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Zurich versus Geneva: Six big differences between Switzerland’s two biggest cities

Only 276 kilometres lie between Switzerland’s two largest cities, but distance is not the only thing that separates Switzerland's German and French-speaking hubs.

A split screen image of Zurich and Geneva. Image/AFP
A split screen image of Zurich and Geneva. Image/AFP

New York or Los Angeles. Sydney or Melbourne. Hamburg or Berlin. Like many countries, picking between the two major cities often turns into a contest of culture, a question of lifestyle and a matter of preference. 

In Switzerland, with its geographical, cultural and linguistic diversity, these differences are perhaps more pronounced than in most countries. 

READ MORE: ‘Great salaries, no warmth’ – your guide to living in Geneva

While Zurich and Geneva are both quintessentially Swiss cities which represent the many faces of this diverse nation, there are also a number of significant differences between the two. 

So whether you’re thinking of moving, keen for a holiday or just want to have some more ammunition to throw at any rival Genevois or Zürchers you may know, these are the six big differences between Switzerland’s two major cities.

READ MORE: The best and worst things about living in Zurich 

1. Language

The first – and the most obvious difference – between the two cities is the language. In Geneva, French is spoken, while in Zurich it is German (or Swiss German, to be exact).

As with any larger (or indeed smaller) Swiss city, the majority of people are likely to be multilingual, so for travellers and new arrivals, communication won’t be too difficult.


But the differences in language do flow into a range of other cultural characteristics, primarily from Zurich and Geneva being heavily influenced by Germany and France respectively. 

While there are of course significant differences between French-speaking Switzerland and France – and from German-speaking Switzerland and Germany – these linguistic differences do end up influencing the experience of visiting the cities themselves. 

Which brings us to…

2. Attitude

While generalizations are made to be broken, Genevans are known for being a tad more laid back than Zürchers. 

Whereas residents of Geneva are likely to take more time for anything from preparing food to engaging in small talk, their Zurich counterparts are a little more efficient with their time – and sometimes their emotions. 

While it’s common to see Geneva residents out for a stroll, no matter what time of day it is, everyone in Zurich seems to be in a hurry. 

That said, the younger residents of each city have far more in common than previous generations and look to be trying to leave stereotypes behind. 

3. Size

The two cities rank as first and second in Switzerland, but Zurich is significantly bigger. Zurich boasts more than 1.3 million residents – roughly 15 percent of the country’s entire population – while Geneva has approximately 500,000. 

Geneva is also geographically much smaller than Zurich – the population density of Zurich is two thirds higher – making Geneva much easier to get around. 

Zurich. Image: RICHARD A. BROOKS / AFP

4. Quintessentially Swiss; unabashedly global

Zurich is headquarters to many of Switzerland’s largest companies – think Credit Suisse, UBS and, um, Zurich Insurance Group – and is very much a large Swiss town. With its Swiss architecture and variety of traditional food options, if you find yourself in Zurich, you’ll have few doubts about where you really are. 

Geneva is headquarters of a number of international organisations, including the World Trade Organisation, the World Health Organization and the International Committee of the Red Cross, giving the city a truly global feel. Any number of languages can be heard while walking the streets each day and this international flavour can be tasted in the city’s food scene. 

While Zurich possesses an international feel which would be foreign to many other large European cities, Geneva’s diversity is something truly unique. 

Geneva and its surroundings. Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

5. Nightlife

While Geneva might be more laid back, it’s Zurich where you can really let your hair down. Zurich has a far livelier club and bar scene than Geneva, whether it be during the week or on the weekends. 

One of the major reasons is that when Zurich residents finish work, they can easily head to bars, clubs and pubs near their work or near their homes. In Geneva, the 100,000 or so ‘frontaliers’ who live in France but travel into the city to work each day bring their party spirit home with them when they leave. 

Not into the pub scene? Zurich’s parks come alive in summer, not least because the city allows consumption of alcohol in public places – whereas in Geneva it needs to be kept strictly indoors. 

6. Weather

Geneva is on average 1-2 degrees warmer than Zurich throughout the year, although both experience warm summers and cold winters. In summer, Zurich’s river/lake swimming and lido culture comes alive. 

Travel: How to save money while visiting Switzerland

It’s also possible to swim in Lake Geneva, which is a popular summer destination. It’s not forbidden to swim in the lake throughout winter, although the chilly temperatures might scare you off even before you head to the beach. 

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For members


How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

Switzerland is a perfect place to go hiking with its thousands of marked trails. However, hundreds of people get into accidents while trekking every year, and some die. Here is what you need to know to be safe.

