cheese and chips. We could see a playground from the balcony where adorable kids and dogs were playing and some stunning huge trees off to the side.
Because I am a walking fiend, I took an evening walk from my host’s apartment to the downtown of Nyon. It was much more beautiful than I expected with cobblestone streets and asthetically pleasing old buildings and it felt great to be in such a small town in Europe. After walking through town, I eventually happened upon the historic Roman Columns, three partially-fallen apart columns which date back to the Roman Empire! There’s also a wonderful view of Lake Geneva from the spot so it was a great find.
I looped back toward my friend’s place, passing a tattoo shop that was blasting music and apparently hosting a small party. I called it a night as soon as I arrived home, as I would have to awaken early the next day as I continued on to Switzerland’s capital: Bern.
Click here to continue to my Swiss Bliss Day 2 blog as I explore Switzerland’s captivating capital city, Bern.
Click here for a travel guide to Geneva outlining cheap, free, and local-endorsed things to see, eat, and drink.