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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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Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

Foreigners living in Switzerland may be wondering what their basic rights are compared to Swiss citizens. The answer depends on several factors.

Do foreigners in Switzerland have the same legal rights as the Swiss ?

There are currently 2.2 million foreign nationals living in Switzerland — roughly 25 percent of the population.

Simply put, everyone residing in the country legally, regardless of nationality, has the same basic constitutional rights as Swiss citizens do — for instance, the right to human dignity, free expression, equality, protection against discrimination, and freedom of religion, among other rights.

They also have the right to fair and equitable treatment in the workplace, in terms of wages, work hours, and other employment-related matters.

As the law states, cantons and municipalities “shall create favourable regulatory conditions for equal opportunities and for the participation of the foreign population in public life”. 

If they are arrested or imprisoned, foreigners also have the right to fair trial and to the same treatment as their Swiss-citizen counterparts, including legal representation and due process of the law.

Even those who are subject to deportation have the right to be represented by a lawyer.

And the Swiss legal system doesn’t necessarily favour Swiss litigants over foreign ones. For instance, in some cases, foreign nationals whose request for naturalisation was denied but who then appealed the decision, eventually won.

The most recent example is a man in the canton of Schwyz whose application for citizenship was rejected due to a minor car accident, but a Swiss court overturned the decision, ordering that the man be naturalised this year.

READ MORE : Foreigner wins appeal after being denied Swiss citizenship due to car accident

Where the rights and privileges differ between foreigners and Swiss, as well as among foreigners themselves, is when it comes to work and residency rights.

 EU / EFTA nationals

People from these countries, who have B or C permanent residence status have sweeping rights in terms of residence, employment (including self-employment), and home ownership.

The only right that is denied them is the vote, though some cantons and communes grant their resident foreigners the right to vote on local issues and to elect local politicians. 

READ MORE : Where in Switzerland can foreigners vote?

Apart from the limit on political participation, EU / EFTA nationals can live in Switzerland in pretty much the same way as their Swiss counterparts.

There are, however, some groups of foreigners whose rights are curtailed by the Swiss government.

Third country nationals

They are people from countries outside Europe, for whom various restrictions are in place in terms of entry, employment and residency.

For instance, their “future employer must prove that there is no suitable person to fill the job vacancy from Switzerland or from an EU/EFTA state”, according to State Secretariat for Migration. This could be seen as a discrimination of sorts, but that’s what the law says.

Once employed, however, “their salary, social security contributions and the terms of employment must be in accordance with conditions customary to the region, the profession and the particular sector” — in other words, no discrimination is allowed.

Another area where non-European foreigners are disadvantaged in comparison with their EU / EFTA counterparts is home ownership. While third-nation B-permit holders can buy a property to live in (but not rent out), they can’t purchase a holiday or second home without a special permission.

To sum up, all foreigners in Switzerland, regardless of their status, are entitled to fundamental “human” rights, including freedom of speech and religion, and freedom from discrimination in life and employment.

They also have the right to legal protection and representation during litigation or other court actions.

However they don’t have the right to participate in the country’s political process and, depending on their status, have equal access to residency and employment.