Zurich or Geneva - which is the best city in Switzerland

Living large in Switzerland: Zurich or Geneva?

When it comes to the top cities in Switzerland, Zurich and Geneva usually go head-to-head among traveler options. It would be great to have time for both, but it's usually one or the other. Between the Financial Capital that is Zurich, or the seat of International Power that is Geneva, which would be best for travelers like you?

There is no easy answer to this, and it really depends on how much time and what kind of trip you are looking for. Let's try to make it a little bit easier with a quick look at both cities.​

Zurich

Zurich

Travel To Zurich

Zurich is a metropolitan city that sits by the waters of the splendid Limmet river, as well as having Lake Zurich right in the center. It is probably one of the most popular destinations in Switzerland and is also the country’s largest city.

This upscale banking city is famous for its thriving corporate industry, high-end shopping, and fancy chocolates. Despite being highly urbanized, Zurich has its fair share of exquisite views of the snowcapped Alps, walking streets leading to over 50 museums and more than 100 art galleries, and the Niederdorf, a section of town where flamboyant nightlife comes alive.

Train/Bus Travel Times To Zurich

Munich, Germany to Zurich: 4-5 hours (approx)

Frankfurt, Germany to Zurich: 4 hours 15 mins (approx)

Paris, France to Zurich: 6 hours (approx)

Milan, Italy to Zurich: 3 hours 30 mins (approx)

Brussels, Belgium to Zurich: 8 hours (approx)

Bern to Zurich: 1 hour 30 min (approx)

Geneva to Zurich: 3 hours

Note: Find out exact travel times and departures on the Swiss Railway website - SBB

Car Travel Times To Zurich

Munich, Germany to Zurich:  3 hours 30 mins (approx)

Frankfurt, Germany to Zurich:  3 hours 45 mins (approx)

Paris, France to Zurich: 6 hours (approx)

Milan, Italy to Zurich: 4 hours (approx)

Brussels, Belgium to Zurich: 6 hours 40 mins (approx)

Bern to Zurich: 1 hour 45 min (approx)

Geneva to Zurich: 3 hours 45 min (approx)

Note: Find out exact travel times on Google Maps

Local Attractions In Zurich

The bustling city of Zurich is surrounded by water, thanks to Lake Zurich and the River Limmat. A mix of traditional and ultra modern characterizes the city, creating an experience that fits every mood and every taste, any time of the day.

Lake Zurich and everything about water

Lake Zurich

A boat tour down this lake is the best way to take in the full beauty of the city. If you're hoping to be a little more active, you can take a refreshing dip in its pristine waters, or go on a bike ride along the shore.

If you haven't had enough of Zurich waters, head on to the River Limmat for a paddle boat tour, or choose one of the many outdoor pools fit for every member of the family.​

Swiss National Museum, for starters

Zurich Swiss National Museum

Photo credit: Jaime Pérez via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Also known as the Swiss National Museum, the Landesmuseum in Zurich houses some of the most important art collections from as early as the prehistoric era. If you're visiting with kids under 16 years old, they can also enter the museum for free.

You can easily spend days simply visiting museums and art galleries all over Zurich, which is what the city has become very well-known for. If it's a family trip, there are fourteen museums specifically designed for children, featuring dinosaurs, cultural exhibits, and modern-day science.

Old Town and all the culture and shopping that goes with it

Zurich Old Town

Photo credit: PilotGirl via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

It seems like every city in Switzerland has its own version of Old Town, and Zurich's is not one to be missed. The left bank of the Limmat River makes up the Western half of the old town called Lindenhof. Here you will find Lindenhof Hill, a moraine hill formed thousands of years ago by glacially formed accumulation of soil and rock. It is a shaded square and is the city's only public park within the city walls, also listed as a Swiss Heritage Site due to its historic significance. Across the river on the Eastern half of Old Town, you'll walk through charming old streets and come to Brunnenturm at the Napfgasse. It was built in the late Middle Ages as the headquarters of 14th-century Lombard merchants. These are just some of the many historical buildings found in the Old Town.

Old Town is Zurich's tourism hub, and for good reason. There is also Niederdorf, a pedestrian zone lined with shops in the day time, and bars and street artists at night. This is also a place for some culinary immersion, hunting down some of Switzerland's best cuisines in quaint cafes and alleys.

Bahnhofstrasse, the shopping mecca of Zurich

Whether you consider shopping as an obsession, a skill, or a hobby, Bahnofstrasse gives you 1,200 meters of the most exclusive shops you can handle. This traffic free area is the world's third most expensive for retail property and undoubtedly the most expensive in all of Europe. Window displays are filled with fur, fashion, and high-end goods, but even just strolling along this street is an enjoyable sightseeing activity.

Beyond the lavishness is a piece of good history, too. Some of the buildings date back to the 1900s, including the Weber building built and re-built in 1912 and 1928, and the Peterhof and Leuenhof buildings in 1913. There was also an old moat called the Fröschengraben, which was filled in 1867 to build the middle section of the street.

