Geneva vs. Zurich: Which Is Better for Vacation?


Are you visiting Switzerland soon but not sure whether to visit Geneva or Zurich? It’s a dilemma that many first time travelers to the country have to navigate. Both cities are the biggest in this Alpine country and offer a wide range of experiences. It would be great to visit both, but if you can’t, where should you start?

Geneva is better for vacation if you are more interested in gaining deeper insights into the international organizations making a difference in the world and learning history from museums and monuments. Zurich is better if you are looking for a shopping experience, excellent nightlife, and culture.

CategoryGenevaZurich
Cost of Stay: Weekly$1139 per person$1391 per person
Main AttractionsLake Geneva, Jet D’Eau, International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum, International Museum of the Reformation, Patek Philippe Museum, Bodmer Foundation, Bourg-de-Four Square, Palais des NationsLake Zurich, River Limmat, Swiss National Museum, Bahnhofstrasse, Fraumunster, Zurich Zoo, Mt. Titlis, Stoos-Fronalpstock, Night clubs
FoodInternational cuisine,  French cuisine, local Swiss delicacies, many restaurants and barsEuropean cuisine, variety of regional Swiss cuisine, many restaurants and bars
WeatherCool winters and warm summer monthsSlightly colder winter and slightly warmer summer months
SafetyRelatively safe for tourists, petty theft, burglary and non-violent drug-related offences commonLittle to no tourist-facing crime, pickpocketing in public spaces common
TransportTrams, buses, mouettes, trains, taxis, ride-hailing, bicycle and car hireTrams, buses, local trains (S-Bahn), Cable car, taxis, ride-hailing, bicycle
CustomsNo visa required for US passport holders on a short-stay of up to 90 daysNo visa required for US passport holders on a short-stay of up to 90 days

The rest of the article will compare both cities based on the main topics you’ll be interested in when looking for holiday destinations.

Cost of Stay

Geneva

Geneva is ranked in the top 10 for the most expensive cities in the world. This should give you an idea of what a vacation there could cost you. On average, you should plan to spend around $162 (CHF153) per day on your vacation here. Meals cost an average of $40 (CHF38) per day, and you should expect to spend around $10 (CHF9.42) on local transportation.

Hotel fees make up the bulk of the expenses on a trip to Geneva. You should expect to pay around $150-$200 per night on average. Based on these averages, you should expect to spend around $1139 (CHF 1073) on a one-week trip alone to Geneva.

Best Affordable Hotels

To keep your costs down while in Geneva, you should consider staying in affordable hotels like the following:

Zurich

Zurich is ranked in the top 5 on the list of the most expensive cities in the world. This should immediately tell you that prices will be slightly higher here, compared to Geneva. Most changes can be seen in the cost of food and transportation. Hotels are slightly costlier as well. On average, you should expect to spend $1390(CHF 1310) on a one-week trip alone to Zurich.

Best Affordable Hotels

You can keep your expenses down if you stay at these affordable hotels in Zurich:

There are other ways you can keep your costs down while in Zurich or Geneva including cooking your own meals, buying beers at grocery stores instead of drinking at restaurants, considering Couchsurfing instead of paying for a hotel, and more. On the surface and barring any special approaches to keep costs down, a Zurich vacation will most likely cost more.

Main Attractions

Geneva

Geneva may be where the UN and the Red Cross headquarters are located, but that’s not all to this picturesque city. Lake Geneva is the star of the show here as most vacationers love to capture the view of the snow-covered Alps from the lake.

The Jet d’Eau (Water Jet) is a 145-meter “tower” of water that has become a must-see in the city. The Bains des Pâquis gives some of the best seats in the house for viewing this attraction. If you love historical monuments, you have to see the Temple de Saint-Pierre, dating back to 1150. Climbing to one of the towers is a great way to enjoy an exquisite view of Lake Geneva and the rest of the town.

Other top attractions in the city include Jardin Anglais (English Garden) and Parc de la Grange, Jardin Botanique (Botanical Gardens), Place du Bourg-de-Four, Palais des Nations, Musée d’Art et d’Histoire (Art and History Museum), Monument de la Réformation and Parc des Bastions, Patek Philippe Museum, Ariana Museum and Quai du Mont-Blanc.

