Geneva: Funny How Things Work Out In The End

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Wow.  My trip had only just begun, and Geneva was well on its way to being a complete and total disaster — but in typical fashion, it turned out amazingly!

Geneva isn’t a typical city for backpackers to visit.  For starters, it’s expensive. How expensive? 10 CHF ($10) for two coffees at an outdoor cafe; 16 CHF ($17) for a salad at a casual kebab place; 22 CHF ($24) for a one-way ticket to Lausanne, 30-45 minutes away; 7 CHF ($7) for a large bottle of water in a restaurant; 18 CHF ($19) for a five-minute taxi ride.

Beyond that, Geneva has a reputation for being, well, quite boring.

But I had a connection. My friend Helena, whom I met on my December trip to Paris, works for World Radio Switzerland.

So Geneva was a surefire stop for me, sandwiched in between Paris and Bologna.  Then once I got to Paris, things started falling apart.

Setback #1: No hostels or simple guesthouses were available.  At all.  Geneva doesn’t have many hostels to begin with, but the hotels started at a shocking $300 per night.  I really don’t have that kind of money, and at this point, I opted to stay an extra night in Paris. My friend Marie-Claire generously offered me another night at her Paris flat.

Setback #2: Helena wasn’t going to be town.  Though I was sad to miss her, she kindly talked to her colleagues at World Radio Switzerland and got them to bring me on anyway.

Setback #3: I sent out Couchsurfing requests, but didn’t receive a single reply.  A few local Couchsurfers offered me space, but they were either single guys with blank profiles and zero recommendations, which I consider to be a red flag, or people whose homes weren’t accessible by public transportation.

Setback #4: I found affordable lodging on Airbnb at about $75 per night, but when I booked it, I was told by the host that it was too late to make a reservation.

Piano Girl, Geneva

Then a miracle happened — My friend Julie lives in Lausanne, about a 45-minute train ride from Geneva, and she offered to put me up for the first night.  Incredibly, a friend of Julie’s in Geneva owed her a favor — so he offered me his apartment for the second night, even staying over a friend’s place so I could be alone!

Could you imagine giving up your apartment to people you’ve never met, handing over the key without even seeing them face to face or Skyping them to make sure they’re not axe murderers?!

What a wonderful guy.  And what wonderful, generous people I’ve met on my trip so far.

So I arrived at Gare de Lyon in Paris, ready to book my TGV train to Geneva, when I was hit with:

Setback #5: No trains were available.  With my Eurail pass, I’m free to hop on local trains, but fast trains need to be reserved in advance.  It turns out that the lightning-fast TGV trains sell out super-fast, and there was almost nothing left.

Geneva SOTM

Instead of an immediate three-hour train from Paris to Geneva, I had to take the only option available for the next few days: a five-hour local train from Paris to Lyon, a two-hour layover, then a two-hour local train from Lyon to Geneva.  Instead of getting to Geneva by 2:15 PM, we’d be getting in at 10:40 PM, just in time to catch the final 45-minute local train to Lausanne for the night.

I learned my lesson: from now on, I am booking the rest of my train journeys as soon as possible.  That lesson was particularly hammered home when getting on that five-hour train to learn that there wasn’t any food or drink on board (!).

But then things turned around.  I got to Lausanne and had a great night’s sleep in Julie’s adorable apartment.  An early departure to Geneva got me there in time for the interview on World Radio Switzerland at 8:40 AM.

Pretty Geneva

Then I got to explore Geneva.  The stereotypes are true, to a degree — it’s a very orderly place without much of a personality.  In lots of ways, I found Geneva to be the opposite of Berlin: Geneva is quiet where Berlin is loud, sedate where Berlin is artsy, small where Berlin is large, and incredibly expensive where Berlin is dirt cheap.  Geneva plays it safe while Berlin lives dangerously.

But Geneva was a pretty and exceedingly pleasant place to spend a day, especially since the sun was shining.  And I LOVED the fact that the buses and trams have screens telling you where you are, what the next three stops are, and what lines you can connect to at each stop!

L'Horloge Fleurie (Flower Clock)

Cafe Marius, Geneva

Cafe Marius, in particular, was a wonderful surprise.  I needed to find a bar for a meetup and I picked it on a whim after a bit of Googling.  It’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it wine bar with outdoor seating and an excellent selection of local wines — all of them organic!  Could this be where Geneva’s hipster side had been lurking all along?

After a few hours, I even noticed more hipstery footprints: a cute coffeeshop attached to a bookstore.  A hair salon with wild cartoon fonts.  A boutique with crazy hand-knit sweaters.

Things aren’t always what they seem, and that goes double for Geneva.  While I feel no need to return, I had a very nice day here.

Essential Info: Geneva is a very expensive city, and lodging is particularly pricey.  If you can’t find a hostel or a couch to surf, take a look at Airbnb — rates were astronomically lower than what I could find at hotels. If you do prefer a hotel, you can find the best prices here.

You can buy daylong unlimited transportation tickets for 10 CHF ($10), which work on the buses and trams.  But if you buy after 9:00 AM, the price drops to 8 CHF ($8).

Free wifi is tough to find in town.  Your best bets?  One of the Starbucks, or Amo Cafe in the train station.  McDonald’s has wifi but will only send passwords via SMS, so you need a working phone.

I never travel without travel insurance and used World Nomads while in Switzerland. I always recommend purchasing it before a trip because it will protect you financially if anything goes wrong.

Many thanks to for their support of the European leg of the SOTM Tour.  All opinions, as always, are my own.

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30 thoughts on “Geneva: Funny How Things Work Out In The End”

  1. “He offered us his apartment for the second night, even staying over a friend’s place so we could be alone!’
    – I love, love, love this. It warms my heart to know there are such people in the world.

  2. I was just in Geneva this weekend, visiting my sister who’s working there for a few months. You sure are right that it’s expensive — I was blown away by how much everything costs. And it is a bit dull, but I had a nice time nonetheless. The highlight was taking a local bus to the French border and then a cable-car up Mount Saleve and hiking around there. I definitely recommend it for anyone’s next trip to Geneva!

  3. Having lived 2 years in Lausanne, I can agree – it’s plain simply expensive. There’s no local tip of where to go to find drinks under 8 CHF, no trick to find cheaper accommodation or anything like that.

    Lausanne is a little more affordable, though (which is also why you often see students coming from Geneva to Lausanne to party). Did you get to see Geneva’s old town? It’s so much nicer than the surroundings!

  4. I have to agree with Kerry – that was a good test for the two of you traveling together and it sounds like you handled it quite well even after multiple setbacks! I am glad that everything worked out and look forward to more about your trip

  5. Sounds like a rough start but everything seemed to work out. It’s been years since I’ve been to Switzerland but I haven’t been to Geneva. Great tips on visiting the city despite the setbacks.

  6. Glad everything worked out in the end! I would never pick a couchsurfing host with no profile and zero recommendations either– too paranoid.

    Geneva looks beautiful though despite the high prices!

  7. Ahh, you have to love it when things fall together like that. “Pleasant” does seem like one of the most appropriate ways to describe Geneva.

  8. So happy to have been able to take part in your project – it was super fun and the idea is so original!

    Now, about Geneva… yes, it’s all of those things. But it does have a gritty underbelly you don’t really get to see unless you’ve spent a few days walking around. There’s a lively art and music scene and artisans and micro-cafes and even, yes, dirt and graffiti! That’s not Geneva at first sight, and even though I’ve lived here on and off for a quarter of a century, it took me a while to find the more ‘human’ face of the city. So… come back sometime and we’ll give Berlin a run for her money!

    1. Thanks, Leyla! It was great seeing you in Geneva, and thanks for taking part in the project.

      Maybe I do have to return and go on your Alternative Geneva tour! 😉

  9. So great when the kindness of friends and strangers really comes through.

    Reminds me of when I was island hopping in Greece and the owner of the car rental business gave me a ride from the airport to my guesthouse and then outright refused a tip.

  10. I had a similar experience in Paris three years ago. A friend of a friend let me crash at his studio flat in Paris, spending the night at a friend’s house so I had privacy, then brought me coffee and pastries in the morning before helping me get on the correct train to Bayonne later that morning. Sadly, he passed away at a very young age last year. Vincent’s hospitality is something I will never forget and hope I can repay someday to someone else.

  11. I have been really behind in catching up with blogs lately and was so happy to stumble straight upon this post as I am going to Geneva next week! I also have a friend who is working at the UN there and she is very kindly putting us up for four days.
    I was a little doubtful about what we would be able to get up to on our small budgets but she has been emailing me all month with ideas including an outdoor cinema on the lake and even a FREE concert! It just goes to show that assumptions can be, and usually are, wrong.
    I’ll definitely be sure to take her to Cafe Marius too, thanks Kate!

  12. Isn’t it funny you also know Helena!! She told me about you while we were working together in Geneva and I mentioned I have a travel blog. I’m living in Barcelona now and will head to TBEX at Lloret del Mar, will you be there?? 😉

  13. Geneva is the perfect city for the weekend. Beautiful, peaceful and with lots of attractions. I really liked the view from the top of Saleve and swimming in the lake.

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