Geneva has a lot going for it. Surrounded by Alpine Lake, the city has great outdoor activities, lakes to swim in, and mountains to explore. Geneva is one of the country’s most expensive and luxurious cities, so it’s hard to be a budget traveler here. Most travelers simply pass through, spend a day, and then move on. If you’re on a tight budget, I’d advise doing that. If you have a little bit more money, spend a couple of days.
Hostel prices — Dorm prices in Geneva start around 40 CHF per night. A single private room is about 80 CHF per night. This price usually includes breakfast too, but check with your specific hostel’s website beforehand, just to be sure.
Budget hotel prices — Most budget hotel rooms in the city begin at around 100 CHF per night for a double room and just go way up from there.
Average cost of food — One of the greatest things about Geneva is its diverse restaurants and cuisine. You can keep your budget in check by going to the local supermarkets and buying your own groceries. You’ll spend between 50-100 CHF a week for basics like pasta, sandwich ingredients, sauce, rice, eggs, and fruits and vegetables. Supermarkets also sell pre-made meals for between 5-9 CHF. Bars and cafés are the cheapest food option, cost about 9-15 CHF for a lunch special. Restaurants with table service are around 20 CHF for lunch and 40 CHF for dinner (starter, main, and drink).
Transportation costs — It is 3 CHF for one hour ticket that covers the tram, bus, boat, and rail, 8 CHF for a pass valid from 9am to midnight, and 10 CHF for a 24 hour pass. If you arrive in Geneva by plane, you can get an 80-minute bus ticket to use from the airport to the city for free.
Money Saving Tips
Use Couchsurfing — With dorm rooms starting at 40 CHF per night, you need to lower your accommodation costs. Couchsurfing is the way to do it. It’s a service that lets travelers stay with locals for free (more on it here). It was a lifesaver that allowed me to keep my costs down the most. Since a lot of travelers use this service, make your requests for hosts early. I put in 25 hosting requests in Geneva before I found someone to stay with!
Book an apartment — Airbnb is also a good deal if you’re traveling with someone, as most private rooms are around 75 CHF per night (though you can usually find lots for about 20-40 CHF). Split two ways, that’s much cheaper than a hostel dorm!
Free local transportation — By booking accommodation in Geneva (hotel, youth hostel, or a campsite), you are entitled to receive a Geneva Transport Card for free. This card allows you to use any public transportation (buses, trams, trains, and yellow taxi-boats) for free during the length of your stay. Just ask for it upon arrival at reception.
Book your trains early — While a train ride is a cheaper way to travel than the plane, you can get even cheaper rates by booking your train ticket early. Swiss Rail also offers one-day and weekend group passes to look into.
Don’t drink — Drinking is not cheap here. Most beers are around 8 CHF. (Plus, who wants to hike while hung over?) Most wines are between 10-25 CHF a bottle. If you must drink, stick to hostel bars where you can enjoy 2-for-1 happy hours and cheap drinks for around 5 CHF or buy your beers at grocery stores for as little was 2 CHF.
Cook — With sit-down restaurants costing around 40 CHF per meal per person, eating out in Switzerland can be very costly, so buy your groceries. A week’s worth of food (bread, pasta, rice, eggs, vegetables, cheese, deli meats for sandwiches, and some assorted fruit) will cost you 75-100 CHF. The major supermarkets are Migros, COOP, and Spar. COOP is the most expensive.
Go veggie — Meat is expensive in Switzerland. Every Swiss resident or expat I talked to told me about how they limit their meat consumption because it costs so much. Stick to veggies and avoid buying meat for your meals (especially beef). While I was trolling supermarkets and butchers for grocery prices (travel writing is glamorous, huh?!), I found a pound of meat was 12-14 CHF. At that price, stick to deli meats for protein!
Use lunch specials — If you are going to eat out, do so during lunch, when most lunch specials at cafes and restaurants cost around 10-19 CHF. Moreover, stick to the ethnic restaurants like Chinese, Middle Eastern, Indian, or Thai for the best deals and biggest portions (and closer to that 10 CHF price). Lunch specials are a great way to get a lot of bang for your buck and to enjoy the dinner menu but at a cheaper set menu price.
Top Things to See and Do in Geneva
Attend the Caves Ouvertes – Not only is this one of Geneva’s free annual events, but it supplies you with a spectacular view of the city and a sample of their best wines. It’s a very fun festival.
Enjoy the summer concerts – Geneva is booming in the summer months, especially in June. See the city at its best with the annual Fete de la Musique. A three-day festival, it’s jammed with free nonstop music, and low-cost food of all tastes and flavors. There are ongoing free concerts throughout the summer.
Visit the Jet d’Eau – The city’s most famous monument, it boasts a magnificent fountain worth seeing, photographing, and another free to-do that’s not to be missed. It pumps water up 160 feet in the air and is lit up at night in September.
Explore the Cathédrale St. Pierre – If you’re interested in Gothic architecture, this cathedral is spectacular. Climb the 157 steps in the tower to get a breathtaking view of the city and surrounding countryside.
Visit one of 40 museums – With over forty museums to choose from, Geneva offers one for every traveler’s taste. Make sure to visit Geneva’s Art and History Museum or the Red Cross Museum, I like them the best. If you are going to visit a lot of museums, get a city pass so you can save some money. Entrance fees really add up.
Explore the city by boat – Consider indulging in a boat tour of the city. If you don’t want to spend the money, you can also rent a bike which will allow you to sight-see various neighborhoods and travel at your own pace.
Visit the Palais des Nations – Originally built to house the League of Nations, the Palais is worth visiting just to take in the magnificent Assembly Hall, in addition to the large collection of public art, the library, and the landscaped grounds. Passports are required for entry.
Walk through the Jardin Anglais – This is a small garden at the lake where people like to spend their lunch break. There is a very famous Flower Clock in the park. It’s a good place to people-watch during the day.
Visit Mont-Salève – Just outside of the city lies Mont-Salève, this mountain has a wide range of outdoor activities. Spend a day rock climbing, mountain biking, hiking, or cross-country skiing, or come up with your own activity to pursue!
See the reformation wall – This monument lies in Parc des Bastions, and serves to commemorate the main leaders of the Protestant Reformation in Europe – Jean Calvin, Guillaume Farel, Théodore de Bèze, and John Knox. “Post Tenebras Lux” (light after darkness) is inscribed on the monument, which was the motto of the Reformation.
Explore Carouge – Across the across the River Arve lies Carouge, a village within Geneva. Some consider it to be the city’s Greenwich Village, except this place has a Mediterranean touch; it used to be part of Sardinia. Wander around the streets, which are filled with restaurants, bars, and boutiques.
Relax at the Bains de Paquis – This pool was built in the 1930s, but is still a popular place to get a massage, unwind, or swim. The pool is built into the lake, and includes a diving board. You can also do a Turkish bath here.
Go windsurfing – The lake comes alive in the summer months, and it’s a perfect place to try your hand at wakeboarding or windsurfing. There are schools here that offer rentals and lessons.