Zurich and Geneva: the view is always better from the top

In this 17th edition of Prices and Earnings, we want to take a closer look at some of the usual suspects at the top of the list and explore what makes them so resilient. Being based in Switzerland, we considered the choice obvious: Zurich and Geneva. Both cities have been in the top 10 across all factors (price, earnings, purchasing power) for many years and share a healthy rivalry (let's hear it for that invisible cultural border that divides the German- and French-speaking parts of Switzerland called the Röstigraben).

Let's go back in time – 30 years to be exact. At the end of the eighties, Zurich was grappling with a drug crisis, Geneva's "squatter" scene was in full swing and local superstar DJ BoBo had just released his first single, called "I Love You." How did this reflect on prices and earnings?


Both cities have ranked high, globally, in terms of prices for decades, but they only reached the very top in 2006 thanks to uncertainty in the Eurozone, Switzerland's reputation as a safe haven, and the resultant boost that gave the Swiss franc relative to other currencies. In 2018, Zurich and Geneva are the top two cities in terms of prices, respectively.

Price level excluding rent (2006 – 2018)

Prices and Earnings 2018 Zurich Geneva price level excluding rent comparison

So what's more expensive in Zurich than in Geneva? The biggest difference can be found in services, such as haircuts, an hour of household help, dry cleaning, language classes etc., where Zwingli's city is 20% pricier on average than Calvin's. The second-largest difference is in electronic devices (+16%) like smartphones, televisions and notebooks.


In the turbulent 1980s, Zurich ranked first in the world in terms of gross earnings, with Geneva second. That changed at the turn of the new millennium when Scandinavian capitals Copenhagen and Oslo dethroned the two. But skip ahead to 2018 and the Swiss cities are back on top, and this time Geneva is leading Zurich.

Gross Earnings (2006 – 2018)

Prices and Earnings 2018 Zurich Geneva gross earnings comparison

So the burning question is: Which jobs are better paid in the French-speaking city of Geneva? According to our research, the profession of chefs makes the big difference. For our study, we compare a chef in a kitchen with a fairly large staff in a respected restaurant or hotel, and the deputy of the head chef, or chef de partie, who supervises two to three cooks, has completed vocational training as a cook, has about 10 years of experience and is approximately 30 years old. In Geneva, this job pays 7% better than in Zurich. Perhaps the "Genevois" express their joie de vivre through good, costly food more than their "Zürcher" peers? Primary school teachers are also better off in Geneva – again, earning on average 7% more than their Zurich colleagues.

So should all Swiss primary school teachers and chefs move south? If salary is your only motivation, it would make sense to settle beside Lac Leman rather than the Zürchersee. But make sure you have a good command of French first before you apply.

Switzerland, like the titular heroes of the famous Alexandre Dumas novel The Three Musketeers, has a motto "one for all, all for one," which also holds true for our ranking: both cities have contested to reach the thin air of the ranking heights, climbing side-by-side to the summit over the past 30 years. And the view from the top isn't shabby at all.

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