Steamboats and Castles on Lake Geneva

A view of Chateau de Chillon upon disembarking from our CGN steamboat. June 2, 2019.

A view of Chateau de Chillon upon disembarking from our CGN steamboat. June 2, 2019.

A trip on a steamboat along the lakefront to see a medieval castle, followed by a brief stroll back into a vibrant Swiss city for a drink, makes for a can’t-miss summer activity in the southern part of Switzerland.

I lucked out that my mom and her husband came into town just as steamboat season got started; we had especial fun that we got to experience this combination of activities for the first time together.

I wish I had taken more pictures! I blame the incredible views and the castle for bewitching me.

A Belle Époque Steamboat

In the summer, CGN offers tours of the lakefront on one of its beautifully restored Belle Époque steamboats. (CGN is a public company that operates boat transportation across Lake Geneva; they offer tourist expeditions, like this one, and regular ferry-style transport.)

The trip we took started at the CGN port at Ouchy and took us along the lake—pausing at several other ports to onboard and offload passengers—to the Château de Chillon stop, where we disembarked. You can select several ports of entry and exit from the tour, all for slightly different fares.

Passengers have the option to reserve tables for lunch on the boat during the trip, which took about an hour and forty-five minutes from our starting port in Ouchy to our disembarkation port at Château de Chillon. Though the boat’s dining room looked gorgeous—gloriously restored in the Belle Époque style with huge picture windows on both sides—we passed on lunch and instead sat on a bench alongside the boat’s flank to look out on the coastline as we passed.

Though I worried a bit that an hour and forty-five minutes might feel eternal, the time passed quickly. The scenery just astounds you, and you can make multiple visits to the boat interior to watch the workings of a steamboat in action (and get drinks and snacks). The company has restored the boat with multiple points of visibility into the functions of the boat engine and its steering mechanism. Watching it in action astounded even me, someone who has never had much interest in museums or programs about how machines operate.

If sitting on a bench along the side of a steamboat for an hour and forty-five minutes sounds like a drag, you can reserve first-class tickets to sit on the boat’s top deck in chaise lounges. I’ll admit: I didn’t expect much difference between the two ticket classes, yet when I saw the lounge chairs on the top deck, I realized I might have booked first-class seats if I’d have known. (Generously, my mother’s husband said we would all have just fallen asleep in the chairs anyway, given the boat breezes and the tickling warm sunlight, and would have missed the views.)

Château de Chillon

Like something from a movie, Château de Chillon rises steeply out of Lake Geneva. Built in the 12th century, the castle winds maze-like over multiple levels above and seemingly below the level of the lake, with dungeons at the bottom and beautiful reception halls and bedrooms at the top featuring majestic views of Lake Geneva and the opposite lakeshore, in France.

The Counts of Savoy controlled Château de Chillon at the time of its first historic-record mention; the castle provided a valuable tax-gathering waystation for roads crossing along the lake and from the lake into the mountains. When the Bernese took over in the middle of the 16th century after conquering the region, they used the castle as an administrative center (taxes again, don’cha know), fortress, and prison. In the late 18th century, the locals pushed out the Bernese and took over the castle, which they decided to restore into the historic site available to the public today.

The Château de Chillon tour—self-guided, with an English-language brochure proving overviews of each room—took us about an hour and a half, though we did it all in detail and took our time. As with all medieval castles, prepare for uneven walkways and staircases and low-hanging doors, ceilings, and architectural features. (If you don’t like moving through small spaces, don’t visit medieval castles.)

The Flower Path to Montreux

From the exit of Château de Chillon facing out, you don’t need to walk very far to your left (the west) to pick up a path colloquially known as “The Flower Path,” which takes you on a pedestrian-only walking route to Montreux, the nearest town.

We may have gotten to the flower path a little late in the season; still brimming with greenery, it didn’t have quite as many blooms as it would have had before some of the late-spring heat spells. Nevertheless, we enjoyed the stroll along the lakefront and had our reward in drinks at a lakefront café in Montreux when we arrived.

The walk from Château de Chillon to Montreux took about forty-five minutes at a leisurely pace. I’d highly recommend it; although you can catch a train (or a boat) back from near the Château de Chillon, Montreux station has many more transportation options—and the lovely walk followed by a relaxing drink in a Montreux lakeside café after seeing the castle had its own intrinsic rewards.

The Best Way to See the Castle—and the Lakefront

If you only have the opportunity to visit Château de Chillon outside the summer season, taking the train straight to its Chillon stop or boarding a regular ferry to the area probably makes the most sense, as you will have a much more direct and speedy route to the castle and you won’t benefit from the views and the weather that spring, summer, and fall provide in this part of the world. (If you’ve only considered coming to Switzerland for the skiing, you should reconsider!)

However, if you can hold on visiting Château de Chillon until the steamboats run that way and the flower path comes into bloom, you’ll have a full day’s adventure—and a real treat.