Visit French-Speaking Switzerland
Get off the beatin’ path and explore the green Jura Mountains and deep Lake Neuchâtel through travel in French-Speaking Switzerland! There are so many famous landmarks in Switzerland, many of which are on the French-Speaking side and easy to get to from Germany, Italy, or France.
Whether you are wanting to make a pilgrimage by visiting the Monastic Communauté de Grandchamp or plan your next family hiking vacation – this guide will be all you need to get started planning your Western Switzerland Journey! You can also combine French-Speaking Switzerland with the German-Speaking (or Italian-Speaking) speaking side of Switzerland in one vacation with some great itinerary options for 7 days in Switzerland or fewer! The train system is super easy in Switzerland and very fast.
Where do they speak French in Switzerland?
Languages of Switzerland
Switzerland has not one, not two, not three – but four official languages and, in my opinion, one unofficial language.
The four official languages are: French, German, Italian, and Romansh. Romansh is primarily only spoke in the canton of Grisons in Switzerland and is a descendant of spoken Latin from the Roman Empire!
Switzerland is organized into self-governing Cantons. I find them similar to the “states” of the United States.
The easiest way to understand the languages of Switzerland is to guess that if you are in the 1/3 of the Switzerland closest to Germany – you will be speaking German, and the 1/3 closest to Italy – Italian. Similarly, Western Switzerland, the part of the Switzerland closest to France, is French-speaking.
The area of Switzerland where French is spoken is known as “Suisse-Romande”. Or simply Romandy.
But you don’t need to speak French to visit French-speaking Switzerland!
This brings me to the “unofficial language” of Switzerland:
English in Switzerland
The unofficial language? That’s English. Many students study English in school and are really very proficient. English is frequently the “connecting” language used between the different regions of Switzerland. I’ve rarely not found someone that speaks excellent English when I absolutely needed it in Switzerland.
In my very humble opinion, the French spoken in Western Switzerland is slower than that spoken in France. I find it easier to understand as an English speaker than French spoken near Paris. That may be just me, though!
One warning about Switzerland: Once I got on a train sure I was headed for a day excursion in a French-speaking part of Switzerland and…..I got off the train for a change to the announcements all in German! Yikes! Do your research beforehand! I had a great day that day – just had to adjust my expectations as, for all the time I’ve spent in Switzerland, I speak a grand total of 6 words of German (one of which is mulch, like for a garden, which is clearly going to be useful in a train station!).
Airports for French-Speaking Switzerland
You have a few great options for Airports if you want to visit French-Speaking Switzerland
Milan has a much larger airport than Geneva, and is a very comfortable and scenic train ride away from Switzerland. Lyon also has a good-sized airport and depending on the day I have found considerably cheaper tickets into Lyon.
Trains from Paris to just about anywhere are frequent and very pleasant. (And if you included a stop in my favorite city in France, Strasbourg,I think you would be pretty happy you did!)
I’ve also had friends fly into Germany and take the train down!
Your options are endless!
Fait attention! Pay attention! Train tickets are fairly reasonable through much of Europe. However, since some national companies may require you to buy a ticket for a specific departure time, think carefully about the time it will take you to go through customs and find your train if you are going directly from the airport.
Many trains leave from central stations, not the airport. If I fly into a different airport with the intention of taking a train to Switzerland, I usually stay overnight in the city I’ve arrived in and enjoy a Cathedral or two before heading to the train station. I find this far less stressful!
Stress-free for the win!
Switzerland Travel Tips
Switzerland is not a part of the European Union and has its own currency.
While it is a part of the Schengen Zone, making it simple to travel to for pilgrims from America and European Countries, Switzerland has
- A different Currency: The Swiss Franc or CHF.
- Your general European/EU Touist SIM-Card will NOT work in Switzerland.
As of this writing, the conversion rate for Americans is about 1 CHF to $1 US. You’ll get about 1.13 CHF for every Euro.
Make sure you carry a credit card with 0% foreign transaction fees. Debit cards are much more vulnerable abroad – as well as charge hefty foreign transaction fees. I buy Francs from my local bank before I leave the US as cash, and use my American Express Platinum Card for most everything else.
I top-up a SIM card that I originally bought in Spain when I’m in the EU, and have to buy a separate, and sadly much more expensive SIM in Switzerland. You can purchase this at a kiosk right in the airport (and mine has unlimited data and hotspotting!). Plan to spend about 50 CHF if you want unlimited data for 30 days.
Cities in French-Speaking Switzerland
There are three primary cities in French-speaking Western Switzerland: Geneva, Lausanne, and Neuchâtel.
