A haven for expats and loved by locals, Geneva attracts people from around the world for its economic opportunity, lakeside beauty and Mont Blanc views. Home to more international organisations – such as the Red Cross and the United Nations – than any other place in the world, the city has a decidedly global feel. More than 40% of residents are from outside Switzerland, with 187 different countries represented in the mix.
Despite the international influences, Geneva still lays claim to its own particular character and history. In the 16th Century, John Calvin, a major Protestant reformer, gave many of his revolutionary sermons here. Geneva-born Henri Dunant, a follower of the Calvinist faith, helped found the Red Cross in Geneva in 1863, and these humanitarian ideas inspired the first Geneva Convention in 1864.
The spirit of Calvin still influences locals, and the tradition of moral discipline and minimalism can sometimes clash with more extravagant expat tastes.
“Locals are very laid back, but are rather conservative types that find interaction with expats a bit difficult,” said Niyazi Gunay, originally from Turkey, who has lived here for 15 years and works for Your Local Cousin, a start-up that matches travellers with residents.
Cedric Viquerat, a Geneva native who now lives in the US, admitted that the Genevois stay in tight-knit cliques and it can be hard for new residents to break in. Expats, on the other hand, bring an energetic enthusiasm that makes bonding among other foreigners relatively easy.
Regardless of origin, all residents mingle in summertime as Lake Geneva and its Jet d’Eau – the landmark fountain that shoots water 140m in the air – attract crowds to the manmade peninsula known as Les Bains des Paquis.
“You can swim in the lake, dine alfresco and mingle with locals, while absorbing stunning views at the same time,” said Viquerat.
Where do you want to live?
The city, divided by the Rhone River, is split into the Left and Right Banks. The Old Town can be found on the Left Bank, which has plenty of bars and trendy restaurants, and is close to the luxury shops on La Rue Du Rhone, including the famous Swiss watch stores. The Right Bank’s lively Les Paquis neighbourhood, close to the main train station and also home to the red light district, has an always-lively nightlife and is more eclectic than its gentrified surroundings.
For a chilled-out vibe, Viquerat suggested Carouge, 3km south of the city. “You’ll find quite a few pubs, but the atmosphere is more relaxed,” he said. Champel, 2km southeast of downtown, is a calmer and more residential option, popular with expats with families
What do you want to live in?
Almost all residents live in apartments. Most of the buildings are relatively old, with new buildings few and far between. While the more historic buildings in the Old Town and Eaux Vives neighbourhoods have a Swiss charm, with cobbled streets and 16th-century limestone houses, “Geneva isn't known for its great architecture,” explained András Barta, a Geneva resident and local expert for Your Local Cousin. “Buildings are more functional than pretty, both inside and out.”
Even so, residents can’t afford to be picky. A shortage of housing options, especially affordable properties, means people often jump at the first available flat.
Where can you travel?
With Geneva Airport only 6km north of the city centre, it’s easy to travel nearly anywhere in Europe in just a few hours. EasyJet, one of Europe’s largest budget airlines, uses Geneva as a hub, making it affordable and quick to get to Amsterdam, London, Paris, Berlin, Rome and Barcelona.
The French cities of Lyon and Annecy, as well as Zurich and Basel in Switzerland, are easy day trips via Geneva’s excellent train infrastructure, all within three hours. In the winter, popular ski resorts like Megeve, Port du Soleil, Verbier and Zermatt are also easy to reach within a few hours.
How much does it cost?
According to a 2015 study by UBS, Geneva is the third most expensive city in the world, after New York and Zurich. But “Geneva has also one of the highest pay scales, providing workers with great salaries and great benefits,” Viquerat said.
Though not quite offsetting high rents and entertainment costs, local transportation is cheap, with a monthly public transport pass costing nearly half the price of a similar pass in New York City.
While eating out can be expensive, discount supermarkets have stabilized prices for those who prefer eating in. “The recent arrival of German hard-discounters Lidl and Aldi helped drive prices down in Switzerland,” Barta said. “But it still can be hard for foreigners to get over the shock of a nine-euro pint of beer.”
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