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48 hours in: Geneva

Amid dramatic mountains, this lakeside city breathes understated opulence and is awash with artistic expression. By Nicholas Murray

Why go now?

Geneva is the main arrival point for hundreds of thousands of skiers from the UK every winter, giving access to the Alps' best resorts. Yet the capital of French Switzerland is a great destination in its own right. Go now to catch the glittering snow-capped peaks of the Jura and the Savoy Alps that surround the city's centrepiece, Lake Geneva, with Mont Blanc out-topping them all in the distance. This month sees Geneva inaugurating the first ever year-long International Capital of World Circus (worldcircus.org): watch out for acrobats, jugglers, fire-eaters and clowns popping up at venues across the city, giving this sometimes staid capital a salutary injection of fun and colour.

Touch down

Geneva's main airline is easyJet, with flights from Belfast, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool, Luton, Stansted, Manchester and Newcastle. Plenty of competing airlines offer alternatives, including Bmibaby, British Airways, Flybe, Jet2 and Swiss.

The airport is only 5km from the heart of the city. Public transport in the city is superb, and tourists staying at any city hotel, youth hostel or campsite get a free Unireso card that gives unlimited travel for the duration of your stay on buses, trains, trams and boats. You collect this when you arrive at your accommodation — but you can also pick up a free public transport ticket from the machine in the baggage collection area at arrivals to get you to your hotel, on production of evidence of your booking. Every train from the airport's station takes six minutes to reach the central Gare de Cornavin.

Get your bearings

The Rhône flows west out of Lake Geneva, and is crossed by six bridges, notably the Pont du Mont-Blanc. The smaller parallel bridge, the Pont du Machine, is the location for a well-stocked tourist office (00 41 22 311 9970; geneva tourism.ch). On the rue du Mont-Blanc there's an even bigger tourist office (00 41 22 909 7000) next to the main post office. Pick up the free weekly Genève Agenda, which lists everything that is going on (in French and English).

You'll spend most of your time on the Left Bank, home to the old town and the best art museums, cobbled streets and the Cathedrale St-Pierre with its austere Gothic interior and the stiff, unbending chair of Calvin where the founder of this ‘Rome of Protestantism’ sat to preach.

At the centre of the Lake (Lac Leman) is the Jet d'Eau, originally built to relieve pressure building up from the hydraulic turbines on the Rhone, but now a tourist site, spurting 140m up in the air. Be warned, however, in bad weather it's turned off.

Check in

Geneva has plenty of reasonably priced accommodation. Given the popularity of the city for international conferences, advance booking is advisable. For a luxurious stay, try Les Armures at rue du Puits St-Pierre 1 (00 41 22 310 91 72; hotel-les-armures.ch), a 17th-century historic building with elegantly understated chic. Weekend deals start at around CHF439 (£282) for a double, including breakfast.

Another, less costly, place of traditional luxury is Hotel Bristol at rue du Mont-Blanc 10 (00 41 22 716 57 00; bristol.ch). Weekend deals for a double room start at around CHF295 (£197) including breakfast. It is possible to stay virtually in the Old Town at more affordable rates at Hotel Central at rue de la Rôtisserie 2 (00 41 22 818 81 00; hotelcentral.ch), where the simplest ‘budget’ room (shower but no WC) costs CHF95 (£63), with breakfast.

Take a hike

Head up one of the steep, winding streets of the Old Town to the free Maison Tavel museum at 6 rue du Puits-St-Pierre (00 41 22 418 37 00; mah.ville-ge.ch, 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission free). Built by the Tavels in the 12th century, it's now a bit of a hotchpotch on several floors of carved doors, topographical paintings, furniture, old kitchen ranges and suits of armour, but there are some interesting camera angles from the upper windows. On the top floor, a room is filled with a large model of Geneva made in 1850 when it was still a walled town — yet which, 160 years on, provide a good sense of the cityscape. And don't miss the remnants of the guillotine that Genevans were ordered to set up in 1799 when they became part of the French Republic.

Then descend to Edward’s at rue du Vieux Collège 1, a bustling, unpretentious coffee shop that serves ‘les fameux sandwiches Edward's’. Refreshed, climb again to the Musee d’Art et d’Histoire at rue Charles Galland 2 (00 41 22 418 26 00; ville-ge.ch/mah; 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission free, exhibitions CHF5/£3.50), a little east of the Old Town (free admission) where you can still catch the special exhibition of Flemish and Dutch paintings called ‘Art and its Markets’ — appropriately for a city where money talks (discreetly and unostentatiously, of course).

Lunch on the run

There are some inexpensive options around the Cathedral such as Spaghetti Factory at rue de la Fontaine 13 (00 41 22 310 61 00), with pizzas at CHF16 (£10.50) and some cheerful little coffee shops and terrace bars serving food in the Place du Bourg-de-Four built on the site of the old Roman forum and a marketplace since medieval times.

