Beverley Watts explores Geneva where she learns about Calvinism and visits the city's oldest private residence

There are some very cheeky sparrows in Geneva.

Sat in the garden of the Cottage Café in Brunswick Park enjoying lunch, the birds flit from chair to chair, picking up crumbs and eyeing me boldly.

This compact Swiss city, famed for its financial centre, fancy watches and fine dining, isn’t a budget destination but a must-see for history buffs.

Geneva tram

Nestled at the southern tip of Lake Geneva (Lac Léman), the mini metropolis is embraced by the Jura Mountains and the Alps, with a view of Mont Blanc.

A useful landmark and meeting point is the 1879 Brunswick Monument, which looks out across the water. Charles II, Duke of Brunswick, left his fortune to the city in exchange for the elaborate mausoleum, so he paid handsomely for a prime spot.

For those of us not quite so flush, the good news is public transport is free. Pick up a complimentary Geneva Transport Card at your hotel to use on train, tram, bus and boat. It’s fun to board a red and yellow water taxi to criss-cross from right bank to left.

A Geneva Pass (geneve.com, from 26CHF/£21) is good value as it covers entry into 30 attractions and includes the Mont-Salève cable car, open bus trip and guided walking tour through the Old Town’s narrow streets.

Geneva water taxi and swans

As 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Reformation, Geneva is welcoming visitors keen to retrace the history of Protestantism.

Many European printers, watchmakers and goldsmiths were offered safe haven in the 16th-century city – dubbed ‘Protestant Rome’ – when they fled persecution for supporting the theology of Martin Luther and challenging the Roman Catholic church.

I head by tram to Bastions Park where modern-day Genevans challenge each other to outdoor chess and table tennis under the trees. Here,the International Monument To The Reformation is built into the old city wall.

Geneva Reformation Wall

The stone relief statues depict iconic figures – including John Knox, founder of the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, and theologian John Calvin. If you take the new one-hour Footsteps Of The Reformation walking tour, this is one of the 10 linked significant sites.

Nearby is the International Museum Of The Reformation with manuscripts and paintings that bring to life the story of the religious movement. Until 31 October, you can even help to handprint a copy of the Bible using a reproduced Gutenberg wooden printing press.

There’s a big surprise at Saint-Pierre Cathedral, constructed in the 12th century and stripped of its Renaissance ornamentation by the Calvinists.

Beneath the foundations, archaeologists have unearthed the threshold of a Christian chapel from AD380 and there are artefacts dating from the earliest Celt settlers right up until the Middle Ages.

Geneva Roman mosaic under cathedral

Slip down the stairs and explore the excavations with mosaic floors, abandoned flagons and fragments of honey pots.

Be sure to make time for Maison Tavel, the oldest private residence in Geneva, which houses an extraordinary model of how the city looked in 1840, surrounded by massive walls and complex moats.

The tightly packed buildings inside the fortifications couldn’t accommodate the growing population so for hundreds of years grew skywards – with roofs raised – rather than out.

You’ll spot the added floors if you look up as you stroll around to sightsee and shop.

Geneva model of old city walls

Go home with chocolate (Chocolaterie Rohr has ‘petits Calvins’) and a Swiss penknife, engraved with your name. The Rolex or Patek Philippe watch can probably wait.

Calvin banned jewellery, so he’s the reason diamond-encrusted watches developed into today’s prestigious Swiss brands. They were practical, argued the craftsmen – and somehow they got away with it.

Great for culture vultures

Geneva is the birthplace of Frankenstein. Mary Shelley (neé Godwin), who’d just run off with poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, wrote her novel here in 1816. It was a stormy summer and Mary was inspired by ‘vivid flashes of lightning’, which made the lake ‘appear like a vast sheet of fire’.

Great for tranquil travellers

Geneva lobster salad

Take a leisurely lake cruise on the restored paddle steamer CGN Savoie (left). Pack a picnic or book lunch with a lobster salad starter, £52, on the upper deck.

You’ll pass the Jet d’Eau fountain in La Rade harbour, but the best view is from Paquis Baths, where you can swim and devour creamy cheese fondue.

Great for food lovers

Geneva market at Carouge

Visit the market in the bohemian district of Carouge, open Wednesday and Saturday am, Thursday pm, for wine, mushrooms and salami.

Don’t miss the freshly caught perch fillets with fries at Café Restaurant du Quai in Hermance. It’s a delight with its quirky charm. Sit on the longest bench in Europe at the top of Ramp de la Treille, and enjoy a pastry and coffee at Café Papon.

Where to stay

You could splash out on a stay at Hotel Le Richemond, where Rita Hayworth and Charlie Chaplin were once guests. Treat yourself to a delightful lunch in the hotel’s Le Jardin restaurant (the sea bream is seriously good).

Or there’s Hotel Central for a cut-price stay. Check out the hotel deals on geneve.com – search under ‘Sleep’.