Car rental Geneva
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Why rent a car in Geneva?
While Geneva is a world-class city in its own right, most travelers don’t visit just for the city itself. Sitting at the heart of an area full of tourist attractions, Geneva serves as a gateway to not just other parts of Switzerland, but France as well. Driving along the shore of Lake Geneva, meandering through the vineyards perched above it, getting lost in the French and Swiss Alps, or going skiing at one or more of the surrounding area’s world-class resorts are all reasons to visit Geneva, rent a car, and enjoy the beautiful, serene scenery.
Top ways to enter Geneva
Most visitors enter Geneva through Geneva Airport, which hosts flights from all over Europe and from as far as Toronto and Beijing. The airport is located just north of the city on the French border; and it is possible to land coming from the EU and transit to France without going through Swiss customs. It is also possible to book and pick up a rental car in the arrivals hall on the French side of the airport. This is particularly useful if you are an EU citizen and plan to travel to Switzerland and EU countries with the rental car, the reasoning of such being explained below.
Another popular way to enter the city is by train, with all trains calling at Gare de Cornavin. Most trains coming from Switzerland also continue on to the airport. Rental cars can be picked up at suppliers’ offices in the city center which are close enough to the station to walk (or, alternatively an affordable taxi ride away).
Useful city facts
Geneva has a temperate climate with four distinct seasons. Summers are generally warm to hot leading to many people swimming in Lake Geneva. Winter in the city are somewhat mild, seeing temperatures below freezing at night and above zero during the day. There could be snow during the winter in the city, though it probably won’t stick around for long. However, the mountains that surround the city see substantial amounts of snow and are perfect for skiing, though due note that amount of snowpack at lower elevations is hard to forecast and lifts in these areas may not operate at certain times if there isn’t enough.
Geneva is a historic city having been founded before the Romans took it in the 2nd century BC. It would later become Christian and get its first bishop in the 5th century AD. It was part of the Holy Roman Empire in the Middle Ages. During the 1500s hundreds, the Protestant Reformation came to the city, and John Calvin and others would make the city home of Calvinism.
Geneva’s journey to becoming an international city started with the city becoming the seat of the League of Nations and continued after WWII with the United Nations offices locating in the city along with many other international organizations. The city is still an international city today.
Top destinations and activities
- CERN - The European Organization for Nuclear Research (Conseil européen pour la recherche nucléaire in French) operates the largest particle physics laboratory in the world just outside of Geneva on the border with France. The facility is famous for the Large Hadron Collider built to run experiments testing the theories of particle physics, including detection and measurement of the Higgs Boson. The facility has two free exhibitions: Universe of Particles, a journey through the theories of particle physics and the Big Bang that the facility seeks to study, and Microcosm, which explains what actually happens in the particle accelerator. Guided tours in French and English taking around two or three hours are also available, though they should be booked in advance. A free parking lot is available near the Globe.
- Old Town - The Vieille Ville, or Old Town, is perched on a hill in the middle of the city. The St Pierre Cathedral sits, once a Catholic cathedral but now Protestant, at the hill’s peak. The tower can be climbed by ascending the 157 steps to the top where visitors have a grand view of the city and the lake. Under the Cathedral lies an archaeological site with objects dating back centuries that can be seen. The rest of the old town is gorgeous and full of antique shops, cafes, and wine taverns and is certainly worth wandering around for two hours to an entire day.
- Swimming - Given its location on the Rhone River and Lake Geneva, there are many places to swim in the summer, both in the city and outside of it. The Bains des Pâquis is the prime swimming spot in the city. In addition to swimming in the lake for a small fee, there are also saunas and a turkish bath (hammam). On the other side of the lake, the small Baby- Plage is a small, but very popular beach. While swimming with a view to the Jet d’Eau and the promenade of fancy hotels is certainly a draw, many smaller, less crowded swimming spots can be found outside of the city.
- Palais des Nations - The United Nations at Geneva is the second largest office of the United Nations hosting more than 10,000 intergovernmental meetings a year. The office is located in the Palais des Nations, which was built to host th eLeague of Nations in the 1930s. A one hour guided tour of the campus is available in French and English. Other languages may be available; visitors should contact the Visitor’s Center to inquire. In addition to showing the building,. Guides give information on the current activities of the United Nations and the history of the League of Nations.