Zurich

The attractions in Zurich include numerous outdoor destinations and architectural marvels. The Old Town is the top destination for history lovers. Here, you’ll find the house where Lenin lived in 1917. Other notable attractions in this town include the Shoemakers Guild House (which has been converted to a theatre), the Hans Zum Rech and the Grimmenturm.

The Uetliberg is a favorite amongst locals and tourists as it provides the best views of the city and Lake Zurich. The lake is another hotbed of activity, with lots of parks and promenades spread across the entire shoreline. 

Bahnhofstrasse is Zurich’s main street. Here, you can expect to get some of the best shopping experience in the world, with many renowned brands operating businesses here.

Other attractions include the Kunsthaus Zürich (Museum of Fine Arts), Fraumünster, Lindenhof, Limmatquai and the Rathaus (Town Hall), Schweizerisches Landesmuseum (Swiss National Museum), Grossmünster (Great Minster), Rietberg Museum, Zurich Zoo, St. Peter’s Church, Bellerive Museum, Confiserie Sprüngli, and the numerous nightclubs which give the city a nightlife that can’t be matched anywhere else in the country.

Food

Geneva

The food in Geneva is a good reminder of the multicultural nature of this city. You’ll find restaurants offering standard European cuisine and others going as far as North America and Asia. 

If you are more interested in eating food native to the region, your options are endless. Some popular options include the Café de Paris Sauce, Boutefas, Tomme Vaudoise, Petite Arvine, Abricotine, Tomato Fondue, Papet Vaudois, L’Etivaz and more.

A typical meal will cost around $15 for one person on average in Geneva. Some cheap restaurants to visit in Geneva include:

These restaurants provide a three-course meal for less than $50. If you’d like to splurge on an expensive dining experience that will cost over $100 for a three-course, you can consider the following restaurants:

Zurich

The Zurich culinary landscape is one of the best things about the city. You’ll find traditional food from the 26 cantons in Switzerland and cuisines from neighboring Schengen countries. The city also has some of its own specialties. 

Some of the top dishes popular amongst tourists in the city include the cheese fondue (the first recipe was recorded in Zurich), Rosti, Raclette, Bündnerfleisch, Zopf, Bündner Gerstensuppe and more.  

Meal prices will vary from place to place while in Zurich, but you should expect to spend around $42 per day on food. The average meal for one will cost around $20. Some accommodation deals offer free breakfast, so you’ll only have to worry about buying lunch and dinner.

Some cheap restaurants to visit in Zurich for three-course meals cheaper than $50 include:

For pricier restaurant options with meals costing over $120 for a three-course, you should consider the following:

If you are on a tight budget and looking for food under the average prices listed for both cities, you should talk to the locals about where to eat. Some food vans, grocery stores, and small cafes offer great pizza, sausages, cakes, noodles, and more at affordable rates. As you’ve seen above, you can also cook your food to save costs—if your accommodation allows it.

What’s the Weather Like in Geneva and Zurich?

The coldest months in Geneva (January to April) can get as cold as -1.0°C (30.2°F) on average. From May to September, the warm weather sets in, with temperatures going as high as 26.5°C (75.2°F) in July.

The weather in Zurich can drop to as low as -1.6 °C (29.1°F) on average in the winter months of January to April. During the warm months of May to September, the average temperature can go as high as 24°C (75.2°F).

With these numbers, it is clear that both cities have almost identical weather. The best time to visit Geneva or Zurich will come down to your preferences. If you are looking for warm-weather holidays, June to August is the best time to visit, with July typically the hottest month in both cities. You’ll be able to swim in the lakes and enjoy the wide range of water sports offered.

November to February is when to visit if you are looking for winter holidays, and perhaps an adventure at the Ski Slopes of the Swiss Alps. January is the coldest month in both cities on average.

How Safe Are Geneva and Zurich?

