Switzerland isn’t a country known for its bargains, but if you’re on a tight budget and do a little research, there’s still a lot to enjoy along the stunning shores of Lake Geneva. Whether you’re a wine lover, sports enthusiast, history buff, or film fan, you’ll find a surprising number of activities in this lakefront playground and its cities—namely Geneva, Lausanne, and Vevey—that won't break the bank. Best of all, with the Swiss franc and U.S. dollar almost on par, there won’t be any exchange rate surprises on your credit card statement when you get home. Here are 10 fun and affordable things to do in the Lake Geneva region.
Walk Through English Garden Park to the Jet d’Eau
Designed in 1854 to resemble English landscape gardens, this 6.1-acre park (known as Jardin Anglais in French) is set along the city of Geneva’s Left Bank. During a stroll here, you can spot the world-famous L'horloge Fleurie (a 16-foot-diameter clock composed of 6,000 seasonal flowers) and get a prime view of the spouting Jet d’Eau, the water plume that sprays 450 feet into the air from the middle of Lake Geneva.
Hike and Sip Swiss Wines
Never tasted Swiss wine or even know that the country produces some pretty amazing sips? That’s because the Swiss prefer to drink their wine—including this area’s signature white, Chasselas—themselves rather than export it. One of the best places to appreciate the traditions of Swiss winemaking is UNESCO World Heritage-designated Lavaux. Here, on the terraced hillsides between Lausanne and Montreux, you can walk between vineyards and tasting rooms set against a gorgeous backdrop of sapphire-blue lake and snow-capped Alps. Charming villages include Chexbres, Rivaz (home to the Lavaux Vinorama, which offers tastings from multiple vineyards), and Saint-Saphorin. Tastings are typically about $15 per person.
Listen to the Night Watchman of Lausanne Cathedral
He’s not as famous as Paris’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, but the night watchman of Lausanne’s Cathedral of Notre Dame has been ringing the bells at the top of the steeple every night since the 15th century. Okay, so there have been many watchmen over the past 700 years, but the tradition remains the same: On the hour (from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.), he rings the bells and calls out the time to the north, south, east, and west.
Sprint Up the Steps to the Olympic Museum
Whether you cheered on Mark Spitz in 1972 or idolized Michael Phelps in 2000, head to this must-see museum in Lausanne to check out both of their swimsuits (Spitz’s star-spangled Speedo vs. Phelps’ high-tech waist-to-ankle suit) as well as thousands of amazing pieces of Olympic memorabilia (medals, torches, sneakers, skis, jerseys, and javelins) plus photos and videos. You’ll feel like an Olympian as you climb several dozen stairs to the main entrance (the back one offers easier access) and even the museum’s wallet-friendly special admission package for two adults and their kids aged 6-16 is a winner at $40.
Stand-up Paddleboard on Lake Geneva
The SUP craze is everywhere, including on Lake Geneva (Lac Léman to locals). The water is calm and locals start paddling as early as April—but everyone else tends to wait until the summer sun warms water temperatures to a comfy 70 degrees Fahrenheit (from July to September). If you’re experienced, you can rent a board for about $10-$20 an hour in cities all along the lake; if not, spend $25-$30 and take a lesson.
Take a Selfie with the World’s Tallest Fork
This 26-foot stainless-steel fork (the world’s tallest, according to Guinness World Records) seems suspended atop the water along the pedestrian promenade in Vevey with Lake Geneva and the snow-capped Alps behind it. Why? It’s an art installation created by Swiss sculptor Jean-Pierre Zaugg for the adjacent Alimentarium (a food-themed museum) and it makes a cool backdrop for an only-in-Vevey selfie.
Mingle with Locals Over Wine and Cheese
Craving the ultimate Swiss snack (cheese, of course) paired with some local wine? Head to Ta Cave in Lausanne, where original investors at Switzerland’s first crowd-sourced wine bar (there’s now a second in Geneva) get a glass of wine free daily (the name means “your cellar”). You’ll envy them as you order (although prices are a reasonable $7-$9 per glass) and share a cheese and charcuterie platter if you’re seeking a late afternoon snack.
Get to Know Charlie Chaplin
Part biographical journey, part movie backlot, and part wax museum, Chaplin’s World in Vevey—located on the late silent movie star’s private estate—provides hours of entertainment for the whole family. Tour the “Manoir” where he lived for 25 years, pose with lifelike replicas of The Little Tramp at every age, and watch film clips that will, as Chaplin’s most famous song implores, make you smile. Admission is $25 for adults, $18 for kids aged 6-15, and kids under 6 get in for free.
Spot Your Zodiac Sign in Lausanne Cathedral’s Rose Window
A highlight of this Gothic Cathedral—built as a Catholic church during the 12th and 13th centuries but transformed into a Protestant cathedral in 1536 during the Reformation—is its famed Rose Window. It’s 26 feet in diameter and contains 66 circular images intended by its creators to sum up human knowledge, from the creation to the seasons to the elements and even the 12 signs of the Zodiac. Look closely and spot your own.
Enjoy a Cold Beer with a View in Geneva
The outdoor patio of the unassuming Cottage Café, located in Brunswick Park on Geneva’s Right Bank, is a terrific spot to chill. Just arrive before the after-work crowd to claim a table for two and sip a reasonably priced Swiss beer (about $5) or glass of wine ($7-$8) while enjoying a view of the lake and the Jet d’Eau.