- Quartier des Grottes - Located on the other side of the train tracks of the main train station, Grottes is a unique neighborhood. The neighborhood is known not only for its quirky shops, but also the Schtroumph Buildings. Schtroumph is the French word for Smurfs. The buildings are unique in their architecture with unusual curves and bright colors. The buildings ring of Gaudi’s buildings. Of course, the buildings are private residences, so admire them respectfully from the sidewalk.
- Museums - Geneva has multiple world-class museums. The International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum is near the Palais des Nations and in a modern and interesting way shows visitors the history and operations of the International Committee of the Red Cross humanitarian organization which is based in Geneva. The Natural History Museum is free and focuses on the ecology of Switzerland. One of the largest museums in Switzerland, the Art and History Museum, includes art works from major periods and historical objects from much of Western Civilization. Finally, the International Museum of the Reformation is located next to Saint-Pierre Cathedral and details the history of the reformation as led by John Calvin in Geneva.
Traffic and parking tips
Given that Switzerland is mostly mountains, it is almost certain that a renter will want to visit some of them. Do keep in mind that some skills are required to drive in the mountains if you have not done so before. Snow chains may be required on certain roads in the winter. Most rental suppliers offer chains for an extra fee. Be sure to put them on when required to avoid blocking traffic later when you don’t have traction.
While there are free parking spots (for up to 90 minutes) near the city center of Geneva (in residential areas), finding one is a rather low-probability event. Paid parking spots are available in the center but are also rare to find. Parking garages are an acceptable solution except for the hefty price tag they come with. Parking in a Park and Ride lot and reaching the city center via public transportation may be the best solution (as is the case for all large Swiss cities).
Switzerland does not have toll roads as in some other European countries. Instead a vignette is required to use the motorways of the country. If renting a car in Switzerland, the vignette should already be on the car when you receive it. However, if you rent a car in neighboring France, Italy, Germany or Austria, you will need to purchase a vignette when entering Switzerland (i.e., near the customs checkpoint). Unfortunately, there is only one type of vignette offered, one lasting the entire year (valid until January 31 of next year). This has the unfortunate effect of costing the traveler more than residents on a per-day basis. The cost of the vignette is currently 40 CHF.
While there are no toll roads, there are two tunnels that are tolled. These are the Grand St. Bernhard Tunnel spout of Lake Geneva near the border with Italy and the Munt la Schera near the Italian border in the far east of the country.
Ideas for a day-trip
- Salève cable car - Just across the border in France south of Geneva, the Saleve cable car takes riders to the top of ridge with great views of both the Geneva area and the French Alps including Mt. Blanc. The are around the cable car also includes many kilometers of hiking trails some perfect for family-friendly walks and others for longer all-day hikes.
- Lavaux - A short hour-long drive along Lake Geneva from the city of Geneva sits the Lavaux region, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, famous for its continuous vineyards stretching from the lake to up to 500 meters above it. Though it is said that grapes have been grown there since Roman times, evidence exists showing grapes having been grown on the hills since 1100. Park your car (often possible roadside) and walk on one of the various trails winding through the vineyards. Of course, don’t forget to visit one or more of the wine cellars to taste the local production.
- Skiing - Numerous ski resorts lie within a reasonable drive of Geneva, both in Switzerland and France. The Jura Mountains north of Geneva offer both downhill and cross-country skiing and is a great place for beginners. Due to their lower altitude, the amount of snow is uncertain. Southeast of Geneva, the French Alps host some of the best ski resorts in the world. With many of the resort being at higher altitude, they not only provide longer and more advanced runs, but also more certainty about snowfall. Chaminox is perhaps the most famous sitting at the base of Mt. Blanc. While known for its adrenaline pumping advanced routes, the resorts also offer runs more suitable for intermediate and beginner skiers.
- Lausanne - About 60 kilometers from Geneva, Lausanne is a mid-sized city that also sits on Lake Geneva. Part of the Swiss Riviera, strolling along the lakeshore is a great way to spend some time as is visiting the Old Town. Also, the Sauvabelin Tower in the northern part of the city is free to visit and provides panoramic views of the city and lake.
