48 Hours In: Geneva

Amid dramatic mountains, this 'Rome of Protestantism' breathes understated opulence and artistic expression, says Nicholas Murray



Click
here for the 48 Hours in... Geneva map


Travel essentials

Why go now?

Geneva is the main arrival point for hundreds of thousands of British skiers 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 (1).

Get your bearings

The Rhône flows west out of Lake Geneva, and is crossed by six bridges, notably the Pont du Mont-Blanc (2). The smaller parallel bridge, the Pont du Machine (3), 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 (4) (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 Cathédrale St-Pierre (5) 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 Léman) is the Jet d'Eau (6), originally built to relieve pressure building up from the hydraulic turbines on the Rhone, but now a tourist sight, 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 (7) 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 (8) 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 (9) 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.

Day one

Take a hike

Head up one of the steep, winding streets of the Old Town to the free Maison Tavel museum (10) 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 (11) at rue du Vieux Collège 1, a bustling, unpretentious coffee shop that serves "les fameux sandwiches Edward's". Refreshed, climb again to the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire (12) 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 (5) such as Spaghetti Factory (13) 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 (14) 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 (7) 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 and a dollop of chalet-style kitsch 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 (15), 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 Générale to the Place Neuve (16) from where you get a grand view of the old town and a chance to visit the Musée 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 Réformation (17) is surmounted by statues of the religious reformers.

If you have time to catch another museum, the Musée de la Réforme (18) 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 Café des Forces Motrices in Place des Volontaires (19) 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 décor, it has to be the Café de Paris (20) 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 (21) at rue de la Conféderation 8 (00 41 22 318 80 30) is another stylish venue - it's not cheap, but is recommended for its generous seafood dishes.

Day two

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 (22) 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 (23) at boulevard Helvétique 21 (00 41 22 736 36 90).

Go to church

Close by, the Russian Church (24) 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 Cathédrale St-Pierre (5) (noon-5.30pm on Sundays, 10am-5.30pm on other days) is the centerpiece. Its bare nave comprises a stern rebuke to garish southern European baroque, though the Chapelle des Macchabées 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. So all you need do is 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 (6) is spouting you will see that to 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 Marché and simply wander about, window shop, or take a coffee or a glass of wine.

Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: MI Developer

    £35 - 45k: Guru Careers: An MI Developer is needed to join the leading provide...

    Recruitment Genius: Fitness Manager

    £20000 - £22500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leisure organisation manag...

    Recruitment Genius: Visitor Experience Manager

    £25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Delivering an inspiring, engagi...

    Recruitment Genius: Learning Team Administrator

    £17500 - £20500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are looking for a great te...

    Day In a Page

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence