48 Hours In: Geneva

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

This handsome lakeside city, financial centre and gateway to the Alps, is gearing up for carnival season, writes Simon Calder

Travel essentials

Why go now?

The hub of French-speaking Switzerland, arrival point for thousands of British skiers each week, is fascinating in its own right: a centre of enlightenment and for global organisations, which bestows it with colur and energy. The city's carnival (carnaval-geneve.ch) starts on 23 February.

Touch down

Geneva's main airline is easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyJet.com), with flights from a range of UK airports. British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Swiss (0845 601 0956; swiss.com) compete from Heathrow, Gatwick and London City. Darwin Airline (01223 851480; darwinairline.com) flies from Cambridge, and Jet2 (0800 408 1350; jet2.com) flies from Leeds/Bradford.

From the airport, take the free train into town. Just pick up a ticket from a machine beside the exit of the baggage hall. It is valid for the train and all other public transport, for 80 minutes.

All trains from the airport stop six minutes later at Geneva's main station, Gare de Cornavin (1), which is being renovated (so the stirring murals of mountain scenes in the main ticket hall are under wraps).

The train journey from London St Pancras is straight- forward, on Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) to Paris Gare du Nord then Gare de Lyon.

Get your bearings

The city is defined by Lake Geneva, whose western end it wraps around. The Jet d'Eau (2) is an icon for the city. The 140-metre fountain is more than a tourist sight – it began as an imaginative way to relieve excess pressure in the city's water-management system. Seven tonnes of water are airborne at a time. Just 400 metres to the west, the replenished Rhône flows out of the lake on its way to the Mediterranean, and is crossed by six bridges – starting with the busy Pont du Mont-Blanc (3), then a pedestrian link to Ile Rousseau (4), with its statue of the philosopher, and the Pont de la Machine (5).

The main tourist office (6) is north of the river (on the right bank) at 18 Rue du Mont-Blanc (00 41 22 909 70 00; www.geneve-tourisme.ch; 9am-6pm daily, Monday from 10am, Sunday 10am-4pm). It sells the Geneva Pass, granting access to sightseeing tours, museums and other attractions (24 hours is Sfr25/£19; 48hrs, Sfr35/£25; or 72hrs, Sfr45/£32). Hotels also provide a free "Unireso" card giving unlimited use of city buses, trains, trams and boats.

Check in

For both luxury and location there's Les Armures (7), a 17th-century building in the Old Town at Rue du Puits St-Pierre 1 (00 41 22 310 91 72; hotel-les-armures.ch). A lavish double room typically costs around Sfr408 (£291), excluding breakfast.

The three-star Hôtel Cristal (8) at Rue Pradier 4 (00 41 22 716 12 21; fassbindhotels.com) is stylish, close to the railway station and good value at weekends: Sfr138 (£98) nightly for a good double, with Wi-Fi but not breakfast.

A well-located budget option is the Hotel Central (9) at Rue de la Rôtisserie 2 (00 41 22 818 81 00; www.hotelcentral.ch). A "compact room" costs Sfr125 (£89), with breakfast.

Day one

Take a hike

From the tourist office (6), walk towards the lake and cross the Rhône over the Pont du Mont-Blanc (3). Wander through the 1854 Jardin Anglais (10) and get a time check from the impressive flower clock.

Go one block inland and right along rue du Rhône to the elegant Tour du Molard (11), marking the start of the broad Place du Molard. It contains a relief inscribed "Genève Cité de Refuge"; search the cobbles for one-word messages such as "Gracias" and "Bienvenue". Then fix your sights on the towers of the cathedral (12) and climb a series of staircases to the old town.

On Rue du Puits-Saint-Pierre, call in at the concise Maison Tavel (13) at No 6 (00 41 22 418 37 00; mah.ville-ge.ch; 11am-6pm Tuesday-Sunday), which tells the story of Geneva through the centuries. The Hotel de Ville (14) was where the first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864, the initial act of the International Red Cross.

Take a brief detour to the Promenade de la Treille (15), an elevated terrace that looks out towards the Jura Mountains and claims the world's longest wooden bench, at 126 metres.