Neuchâtel is not the popular cheese you can find in the cream-cheese section of the grocery store: Neufchâtel! Neufchâtel comes from Northern France, Neufchâtel-en-Bray and has nothing to do with the French city of Neuchâtel: except that my iPhone is always trying to autocorrect to the cheese instead of the city!
Geneva and Lausanne are very near each other. Both are nestled right up to Lake Geneva. Neuchâtel is north of Geneva and Lausanne. Other cities you might want to check out include Château de Chillon, Estavayer- le-Lac and Beil-Bienne.
For me, in terms of pure charm, Geneva is delightful. The mix of lakefront park, gorgeous shop windows, and the Protestant history in Switzerland makes the city a real delight for me. I also enjoy Lausanne and find it’s Cathedral stunning. Neuchâtel is a university town that has a lovely waterfront park, a castle to tour (English tours available!), and easy tram access to smaller, charming Swiss villages and hamlets.
Three-Day Itinerary for French-Speaking Switzerland
Three days might just be perfect to spend in Western, French-Speaking Switzerland. Below is the itinerary I recommend. There is an added, optional, 4th day to explore Lausanne – you could explore Lausanne the day after exploring Geneva, or you could return to Geneva via Lausanne on a 4th day.
This itinerary is based on my preferred cities and emphasizes religious / spiritual sites, the heart of Sacred Wanderings!
I suggest spending two days in Neuchâtel because it is the portal to what I feel are some quintessentially Swiss villages and extraordinary hiking. I’ve also stretched time near Neuchâtel because it is less expensive to stay in Neuchâtel than Geneva. I fully admit I’m biased because I’ve spent so much time on its shore, but the beaches of Lake Neuchâtel are far less crowded and the views are extraordinary.
On many travel blogs you will see lots of posts “8 day-trips from Barcelona” or insert other large, expensive city. A great cost-saving travel tip is to mix that up, and instead of doing a day-trip from the large city, stay in a smaller area and day-trip to the larger city!
Day 1: Geneva
(Optional Extra Day: Lausanne)
Day 2: Neuchâtel
Day 3: Gorges d’Areuse (Hiking) + Evening Prayer at Grandchamp or Exploring towns of Cortillaud (+ Beach!), Boudry and Grandchamp.
What to do in Geneva
Geneva is one of those cities that you can spend an entire day just strolling through, or you can pull out your pocket book and have some of the most glamorous experiences of your life!
Geneva is home to the iconic Jet D’eau – a stunningly high jet of water on Geneva’s lakeshore. The Jet D’eau is taller than the Statue of Liberty! Built in the 19th century, it’s really a beautiful and iconic sight. You can see it from almost any part of Geneva’s waterfront, so you don’t necessarily need to add it to your itinerary. I’ve also frequently been able to see in from the train between Geneva and Neuchâtel!
The Parc Jardin D’Anglaisis a premier spot to view the Jet D’eau – a lovely English-style park with a promenade overlooking the lake, it’s simply a nice place to take a stroll and perhaps purchase my favorite Swiss treat to cool off: Cassis Sorbet! I’ve frequently seen fairs and various street performers when I’ve been there. On one occasion I took a very pleasant ride on a Ferris Wheel in the park that gave me an extraordinary view of Geneva for just 2 CHF!
While you are near Lake Geneva or Lake Neuchâtel, I do recommend taking a short boat tour on the lake. I find these tours give me a different vantage point on the city and fantastic views of the mountain. I also find boat tours relaxing – so long as I have fairly low expectations going in! These tours are not luxury and they don’t offer much by way of information. They can be crowded in the summer months. Still – I have enjoyed each one I’ve taken. You can most likely find a tour at any of the waterfronts in Geneva, Lausanne, or Neuchâtel. With the Geneva Pass you get a free boat tour as a part of the pass.
The Old Town beckons a leisurely stroll – and really – perhaps my Geneva travel tip is to walk or take the public transportation and trams and explore the city with an open mind! I adore Geneva’s Old Town, and I could walk through it for hours, stopping at little coffee shops or exploring children’s book stores (although a warning: French children’s books can be kind of scary! Titles like “Dinner” with a sweet-looking rabbit being caught on the front or “The Stranger” with a seriously creepy man leering over a child on a park bench are the kind of things I’ve often seen displayed in windows! Inside I’ve discovered more of the sweetness I was expecting!)
Churches and Cathedrals in Geneva
For faith travelers and those interested in spirituality and religious history, the heart of Geneva is the Cathedrale Saint Pierre – or St. Peter’s Cathedral. This church was originally a Catholic cathedral and became the heart of Calvin’s protestant reformation in Switzerland. Best known as the church where John Calvin preached. Located in the center of the Old Town, the Cathedral is a mash-mash of architectural styles and has been rebuilt many times. Ever since the reformation, the Cathedral has been a part of the Reformed Church in Switzerland.
