48 hours in Geneva

The Alps are more than just a winter playground. Geneva makes the best of its lake-side location in the summer, and intense airline competition makes flights cheap, says Cathy Packe


WHY GO NOW?

WHY GO NOW?

In summer, the lake becomes the focus of life. Many cafés have tables out on the waterfront, with others offering alfresco refreshment in the attractive squares of the old town. The annual Bol d'Or, Europe's biggest lake sailing race, takes place on 12-13 June, with hundreds of yachts taking part.

BEAM DOWN

Competition between airlines is intense. The leading operator is easyJet (0871 750 0100; www.easyjet.com), with flights from Nottingham East Midlands, Gatwick, Liverpool and Luton. Swiss (0845 601 0956; www.swiss.com/uk) flies from Heathrow. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow, Gatwick, London City and Manchester. Five trains an hour leave the airport for the seven-minute journey to Cornavin station in the city centre. Single tickets cost SFr2.60 (£1.20).

GET YOUR BEARINGS

Switzerland's third-largest city clings to the south-west corner of Lake Geneva, beneath the peaks of the Jura and the Alps. The Jet d'Eau, a fountain that has been Geneva's best-known landmark for more than 100 years, spouts from the water. The city is split in half by the river Rhône: the old town is on the left bank to the south, while the right bank is more residential and is home to many of the organisations that have set up their European headquarters in the city. The main tourist office at 18 Rue du Mont Blanc (00 41 22 909 7082; www.geneva-tourism.ch) is open from 9am-6pm Tuesday to Saturday, 10am-6pm on Monday and is closed on Sunday. This is the place to buy a 48-hour Geneva Transport Card, which costs SFr20 (£8.75) and allows access to all the buses and trains in the city, as well as the yellow and red mouette ferries across the lake.

CHECK IN

In the old town, the five-star Hotel des Armures at 1 Rue du Puits-St-Pierre (00 41 22 310 9172; www.hotel-les-armures.ch) is in a carefully modernised 17th-century building. Double rooms start at SFr495 (£217) and singles at SFr345 (£151) (all the rates quoted here include breakfast). The Hotel Epsom is at 18 Rue de Richemont (00 41 22 544 6666; www.manotel.com), only a couple of blocks from the lake, and some of the rooms have lake views. Doubles start at SFr315 (£138), and singles at SFr276 (£121). One of the best value hotels in the city is the family-owned Hotel Central at 2 Rue Rotisserie (00 41 22 818 8100; www.hotelcentral.ch). Rooms are simple but comfortable, and the hotel is flexible enough to accommodate longer-stay guests. Prices start at SFr85 (£37).

TAKE A VIEW

The reward for climbing the 150 steps to the top of the tower of St Peter's Cathedral (00 41 22 310 2929) is a magnificent panorama over the city. Immediately below are the red roofs of the old town: in front is a bird's-eye view of the lake with the mountains in a horseshoe shape behind. The tower is open from 10am-11.30am and 2pm-4.30pm from Monday to Friday, 10am-5pm Saturday, and 12noon-5pm on Sunday from 1 October-31 May. From 1 June-30 September it is open Monday to Saturday from 9.30am-6pm, and on Sunday from noon-6pm. Entrance is SFr3 (£1.30).

TAKE A HIKE

Begin a walk around the old town by looking at the Gothic cathedral, which dominates this once-fortified area. It opens 9am-7pm daily in summer. Underneath, after nearly 20 years of excavations, the foundations of several earlier cathedrals have been discovered, and many of the findings are on display in an underground museum that has a separate entrance on Cour St-Pierre (00 41 22 311 7575). It is open from 11am-5pm from Tuesday to Saturday and 11am-5pm on Sunday in summer - admission costs SFr5 (£2.20). From here, walk around the corner to visit Maison Tavel at 6 Rue du Puits-St-Pierre (00 41 22 418 3700), the oldest house in the city. It has now been turned into a museum whose exhibits include a model of the city as it was in 1850. The house opens from 10am-5pm daily except Monday, and admission is free. From here, wander down Rue Jean Calvin and Rue Martin before making your way back up the Grand-Rue, with its interesting shops and cafés. At number 40 is Espace Rousseau (00 41 22 310 10 28), where an audio-visual "promenade" takes visitors through the life of Jean-Jacques Rousseau - the writer was born in this house in 1712 and spent his first years in Geneva. The centre opens from 11am-5pm daily except Monday and admission costs SFr5 (£2.20).

LUNCH ON THE RUN

Finish your walk in the sprawling Place du Bourg-de-Four, where there are plenty of cafés and restaurants. Chez Ma Cousine (00 41 22 310 96 96) serves only free-range chicken - three choices a day each cost SF13.90 (£6). Next door, Au Pied de Cochon restricts its menu to pork dishes. Vegetarians will be happier across the square at the Brasserie du Bourg de Four (00 41 22 311 90 76).