Geneva is a relatively safe destination for tourists. However, criminal activities still occur from time to time. Most of the crimes are, however, non-violent. In 2016, there were six murders in Geneva. Toledo, Ohio, a city of similar population in the US, recorded 36 murders in the same year.

Typical crimes you should watch out for include pickpocketing, burglary, and petty theft. The hot spots for these crimes are public spaces where pickpockets try to distract unsuspecting people and steal valuables.

Zurich is also as safe as Geneva, with the same occasional cases of non-violent crime of pickpocketing in public spaces. You can avoid these crimes by taking some basic precautions.

While in Geneva or Zurich, you should stay away from protests or large gatherings. Some of these have turned violent in the past.

Transport

Geneva

Geneva is a small city that can be easily navigated by tram. You can also walk to shorter distances easily. As a tourist, you can use the Geneva Transport Card to get on trams, water taxis, trains, and buses. Depending on your transport needs, however, the public transport options, run by Transports Publics Genevois, can be slower and less convenient.  

Fares on the tram start at $2, but with the Geneva Transport Card—which you’ll be given for free after check-in at your hotel or hostel, means you can ride free of charge on all public transport within Zone 10.

If you are in a hurry, you can hail a taxi. The local taxis tend to cost more than Uber. The meters start at around $7 and will increase by the same amount for every kilometer. The taxi companies in Geneva include Taxiphone, Taxi Geneva, and Taxi Ambassador. You’ll also pay extra charges for luggage.

You can also hire a car, but the rush hour traffic and the limited parking space means you should only do this when you have to drive yourself.

TPG trains are the best way to get to and from the airport. If you are going to routes around Lake Geneva, you should use the yellow water taxis known as the Les Mouettes. The boats depart every ten minutes and will cost around $3 for rides lasting up to an hour if you don’t have the Geneva Transport Card.

Zurich

The transportation network in Zurich is similar to what you’ll see in Geneva, except that more people use their bikes or walk. Most of the main attractions are cited closely together so you can see all you set out to see without getting on any transport.

If you need to use a bike, you can hire one with a refundable deposit of $21 and your passport or other ID.

The city’s tram system is always there if you get tired of walking or using your bike. The Zurich Public Transport (VBZ) also runs a network of cable cars, trains buses, and boats. The tickets cost around $3 on average per adult, but you can get day passes for $6.

You can save money by getting a Zurich Card which offers you free travel on public transports for 24 or 72 hours. The card also gives you access to discounts or free admissions to most museums. Some stores and restaurants also offer discounts to cardholders. The Zurich Card costs around $29 for 24 hours and $56 for 72 hours per adult.

Taxis are also expensive in Zurich, with the meter starting at around $6.50. Every kilometer traveled on top costs $4. The taxi companies in Zurich are iTAXI and 7×7 Fahrdienste. Again, Uber works here and will most likely be cheaper than taxi companies.

Driving in Zurich is as difficult as it is in Geneva. The streets are super congested, and parking spaces cost a premium when available. You’ll struggle to find parking spaces in most hotels too. If you must drive, your US driver’s license will suffice, and you can rent a car from a few companies like Europcar and Alamo.

Customs

As a US passport holder, you can travel to Geneva or Zurich for stays of up to 90 days without a visa.

General Tips

  • Zurich and Geneva frown at littering.
  • English isn’t an official language in any of the cities. While it’s common to find English-speakers, French and German are the predominant languages in Geneva and Zurich, respectively.
  • You need to convert your dollars to Swiss Francs when traveling to Geneva or Zurich. Most shops won’t take US dollars or Euros.
  • Tips are incorporated into the advertised meal prices, so you don’t need to tip the staff.

Final Words

So, should you go to Geneva or Zurich for a vacation? You should choose Geneva if you are a history and world politics enthusiast that also doesn’t mind some adventure on the side. For a more conventional vacation experience filled with lots of food, hikes, partying, and shopping, Zurich is the more rounded destination.

Remember to align your trip to the best times of the year to visit based on your ideal activities. January is the best month for a winter-themed vacation, while July is the best time to go for warm-weather adventures.

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