Geneva: A place to look and linger

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The Independent Travel

Travel is full of puzzles. One of the strangest is that millions of people pass through Geneva each winter en route to the ski slopes of Switzerland and France, yet only a small number takes time to discover a gem of a city.

Geneva has an exquisite location at the conclusion of the lake that bears its name (for the English speaker, at least - the French community calls it Lac Leman). The city spreads out from the point where the Rhône begins its long meander to the Mediterranean - indeed, a branch of the city's tourist office is perched in the middle of the river on Pont de la Machine. The land rises sharply on the left bank of the river, providing the core for the city as well as some spectacular views from carefully created promenades. Much of the later expansion has taken place on the right bank, which is also where the main station and most of the shops are located - as well as the main tourist office, part of the main post office, at 18 rue du Mont-Blanc (00 41 22 909 70 00; www.geneve-tourisme.ch). It opens 9am-6pm daily except Sundays (from 10am on Mondays).

Accommodation

The best address in town is 13 Quai du Mont Blanc, location for the Hotel Beau-Rivage (00 41 22 716 66 66; www.beau-rivage.ch), which has been indulging visitors for 14 decades but has been spruced up for the 21st century. Even if you are staying elsewhere, it is worth a glimpse for the opulence of its 19th-century public rooms. Double rooms start at Sfr720 (£320) with breakfast an extra Sfr 39 (£17.50), though if you want a view of the lake, you can expect to add around a third to this price.

More economical locations can be found on the right bank, especially around the station. The Hotel International & Terminus at Rue des Alpes 20 (00 41 22 906 97 77; www.international-terminus.ch) is as practical and prosaic as its name suggests, but a double room for Sfr135 (£60) with breakfast represents good value.

Culture

The heart of the old town is the cathedral of St-Pierre, which is likely to be one of most austere buildings you will ever see. In keeping with the reformist credentials of the city - one of the highlights is Calvin's chair - unnecessary embellishment has been shunned in favour of almost relentless formality - disrupted only by some flourishes of ornate woodwork and shards of colour from the stained glass. It opens 10am-5.30pm daily (Sundays from noon, unless you are attending the 10am service). A few paces north-west, towards the river, you can learn the story of the city at Maison Tavel at 6 Rue du Puits-St-Pierre (00 41 22 418 37 00); open 10am-5pm daily except Mondays, admission free.

The main cultural repository is just south of the old town: the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire at Rue Charles-Galland 2 (00 41 22 418 26 00); it opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday, and is free. The weight of exhibits - from archeology via armour to art - may seem overwhelming, but the surroundings themselves are impressive enough, even on a brisk visit.

To the north of the city, the best thing about the Ariana Swiss Museum of Ceramics at 10 Avenue de la Paix (00 41 22 418 54 50) is the location, a magnificent mansion. It opens 10am-5pm daily, admission free.

Eating and drinking

All the museums have good places to eat, but the best is probably at the Red Cross museum (see box) - which has a daily special for Sfr14.90 (£6.50) including salad. Most people, though, converge on the old town and in particular the Grand Rue and its surrounding streets.

Plenty of visitors head for the Place du Bourg-de-Four, an odd-shaped square at the south of the old town that is ringed with restaurants. The Café du Bourg-de-Four on the south side is an excellent place to sample rösti; the basic version is Sfr19 (£8), with a franc extra for additional ingredients.

Shopping

Geneva may not be quite at the heart of Watch Valley, but it is certainly the retail centre of chronology. The Maison de l'Horloge can be found on Rue Kléberg. Head along Rue du Rhône and Rue du Rive for the big designer names and more upmarket retail therapy. On the right bank of the Rhône, the streets leading off Rue du Mont-Blanc offer all the cuckoo clocks, Swiss Army knives and cheese you could want. The biggest department store is Manor, at 6 Rue Cornavin. Like most shops in Geneva, it is closed on Sundays. Markets are a feature of the city's retail scene, with a flea market on Wednesdays and Saturdays on Plaine de Plainpalais and a craft market on Thursdays at Place de la Fusterie. Opinions vary about the best chocolatier in town, but Du Rhône at 3 Rue de la Confederation is one of the leading candidates; at the impressive prices charged, you should take advantage of the free samples before you splash out.

Events and festivals

June: Music festival, taking in both the city centre and the surrounding area.

15 July: Lake Parade, for enthusiasts of techno and house music

3-13 August: Geneva Festival, the highlight of the summer season in the city, with fireworks, concerts and other entertainment.

July-August: Musical Summer, celebrating a diversity of music in a wide variety of venues.

December: Advent is celebrated vigorously, across the city.

For more information contact Geneva Tourism (00 41 22 909 70 00; www.geneve-tourisme.ch)

Conventional wisdom

Avenue de la Paix is a popular street name in the French-speaking world. But in Geneva, at least, the thoroughfare lives up to the billing - wrapping around the Palais des Nations, and flanked with international organisations. The city itself has a long track record of working for peace: birthplace of the 18th-century thinker Rousseau and home of the League of Nations, it is now one of the United Nations' main locations. And at number 17 Avenue de la Paix stands a testament to one man's bid to reduce suffering: the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (pictured below).

Henry Dunant, a businessman from Geneva, in 1859 found himself in northern Italy shortly after the brutal Battle of Solferino in which thousands were wounded in a single day. He was appalled to find that many had been left to die, and organised what relief he could. When he returned home, he set about promoting "a convention, inviolate in character, which, once approved and ratified, might serve as the basis for societies for the relief of the wounded". With two doctors, he formed a society that became the Red Cross, and drafted the first Geneva Convention.

The museum is not your average tourist attraction; some visitors may find the fragments of tragedy intensely distressing. But you should emerge with some faith in humanity restored. And Dunant himself? He won the first Nobel Peace Prize in 1901.

International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, 17 Avenue de la Paix (00 41 22 748 95 25; www.micr.org). Open 10am-5pm daily except Tuesday, admission Sfr10 (£4.50)

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