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WHY GO NOW?
The hub of French-speaking Switzerland is shaking off the snow – the last wave of ski flights arrives today – and waking up to spring, with flowers blooming in the city's many parks. And Geneva's international role makes it unusually rich in museums and gastronomy.
The city's handy airport is connected by frequent flights from across the UK: easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyJet.com) is the main airline, connecting Geneva with Belfast, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Bristol, East Midlands, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Glasgow, Liverpool, Luton, Newcastle and Stansted.
Flights are also available on Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com/uk) from London City and Heathrow, British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) from Gatwick and Heathrow, Bmibaby (09111 545 454; bmibaby.com) from Birmingham, Cardiff, East Midlands and Manchester; and Flybe (0871 700 2000; flybe.com) flies from Exeter, Isle of Man, Jersey, Norwich and Southampton.
It takes just six minutes by train from the airport to Cornavin station (1), which is well placed for many hotels and on principal tram and bus routes. A single ticket costs SFr5.60 (£3.50).
Geneva can be reached by Eurostar (08705 186 186; eurostar.com) from London St Pancras via Paris (where you must change stations). The overall journey takes around seven hours. Return fares start at £105 through agents such as Rail Europe (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk).
GET YOUR BEARINGS
Geneva lies at the western extremity of Switzerland and Lake Geneva at the point where the River Rhône flows out of the lake. The town looks and feels French, though the many international organisations based here make it among the world's most cosmopolitan cities, where you soon hear a dozen languages. From some parts of the city you look out across the lake to Mont Blanc and the French Alps, which can seem far away or very close according to the weather.
The city's symbol is the Jet d'Eau (2), a water spout that reaches 140 metres high thanks to a liquid velocity of 200kph and which can be seen from some 20 kilometres away.
It is the old town rather than the river that provides the focus for visitors. The district is threaded by largely pedestrianised cobbled streets punctuated by splashing fountains and flanked by three- to four-storey stone buildings with an enticing café on every corner. The tourist office (3) is at Rue du Mont-Blanc 18 (00 41 22 909 70 00; geneve-tourisme .ch); open 9am-6pm Tuesday-Friday (Sunday 10am-4pm, Monday 10am-6pm). All hotel guests automatically receive a free Geneva Transport Card which gives unlimited access to trams, buses and local trains.
The Mandarin Oriental (4), overlooking the Rhône, at Quai Turrettini 1 (00 41 22 909 00 00; mandarinoriental.com/geneva) was the first major hotel built in Europe after the Second World War; it was renovated last year. It has two restaurants: Rasoi by Vineet, created by London chef Vineet Bhatia, serves refined Indian food, while French-style brasserie le Sud has menus devised by Lyonnaise chef Paul Bocuse. A three-course set lunch costs SFr44 (£27.50). Doubles from SFr393 (£243), breakfast is SFr45 (£28).
At Rue Pradier 10, in a quiet street close to the station, Hotel Strasbourg (5) (00 41 22 906 58 00; hotelstrasbourg.ch) has 51 Wi-Fi-equipped rooms renovated in 2005. Doubles from SFr220 (£137), including breakfast.
The Tor Hotel (6) at Rue Ami-Lévrier 3 (00 41 22 909 88 20; torhotel.com) is also close to the station and the lake. The contemporary decor contrasts with the historic, high-ceilinged building. Doubles from SFr90 (£56), including breakfast.
TAKE A VIEW
The north tower of the hilltop St Peter's cathedral (7) provides a panoramic view over the old town and lake and is open from 10am until 5.30pm. Access to its 157 steps costs SFr4 (£2.50). The Gothic building had a classical portico grafted on to its entrance facade, giving it a most peculiar appearance.
Though the nave and transepts of the cathedral are austere, don't miss the Maccabean Chapel on the south side, which became a riot of colour after Viollet-le-Duc's neo-Gothic restoration of 1878.
It's hard to find a major shopping street without an outlet selling watches; the newest showroom, for Omega (8), is at Rue du Rhône 31. For the most interesting small shops where the stock is often made on the premises, take tram 13 (direction Palettes) and alight at Marché in Carouge to see jewellers, milliners, glassblowers, weavers, watchmakers, bookbinders and clothes stylists. There are some antique shops and galleries, which can be found in profusion in the old town. At Rue de Perron 19 is the unusual Antiquités Scientifiques (9) with a large collection of old barometers, globes, telescopes, cameras and medical equipment. At Grand-Rue 37 is the delightfully traditional Parfumerie Théodora (10). The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born in 1712 just along the street, at number 40.
On Saturday mornings there is a flea market at the Plainpalais (11) (accessible on tram lines 12, 13, 17), selling everything from old stoves and vinyl records to dentistry equipment and Mamod stationary engine models. Geneva's oldest department store is Globus (12).
