David Whitley finds that Switzerland is not necessarily all neutral territory.
Geneva is expensive. One option for budget travellers is to stay in one of the many dormitory towns over the French border then commute in. You'll find the usual Premiere Classe, Ibis and Etap within 10km. Then there are hostels. The Auberge de Jeunesse (30 Rue Rothschild, 732 6260, genevahostel.ch) is huge but somewhat institutional and industrial-looking, and private rooms with a shared bathroom start at 85 francs. The City Hostel (2 Rue Ferrier, 901 1500,cityhostel.ch) is a better bet — bright, clean, convivial and with private rooms of a surprisingly high standard for from 75 francs, although bathrooms are down the hallway.
The Bernina (22 Place de Cornavin, 908 4950, bernina-geneve.ch, from 106 francs) is fairly typical of the affordable mid-range options — a little old and chipped in places, with a fair bit of street noise if you get the wrong room but breakfast and wi-fi are free and it's uninspiringly adequate. Hotel International et Terminus (20 Rue des Alpes, 906 9777, www.international-terminus.ch, from 140 francs) feels fresher and more colourful but it's going for solid rather than amazing. The Suisse, pictured, (10 Place de Cornavin, 732 6630, hotel-suisse.ch, from 144 francs) has a bit more spark — think rainbow drape curtains and terracotta walls with decent-sized rooms and good facilities.
The Eastwest (Rue des Paquis, 708 1717, eastwesthotel.ch, from 193 francs) is a visual feast, managing to work in shocking pinks and oriental touches without stepping over the taste line. Ingenious design touches make the rooms seem bigger than they are. The Auteuil (33 Rue de Lausanne, 544 2222, manotel.com, from 161 francs) is also an art-focused, stylish looker and is arguably the best bet in the hip Manotel mini-chain. The rooms at the Rotary (18 Rue du Cendrier, 908 8080, accorhotels.com, from 195 francs) all have individual touches and some delightful antique furniture. It maintains a classy, old-school vibe but modernises in all the right places.
The Mandarin Oriental (91 Quai Turrettini, 909 0000, mandarinoriental.com, from 490 francs) offers polished luxury, with large rooms, tastefully understated decor and an appropriately international slickness. The bathrooms are particularly impressive. The President Wilson (47 Quai Wilson, 906 6667, hotelpwilson.com, from 490 francs) is the spot for grandstanding, with a rare-for-Geneva outdoor pool. The Hotel D'Angleterre (17 Quai du Mont-Blanc, 906 5555, dangleterrehotel.com, from 510 francs) is smaller scale, with each room having its own character. Personalised service — they try to get everything in your room just to your taste — is the calling card, and the leopard-print downstairs bar is bags of fun.
SHOP + PLAY
Geneva's not a city that runs to the beating heart of its markets but there are a few that are at least worth a browse. On Wednesdays and Saturdays a large flea market takes over the Plaine de Plainpalais — it runs from roughly 8am to 6pm — while there's a general market on Place de la Madeleine every day except Sunday. Place de la Fusterie hosts a couple of specialist markets — it's crafts on a Thursday and books on a Friday, although the latter is only held between April and October.
If you've come to buy a Swiss watch, then there are plenty of high-end horologists in the main shopping district, pictured, (roughly between Rue de Rive and Rue du Rhone). It's also where many of the designer labels and bank-busting jewellers hang out. There are more charming galleries and antique shops in the Old Town — particularly on Grande Rue — but the best shopping is in Carouge. Between Place du Marche and Rue du Pont Neuf are scores of small stores — independent fashion boutiques, artisan workshop-outlets, cute toy stores and some selling great gifts.
L'Usine (4 Place des Volontaires, 781 3490, usine.ch) is the stand-out alternative culture hub in Geneva. This interlinked collection of somewhat grungy venues will often have an electro band in one room, punk rockers in another and a DJ taking over the bar. It's inconsistent and almost permanently threatened with closure but certainly has life to it. Those with more refined tastes should head to the Grand Theatre (5 Place Neuve, 418 3000, geneveopera.ch), which hosts regular classical music and opera performances. Meanwhile, Le Chat Noir (13 Rue Vautier, 343 4998, chatnoir.ch) in Carouge manages to combine a hip upstairs bar with a downstairs jazz and blues den.
Geneva isn't renowned for its nightlife. Many young Genevois who fancy a big night out abandon the city and head around the north shore of the lake to the much more happening Lausanne. Slightly less far out of town — it's about 4 kilometres to the west — is Weetamix (114 Route de Vernier, 796 6123, weetamix.com), which hosts big all-night events and draws in many of the top name international DJs. Otherwise, the Zoo at L'Usine is a decent bet, although it is towards the edgier end of the scale — show ponies after a glitzy lounge bar may be in for a shock.
SEE + DO
Geneva is built around the glacial Lake Geneva, which is wonderfully geared to exploration by boat. Where the lake meets the Rhone River, you'll find the Jet d'Eau a giant fountain that propels water 70 metres upwards. It's on all the postcards. The Old Town is worth a walk through but it's forbidding rather than pretty — grey Calvinism rules over the would-be quaint cobbled streets. Otherwise, Geneva is best known as the home of numerous international organisations, including the Red Cross and United Nations.