CULTURAL AFTERNOON

Spend a few hours exploring Geneva's heritage. The Palais des Nations (00 41 22 917 4896; www.unog.ch), the European headquarters of the United Nations, offers guided tours. The entrance is at 14 Avenue de la Paix. Tours include a visit to the Assembly Hall, where delegates sit in alphabetical order to discuss world peace, and the smaller Council Chamber, first used in the days of the League of Nations. Visits take place from 10am-noon and 2pm-4pm daily from April to June, September and October; and from 10am-5pm in July and August. Visits cost SFr8.50 (£3.75).

Just opposite at 17 Avenue de la Paix stands the Red Cross Museum (00 41 22 748 9511; www.micr.org). This charts the history of the society since it was founded in 1863 by a Genevan, Henri Dunant, who was appalled at the way prisoners of war were treated during the Battle of Solferino. The museum opens 10am-5pm daily except Tuesday, and admission is Sfr10 (£4.40).

WINDOW SHOPPING

Most of the city's best shops are along Rue du Rhône. There are plenty of designer names here, with a branch of Philippe Patek, Geneva's long-established watch-maker, at number 41. It is worth bearing in mind, though, that Geneva is not a place to expect to pick up holiday bargains.

TAKE A RIDE

Lake cruises leave from the Paquis landing stage at 30 Quai du Mont Blanc. An hour-long loop around the lake will cost SFr12 (£5.25), and there are several departures a day according to the time of year. Services connecting Geneva with other towns on the lake (00 41 22 312 5223; www.cgn.ch) also stop here.

AN APERITIF

For a typical aperitif, choose either the local beer, Calvinus, or a glass of the region's Chasselas or Gamay wine. During the summer, a temporary bar is set up on the Ile Rousseau, and there is no better place to while away time. Other popular bars include La Clemence, in Place du Bourg-de-Four, or the more modern Rive Gauche, at 29 Rue du Rhône.

DINING WITH THE LOCALS

Distinguished local visitors, including Bill Clinton, dine at Les Armures at 1 Rue du Puits-St-Pierre (00 41 22 310 3442; www.hotel-les-armures.ch), an excellent hotel restaurant which specialises in Swiss dishes and lake fish. Soupçon, at 8 Place du Bourg-de-Four (00 41 22 318 3737) is a trendy place that uses local ingredients, but has given Swiss cuisine a modern, lighter twist. For relaxed, brasserie-style cooking, try the Restaurant Hotel-de-Ville at 39 Grand'Rue (00 41 22 311 70 30).

SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH

L'Auditoire de Calvin (00 41 22 786 0068), opposite the cathedral on the corner of Place de la Taconnerie, is one of the city's earliest international buildings. During the Reformation, Calvin arranged for it to be available to the many non French-speaking refugees who flooded into Geneva so that they could hold services in their own languages. John Knox was the British minister from 1556-9, after which time it became the heart of the university that Calvin founded in the city. Visitors are welcome from Monday to Saturday, 11am-1pm and 2-5pm, but on Sunday it is open to worshippers only, when the church holds non-French services. A Church of Scotland service is held at 11am.

OUT TO BRUNCH

Try U Bobba at 21 rue de la Corraterie (00 41 22 310 53 40) for an excellent selection of brunch dishes served, weather permitting, on an attractive roof terrace. On Sunday it is open from 11am-3pm. The extensive cold plateau costs SFr25; hot dishes are extra. An alternative Sunday morning choice is Brasserie Lipp at 8 Rue de la Confederation (00 41 22 311 1011). The menu offers lunch rather than brunch, and choices include smoked salmon and savoury crêpes.

A WALK IN THE PARK

Geneva has plenty of green spaces, the most attractive of which are the parks that line the west side of the lake. From Quai Wilson, meander along the lake-side through Parc Mon Repos and La Perle du Lac. All along the route there are plenty of places to stop, grassy spaces for picnicking or benches from which to admire the view. And if the walk back into the city seems too much, the Perle du Lac has a landing stage for the mouettes, the bright red-and-yellow ferries that zigzag up the shore, ready to return you to the city.

WRITE A POSTCARD...

...from Sardinia. Carouge is part suburb of Geneva, part separate city on the far side of the river Arve, which branches off the Rhône. Founded in the 18th century by the ruler of Sardinia as a rival to Geneva which he had failed to conquer, it retains a pleasant, neighbourhood feel. There are plenty of places to eat and a lively market in the Place du Marche every Saturday morning.

THE ICING ON THE CAKE

If the weather is warm enough, join the locals for a swim in the lake. The Bains des Paquis at 30 Quai du Mont Blanc (00 41 22 732 2974; www.bains-des-paquis.ch) is built out into the lake, with walled pools to protect swimmers from the boats, an area for sunbathing, and a very popular café. Massages are available all year round, and from mid-September to mid-April, when the baths are closed for swimming, there is a sauna and Turkish bath. The baths are open daily from 9am-8pm, and entrance costs Sfr2 (90p).

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