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Enter Globus (12), from Place du Molard and you find a variety of counters selling soup from SFr4.50 (£2.80), panini from SFr6 (£3.75), baguettes from SFr5 (£3), stir-fried vegetables at SFr11.50 (£7.20) and a wide range of antipasti and noodles. You can eat them on stools at the long counters.
TAKE A HIKE
From the cathedral (7), proceed straight ahead and turn left into Rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre for Maison Tavel (13) at number 6.
This free museum about the history of the city has on its top floor a seven-metre-long model showing what Geneva looked like in 1850. It took Auguste Magnin 18 years to make it out of zinc and copper; the old town has changed little since then. It opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday.
Find a place on the world's longest bench – at 120 metres – on the Promenade de la Treille (14) with a great view over the city and old town. A good pitstop is Café Papon, yards away at Rue Henri-Fazy 1. Situated under the oldest part of the town hall, it has vaulted ceilings and serves lunches.
Then descend the slope and steps to reach the Promenade des Bastions and the Monument to the Reformation (15). This 100-metre-long wall was built in 1909 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Jean Calvin, and the wall is lined with reliefs of events and statues of figures associated with the Reformation, including Oliver Cromwell and Scottish reformer John Knox.
This year is the 500th anniversary of the birth of Jean Calvin. Accordingly, the International Museum of the Reformation (16) in Maison Mallet at Rue du Cloître 4 (open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission SFr10 (£6.25) delves into his influence, especially on Scottish religion. It describes the development of Protestantism and the role played by exiles from Britain who produced the English Geneva Bible in 1560 and took the Reformation to Scotland. Holograms on mirrors and film (English commentary available) provide background to the events that would cleave Europe for generations to come.
Qu'importe le flacon, pourvu qu'on ait l'ivresse (17) at Rue Ancienne 1 in Carouge (tram 13 direction Les Palettes, stop Ancienne) is the kind of neighbourhood bar that's hard to find in the centre of the city. Its curious name is taken from a quote by the poet Alfred de Musset which implies that the contents are more important than the vessel. Bruschettas from SFr10 (£6.25), glass of wine from SFr5.50 (£6.25) and alcohol-free cocktails from SFr12 (£7.50); open 11am-11pm (5-11pm on Monday).
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
One of the city's newer restaurants with an outstanding cellar and a glass of wine recommended for each dish is Resto by Arthur's (18) at Pont de la Machine 1 (00 41 22 317 40 50; arthurs.ch). It comprises a lounge, bar and restaurant on three floors around a glass-panelled atrium. Beef carpaccio with coleslaw is SFr19 (£11.90) and lemon-and ginger-flavoured chicken breast with coriander risotto SFr36 (£22.50). After a meal you can wander upstairs to see more than 5,000 Swatches in glass cases, arranged year by year.
Popular with locals is Café du Centre (19) at Place du Molard 5 (00 41 22 311 85 86; cafeducentre.ch, booking advised), where there is a good range of fish and French-inspired meat dishes mainly using ingredients from the canton of Geneva wherever possible. The plat du jour costs SFr19 (£11.90).
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
The Holy Trinity Anglican church (20), at Rue du Mont Blanc 14b, was built in 1853. It holds communion at 9am and morning service at 10.30am. Rather more exotic is Switzerland's first Russian Orthodox Church (21) on Rue Beaumont, consecrated in 1866 and attended by Stravinsky and Nabokov. Its gold domes can be seen sparkling in sunshine from 15 kilometres away.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Piano brunch starts at 11am in the Alhambar (22) at Rue de la Rôtisserie 10 (00 41 22 312 13 13; alhambar.com). Try the smoked salmon blinis (SFr17) (£10.60) or ham omelette (SFr13) (£8.10) amid the eclectic, modern decor.
TAKE A RIDE
Steam power has been returned to five of the older, supremely elegant paddle-steamers on the lake; the oldest, the Montreux, dates from 1904. Boats leave from the pier on Quai du Mont Blanc (23), operated by CGN (0848 811 848; cgn.ch).
Fares to the 42 piers around the 72km-long lake start at SFr19.40 (£12.10). The Belle Epoque paddlers operate a variety of gourmet and music cruises with lunch or dinner.
A WALK IN THE PARK
The most extensive park is the 28-hectare Botanical Garden (24) at the end of bus route 1 from the station. Since 1817, the garden has built up a collection of more than 16,000 plant species in greenhouses with tropical plants from six continents, an arboretum and scent and rock gardens. It opens 8am-7.30pm daily.
Across the park beyond the UN HQ, the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (25) at Avenue de la Paix 17 (00 41 22 748 95 25; micr.ch) is open every day (except Tuesday) from 10 am – 5 pm and costs SFr10 (£6.25). It's a sobering look at the history of humanitarian aid.
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
For an antidote to the scale of human cruelty, pop into the Ariana Museum (26) at Avenue de la Paix 10 (00 41 22 418 54 50; 10am-5pm daily except Tuesday, free).
Set in elegant grounds, this vast palace is now home to a beautiful collection of glass and ceramics.Reuse content