To me, I didn’t find the the Cathedral particularly gorgeous, but the melding of Catholic and Protestant history fascinated me. However, do NOT miss the Chapel of the Maccabees! A side-chapel towards the back of the Cathedral, the Chapel of the Maccabees is a true gem of Geneva.
Visit: You can visit St. Peter’s Cathedral every day of the week.
In the “Off season”, between the 1st October – 31st May, it is open:
Mon-Sat: 10am – 5:30pm
Sunday: 12pm – 5:30pm
In the Summer season, 1st June – 30th September, it is open:
Mon-Sat: 9 am – 6:30pm
Sunday: 12pm – 6:30pm
You can also climb the towers of St. Peter’s Cathedral, Cathedrale Saint Pierre, to see the whole skyline of Geneva — all the way to the Jet D’eau in the lake! It costs 5 CHF to climb, or is free with the Geneva Pass. I haven’t done this myself – I was pressed for time the last time I was in Geneva. Yet, I usually make it a point to climb Cathedral towers for a different view of the architecture as well as the best views over the city!
Next in importance on any religious tour of Geneva would be the Protestant Museum in Geneva or Musée International de la Reformation. A very interactive museum not meant to convert in any way but to share the history of John Calvin’s protestant movement and the centrality of Geneva in these sweeping reformations. The museum has winding rooms that resemble a house. I learned a lot at this museum! It’s definitely worth your time!
The Reformation Wall, or Mur de la Reforamation is in a beautiful park in the city that is easily accessible by Public Transport. Located in Promenade des Bastion, you can get there by taking a tram to the Place de Neuve. This wall is inlaid with statues of the major figures in the Reformation. It was installed in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.
Lastly, There is a Russian Orthodox Church or Église Russe in Geneva. I’ve heard that it is absolutely beautiful – if quite small – on the inside. I walked by it the last time I was there, but wasn’t able to go inside. I was delighted by the golden domes and tell-tale Orthodox architecture. If you are in the area – do check out the inside and tell me how it is!
I have never personally used the Geneva Pass so cannot personally recommend it. Depending on what you hope to see, sometimes I find purchasing individual tickets – especially for a short visit – to be more economical. However, Passes like this sometimes help me pack a lot into a day and do come with public transportation!
What to do in Lausanne
The main attraction in Lausanne is it’s truly stunning Gothic Cathedral, the Lausanne Cathedral. The Cathedral was consecrated in 1275 – but, like most Catholic churches in Switzerland, it became a Protestant cathedral in the 16th century.
The architecture is astounding – and, for organ lovers, there is a new organ as of 2003 that has over 7000 pipes.
Like the Cathedral in Geneva, you can climb the tower for a view over Lausanne. It costs 5 CHF to climb. I haven’t done this myself – but look forward to it on my next trip! Interestingly, the city of Lausanne uses the tower for police surveillance to this day.
The Cathedral is open daily, with slightly shifted hours over the Summer and Winter months. 9 am is consistently the opening time – on Sunday’s that is after services at 1 pm.
What to do in Neuchâtel
The city is home to a large university and has a sort of cosmopolitan, young, university-town feel to it!
My two favorite activities in Neuchâtel are non-religious related! There is a lovely protestant church with Romanesque elements, the Église Collégiale. It’s absolutely worth a stop! It’s been under restoration for years however I’ve never managed to get in!
The Château de Neuchâtel or Castle of Neuchâtelis the administrative seat of the Canton of Neuchâtel – it’s also a beautiful and fascinating historical castle well worth the 5 CHF tour! Great news: Tours are provided in English! You’ll learn a lot about the history of the building, the structure of government in Switzerland, and see some great gigantic fire places! The 5 p.m. tour often includes a tour of the Prison Tower, as well! Tours run June – September at 2, 3, 4, and 5 pm. Meet at the entrance of the Castle!
The Castle of Neuchâtel sits night on a hill and the walk is quite a climb! I really enjoyed the walk but there is a tourist train that leaves from various places around Neuchâtel to get up the hill. The view, of course, is fantastic!
My other favorite thing to do in Neuchâtel is visit the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire. A lovely art museum that has an impressive collection including Monet and Renoir, it’s right on the lakefront. Aside from the paintings, the museum is particularly known for three automatons, or mechanical “men” made by watchmakers in the 18th century. I first learned about automatons from the marvelous children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret! One of the automatons at the Musée d’Art et d’Histoire in Neuchâtel can write up to 40 characters after dipping his pen in an ink pot! The automatons are activated the first Sunday of each month at 2, 3, and 4 pm. Whether activated or not, kids and kids-at-heart will particularly enjoy these incredible early robots!