Fraumunster and more religious sites

This 9th Century church also known as Women's Church was built by King Louis the German specifically for his daughter, Hildegard. On top of being visited by aristocratic women, the Fraumunster was also given much power, where the head of the covenant was also the governor of the city until the high Middle Ages. Now, aside from the church's unique architecture, what really makes this church even more stunning is the set of five stained-glass windows in the chancel by Marc Chagall. Several works of art and stained glass windows have been preserved within the church walls, making it double as an art gallery.

While you're at it, head to two historical and equally stunning churches within the city. St. Peter Kirche is the oldest Parish church in Zurich. It has gone through several transformations - originally a temple to Jupiter, then a small 8th or 9th century church, a 10th century church replaced in 1230 by a late-Romanesque church, a Gothic-style nave in 1460, and finally the church that stands today built in 1706. The Grossmunster, on the other hand, is one of Zurich's most famous landmarks. According to legend, the church was built on top of the city's patron saints, Felix and Regula, after Charlemagne found their graves. Similar to St. Peter, the Grossmunster also features stained-glass window art and other important artifacts. It was also a theological college in the first half of the 16th century, which spawned out to what is now the University of Zurich.

Other Attractions

If you're still wanting for more reasons to choose Zurich as your next destination, there is a long list of places to go and things to see. Here are even more sights and experiences worth looking into:

  • Zurich nightlife is definitely a one-of-a-kind experience, with a strong techno scene and lots of underground bars and clubs to choose from. Here are some of the best Zurich night clubs worth checking out​
  • The Zurich Zoo is a favorite among children. It boasts of 360 animals in some of the world's best natural enclosures
  • The great outdoors is a wonderful experience from Zurich for the more active types and are easy day trips from the city. Scale the Uetliberg, Zurich's very own mountain, take a 70-minute car ride to Mt. Titlis, one of the most popular winter sports destinations in Central Switzerland, or visit Stoos-Fronalpstock regon in the summer for some hiking, biking, or just plain relaxing.

Geneva

The French speaking city of Geneva is home to over 20 international organizations including the International Red Cross and the United Nations.

Geneva is surrounded by the Alps and the Jura mountains. Situated at the bay where the Rhone River leaves Lake Geneva, most of the hotels and shops in the city stand right at the shore.​ As with every city in Switzerland, Geneva is also filled with different museums, restaurants, and shopping districts that will surely keep anyone busy and entertained.

Travel To Geneva

Train/Bus Travel Times To Geneva

Munich, Germany to Geneva: 6-7 hours (approx)

Frankfurt, Germany to Geneva: 6 hours (approx)

Paris, France to Geneva: 3 hours (approx)

Milan, Italy to Geneva: 4 hours (approx)

Brussels, Belgium to Geneva: 10 hours (approx)

Bern to Geneva: 1 hour 45 mins (approx)

Zurich to Geneva: 2 hours 45 mins (approx)

Note: Find out exact travel times and departures on the Swiss Railway website - SBB

Car Travel Times To Geneva

Munich, Germany to Geneva: 6 hours 20 mins (approx)

Frankfurt, Germany to Geneva: 6 hours (approx)

Paris, France to Geneva: 5 hours 30 mins (approx)

Milan, Italy to Geneva: 4 hours 30 mins (approx)

Brussels, Belgium to Geneva: 7 hours 30 mins (approx)

Bern to Geneva: 2 hours (approx)

Zurich to Geneva: 3 hours (approx)

Note: Find out exact travel times on Google Maps

Local Attractions In Geneva

A trip to Geneva can be quite costly, but nothing too far from what you may spend in Zurich. Geneva, however, is far more quiet and conservative as a city, which is probably why most travelers just pass through the airport, skip the city, and head straight to the mountains. Despite this perception, this doesn't mean there is less to enjoy in Geneva.

Geneva is a center for international commerce and diplomacy, giving visitors something to enjoy in both simple and grand terms.​

Lake Geneva and its postcard views

Lake Geneva

Lake Geneva is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Europe, and gives the city an almost perfect Swiss backdrop. Surrounded by the mountain ranges of the Alps and the Jura, sitting at the shore of the lake is almost meditative. 

There are several parks that line the 73-km shore of the lake, including ​Jardin de Botanique, an open air museum of flora and fauna right at the doorstep of Geneva. Go for a swim, a bike ride, or a stroll, or go full out and take a boat cruise across the lake to several nearby destinations and cities.

Jet D'Eau and all the grand monuments and sculptures

Jet D'Eau

The star attraction in Geneva is the Jet d’Eau, a landmark situated at the center of the harbor that shoots 500 liters of water 140 meters high at a speed of 200 kilometers per hour. It was built in 1886, initially to release pressure from a water station. It started attracting so many people that it was moved to the location where it is today. A walk around this fountain is a must, and is a quintessential Geneva experience.

