48 Hours In: Geneva

Next weekend, this Swiss lakeside city will be lit up by Europe's longest firework display. It's all part of a summer of celebrations, says Matthew Teller.

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Travel essentials

Why go now?

Next weekend is the culmination of the annual Fêtes de Genève (fetes-de-geneve.ch), which has filled Geneva with shows and events for the past three weeks. From sunset on 11 August, the city centre is closed to traffic as tens of thousands of people gather for the 10pm start of Europe's longest firework display: an hour-long spectacular, accompanied by music and festivities.

Touch down

I travelled with Railbookers (020-3327 2439; railbookers.com), which offers two nights in a four‑star hotel including return train travel from £449pp. The rail journey is straightforward. After the Eurostar to Paris Gare du Nord, take RER line D to Gare de Lyon, from where high-speed TGVs depart regularly for Geneva.

By air, easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick, Luton, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh. Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) flies from Heathrow and London City. BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) competes from Heathrow. Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies from Leeds/Bradford.

In Geneva airport, a machine by the baggage carousels dispenses free tickets for the journey into town. All trains from the airport stop six minutes later at Geneva's main station, Gare de Cornavin (1). Once you reach your hotel, ask for a free Geneva Transport Card, valid on trains, buses, boats and trams.

Get your bearings

Geneva was where John Calvin and his 16th-century cohorts developed a puritan outlook on the Protestant Reformation. Almost surrounded by France, the city drapes itself over the shoulders of the Rhône, where the river exits Lake Geneva. The right bank has the train station and lively Les Pâquis district; the left bank has the main shopping streets and the hilltop Old Town.

The tourist office (2), 18 Rue du Mont-Blanc (00 41 22 909 7000; geneva-tourism.ch), is open Monday (10am-6pm), Tuesday to Saturday (9am-6pm), Sunday (10am-4pm). It sells the Geneva Pass, valid for free tours, museums and other perks in one day (Sfr25/£16), 48-hour (Sfr35/£22) or three days (Sfr45/£29).

Check in

Five minutes' walk from the station is Hotel Royal (3), 41 Rue de Lausanne (00 41 22 906 1414; manotel.com), a traditionally styled four-star, with smooth service and a touch of class. Double rooms start at Sfr260 (£167), including breakfast.

Found on a steep Old Town alleyway, the cheery modern Hotel Bel'Espérance (4), 1 Rue de la Vallée (00 41 22 818 3737; hotel-bel-esperance.ch), has a range of bright, simple rooms benefiting from fine views. Doubles from Sfr160 (£102), including breakfast.

For budget value, it's hard to beat the Tor Hotel (5), 3 Rue Ami-Lévrier (00 41 22 909 8820; torhotel.com), which offers contemporary urban styling in a range of rooms from titchy to family-sized, starting at Sfr90 (£57), including breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

From the tourist office (2), head across Rue du Mont-Blanc past jewellers and antique shops to cross the river at Pont des Bergues (6). Stroll the elegant Rue du Rhône, then turn inland at the medieval Tour du Molard (7) tower. Leave the commercial bustle behind as you climb cobbled streets into the silent Old Town, watched by ranks of shuttered townhouses. On Rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre, the grey-blue façade of Geneva's oldest house, built in the 12th century, marks the Maison Tavel (8) museum, displaying inn signs, armour and a huge model of Geneva made in 1850 that still gives a good sense of the city's topography (Tuesday to Sunday 10am-6pm; admission free).

Across the way, behind the Hôtel de Ville (9) – where the first Geneva Convention on the rules of war was signed in 1864 – the Promenade de la Treille (10) offers lovely views from the world's longest wooden bench, stretching 126m beneath the chestnut trees. Head down the cobbled 18th-century Grand-Rue, lined with mansions, to emerge at the riverside Place Bel-Air (11), busy with trams and shoppers.

Lunch on the run

On the minuscule Ile Rousseau (12), beside a statue of the Genevan philosopher, a pavilion (daily 11am-10pm) serves delicious panini – try prosciutto with brie (Sfr14/£9) – as well as pasta dishes (about Sfr18/£11), ice creams and coffees.