For something a little more stylish there is Les Armures at rue du Puits-St-Pierre 1 (00 41 22 310 34 32) with its traditional stone floors and a plaque telling you Bill Clinton and his family liked the characteristic Swiss dishes. For a traditional Swiss cheese fondue Cave Valaisanne is the place at boulevard Georges-Favon 23 (00 41 22 328 12 36).

Window shopping

Work off that fondue. Descend from the Old Town and around the bastions along the broad boulevard Jacques Dalcroze. Follow boulevard des Philosophes down to the Ronde Point de Plainpalais, This is the gateway to the Plaine de Plainpalais where, on Saturdays, there is a vast flea market: books, vinyl discs, CDs, videos, startlingly large pieces of furniture, watches, clothes, electric light-fittings, guns, Swiss Army knives, cutlery, crockery, paintings (framed and unframed), carpets and rugs, religious statues and paraphernalia, and model cars. There are more second-hand bookshops on boulevard Georges Favon, which leads north off the Plainpalais up to the river.

Cultural afternoon

Wander back up the rue du Conseil Generale to the Place Neuve from where you get a grand view of the old town and a chance to visit the Musee Rath (00 41 22 418 33 40; mah.ville-ge.ch; 10am-5pm daily except Monday; noon-9pm on Wednesday; admission CHF10/£6.50), which is hosting an Alberto Giacometti exhibition until 21 February. Across the Parc des Bastions, the Mur de la Reformation is surmounted by statues of the religious reformers. If you have time to catch another museum, the Musee de la Reforme at rue du Cloître 4 (00 41 22 310 24 31; musee- reforme.ch; 10am-5pm daily except Monday; admission CHF10/£6.50) will tell you all you need to know about the Reformation in well-presented, imaginative displays.

An aperitif

The Cafe des Forces Motrices in Place des Volontaires is a pleasantly relaxed place to unwind after the day's sightseeing and think about where to go for an evening meal.

Dining with the locals

A certain heavy traditional opulence is a trademark of Geneva and for reputedly the best steak frites in the city in an exquisitely old-fashioned bistro decor it has to be the Cafe de Paris at rue du Mont-Blanc 26 (00 41 22 732 84 50) just across on the right bank. There is only one dish on the menu: entrecôte, served with its special herb butter, green salad and frites at CHF41 (£28).

The Brasserie Lipp at rue de la Confederation 8 (00 41 22 318 80 30) is another stylish venue — it's not cheap, but is recommended for its generous seafood dishes.

A walk in the park

North of the Rhône you will find plenty of greenery, speckled with some of the 200 international organisations to which Geneva is home. Find your way through the parkland surrounding the Palais des Nations to the International Red Cross Museum at avenue de la Paix 17 (00 41 22 748 95 25; micr.org; 10am-5pm daily except Tuesday; admission CHF10/£6.50). The Red Cross was founded by a Genevan, Henri Dunant, and the exhibition is memorable and affecting. Look out for the display of cheeky soldier-and-nurse postcards from the Great War.

Out to brunch

If you fancy a weekend brunch of smoked salmon salad together with fresh bread and pastries, then cut yourself a slice of Le Pain Quotidien at boulevard Helvetique 21 (00 41 22 736 36 90).

Go to church

Close by, the Russian Church was built in 1863 for Geneva's significant Russian expatriate community. Its glittering gold onion-domes are worth catching against a frozen blue winter sky. But in the city of Calvin church-going is a serious matter and the Cathedrale St-Pierre (noon-5.30pm on Sundays, 10am-5.30pm on other days) is the centrepiece. Its bare nave comprises a stern rebuke to garish southern European baroque, though the Chapelle des Macchabees is surprisingly ornate and colourfully decorated: small wonder it was downgraded to a salt-store in the Reformation.

Don't leave without seeing the underground architectural museum beneath the Cathedral, which includes excavated Roman mosaics.

Take a ride

A boat trip on Lake Geneva, flanked by snow-capped mountains, is a must — and the transport pass covers water as well as terrestrial transport. Just hop on a mouette at one of the lakeside piers for a trip across the lake; there are four different routes to choose from.

If the Jet d’Eau is spouting you will see that to its best advantage and look back at the grand hotels facing the lake on the Right Bank. When you get off, inspect the Jardin Anglais and the much-photographed floral clock on the Left Bank.

The icing on the cake

Explore the chic district of Carouge. Just hop on a tram, 12 or 13, to this artisan district of pretty squares and fountains, galleries and restaurants, and streets with internal galleried courtyards. Get off at Place du Marche and simply wander about, window shop, or take a coffee or a glass of wine.

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