Lastly, don’t miss Place Pury (where the tram leaves for the neighboring villages!). It’s actually a lovely waterfront park with sculptures and a promenade. Very nearby are a number of restaurants, the COOP store (don’t you just love grocery stores when you travel!?), and a bus depot that will get you nearly anywhere in the city!
Hiking in Western Switzerland
When most people think of Switzerland they think of mountains! The alps are by far the best-known mountains in Switzerland. In Western Switzerland there are mountains! The mountains in Western Switzerland across the lakes are the Alps, but to get into Switzerland you will pass through and hike in the Jura Mountains. I liken the Juras to the American Great Smokeys. They are a little greener and lower than the Alps, but still offer some extraordinary vistas!
The most famous trek that passes through French-speaking Switzerland is the hike around Mont Blanc. It’s a beautiful trek – but you better be in shape as it actually requires twice the altitude gain in total than trekking to Mount Everest Base Camp (but at much lower altitudes, of course).
A more accessible and still gorgeous hiking venue in Western Switzerland is the Gorges D’Areuse and, just above it, Creux du Van – kind of like a mini grand-canyon with extraordinary views and mountain goats!
It’s truly stunning.
There are a few ways to hike the Gorges. You can start at the bottom, near Boudry, and hike up. I often do this on an afternoon, by biking from Grandchamp to Boudry, and hiking a few hours up and back again. I can’t usually make it to the top in an afternoon, however.
You can also take a train and start at the top and hike down! To do this: take the train from Neuchâtel to Noiraigue. From Noiraigue, you can walk to the Crux du Van.
You can turn around after Creux du Van and find the entrance to the Gorges d’Areuse. I recommend 4-5 hours to hike down to Boudry!
From the bottom, you can easily take the Tram back to the city of Neuchâtel for your accommodation.
There are beautiful bike paths and beaches in Cortillaud, near Boudry. There’s also a truly lovely harbor with views over the lake. On a clear day you can see the alps. Boudryitself is a hilly town with a wonderful Wine Museum, Musée de la Vigne et du Vinto reward you for your climb! Many people do not know that Switzerland is an excellent area for Wine Lovers. Very little Swiss wine is exported, and an even smaller amount of that to the United States. So get some while you are there!
Where to Stay in French-Speaking Switzerland
Ihave always stayed at Grandchamp with the sisters, so I cannot honestly recommend any particular hotels or AirBnbs.
There are fantastic accommodation deals in Europe through booking.com. I don’t recommend anything I haven’t personally benefited from and booking.com has really impressed me lately. I particularly like that I can make flexible bookings to cancel at a later date if I find something else.
I have also had fantastic luck with AirBnb throughout Europe! (If you are a Delta frequent flyer, make sure to use the Delta Airbnb portal to get a few SkyMiles for your reservation!)
Foods you Have to Try in Switzerland
Perhaps the most quintessential food-group connected to our ideas of Switzerland is chocolate!
I have to admit here that I simply haven’t visited any of the high-end chocolate shops in Geneva or Lausanne. Most of my exposure to Swiss Chocolate has come from the mixed chocolates the Sisters at Grandchamp, where I’ve spent most of my time in Switzerland, share on Fridays. I also er – very frequently – walk to the little corner store near the monastery and purchase myself a bar, or 7.
For the chocolate you purchase at the grocery story or corner store – for me, by far, the winner is Cailler! It’s milky and melt-in-your-mouth with some wonderful varieties. My favorites tend to involve hazelnut or nougat!
Whenever I’m in Switzerland, there’s almost always a little pack of Frey chocolate biscuits tucked away in my bag!
Another must-have in Switzerland is Fondue. Eating at an excellent Fondue restaurant will set you back! Not something to pop round and take part in every weekend! But for a special, maybe even a once-in-a-lifetime trip — it’s so worth it! Fondue in Switzerland is almost exclusively made of Gruyere, a cheese that is 2 parts buttery deliciousness and 2 parts tangy goodness and some extra parts entirely addicting!
Expect to pay about 100 CHF per person for a meal including drinks, but don’t skip it if you can swing it! I enjoy the Café du Soleil if you are in Geneva. Check Tripadvisor for recommendations in Neuchâtel or Lausanne.
I hope this guide has given you inspiration and information to plan a fantastic trip to French-Speaking Switzerland!
I return again and again to Switzerland because it’s truly a magical place, with funny and generous people, that feels like a world of its own. There’s so much amazing spiritual and religious history in Switzerland – especially but not limited to Protestant and Mennonite history. There are so many beautiful cathedrals, lakes, mountains, and beaches!
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