A charming and historic surprise awaits you in Geneva

Often bypassed by those heading for the ski slopes, Geneva is a small city with big history that deserves a few days so you can appreciate its splendour, writes Catherine Murphy.

A charming and historic surprise awaits you in Geneva

Every winter, thousands of Irish skiers pass through Geneva airport en-route to French and Swiss ski resorts.

Most are rushing to catch trains or coaches to the mountains, looking no further than the next stage on their journey.

But stopping to take a closer look reveals a charming and historic surprise — the city of Geneva itself, which is just a six-minute train journey from the airport.

With such easy access, it’s a no-brainer to hop on a train and explore the city’s small-town cosiness for a few hours or days.

Geneva’s main reputation is as a banking hub. Follow that with watch-making, chocolate-making, Lake Geneva and you might think you’ve summed the place up.

True enough, at night, the neon signs of banking corporations and expensive watch companies compete to light up the skyline.

A single street, Rue du Rhone, is home to 80 watch and jewellery stores.

The city’s 200,000-strong population is decidedly international, bolstered by bankers who send their children to private schools.

Views of Geneva from the skies,

Views of Geneva from the skies,

With 190 different nationalities accounting for 41% of the population, it’s said to be rare to find a second generation local in Geneva - spotting the occasional Irish tax exile may prove easier.

Geneva has a reputation for being expensive - many locals and visitors cross the border into France (just a 15-minute drive away) for cheaper shopping and dining, which is one way around the price issue for those who want to explore a city that breathes between two countries.

Geneva’s privileged position on Lake Léman is one of its biggest attractions.

The lake, most commonly called Lake Geneva, is 72km long, formed where the Rhone River flows down from the Alps.

Almost like a crescent-shaped island between France and Switzerland, Geneva shares more common territory with the former than the latter and was occupied by the French between 1798 and 1813 before becoming Swiss in 1815.

On a tour of the compact city centre, your guide may inform you that its correct title is ‘the State and Republic of Geneva’, a throw-back to its independent status before French rule.

For culture vultures and outdoor activity fans, the State and Republic of Geneva has much to entertain you during a short winter stop-off.

Here are our top things to do

Go lakeside:

Wrap up warm and hop on board one of the Mouettes Genevoises water taxis which offer a winter schedule (free with the Geneva transport card provided by your hotel) and cross the lake to different parts of the city — a nice alternative to the city’s reliable bus and tram services.

Skate away:

Summer visitors flock to les Bains des Paquis and Geneve Plage to bathe and admire one of the city’s most recognisable landmarks, the Jet d’Eau, which sprays water 140 metres into the sky.

But in winter, it’s time to ice skate at Patinoire des Vernets, Bastions Park and Carouge with prices from six Swiss Francs for adults and 2CHF for children.

Geneve Plage is also year-round home to Bain Bleu, a luxurious spa which features a women-only hammam and a very relaxing six stage circuit, the perfect way to chill out on a cold winter’s day. (bain-bleu.ch).

Soak up the views:

Geneva is situated at the foot of Mont Blanc and also offers great views of the Jura Mountains. A short bus ride and cable car trip takes you to Mont-Saleve which offers panoramic views of the area and cross country skiing in winter.

Hit the old quarter:

Take a city tour of the charming medieval quarter.

St Peter’s Cathedral has 157 steps to the tower and commanding views of the city.

More importantly, it was a focus of 15th century Protestantism in the city with Protestant reformers stripping it of all Catholic murals.

Nearby, Maison Tavel is the oldest private residence in Geneva and a museum of urban history and daily life. It houses an intricate metal relief map of the city circa 1850, created by architect Auguste Magnin over a lengthy 18 years.

Between Dec 2nd and 4th, Geneva celebrates Fete de l’Escalade, a commemoration of the 1602 defence of the city walls from an attack by Savoy forces.

The story goes that a local woman spotted Savoy soldiers scaling the city wall and poured boiling soup over them, alerting the rest of the town to the attack.

Events take place around the old quarter and include Course de l’escalade, a race through the city’s streets.

Soak up the history:

Hear the story of how Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein following a stormy stay on Lake Geneva.

Visit the bust of Red Cross founder Henry Dunant, purposely erected on the spot where the city’s guillotine once stood (Dunant was anti death penalty) and the statue of Empress Sissy of Austria who was assassinated in the city in 1898.

Reform yourself with a visit to the 5m high, 100 metre wide Reformation Wall which commemorates the city’s significant role in the Protestant Reformation and depicts its main characters.

John Calvin led the Reformation in Geneva for decades, preaching in St Peter’s Cathedral.

The wall overlooks the lovely Parc des Bastions.

Watch the time:

There’s no better place to do it. French refugees brought the art of watch-making to Geneva and when Protestant reformers banned the wearing of jewellery but allowed watches to be worn, the art of making jewel-encrusted watches soon followed.

Visit the Patek Philippe and Swatch museums.

Shop til you drop:

Geneva is home to 30 master chocolatiers while Rue de la Fontaine has coveted women’s clothing labels like B&sh and J Brand.

Post-shopping, dine in one of Geneva’s 59 gourmet restaurants and sample wine from Switzerland’s largest vineyard, which is just 15 minutes from the city.

Get out of town:

One of the advantages of Geneva’s position on the French-Swiss border is that you can sample ski resorts in both countries. Chamonix, Morzine, La Clusaz, Villars are all around an hour’s drive.

Non-skiers may prefer to visit Lausanne or Montreux.

Couples or groups will enjoy a day trip to Evian-les-Bains, famous for its spring water and home to Evian Resort (evianresort.com).

Access to the resort is via a funicular - stop-off at the stunning four star Ermitage hotel or five star Hotel Royal, both of which have stunning views over Lake Geneva.

Go boho:

For a healthy dose of bohemian culture, visit Carouge, an Italianate-style quarter of the city which has been nicknamed Geneva’s Greenwich Village.

Artist studios, one-off boutiques and restaurants all add to the flavour.

For an even bigger dose of art, visit Quartier des Bains which is home to MAMCO, the museum of Modern and Contemporary art.

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