A short break in Geneva is long enough to enjoy the best bits of this Swiss city, says Philip Blackmore

Lake Geneva is at the heart of the Swiss city

Lake Geneva is at the heart of the Swiss city

Your order for lunch just made the kitchen in time,’ said the waitress in perfect English as she placed a white oval plate in front of me.

It was an irony. Here I was in Geneva, a city famed for its watchmaking and timekeeping, and on my first day of exploring, time had flown by so fast it was only visiting the working flower clock in the Jardin Anglais that had reminded me it was lunchtime.

Needless to say, it didn’t take me long to polish off the plate of pan-fried perch (that had been freshly caught from the lake), chips and a chilled glass of chasselas, the local dry white wine.

Located on the western side of Lake Geneva at the foot of the Jura Mountains, Geneva’s setting is pure chocolate-box landscape, with the River Rhône flowing from the Swiss Alps and Mont Blanc, through the heart of the city, and on to France.

The foothills of Mont Blanc from an Italian vantage-point

The foothills of Mont Blanc from an Italian vantage-point © Alamy

For such a relatively tiny city – just six square miles – Geneva’s character punches far above its clear blue alpine skies.

Historically, this Swiss  city’s cultural centre has been associated with revolutionary figures, like the religious thinker Jean Calvin, (who challenged the Roman Catholic Church), and was the birthplace of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, whose ideas contributed towards the French Revolution.

Today, it’s the seat of 25 international organisations, including the United Nations Office, home to over 30 parks, a centre for international diplomacy and is world-renowned for its luxury clock and watchmakers, including Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer and Patek Philippe.

Urban explorers

Geneva has a reputation for not being cheap to visit, but you can certainly experience it on a good value-for-money basis.

Most of the Swiss city can be explored on foot, but make sure you have a map, as I found that quite a few of the streets can change their names several times as you walk along them.

All hotels and hostels will provide you with a free daily pass (the Geneva Transport card) to use on the local transport for the length of your visit.

The Swiss city is home to over 30 museums and galleries, with most of the city-sponsored ones open for free on the first Sunday of the month.

Although most shops are closed on Sundays, the market at Plainpalais on the Boulevard Georges-Favon (about 10 minutes walk from the old town), that kicks off at 8am, more than makes up for it.

I joined the locals eating crêpes and waffles sur place at one of the many food stalls, tasted more of the local wines and bought chunks of Vacherin Mont-d’Or and Gruyère cheeses.

Fireworks over Lake Geneva

Fireworks over Lake Geneva © Alamy

Plus, the Geneva festival, from 30 July to 9 August, attracts more than two million people each year, with over 120 free concerts, 60 carousels and 150 food and craft stalls, fireworks and parades – visit geneve-tourisme.ch

Getting around the Swiss city

If you plan to visit lots of the city’s attractions, it’s worth buying a Geneva Pass, which you can do either in advance online at geneve-tourisme.ch or at the tourism centre at 18 Rue Mont-Blanc. The pass, which starts from 25CHF, runs from one to three days (starting from 25CHF) and includes a mini-train tour of the old town and a cruise on Lake Geneva.

One morning I hired a bike for free and cycled around Lake Geneva’s south bank to watch the Jet d’Eau – the world’s highest-spraying fountain and the city’s emblem – shooting a continuous, 140m plume of water into the sky.

The bike rental was courtesy of an organisation called Genèveroule, which has six stations around the lake. From April, if you show some ID, such as a passport, you can pedal around for up to four hours free of charge (geneveroule.ch).

Enjoy Lake Geneva on a yellow taxi boat

Enjoy Lake Geneva on a yellow taxi boat © Alamy

There is no better way to enjoy the natural beauty of Lake Geneva than by taking one of the Mouettes Genevoises (Geneva Gulls), little yellow taxi boats, or a day cruise on one of the belle époque-era paddle steamers – visit lake-geneva-switzerland.com

What to see

On arriving in ‘Vielle Ville’, the Old Town, its cobbled streets meant I had to abandon my bike in order to further explore its sites. At the very centre I found the Cathedral St Pierre, rather austere and plain after losing much of its lavish decoration when it became a Protestant church in 1536.

I admired the city’s famous limestone houses surrounding the nearby Place du Bourg-de-Four, but most enjoyed losing myself in the Genevoise landscape paintings in the Art and History Museum.

For more of the city’s history, you can visit the Hotel de Ville (located on the road of the same name), where the first Geneva Convention was signed in 1864.

Away from the Old Town, the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Museum is a half-hour tram ride over the river. Prepare yourself, though – the exhibits pack quite an emotional punch.

An ornate original spire at the city's cathedral

An ornate original spire at the city’s cathedral © Alamy

You can’t but marvel at the craftsmanship of the watches on display in the luxury shopping district of Rue du Rhône, but the prices were beyond me. Instead, I settled for a Swiss Army penknife from Victorinox in the Rue de Marché. Compact, multi-faceted and renowned worldwide despite its small size, it rather summed up Geneva for me.

The Tour de Mont Blanc (TMB) is one of the most popular long-distance walks in Europe.

Best taken between mid-July to September, the 170km circuit around Mont Blanc takes around 11 days, passing through France, Italy and Switzerland. There’s plentiful accommodation along the entire route, allowing you to break the route into small segments – visit walkingthetmb.com

The Tour de Mont Blanc is a great way to explore the Swiss city

The Tour de Mont Blanc is a great way to explore outside the Swiss city centre © Alamy

Getting there

  • Eurostar (eurostar.com) runs rail services four days a week from London St Pancras International to Geneva with just a short change in Lille, France. The journey time is 6 hours 15 minutes, with standard-class return fares starting from £150.
  • For a selection of hotels, visit geneve-tourisme.ch

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