48 Hours In...

Geneva, Switzerland

Anthony Lambert guides you through a city of striking architecture, irresistible shopping, great food and, above all, winter romance


WHY GO NOW?

Geneva is a romantic place for a winter visit, with stunning views over the French Alps and even the opportunity of a fondue afloat. The ice-skating rink is open until 28 January and the city's medieval-style carnival takes place the weekend of 2-4 March.

TOUCH DOWN

The main airline to and from Geneva is easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com), with flights from Belfast, Bristol, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Gatwick, Luton, Stansted, Newcastle and Nottingham. Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com/uk) flies from London City and Heathrow. British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, Manchester and Birmingham. It takes six minutes by train from the airport to Geneva Cornavin station (1), which is well placed for short walks to many hotels and on principal tram and bus routes. A single ticket costs SFr5.90 (£2.50).

The rail alternative entails Eurostar from London to Paris (two hours 40 minutes) and a change in Paris from Gare du Nord to Gare de Lyon for the three hours and 20 minutes to Geneva. Return fares from £142 from Rail Europe (08708 304 862; www.raileurope.co.uk).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Geneva lies at the western extremity of Switzerland and Lake Geneva (Lac Léman), at the point where the River Rhône flows out of the lake. Almost surrounded by France, Geneva looks and feels French, though the many international organisations based here make it one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities. The city's symbol is the Jet d'eau, a water spout from the lake which reaches nearly 500ft thanks to a velocity of 125mph and which can be seen from over 10 miles away.

It is the old town rather than the lake or river that provides the focus for visitors. The district is threaded by pedestrianised, cobbled streets punctuated by fountains and flanked by three- and four-storey stone buildings, with enticing corner cafés.

CHECK IN

Hotel Beau Rivage (2), overlooking the lake at 13 Quai du Mont-Blanc (00 41 22 716 66 66; www.beau-rivage.ch) is the last Swiss family-run five-star hotel in Geneva. The building dates from 1865 and its character has been maintained by descendants of the founders. It has an outstanding restaurant with 17 Gault Millau points and a cellar of 45,000 bottles, many among the last few bottles in the world of highly regarded vintages and domains. Doubles from SFr890 (£375) excluding breakfast; weekend rates available.

If you haven't time to go to the mountains, the 42 rooms and public areas of Hotel Edelweiss (3), at Place de la Navigation 2 (00 41 22 544 51 51; www.manotel.com) have the feel of a wooden chalet; they also have WiFi. The hotel is situated on a quiet street close to the lake. A special winter offer of three nights for the price of two, with breakfast and one dinner, is available for SFr632 (£268) per double. Basic but clean double rooms at a bargain SFr86 (£37) without breakfast can be found at City Hostel Geneva (4), at Rue Ferrier 2 (00 41 22 901 15 00; www.cityhostel.ch), a quiet street just under 10 minutes' walk from the station.

TAKE A VIEW

The north tower of the hilltop cathedral (5) provides a panoramic view over the old town and lake and is open until 5pm. Access to its 157 steps costs SFr4 (£1.70). The gothic building had a classical portico grafted on to its entrance façade, giving it a peculiar appearance. Though the nave and the 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.

WINDOW SHOPPING

It's hard to find a major shopping street without an outlet selling watches; the newest showroom, for Omega (6), at Rue du Rhône 31, was opened last November by Nicole Kidman. For antique shops, galleries and fashion in the old town, try Grand-Rue (Jean-Jacques Rousseau was born at No 40 in 1712). At No 37 is the delightfully traditional Parfumerie Théodora (7). At 19 Rue de Perron is the unusual Antiquités Scientifiques (8) with a large collection of old barometers, globes, telescopes, cameras and medical equipment.

For a remarkable collection of small shops at which the goods on sale are usually made on the premises, often visibly, take tram 13 (direction Palettes) and alight at Marché in Carouge to see jewellers, milliners, glassblowers, weavers, watchmakers, bookbinders, designers and tailors. On Saturday mornings there is a flea market at the Plainpalais (9), on tram lines 12, 13 and 17. You can buy anything from old stoves and vinyl records to dentistry equipment and Mamod stationary engine models.

