48 hours in: Geneva
Published 06/02/2010 | 05:00
This 'Rome of Protestantism' stands amid dramatic peaks and breathes opulence and artistic expression, writes Nicholas Murray
Why go now?
Geneva is the main arrival point for hundreds of Irish skiers every winter, giving access to the Alps' best resorts. Yet the capital of French Switzerland is a great destination in its own right. Go now to catch the glittering snow-capped peaks of the Jura and the Savoy Alps that surround the city's centrepiece, Lake Geneva, with Mont Blanc out-topping them all in the distance.
Geneva is connected to Dublin and Cork by Aer Lingus (0818 365000; aerlingus.com). The airport is only 5km from the heart of the city. Public transport in the city is superb, and tourists staying at any city hotel, youth hostel or campsite get a free Unireso card that gives unlimited travel for the duration of your stay on buses, trains, trams and boats.
You collect this when you arrive at your accommodation but -- on production of evidence of your booking -- you can also pick up a free public transport ticket from the machine in the baggage collection area at arrivals to get you to your hotel. Every train from the airport's station takes six minutes to reach the central Gare de Cornavin (1).
Get your bearings
The Rhône flows west out of Lake Geneva, and is crossed by six bridges, notably the Pont du Mont-Blanc (2). The smaller parallel bridge, the Pont du Machine (3), is the location for a well-stocked tourist office (0041 223 119 970; genevatourism.ch).
On the rue du Mont-Blanc there's an even bigger tourist office (4) (0041 229 097 000) next to the main post office. Pick up the free weekly Genève Agenda, which lists everything that is going on (in French and English).
You'll spend most of your time on the Left Bank, home to the old town and the best art museums, cobbled streets and the Cathédrale St-Pierre (5), with its austere Gothic interior and the stiff, unbending chair of Calvin where the founder of this 'Rome of Protestantism' sat to preach.
At the centre of the Lake (Lac Léman) is the Jet d'Eau (6), originally built to relieve pressure building up from the hydraulic turbines on the Rhône, but now a tourist sight, spurting 140m up in the air. However, in bad weather it's turned off.
Geneva has plenty of reasonably priced accommodation, but advance booking is advisable. For a luxurious stay, try Les Armures (7) at rue du Puits St-Pierre 1 (0041 223 109 172; www.hotel-les-armures.ch), a 17th-century historic building with elegantly understated chic. Weekend deals start at around CHF439 (€298) for a double, including breakfast.
Another, less costly, place of traditional luxury is Hotel Bristol (8) at rue du Mont-Blanc 10 (0041 227 165 700; bristol.ch). Weekend deals for a double room start at around CHF295 (€200) including breakfast.
It is possible to stay virtually in the Old Town at more affordable rates at Hotel Central (9), at rue de la Rôtisserie 2 (0041 228 188 100; hotelcentral.ch), where the simplest 'budget' room (shower but no WC) costs CHF95 (€65), with breakfast.
Take a hike
Head up one of the steep, winding streets of the Old Town to the free Maison Tavel museum (10) at 6 Rue du Puits-St-Pierre (0041 224 183 700; mah.ville-ge.ch, 10am-5pm daily except Mondays, admission free). Built by the Tavels in the 12th century, it's now a bit of a hotchpotch on several floors of carved doors, topographical paintings, furniture, old kitchen ranges and suits of armour, but there are some interesting camera angles from the upper windows.
On the top floor, a room is filled with a large model of Geneva made in 1850 when it was still a walled town -- yet which, 160 years on, provides a good sense of the cityscape. And don't miss the remnants of the guillotine that Genevans were ordered to set up in 1799 when they became part of the French Republic.
Then descend to Edward's (11) at rue du Vieux Collège 1, a bustling, unpretentious coffee shop that serves "les fameux sandwiches Edward's". Refreshed, climb again to the Musée d'Art et d'Histoire (12) at rue Charles Galland 2 (0041 224 182 600; ville-ge.ch/mah; 10am-5pm daily except Mondays, admission free, exhibitions CHF5/€3.39), a little east of the Old Town (free admission), where you can still catch the special exhibition of Flemish and Dutch paintings called Art and its Markets -- appropriately named for a city where money talks.
Lunch on the run
There are some inexpensive options around the Cathedral (5) such as Spaghetti Factory (13) at rue de la Fontaine 13 (0041 223 106 100), with pizzas at CHF16 (€10.86) and some cheerful little coffee shops and terrace bars serving food in the Place du Bourg-de-Four (14) built on the site of the old Roman forum and a marketplace since medieval times.
