Short Break in Geneva, Switzerland: expensive, but worth it

Liz Gill reports from Switzerland's second largest city, on the shore of Lake Geneva. Though pricey, the city is perfect for a short break.

By Liz Gill on 19 November 2012 in Travel Articles

For a place with fewer than 200,000 inhabitants Geneva certainly punches above its weight. It has done so in the past. It produced Jean Jacques Rousseau whose philosophy inspired the French Revolution; it was the launch pad for The Reformation which changed the course of European history; it is where the Geneva Convention was signed.

It continues to do so today: it is home to the United Nations, the World Health Organisation and the Red Cross. It is a major financial hub and a centre for diplomacy and human rights. It regularly appears in the top ten of best places to live in the world lists. And it is, perhaps needless to say, very expensive.

There is, however, now a way to sample this elegant and interesting place if not exactly on the cheap, then certainly on a good value for money basis.

The reason is that an increasing number of hotels – full from Monday to Friday with business people but quiet on Saturdays and Sundays – are offering attractive weekend deals to draw in tourists.

What's more, visitors get free public transport including the train from the airport and the water taxis on the lake. And the Geneva Pass which costs from CHF 25 for one day to CHF 72 for three days gives free admission to many museums and galleries and substantial discounts at other attractions.

The city is, in fact, ideal for a two or three day break. It's less than 2 hours on a flight from many European metropolis, it is cosmopolitan but compact and there is plenty to see and do – all facilitated, of course, by the famous Swiss competence.

The train from the airport, for example, will whisk you in six minutes into the Gare de Cornavin, the Art Deco station, designed in 1932 by the Jewish architect Julien Flegenheimer who also designed The Palace of the League of Nations, today the UN's headquarters in Europe.

Other forms of public transport including trams and trolley buses are clean and efficient but one of the charms of Geneva is that a great deal can be seen on foot. Over a couple of days we wandered up into the old city on the hill, through the smart shopping areas and past the gracious 19th century buildings and alongside the lake itself.

Attractions in the old city include St. Peter's Cathedral (climbing the 157 steps of the tower is rewarded with wonderful panoramas); the award-winning Museum of the Reformation which tells how John Calvin, Martin Luther and others challenged the power of the Catholic Church with consequences that still reverberate today; and Maison Tavel with its exhibitions of urban and domestic life and a large model of Geneva in the mid 19th century showing the massive fortifications which surrounded it in those days.

The decision to demolish the fortifications in 1850 meant the city could expand not just physically – previously buildings had to add extra storeys if they wanted more space – but culturally. As a measure of new religious freedoms a Russian Orthodox and a Catholic church were built – and a synagogue.

Shops tend to be fairly predictable – familiar high street names and swanky designers along the Rue Du Rhone (the great river ends at Lake Geneva) – but there are a few gems.

Cigar lovers can check out the original Davidoff store founded by Jewish entrepreneur Zino Davidoff who in 1911 turned his father's tobacconist business into an international name.

For those with a sweet tooth Geneva is chocolate heaven with dozens of outlets. We visited Favarger, founded in 1826 and one of the oldest, whose selection of over 40 varieties includes both traditional and new flavours.

Among the latter I tried coriander – an interesting concoction but I didn't want a second – and yuzu, a hybrid citrus fruit from the Far East I'd never even heard of but which was scrumptious.

The best shop for me though was undoubtedly the Victorinox, home of the Swiss army knife and a place guaranteed to bring out the small boy in all of us, even women of a certain age.

The company began 128 years ago and now produces 79,000 knives a year, ranging in size from the small and neat through ones for golfers, fishermen and cheese eaters to a monster with 65 devices costing nearly CHF 450.

So popular is the knife that when the company ran a Facebook competition for new designs last year it got 45,000 entries. You can buy one of the ten winners or if you sit and assemble your own (on which you can then have your name engraved), you'll be following in the footsteps of Vladimir Putin and both Presidents Bush.

Geneva's biggest claim to manufacturing fame though is in horology, a legacy from the influx of Protestant refugees from France and elsewhere who brought their skills with them – they were bankers and jewellers and silk makers too – and transformed the city's fortunes within a couple of generations.

Today you're assailed by ads for the city's 68 clock and watch making companies including Rolex, Omega, Tag Heuer and Raymond Weil (the only Jewish-owned one) from the moment you step off the plane. Patek Philippe claim to be the most exclusive – an entry level woman's wristwatch is around CHF 12,000 and some styles have a five year waiting list. You can appreciate them more cheaply though with a visit to the company's museum.

I had feared it might be stuffy or for experts and enthusiasts only; in fact it turned out to be a wonderful aesthetic experience. Because, before clocks and watches were precise time-keepers, they were objects of beauty and playthings of the wealthy, set with jewels and ornamented with exquisite enamel work and miniature portraits and the museum has hundreds of these dazzling pieces on display.

Visitors who prefer their horology more up-to-date though can gaze on one of the four timepieces created to mark Patek Philippe's 150th anniversary. Each took ten years to make, performs dozens of functions and is worth about CHF 6m.

Geneva has a lovely setting, surrounded by the Jura mountains and the Alps – you can see Mont Blanc on the horizon – and situated on the south west corner of the largest lake in Western Europe.

Its famous fountain, the Jet d'Eau which shoots water 460 ft into the air, is a year round draw but the lake really comes into its own in spring and summer when it's sailed upon, cycled beside, fished from and swum in – though even in November we saw various hardy souls plunging in from the Bains des Paquis.

Stretching into the water opposite the five star hotels along the lake shore, the Bains offer a beach, a pool with diving board, sauna and Turkish baths and a cafe where those swimmers can enjoy a warming fondu.

You can't go to Switzerland without having one of these – as well as being delicious they are a companionable way to eat – but we chose to have ours instead at Bill and Hilary Clinton's favourite the Restaurant des Armures.

Take 5 minutes to watch this video presenting Geneva through the four seasons:

Fact Box

Geneva Destination Facts
Geneva Tourist Office

Weekend deals include:
Hotel de la Paix (5*) from CHF 475 pp/night
Hotel N'vY 4* from CHF 325 pp/night
Hotel Longemalle 3* from CHF 240 pp/night

We took the Swiss Air Lines flight from London Heathrow to Geneva (from £111 return). Use the search box below for more flights to Geneva:

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