LUNCH ON THE RUN

The three-course lunch at the Hotel Beau Rivage (2), price SFr65 (£28), is a snip. For something more economical, enter Geneva's oldest department store, Globus (10), from Place du Molard and you find a variety of counters selling soup from SFr4.50 (£1.90), baguettes from SFr9.50 (£4), stir-fried vegetables at SFr16 (£7) and a wide range of antipasti and noodles, with seating at long counters.

TAKE A HIKE

From the cathedral (5), proceed straight ahead and turn left into Rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre for Maison Tavel at No 6 (11). This free museum about the history of the city has on its top floor a 22ft-long model showing what Geneva looked like in 1850. It took Auguste Magnin 18 years to make it out of zinc and copper, and though the old town is little changed, whole suburbs are unrecognisable; open 10am-5pm daily except Monday. Continue on to the Promenade de la Treille and descend the slope and steps to reach the Promenade des Bastions and the Monument to the Reformation (12). This 330ft-long wall was built in 1909 to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the birth of Jean Calvin. It is lined with reliefs of events and statues of figures associated with the Reformation and Protestantism, including the Scottish reformer John Knox and Oliver Cromwell.

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Geneva's most recently opened museum is the International Museum of the Reformation (13), in Maison Mallet at Rue du Cloître 14 (10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission SFr10/£4). 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.

AN APERITIF

The Leopard Bar at the Hotel d'Angleterre (14), at Quai du Mont-Blanc, has the atmosphere of a colonial club library in Nairobi, but with live music. It also has bar snacks that are more like canapés.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

For SFr59 (£25), the menu dégustation at Brasserie-Restaurant de l'Hôtel-de-Ville (15) at Grand-Rue 39 (00 41 22 311 70 30) is spectacular: an amuse-bouche and four courses, which include perch, Genevese sausage, spiced Genevese pork stew, and a pear mousse served in an impressively large cave of spun sugar. Equally popular with locals is Café du Centre (16), at Place du Molard 5 (00 41 22 311 85 86), where there is a good range of fish and French meat dishes. Booking at both of these is advisable.

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

The 1853 Holy Trinity Anglican church (17), at Rue du Mont-Blanc 14b, holds communion at 9am and a morning service at 10.30am. Rather more exotic is Switzerland's first Russian Orthodox Church (18), on Rue Toepffer, consecrated in 1866 and attended by Stravinsky and Nabokov. Its gold domes can be seen sparkling in the sunshine from 10 miles away.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Piano brunch starts at 11am in the Alhambar (19), at Rue Rotisserie 10 (00 41 22 312 13 13; www.alhambar.com). Try smoked salmon blinis (SFr13/£5.50) or ham omelette (SFr12/£5) amid the eclectic and modern décor.

TAKE A RIDE

The boats on Lake Geneva used to be tied up over the winter, but now there are two fondue cruises a week at 7.30pm leaving from the pier on Quai du Mont Blanc (20), operated by CGN (0848 811 848; www.cgn.ch): Chinese on Thursday (SFr 59/£25) and cheese on Friday (SFr49/£21).

WRITE A POSTCARD

If you are lost for words, sit down on the world's longest bench, 400ft long, on the Promenade de la Treille (21), and write about that as well as the view over the city and the old town. Should it start raining, Café Papon is only yards away at Rue Henri-Fazy 1. It is situated under the oldest part of the town hall, with vaulted ceilings.

A WALK IN THE PARK

The most extensive park is the 28-hectare Botanical Garden (22) (open daily 9.30am-5pm) at the end of bus route 1 from the station (1). 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.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

You can have a sauna or a Turkish bath and massage at the Paquis Baths (23) on the lake (00 41 22 732 29 74; www.bains-des-paquis.ch; open 10am-9.30pm), possibly followed by fondue and champagne, 6-9pm. A 50-minute massage will cost you SFr60 (£26).

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