How to keep safe and avoid problems when hiking in the Swiss Alps

The Swiss mountains are one of the country’s most notable and most visited sites. There are activities to enjoy during all seasons and hiking the Swiss Alps is something that people of all ages enjoy in the winter or summer months.

However, mountain rescuers are called every year to help people in emergencies. Last year, there were 1,525 cases of hikers in distress – a number higher than in any other type of sport. In 2021, there were only 500 emergency calls from skiers and 342 made by mountain bikers.

READ ALSO: Why getting rescued in the Swiss Alps could cost you thousands

Bruno Hasler, who is responsible for mountain emergency statistics at the Swiss Alpine Club SAC, says that many people overestimate themselves and that is dangerous. “The hikers need to be better informed. The authorities must inform people as well as possible about the dangers of mountain hiking”, he told public broadcaster SRF.

What are the main recommendations when hiking?

The first recommendation is to make a realistic self-assessment. Mountain hiking is an endurance sport and people planning on doing a trek should avoid time pressure and choose their trails and times well.

In that sense, it is essential to make careful route planning and evaluate the length, altitude, difficulty and current conditions (including weather forecast) of the trek. Thunderstorms, snow, wind and cold significantly increase the risk of accidents.

Don’t forget to plan alternative routes and keep emergency rescue numbers on hand (REGA 1414 and the european emergency number 112).

READ ALSO : Should you buy supplemental health insurance in Switzerland?

Take practical equipment for your hiking conditions and the proper footwear too. In a backpack, take as little as possible but as much as necessary, aiming to keep it light but full of valuable things such as sun protection, a first aid kit, rescue blanket, water and a mobile phone.

The most common cause of accidents is falling because of slipping or tripping, so be sure to walk on marked paths (reducing the risk of getting lost) and keep a sure foot and safe pace.

Don’t forget to take regular breaks not only for eating and drinking (necessary to maintain performance and concentration) but also to enjoy the landscape.

Be responsible for the children in the group, treks that require long-lasting concentration are not suitable for children and in passages with risk of falling, and one adult can only look after one child, according to the Swiss Alpine Club. Small groups are the best for hiking because they ensure mutual assistance and flexibility at the same time.

Rega on a rescue mission in the Swiss Alps. Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP

The PACE checklist

The so-called PACE checklist helps hikers keep track of the most important things. PACE means plan, assess, consider, and evaluate, Swiss Alpine Club SAC says.

READ ALSO: Five beautiful Swiss villages located near Alpine lakes

Plan your route and duration and give yourself extra time and alternatives. Inform someone else about your trip. Assess if the hike is suitable for you, and do not undertake challenging trips yourself. Consider if you have what you need for the walk, like sturdy hiking shoes, protection against harsh weather and food and water supplies.

Finally, evaluate while hiking. See if you are too tired, keep eating, drinking and resting regularly and pay attention to the time you need and any changes in the weather. Do not leave the marked trail and turn back in time if necessary.

What to do in case of an accident?

If there are accidents during your hike, you should first provide life-saving help to anyone seriously injured and then call emergency services. Do not leave the wounded alone and do not put yourself at risk.

Mark the accident area clearly and give signals. The international emergency call sign consists of giving a sign (such as a flashing light or waving a cloth) six times a minute and then repeating it after one minute.

READ ALSO: Rega: What you need to know about Switzerland’s air rescue service

For helicopters, holding both your arms up (making a V shape) signals that you need help, while keeping one arm up and another down (forming a diagonal line with your arms) means you do not need help.

If you see animals, keep your distance and do not disturb them. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI / AFP)

What do I do if I see animals on my hike?

It’s common to find animals while hiking in the Swiss alps, especially cows in the pastures. A cow will protect their calves, so keep your distance. Do not touch the animals, and keep dogs on a leash.

Slowly and carefully move around at a distance and continue your trek.

You may occasionally find herds that dogs protect. It’s possible to inform yourself online in advance to find out where these herds are and avoid them. Still, remember that packs and their guardian dogs should be disturbed as little as possible. So stay calm and keep your distance – avoid any brisk movements.

If you are hiking with your dog, put it on a leash and slowly and calmly detour around the livestock.

If a guard dog barks and runs in your direction, try to stay calm and give the dog time to assess the situation. Stay far from the herd, don’t run or make sudden movements. You can use a stick to keep the dog at a distance by stretching them out, but don’t raise it or wave it around.

Once the dogs have accepted your presence and stopped barking, continue at a slow pace on your way.

Don’t forget: the Swiss rescue number is 1414 or you can also reach them using the European emergency number 112.