- Montreux - Famous for the Montreux Jazz Festival, the second largest jazz festival in the world, Montreux is still good for wandering it’s lakeshore promenade the other 50 weeks of the year. However, the real reason to visit is to make your way south of the city to the Château de Chillon. The Chateau is one the most visited castles in Europe. Sitting on an island of Lake Geneva, the first written record of the castle was in 1005. Visitors can tour the four great halls, three courtyards and some of the bedrooms. Visiting the picturesque castle is bound to be an unregretful experience (and provide much Instagram fodder).
- Gruyère Pays-d'Enhaut Regional Nature Park - Beginning just outside Montreux, this nature park is located below the high mountains of the Swiss Alps. It includes wide valleys, alpine pastures, and interesting rock faces. The area contains nature reservations which visitors can hike through to experience time in nature. The main economy relies on agriculture, mainly dairy farming. The cows grazing the alpine pastures provide the main ingredient for the many varieties of cheese made in the area, including the famous Vacherin Fribourgeois ( an origin protected product in the EU).
Most popular rental types and cars
The most popular class of rental car in Geneva is economy, of which the Opel Corsa is a good example. Renters also often choose compact cars, such as the BMW 2series. Of course, winters bring snow, especially in the mountains. Thus, many renters rent SUVs like the Opel Mokka, and 4WD vehicles, like the VW Tiguan 4WD.
It is worth noting that in 2016, European Union rules were changed regarding Swiss rental cars. Drivers holding a driver’s license issued in a country that is a member of the European Union are no longer allowed to drive a rental car with Swiss license plates in the EU. This means that if you are from the EU and intend to rent a car and travel to both Switzerland and EU countries like France, Germany, Italy, or Austria, you should rent a car in the EU, as it is allowed by most suppliers to also travel to Switzerland. This rule only applies to EU residents; Swiss and non-EU residents can continue to rent a car in Switzerland and travel to the surrounding countries freely.
- Zurich - The largest city in Switzerland, Zurich is about 300 kilometers to the northeast of Geneva. Being near the border with Germany, it’s no surprise that Zurich is in the heart of the German-speaking part of the country. Long-ranked one of the best cities in the world to live, Zurich is also a premier travel destination. Sitting on the banks of Lake Zurich and the Limmat River, the city has a stunning old-town feel with views of the Alps. It’s chocolate is famous throughout the world along and it also offers great sites, luxury shopping, and an overall unforgettable experience.
- Mt. Blanc - The highest mountain in Europe outside of Russia, Mt. Blanc straddles the border of France and Italy. The village of Chamonix, the location of the first Winter Olympics, is the best base for tourists. The mountain can be climbed in July and August by those that are properly prepared (experienced in high altitude and glacial climbing). If not climbing the mountain, skiing, hiking around the mountain and the Aiguille du Midi cable car are all alternative activities. The cable car is one of the highest in the world and even transits over the mountains to Helbronner in Italy, from which tourists can make their way back to France via the tunnel under the mountain.
- Lyon - Just 150 kilometers west of Geneva, Lyon is the third largest city in France. The city, founded in Roman times, is famous both for its cuisine and its historic architecture. Chief among the architectural sites are the Traboules, covered passageways built hundreds of years ago so people, including silk workers, could get from their homes to the river and back easily. If visiting in the beginning of December, then you will get to experience the Festival of Lights, something the city is renowned for.
- Bern - The capital of Switzerland is only a two-hour drive away from Geneva. The mid-sized city sits in the curve of the Aare River. The historic Old Town , which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is the prime attraction of the city. The Zytglogge, or clocktower, is a good starting place. Tehn head to the Rose Garden for, well, roses, but also for a great view of the city. The capital is everything most normally think a capital isn’t: slower, less-crowded, and devoid of modern towers.
- Basel - Sometimes not on tourists’ itineraries, Basel is a city in the tri-border region (where France, Germany, and Switzerland share a border) that is certainly worth the three-hour drive from Geneva. Another gorgeous Old Town awaits visitors. The Kunstmuseum Basel and Museum für Gegenwartskunst together offer world-class art collections. Basel is also famous for its Carnival, which takes place starting Monday after Ash Wednesday, and is not to be missed if traveling in the are at that time of year.
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