Must-knows concerning Geneva and Zurich

  • Both cities are very appealing for a city visit. They have great old towns, broad cultural offers, and beautiful lakeside locations.
  • If you can, visit both. You’ll see that Geneva and Zurich have slight differences that make a comparison worth it.
  • If you can’t see both, pick the city that is closest to the rest of your itinerary.
  • Overall, Zurich has a more central location. It’s closer to the mountains and closer to many other Swiss tourist destinations.
  • At Zurich Airport, most intercontinental flights arrive and depart. Geneva Airport is more commonly used for flights within Europe.

Geneva and Zurich: their location in the country and local languages

Is Geneva or Zurich better as a base town?

If you want to spend a couple of nights in one of the cities and explore other regions too, we’d say Zurich is overall more convenient than Geneva. Zurich is closer to the mountains, and you’ll have less traveling time to several of Switzerland’s main tourist destinations.

Train travel time to much-visited Swiss destinations from Geneva and Zurich

Swiss destinationTravel time from GenevaTravel time from Zurich
Basel2h550h55
Bern1h450h55
Interlaken (Bernese Oberland, Jungfrau Region)3h002h00
Lucerne (Lake Lucerne)2h500h40
Lugano (Ticino)4h551h55
Montreux (Lake Geneva)1h002h45
St. Moritz (Graubünden, Engadine)5h553h05
Zermatt (Valais)3h303h15

Where both cities are located and which regions you can visit

Geneva in south-western Switzerland and Zurich in north-eastern Switzerland are 2h40 apart by train.

Details about Geneva’s location:

  • Geneva is in the far south-west of Switzerland, right on the Swiss-French border.
  • The area surrounding Geneva is relatively flat and the higher mountain peaks are a bit further away than from Zurich.
  • Geneva is a good starting point to explore the Lake Geneva area including Lausanne and Montreux. The Three-Lake region with Neuchâtel, the Jura mountains in the west, Fribourg, Bern, and the western part of the Valais are also within doable range.

Details about Zurich’s location:

  • Zurich is in an entirely different corner of Switzerland: in the north-east, close to the German border.
  • It’s not surrounded by the Alps, but Lake Lucerne with its higher mountains is within easy reach.
  • From Zurich, one can also visit Basel, Bern, the Bodensee (Lake Constance), Appenzell, St. Gallen, the Walensee, and other destinations in north-eastern Switzerland. It’s also the most obvious departure point for trips to St. Moritz and the rest of Graubünden.

Geneva’s and Zurich’s proximity to mountains

If you want to be based close to the Swiss Alps, Zurich would be best:

  • You’ll have less traveling time to the mountaintops of Lake Lucerne, Graubünden, the Bernese Oberland, and even the Valais in southern Switzerland.
  • In 2 to 3 hours by train from the city, you can be in actual alpine regions.

As for Geneva:

  • This doesn’t main that endless travel is required from Geneva. The hills of the Jura mountains and of the lake area around Neuchâtel can be well reached.
  • Further east on the lake, near Lausanne and Montreux, the mountain range of the Alps starts. This is where you’ll find several vantage points, such as Rochers-de-Naye.
  • But for the highest peaks of the Alps, count on a 3- to 4-hour train ride.

The cities’ proximity to famous train rides

For most of Switzerland’s famous scenic trains, Zurich is a bit more convenient than Geneva. For example, travel times from Zurich are shorter to:

The GoldenPass is an exception. One end of this line is in Montreux, which is close to Geneva. Its other end is Lucerne, which in turn is close to Zurich.

The official languages of Geneva and Zurich

French is the official language in Geneva, German is in Zurich. Along with these language differences, you may notice slight cultural differences too, for example in restaurants and hotels with mainly Swiss cuisine.

As a tourist, you can get by with English in both cities. They’re internationally oriented and used to catering to tourists from abroad.

What Geneva and Zurich have to offer: old town, atmosphere, attractions

In short: no major difference for a short city visit

We actually don’t have a preference for Geneva or Zurich if it comes to a (short) stay in which you focus on the cities themselves. To us, they look equally nice and have a similar range of sightseeing options, cultural offers, restaurants, et cetera.

