Navigating the shores of Lake Geneva

The beauty of Geneva’s maritime heritage

Daniel Bauchervez
Urheberrechte ©
Genève Tourisme | CGN
Summer 2024

The industrial revolution brought steam power, the Belle Époque brought clean designs and a desire to take to the open seas. Starting in the 19th century, dozens of water vessels dotted the waters of Lake Geneva. Some are still running, offering a gentle journey.

It was Edward Church, an American businessman and Consul of the USA in France, who first launched pleasure cruises on Lake Geneva in 1823. He was inspired by the steamboats that travelled along the Hudson River in his home country. Going from Geneva to Ouchy along the shoreline, his William Tell paddle steamboat was enthusiastically received, and its Sunday routes quickly became very popular. Other vessels featuring iron hulls or high-pressure boilers began to compete with Church for business, leading to the creation of Geneva’s CGN (Compagnie Générale de Navigation) in 1873. Its worth noting that by then, Edward Church’s other boat — which used a paddle powered by circling horses on the dock (!) — had been deemed too noisy and inefficient, and had already been retired…

The charm of the Belle Époque
In 1896, the Swiss National Exhibition swept Geneva with a wave of progress, faith in the future, and beauty. A new generation of watercraft stepped into the spotlight, five of which have survived: the Montreux (built in 1904), the Suisse II (1910), the Savoie (1914), the Simplon III (1920, recently damaged in a storm), and the Rhône III (1927). These slender and graceful vessels range from 68-78.5 metres long, and still welcome passengers for pleasure cruises during the balmy summer months.

Here, it’s the journey, not the destination, that counts. The beauty that comes with gliding over the lake’s mirrored surface makes for a lovely excursion. Treat yourself to a delightful meal and a drink, or simply bask in sun and the views from the upper deck, as you watch the opulent villas of Petit-Lac pass by, followed by coastal vineyards, castles, and the summits of Chablais on the starboard side.

What about the mouettes, you ask?
The mouettes (water taxis, named after seagulls) unite Geneva’s right and left banks. Launched in 1897, these small vessels are a favourite with the locals, who will hop aboard in a heartbeat. They take a mere 5-10 minutes to make the crossing, which adds a dash of adventure to any work commute.

Ornithologists will confirm that seagulls are loyal… As are the small mouettes of Lake Geneva, which transport 40-60 passengers at a time. They’ve nested on the Genevan riverbanks for over a century, and not a day goes by that they don’t faithfully carry out their journey, rain or shine (or snow!). They pick up and drop off at Les Pâquis. From there, they run every 10 minutes to Molard, on the edge of the Rhône, or to Eaux-Vives near the Jet d’Eau. A third, less frequent route (every 30 minutes) runs to Port-Noir (near the beach), from where you can extend your journey all the way to the lush Perle du Lac park. All for a mere 2 Swiss Francs.

Joining the historic mouettes on the lake are two new solar-electric vessels. They look similar but are revolutionary as they can run for up to 13 hours on a single charge. It’s the perfect union of tradition and a carbon-reduced future, with minimal waves and little noise — almost like taking a sailboat.