For something a little more stylish there is Les Armures (7) at rue du Puits-St-Pierre 1 (0041 223 103 432), with its traditional stone floors and a plaque telling you that Bill Clinton and his family liked the characteristic Swiss dishes. For a traditional Swiss cheese fondue and a dollop of chalet-style kitsch then Cave Valaisanne is the place, at boulevard Georges-Favon 23 (0041 223 281 236).
Work off that fondue and descend from the Old Town and around the bastions along the broad boulevard Jacques Dalcroze. Follow Boulevard des Philosophes down to the Rond-Point de Plainpalais (15), This is the gateway to the Plaine de Plainpalais where, on Saturdays, there is a vast flea market, selling everything from books, vinyl discs and CDs to startlingly large pieces of furniture, watches, clothes, guns, Swiss Army knives, paintings, religious statues and model cars.
There are more second-hand bookshops on Boulevard Georges Favon, which leads north off the Plainpalais up to the river.
Wander back up the rue du Conseil Générale to the Place Neuve (16), from where you get a grand view of the old town and a chance to visit the Musée Rath (0041 224 183 340; mah.ville-ge.ch; 10am-5pm daily except Mondays; noon-9pm Wednesdays; admission CHF10/€6.79), which is hosting an Alberto Giacometti exhibition until February 21. Across the Parc des Bastions, the Mur des Réformateurs (17) is surmounted by statues of the religious reformers.
If you have time to catch another museum, the Musée de la Réforme (18) at rue du Cloître 4 (0041 223 102 431; musee-reforme.ch; 10am-5pm daily except Mondays; admission CHF10/€6.79) will tell you all you need to know about the Reformation.
The Café des Forces Motrices in Place des Volontaires (19) is a pleasantly relaxed place to unwind after the day's sightseeing and think about where to go for an evening meal.
Dining with the locals
A certain heavy traditional opulence is a trademark of Geneva and, for reputedly the best steak-frites in the city in an exquisitely old-fashioned bistro décor, it has to be the Café de Paris (20) at rue du Mont-Blanc 26 (0041 227 328 450) just across on the right bank. There is only one dish on the menu: entrecôte, served with its special herb butter, green salad and frites at CHF41 (€27.84).
The Brasserie Lipp (21) at rue de la Conféderation 8 (0041 223 188 030) is another stylish venue -- it's not cheap, but is recommended for its generous seafood dishes.
A walk in the park
North of the Rhône you will find plenty of greenery, speckled with some of the 200 international organisations to which Geneva is home. Find your way through the parkland surrounding the Palais des Nations to the International Red Cross Museum (22) at Avenue de la Paix 17 (0041 227 489 525; micr.org; 10am-5pm daily except Tuesdays; admission CHF10/€6.79).
The Red Cross was founded by a Genevan, Henri Dunant, and the exhibition is memorable and affecting. Look out for the cheeky soldier-and-nurse postcards from the Great War.
Out to brunch
If you fancy a weekend brunch of smoked-salmon salad together with fresh bread and pastries, then visit Le Pain Quotidien (23) at boulevard Helvétique 21 (0041 227 363 690).
Go to church
Close by, the Russian Church (24) was built in 1863 for Geneva's significant Russian expatriate community. Its glittering gold onion-domes are worth catching against a frozen blue winter sky. But in the city of Calvin, church-going is a serious matter and the Cathédrale St-Pierre (5) (noon-5.30pm on Sundays, 10am-5.30pm on other days) is the centrepiece. Its bare nave comprises a stern rebuke to garish southern European baroque, though the Chapelle des Macchabées is surprisingly ornate and colourfully decorated: small wonder it was downgraded to a salt store in the Reformation. Don't leave without seeing the underground architectural museum beneath the Cathedral.
Take a ride
A boat trip on Lake Geneva, flanked by snow-capped mountains, is a must, and the transport pass covers water transport too. Hop on a mouette at one of the piers for a trip across the lake; there are four routes to choose from. If the Jet d'Eau (6) is spouting you will see that to advantage and look back at the grand hotels facing the lake on the Right Bank. When you get off, inspect the Jardin Anglais and the floral clock on the Left Bank.
The icing on the cake
Explore the chic district of Carouge. Just hop on a tram, 12 or 13, to this artisan district of pretty squares and fountains, galleries and restaurants, and streets with internal galleried courtyards. Get off at Place du Marché and simply wander about, window shop, or take a coffee or glass of wine.
If you have a day to spare, take a trip to the romantic Chateau de Chillon on the shores of Lake Geneva between Montreux and Villeneuve, an architectural jewel and Switzerland's most visited historic monument.