Old town and atmosphere

The cities’ old towns share lots of similarities:

  • Both Geneva and Zurich have a very atmospheric old town center with grand churches, chique hotels, parks, lots of restaurants, quays on the lake, and so on.
  • And in both cases, those pretty sites are within walking distance from the main rail station
  • So we don’t feel there’s much difference concerning the attractiveness of both town centers.

At most, we’d say that Geneva has a slightly more stately, dignified and international feel throughout. This may have to do with the fact that one of the UN headquarters is based here, as well as the nuclear research center CERN.

We’d describe Zurich’s old town as a bit more cosy, with its alleys and small marketplaces.

Activities to enjoy in and near the cities

Geneva and Zurich are on large lakes. So in our opinion, one of the main must-do’s from both cities would be a boat tour. In both cases, you can make all sorts of trips: from short round trips that mainly show you the cities’ lakeside areas, to half-day or even full-day cruises.

A town walk is a great way to get to know the cities. We’ve created short routes full of tourist highlights and lesser-known areas for both Geneva and Zurich.

If you’re a museum and culture lover, you’ll feel at home in both cities too. Zurich houses the Swiss National Museum and plenty of other options. Geneva is home to the Patek Philippe watch museum and the Museum of Natural History for example. Plus, you can pay visits to the UN building and the CERN research center.

Find all of our tips in our Zurich and Geneva attraction guides.

Geneva or Zurich for train trips to other European countries

Traveling between Zurich and Germany, Austria, or Italy

If you’re train traveling not only in Switzerland, but also in bordering European countries, Zurich or Geneva will likely be part of your itinerary. Traveling via Zurich generally takes less time if you’re coming from, or heading to, these countries:

Traveling between Geneva and France

If you’re traveling from France, Geneva makes more sense though. Paris-Geneva is about 1 hour quicker than Paris-Zurich. Find all details in our France-Switzerland travel guide.

Consider other factors than quick transfers only

Our tip: do not only consider the time factor though. It always depends on your itinerary and your preferences which route is best. That doesn’t have to be the quickest one!

In fact, it is precisely the large number of train connections and possible routes that makes traveling by train in Switzerland and the the rest of Europe so fascinating. Personally, we always prioritize the train routes we like to enjoy and the regions we want to visit over picking the fastest possible (international) lines.

Geneva or Zurich for arrival/departure by plane

Intercontinental flights versus flights within Europe

Zurich Airport is the biggest of Switzerland and processes most international flights. So if you fly in from the US, India, Australia and other intercontinental countries, you’ll probably land in Zurich. Geneva Airport, being a bit smaller, is mostly used for flights from and to European destinations.

No difference in convenience

Zurich is close to Zurich Airport, Geneva is close to the Geneva Airport. From both airports, you can hop on a train and reach the vibrant city center in 10 minutes or even less.

Nor do we think that the main facilities one needs at the airport are a reason to choose one over the other. At both airports, you’ll find plenty of shops, restaurants, toilets, car rental facilities, and so on. Zurich Airport is bigger though, so it has a larger facility range too.

Prioritize the airport in relation to your other travel plans

If you can choose between flying from/to Geneva or Zurich, our tip is to choose whatever fits the rest of your travel plans best.

Are you interested in visiting Geneva and its lake or in western Switzerland anyway? Will you start or end your journey with a GoldenPass ride? Try to incorporate Geneva into the start or end of your Swiss itinerary in that case.

If there are mainly destinations closer to Zurich on your list, pick that airport for your departure or arrival.

Geneva versus Zurich in winter

Christmas time

In late November and in December, both cities have an amazing holiday atmosphere. You can indulge in Christmas shopping and beautiful illumination in Geneva as well as in Zurich.

If you want to visit Christmas markets, Zurich is our recommendation though. The city hosts 3 large Christmas markets, and offers quicker access to Christmas markets in other Swiss cities. Our Christmas markets overview explains it all.

Winter and snow activities

We’d prefer Zurich for winter and snow activities too. Just like Geneva, the city is at low altitude and not surrounded by high mountains. So don’t expect snow in or near either city.

However, a larger number of mountain and winter sports resorts can be accessed from Zurich than from Geneva. More details are in our winter destination guide.

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Annika
Page author: AnnikaSince early childhood I've been visiting Switzerland during my holidays and I just fell in love with the country. I spent many summers in the Bernese Oberland, which still feels like my second home, and then started to explore other areas. Traveling, hiking and photographing in the Swiss Alps are my absolute favorite activities.