The International Red Cross Museum (17 Avenue de la Paix, 748 9511, micr.org) is superb. The displays are consistently compelling and thoughtful. The history and principles of the Red Cross are covered and the displays on human rights get the brain whirring. The exhibitions at CERN (Route de Meyrin, 767 8484, cern.ch) — the home of the Large Hadron Collider — are worth seeing, too. In the Old Town, the Museum of the Reformation (4 Rue du Cloitre, 310 2431, musee-reforme.ch) is more informative than fascinating as it recounts the history of Protestantism.
Arguably the most commendable thing Geneva's governing authorities have done is to create 10 themed walking routes throughout the city. Ask at the tourist office for the "Plans Pietons" (they're not on display) and you'll be given a bundle of leaflets that map out each one, explaining the sights you'll pass on the way. They're of varying length — from about one hour to four. Of the most interesting, one takes you along the Rhone and another past the headquarters of numerous international organisations. Choose the one that follows the River Arve and you can walk all the way to France.
Follow the leader
Boat tours to the numerous towns and villages around Lake Geneva — on both the Swiss and the French side — are available through Compagnie Generale de Navigation (+41 848 811 848, cgn.ch). Short hops, dinner cruises and day-long adventures are in the mix — pick which best suits your interests and budget. The tourist office runs a number of themed walking tours, concentrating on everything from the Old Town to Protestant reformer Jean Calvin. More adventurous exploration is available through Rafting Loisirs (784 0205, rafting-loisirs.ch), which runs rafting, canoeing, mountain-biking and snowshoeing tours in the surrounding region.
EAT + DRINK
The Old Town has a number of attractive cafes. Place du Bourg-de-Four is the spot to find many of them and Pied de Cochon (310 4797, pied-de-cochon.ch) at No.4 is a local favourite for its frequently changing seasonal menus. Cafe du Centre (5 Place du Molard, 311 8586, cafeducentre.ch) has a big winner in its huge terrace but the locals come for the seafood — it has a reputation for great shellfish. In Paquis, Jeck's Place (14 Rue de Neuchatel, 731 3303, jecks-place.ch) has a touch of class missing from most of its competitors, plus great Singaporean and Thai food to boot.
The Paquis area is next to the main train station and most of Geneva's hotels. Kebab shops are ubiquitous but Lebanese cafe Al Amir (22 Rue de Berne) has the ring of authenticity and its take-out shawarmas are excellent. Gilles Desplanches (2 Rue de la Confederation, 810 3028, gillesdesplanches.com) has ready-to-go salads, quiches and sandwiches but specialises in chocolates, cakes and fruit tarts. The best secret, though, is the self-service canteen restaurant on the fourth floor of the Manor department store (6 Rue Cornavin), which has a wide range of tasty dishes.
Top of the town
The hotel restaurants along the lakefront compete to see which can offer the best food — and often at staggering prices. Only three bear the coveted Michelin star, though. Of these, Vertig'O at the Hotel de La Paix (11 Quai du Mont-Blanc, 909 6066, hoteldelapaix.ch) focuses on simplicity and authentic traditional dishes. Le Chat Botte at the Beau Rivage (13 Quai du Mont Blanc, 716 6920, beau-rivage.ch) has a large fish emphasis and the meat dishes tend towards the rich and gamey. Rasoi by Vineet at the Mandarin Oriental offers something different — European ingredients with Indian preparation. It's not your average curry house.
By the glass
In Geneva, expat bars provide spirit rather than take away from it. Mr Pickwick (80 Rue de Lausanne, 731 6797, mrpickwick.ch) is a classic example — slightly shabby but busy even on quiet nights elsewhere and with an international crowd gathering over TV sport and a pint. Arthur's (7 Rue du Rhone, 810 3260, arthurs.ch) buzzes on a classier level; this riverside joint attracts the well-heeled for wine, people-watching and power hob-nobbing. Carouge has the most likeable concentration of bars though. Try 19eme (19 Rue Ancienne, 301 3757) for an odd mix of geekily large beer menu and youngish drinkers ignoring it in favour of shot promotions.
Most major hotels in Geneva will give you a public transport card that allows unlimited free trips on the buses, trains, trams and ferries within "Zone 10" (essentially, the city of Geneva and a few outlying areas). It applies for the duration of your stay at that hotel and, while the receptionist should offer you the card on check-in, some forget. Remember to ask if so. The city is basically walkable but it's worth having the card if only to get a quick boat ride on the lake and get the tram down to more charismatic Carouge.
Emirates (emirates.com), Etihad (etihadairways.com) and Qantas (qantas.com.au) all offer one-stop flights to Geneva from Sydney. Prices for return tickets start at around $1850.
Visas and currency
Australians do not need a visa to visit, unless staying for more than 90 days. One Swiss franc = $1.08.
Switzerland's international code is +41, and Geneva numbers use the 22 city code. If calling from abroad, add +41 22 to any seven-digit number listed here. Other numbers are listed in full.
Geneva Tourism, 909 7000,
The writer was a guest of Mandarin Oriental and the Hotel D'Angleterre.