Take a view

The Cathédrale St-Pierre (12) (00 41 22 311 75 75; saintpierre-geneve.ch; 10am-5.30pm daily, Sundays from noon) offers the finest view from its twin towers. Buy a Sfr5 (£3.50) ticket from the desk and climb through the innards until you emerge high above the Old Town. Each tower offers a different glimpse of the city. Back at ground level, explore the cathedral – which is mostly a good definition of the word "austere". It was here that John Calvin preached reform in the 16th century, and his uncompromising chair is prominently displayed. To imagine how the whole cathedral must once have looked before its adornments were stripped away, visit the colourful Chapelle des Macchabées.

Lunch on the run

You are a few steps from the Place du Bourg-de-Four (16), site of the old Roman forum. Today, it has the feel of a village square rather than the kernel of a world city. The best pit-stop is Chez Ma Cousine at number 6 (chezmacousine.ch), offering free-range chicken dishes and salads 11am-11.30pm daily.

Window shopping

Given the strength of the Swiss franc, you may not want to go much further than merely looking – but for bargains, visit the flea market that spills across the Plaine de Plainpalais (17) on Saturdays. Close by, Le Globe-Trotter (18) at Bld des Philosophes 9 (00 41 22 329 44 38; leglobetrotter.ch; 10am-4pm Saturdays; 10am-6pm Tuesday-Friday) dispenses active and outdoors gear and travel goodies galore.

An aperitif

The main island in the Rhône has a bright and characterful bar at its western end in what used to be a wholesale market: the Brasserie des Halles de l'Ile (19) (00 41 22 311 08 88; brasseriedeshallesdelile.ch). Note the minimum Sfr20 (£14) spend – you could reach the target by eating here.

Dining with the locals

Alternatively, aim north of the Rhône to the indulgent, richly decorated Café de Paris (20) at Rue du Mont-Blanc 26 (00 41 22 732 84 50; chezboubier.com; 11am-11pm daily). The only dish at this theatrical bistro is sirloin, cooked to your wishes and served with herb butter, three helpings of frites and green salad. Simple, but heavenly; Sfr42 (£30).

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The onion domes of the Russian Church (21) at Rue de Beaumont 18 (00 41 22 346 47 09) tower above the south east of the city. It was built in 1863 by Queen Victoria's aunt, Princess Juliane of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld; she married into the Russian aristocracy but preferred life in Geneva to the Imperial court in St Petersburg. Wander in and around to admire the wealth of icons.

Out to brunch

The machine that gave the Pont de la Machine (5) its name formerly occupied the building in the middle and pumped water to the city's lesser fountains. Today, the structure houses the Cité du Temps – an unusual combination of art space, Swatch museum and chic lounge-restaurant, Au Phil du Temps (00 41 22 818 39 00; citedutemps.com). It opens 9am-6pm daily.

Walk in the park

The Parc des Bastions offers a charming combination of formal greenery and outdoor chess. The main attraction, though, is the Mur de la Réformation (22) – a 100-metre relief paying tribute to 16th-century Protestant reformers including Calvin and his ally John Knox, founder of Scottish Presbyterianism. Walk a block west and take tram 15 to its terminus at Palais des Nations (23) – home to the United Nations' main European presence.

Cultural afternoon

To the left of the mural preaching peace, follow the road around to the Musée Ariana, a beautiful venue for ceramics and glassware (00 41 22 418 54 50; ville-ge.ch/ariana; 10am-5pm Sundays, to 6pm other days, closed Mondays). On the other side of the road is the International Red Cross Museum at avenue de la Paix 17 (00 41 22 748 95 11; micr.org; 10am-5pm daily except Monday; Sfr15/£11). It tells the story of how the Red Cross/Red Crescent was founded by a Swiss businessman, Jean Henri Dunant.

Icing on the cake

As the sun dwindles over Switzerland's westernmost city, view it from the water with a trip aboard one of the mouettes that shuttle back and forth between the two sides of the city. The journey is covered by the Unireso Geneva transport card.

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