Take a ride

Tram 12 heads south into Carouge (13), built in the 1750s as a refuge for Catholics, Jews and others unable to stomach Geneva's Calvinism. Turinese architects developed a chessboard design of streets with wooden Mediterranean-style galleries looking over internal gardens. The suburb remains a haven: amble around to discover florists, bakeries, artists' workshops and old-fashioned cafés.

An aperitif

Filling a former wholesale market on an island in the Rhône, Brasserie des Halles de l'Ile (14), 1 Place de l'Ile (00 41 22 311 0888; brasseriedeshallesdelile.ch), sports a huge, narrow interior with high arched windows and exposed piping. Pick a table on the suntrap riverside terrace; order tapas (about Sfr14/£9) and watch the place fill up.

Dining with the locals

Concealed between offices east of the Old Town, Luigia (15), 24A Rue Adrien-Lachenal (00 41 22 840 1515; luigia.ch), has become one of Geneva's best-loved Italian restaurants. It's a buzzy, upmarket spot beneath an illuminated glass roof, turning out what locals say is the city's finest pizza, starting at Sfr17 (£11). Open daily at lunch and dinner, except Sat lunch.

Alternatively, beside the Old Town's rambling Place du Bourg-de-Four, Au Pied de Cochon (16) (00 41 22 310 4797; pied-de-cochon.ch) has built a formidable reputation presenting classic Lyonnais cuisine to the city's many gastronomes. The menu includes such fripperies as salad with summer fruits (Sfr13/£8) and moules frites (Sfr18/£11), but focuses chiefly on meat. Start with steak tartare (Sfr17/£11), then move on to saddle of lamb (Sfr36/£23) or stuffed pig's trotter (Sfr34/£22). Scowling waiters are all part of the fun (open daily until midnight).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

Start with a reflective stroll in the Parc des Bastions, where the 100m-long Mur de la Réformation (17) commemorates the 16th-century Protestant Reformers, including Calvin and his ally John Knox, founder of Scottish Presbyterianism.

The Church of Scotland retains a presence in Geneva and anyone can join their service (11am every Sunday) in the 13th-century chapel Auditoire de Calvin (18) on Place de la Taconnerie (Mon-Sat 10am-noon and 2-4pm).

Beside it looms the Cathédrale St-Pierre (19), whose soaring interior was stripped by zealous Reformers in 1535. Look for Calvin's chair and pop into the colourful Chapelle des Macchabées (open noon-6.30pm on Sundays; Mon-Fri 9.30am-6.30pm; Sat 9.30am-5pm).

Out to brunch

Grab a sunny corner table at the Riverside Café (20), 19 Rue du Rhône (00 41 22 311 3200; riversidecafe.ch) – the perfect hideaway for a leisurely goat's cheese salad (Sfr26/£16) and a glass of white (Sfr9/£5).

Cultural afternoon

The Palais des Nations (21) was built in the 1930s for the League of Nations, and refounded in 1945 as the European headquarters of the UN.

Today, it's the hub of the UN's refugee and human rights operations, hosting a dizzying 9,000 meetings a year. Hour-long guided tours (Sfr12/£7; passport required; unog.ch) run between 10am and 4pm from the public entrance on Route de Pregny (take bus number 8 to Appia). They cover a sequence of conference halls, including the Human Rights Council Chamber, under its ceiling of multicoloured stalactites, and the rather dour hall that hosts disarmament negotiations, featuring heroic gold-and-sepia José Maria Sert murals.

A walk in the park

Stroll the lakeside Jardin Anglais (22), laid out in 1854, between fountains, statues and a fragrant Flower Clock: the 2.5m second hand maintains scrupulous accuracy.

Icing on the cake

Croissant-shaped Lake Geneva offers epic views of Mont Blanc and the purple Savoy Alps. Cruise aboard one of the fine old steamers departing from Quai du Mont-Blanc (23) (from Sfr19/£12; cgn.ch), or take ship for Céligny, one of the lake's loveliest villages, 10 miles to the north. From Céligny's jetty, signposted paths lead through to the wooded Vieux Cimetière, where a simple stone marks the grave of long-time village resident Richard Burton. Tomorrow, 5 August, marks the 28th anniversary of the actor's death.

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