​But the Jet D'Eau isn't the only monument worth seeing in Geneva. There is so much historical relevance in the city, that possibly every area of Geneva has a distinguished monument. One such is the Reformation Wall, a commemoration of the Reformation. The impressive wall stands at 325 feet long and 30 feet high. It is found at the Parc des Bastions and features 15-foot-tall statues of four Geneva luminaries: John Calvin, William Farel, Theodore Beza and John Knox.The Broken Chair sculpture is a unique but still impressive piece of, what else, a broken chair. Built in 1997, the 12-meter high sculpture was installed in the Palais des Nations as an appeal from Handicap International to sign the Ottawa treaty and ban landmines immediately. Another popular landmark is the Brunswick Monument. This neo-Gothic-style mausoleum dating back from the 14th century is a replica of the Scaligeri family tomb in Verona, built at the request of the Duke of Brunswick.

International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum... and more exclusive museums

International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent

Photo credit: Michael Dawes via Foter.com / CC BY-NC

The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum pays homage to the work of Henry Dunant, the founder of the Red Cross. The museum is a unique exhibit of the expression of humanitarian effort which will leave visitors a sense of discover, emotion, and reflection. The interactive exhibits educate visitors on defending human dignity, restoring family links, and reducing natural risk.

Other exclusive museums include the International Museum of the Reformation, housed in the prestigious 18th century Maison Mallet at Cour Saint-Pierre​, recounts the religious reformation movement. The Patek Philippe Museum is home to the works of the Geneva-based firm of master watchmakers, and the Bodmer Foundation is a library and museum that specializes in manuscripts and special editions.

Old Town and the history of Geneva

Yes, Geneva has its own Old Town, full of history and character and a must-visit for any traveler. It is a maze of small streets lined with beautiful masonry facades, filled with cafes, historical sites, and of course, quite a bit of shopping. 

At the center of the town is the oldest place in Geneva called the Bourg-de-Four Square. This is where the Roman marketplace used to trade wares, and is now a tourist area filled with exclusive shopping experiences and quaint cafes. ​The world-famous St. Peter's Cathedral sits at the peak of the hill where Old Town is located, and is over 850 years old. The Maison Travel, on the other hand, is Geneva's oldest private dwelling. It is now a six-story museum and a testament to medieval civil architecture.

The Globe of Science and Innovation and everything at CERN

Cern

If you're in any way into Sci-Fi movies, books, or genre, you have probably heard of CERN - one of the world's most recognizable and important centers for science, discovery, and innovation. At CERN you will find the Globe of Science and Innovation, which is a tribute to Earth and CERN's message to society in the field of science, particle physics, and cutting-edge technology. The globe is made of wood, showcasing much skill and innovation in carpentry, and houses a permanent exhibition depicting significant research carried out by CERN.

​Visitors are also allowed to visit CERN itself, with various tours and exhibitions available for the public.

Other Attractions

There is certainly so much more to see in Geneva, and a tour around the city is educational as it is breathtaking. Some more sites you should try not to miss are:

  • The Palais des Nations is visited by 15,000 people every year. It was built between 1929 and 1938 is now the home of the United Nations Office of Geneva.​
  • Day trips from Geneva to nearby mountains are also quite easy to do. Within a few bus stops and a cable car ride is Mont-Saleve. Here you can find impressive views of Geneva and other sports activities like paragliding, mountain biking, and cross-country skiing in the winter. 
  • Geneva has even more unique areas to visit. Carouge is the Greenwich village of Geneva with a Bohemian atmosphere with quaint shops, cafes, and trendy bars. The Bains District is home to MAMCO, the Centre d'Art Contemporain and many other galleries, also considered as the European platform of modern art.

Zurich or Geneva - A Short Summary

While Zurich and Geneva are both highly urbanized, and sometimes expensive, cities, there is a world of difference when it comes to the kind of experience you will get. 

Visit Zurich for:​

  • The ultimate shopping experience. You will not find a shopping district as exclusive and as high-end as what you will get in Zurich
  • So much history and culture. With the sheer amount of museums and galleries, every turn in Zurich is a testament to the history of the city and of Switzerland, combined with religious structures that double as historical monuments themselves
  • An intense party scene. After a day of culture, education, and architectural immersion, Zurich is the place to be for all-nighters and hangovers

Visit Geneva for:​

  • Knowledge. Geneva's museums and visitor centers are dedicated to specific fields, whether it be science and innovation, humanitarian action, or religious movements
  • Monumental sights. Sightseeing in Geneva is all about grandeur. Monuments and sculptures don't get any bigger than what you will find in this city
  • Strolling and reflection. Parks, communities, and promenades are made for unhurried walks and just soaking in the beauty of your surroundings

The truth is, there is a little bit of everything in both Zurich and Geneva. Whether you go to one or the other won't be any loss at all. Either way, Switzerland is a beautiful country to visit, and any city you choose to travel to will always be an excellent place to see.

About the Author Roger Timbrook

Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!

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