For many people, Geneva is merely a place to do business – a global financial hub and home to international organisations, including the United Nations. And skiers may regard it only as a necessary stop on the journey to the Alps. But in French-speaking Switzerland it's renowned as a lively cultural capital, with a wealth of historic landmarks and loads of stylish shops and cafés. Even better, it is becoming more accessible to British train travellers.
Until today, a rail journey from London to Geneva took about seven hours, including an awkward transfer in Paris between Gare du Nord and Gare du Lyon. Now you can do it in just over six, with a single platform change in Lille. Leave St Pancras just before 1pm, change at Lille Europe to the new TGV Lyria and you'll be in Geneva in time for dinner at 8.16pm – an hour earlier than before.
The medieval Old Town is the biggest and best preserved in Switzerland, yet you won't find many tourists in its cobbled alleys. It's still a place where people live and work. The Jetée des Paquis is another marvel, a little lido in the heart of town, where in summer you can swim, or sunbathe, or simply sit on the shingle beach and gaze out across Lake Geneva, western Europe's largest and loveliest lake.
Another secret pleasure is the city's gloriously underpopulated art galleries. The Musée d'Art et d'Histoire (bit.ly/GenevaMus; free entry) has a fine array of Old Masters and Impressionists. I always go straight for Ferdinand Hodler's serene paintings of Lake Geneva and the snowcapped mountains around it. More avant-garde is Mamco (mamco.ch; Sfr8/£5), the funky Museum of Modern & Contemporary Art – sited in an old factory in the grungy Quartier des Bains.
The best thing about Geneva is the thrill of being somewhere below the radar, dismissed by some as dull and dreary, yet held in affection by its multicultural population. Ever since John Calvin came here in the 16th century it's been an international city, and its links with British tourism stretch back to Lord Byron. These days, Wall Street English is the lingua franca in the hotel lobbies on the waterfront, but in its cosy backstreet bars you'll find a rich mix of cultures from all over Europe and beyond.
Close to the lake, the four-star Hotel Bristol (00 41 22 716 5700; bristol.ch) is a convenient base. The walls are lined with antique paintings; a harpist plays in the dining room. The restaurant is helmed by lauded French chef Bruno Marchal. The Sfr55 (£36) three-course menu du jour is good value.
Hotel Auberge Communale (00 41 22 338 0710; hotelcarouge.ch) in Carouge has plain, pleasant doubles from Sfr180 (£118) with breakfast.
The pretty suburb of Carouge is a 10-minute tram ride from Geneva's central station, but it used to be a separate city and still feels like a place apart. It was built in the 1750s by Italian architects as a Catholic alternative to Calvinist Geneva, where no dancing or decoration was allowed. That religious divide has vanished, but the cultural differences remain. Carouge still seems Italianate, not only in its architecture, but in its lifestyle. There are Roman relics in the town hall (admission free).
Hidden behind a bright red door, up a narrow flight of bright red stairs, Table & Wear (00 41 22 736 3232; ladress.ch; closed Sunday and Monday) from the outside looks like a trendy nightclub. Inside, it's an innovative blend of bistro and boutique. Gabriele Azoulai runs the restaurant, her daughter Valerie sells the clothes. Reclaimed furniture, a rooftop terrace – you can eat a tasty meal or try on a designer outfit. The menu is international, with Asian and Mediterranean influences. The plat du jour costs Sfr18 (£12). Elsewhere, the jolly Café du Marche (00 41 22 827 1696) is a good place to refuel, with a hearty menu du jour for Sfr25 (£16).
The Cottage Café (00 41 22 731 6016; cottagecafe.ch) is a charming hideaway in an old pavilion in a leafy square beside the lake. Another good brasserie can be found at the Hotel de Ville (00 41 22 311 70 30; hdvglozu.ch) – a grand 16th-century building in the heart of the Old Town. It was a guardhouse in the 17th century, a tavern in the 18th century and a brewery in the 19th century. A glass of Chasselas (a surprisingly good white wine from Lake Geneva) costs Sfr6.50 (£4) at the Cottage Café, Sfr5 (£3) at the Hotel de Ville.
Rue du Rhône is Geneva's poshest shopping street. For something more distinctive, check out the quaint boutiques in Carouge. The ateliers where they make and sell their wares were built in the 18th century, and the trades they practise there have hardly changed since then. Anne-Claude Virchaux (00 41 22 342 35 26) weaves clothes on an old-fashioned loom in her shop window on Rue St-Joseph; Igor Siebold (00 41 22 301 2955; igorsiebold.ch) makes stylish jewellery; Jean Kazes (00 41 22 343 3091; jean-kazes.ch) makes striking clocks.
Founded in 1859 by local businessman Henry Dunant, the Red Cross is still based in Geneva. For an inspiring introduction to its crucial work, visit the International Museum of the Red Cross & Red Crescent (00 41 22 748 9511; redcrossmuseum.ch; Sfr15/£10; bus 8 from Geneva's Cornavin station). The interactive display is intensely impressionistic. As you wander through a maze of memorabilia, you're reminded of its vital role in supporting millions of refugees and prisoners of war.
Collect a free ticket in arrivals for the 10-minute train journey into town. Rail fares via Eurostar (08432 186 186; eurostar.com) start at £116, including the TGV from Lille. Local transport passes are available free from hotels.
The Hotel Bristol (00 41 22 716 5700; bristol.ch) has double rooms starting at Sfr250 (£164), room only.
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Swiss National Tourist Office (00 800 100 200 29; myswitzerland.ch)
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