By Jim Ferri
With more than its rightfully fair share of magnificent Alpine scenery, Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe. But while marveling at its beautiful Alps and visiting its lovely mountain villages and towns, many travelers overlook an experience that is uniquely Swiss – the opportunity to sail on one of Switzerland’s Lake Geneva boat tours – an experience you’ll find nowhere else. It is a wonderful day trip from Geneva.
These beautiful old boats, the largest Belle Epoque fleet in the world in terms of capacity, sail on six Swiss lakes – Lake Geneva, Lake Lucerne, Lake Zurich, Lake Thun, Lake Brienz and Lake Constance, the latter shared with neighbors Germany and Austria.
While all of the boats provide a wonderful experience, one of the most worthwhile trips is on Lake Geneva, Switzerland, the largest lake in the country, which is known as Lac Léman to Francophiles. It not only provides spectacular scenery but also the largest fleet of the Belle Epoque steamers.
On Lake Geneva, The Haute–Lac
The real attraction of a lake steamer day trip from Geneva is the opportunity to visit the haute–lac, the upper part of the lake between Lausanne and Montreux, the latter home to the world-renowned Jazz Festival of the same name that is held very July. En route to Montreux, with the magnificent Alps as a backdrop, you’ll see the beautiful Lavaux vineyards, a spectacular UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site where the vines tumble down to the lakeside.
While you can take the ferry from Geneva to Montreux, you’ll find that the trip will take 4-5 hours one-way depending on the number of stops. Unless you desire a long day trip from Geneva, it’s much more worthwhile to instead take a train from Geneva to Lausanne and board the ferry there. The ferry from Lausanne to Montreux takes only 1½ hours and you’ll still get to see the best scenery along the way.
Trains leave Geneva about every 15 minutes and the half-hour ride to Lausanne costs approximately $25. Later on in the day you can take a train from Montreux back to Geneva or wherever you may be staying in Switzerland.
A Day Trip From Geneva, Touring in Belle Epoque Style
For a really special experience on your day trip from Geneva plan on having lunch aboard the boat. The restaurants on the steamships are first-class in every respect and are exceptionally pleasant, with prices similar to those of good quality Swiss restaurants on shore.
While you could bring along your own picnic – picnicking is allowed out on the open decks – the onboard restaurant experience really enhances the trip. If you opt not to have lunch or dinner on board you can also have coffee and cake in the restaurant as seats become available after the meal. Book in advance since space can be limited.
Compagnie Générale de Navigation, better known by its acronym CGN, runs all of the steamer cruises on the lake. Be aware that although there are cruises offered by other companies, CGN is the only one allowed to drop passengers off at ports along the way; the others will bring you back to where you embarked. Tickets can be bought at CGN ticket windows or on board and prices are the same for each of the ships. Cash and credit cards are accepted.
You can cruise Lake Geneva from mid-April to mid-October, with the most popular months being mid-June to mid-September. During the winter months sailings are quite limited.
Check with your hotel concierge to see when the large Belle Epoque boats will be sailing. You’ll find second and first class seating available on most of the boats, although when the weather is good the first-class seating on the upper decks is more enjoyable since second-class passengers have limited deck space.
The cost of a one-way ticket from Lausanne to Montreux is Fr.26 second-class and Fr.37 first-class (approximately $28 / $40), and is the same for all boats. There are also many discounts available.
A Day Trip From Geneva Combined With A Tour of Montreux
Once you step off the ferry in Montreux you have several good options. One is to take a 15-minute train ride back to the Lavaux Vineyards and wander about the little villages that dot the area, great places to visit if you enjoy good food and wine.
If you hadn’t dined on the ferry you could also opt to have lunch in Montreux where you’ll find plenty of good restaurants from which to choose. Afterwards take a tour of the lovely small city, especially around the old city, where in season a profusion of flowers spills from terraces and fountains along the old streets. From there you’ll also have wonderful views out over the lake.
Due to its micro-climate Montreux is a good place to visit almost any time of year. The climate is so moderate that palm trees grow along the lake, amazing some visitors, and giving the area its nickname of the “Montreux Riviera.”
Leave time to take a walk along the lake out past the palms to the 800-year-old Chateau de Chillon, the most visited attraction in all of Switzerland. Made famous by Lord Byron in his poem “The Prisoner of Chillon,” the Chateau de Chillon is spectacularly located on a little shore-side island. You can tour this former home of the Dukes of Savoy and see the dank dungeon (where Byron carved his name on one of the pillars) as well the banquet hall and various small displays. If you’d rather not take the 2+ mile walk to the castle you can take a bus from Montreux proper.
Another option on this day trip from Geneva, if you have time, is to take a 55-minute trip on a cog railway up to the summit of the nearby Rochers de Naye, one of the towering Alps. There are spectacular views (and a restaurant) when you reach the 7,000-foot summit.
Back down in Montreux don’t miss taking a stroll along its picturesque lakeside where you’ll find pieces of outdoor art all along the manicured shoreline. One of the most popular is the Freddie Mercury statue, a life-size tribute to the late lead vocalist of the rock band Queen, on the quay near the Montreux Casino. The people of Montreux loved Mercury after he adopted the city as his home, and he lived there until his death in 1991. They continue to revere him still, as you’ll see by the candles and bouquets left at the foot of his statue.
Later on in the day you’ll find it to be an easy 10-minute walk from the lake up to the station to catch a train back to Geneva.
If you go:
Rue du Théâtre 5
Case postale 251
1820 Montreux 2, Switzerland
Tel: +41 848 86 84 84
Tel: (888) 438-RAIL (7245)