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October 23, 2017

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Geneva has a fascinating mix of international and local Swiss French culture in a picturesque mountain setting.

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Geneva

How to see Western Europe's most expensive city on the cheap

There’s no sugarcoating it: Geneva is expensive. But not all prices here are cuckoo, and in the most expensive city in what is arguably the most expensive country in Europe, there are still a few affordable fall-backs.

For food, self-cater by shopping for fresh ingredients at Manor (6 Rue Cornavin; manor.ch) or Globus (48 Rue du Rhone; globus.ch), two department stores with grocery sections and high-quality takeaway food. Chez Ma Cousine (three locations; chezmacousine.ch), a Provençal-style chain, heaps your plate with hearty portions of roasted chicken, potato wedges and salad, for just over $15.

The Paquis district, popular among students, has a variety of inexpensive international cafés. Chez Sami (11 Rue de Fribourg; chezsami.ch) is a new Lebanese restaurant with a huge variety of traditional hot and cold mezes, with lunch menus from $23.

Since you really can't visit Geneva without having a fondue meal, the good news is that one of the best cheese fondues in Geneva is reasonably priced. Cafe du Soleil (6 Place du Petit-Saconnex; cafedusoleil.ch) is a classic, and although it's a little ways from the centre of town, close to the United Nations building, it's worth the trip for the fondue ($26) or the malakoff, a deep-fried Swiss cheese delicacy.

Or, make your fondue-tasting into a half-day activity and warm up in a sauna, a steam room, and a Turkish bath at the Paquis Baths on the lake (bains-des-paquis.ch; $23) followed by the Buvette des Bains (30 Quai du Mont-Blanc; buvettedesbains.ch) where they have daily lunch specials from $16 and dinner fondues in the evening (dinner reservations recommended).

Christmas by the lake

Geneva’s winter weather can be a little dreary. Expect fog, cold and rain, and snow only occasionally. Christmas cheer brings a touch of brightness, and though festivities are more low-key than in the northern, more German parts of the country, you can take in plenty of yuletide whimsy at little to no cost.

At the beginning of December, the city will be decorated with over half a million LED lights and 14 kilometres of garlands. The city’s fountains will be lit up, and the Calvinist Temple de la Fusterie (Place de la Fusterie; espacefusterie.ch) will be completely draped in lights. Quaint miniature wooden huts at the International Christmas Market at Place du Fusterie, and free skating (geneva.info/events; skate rental $5 for kids, $8 for adults) at Place du Rhône add to the festive atmosphere.

If you're visiting on the weekend of December 13 to 15, during a holiday known as L'Escalade (1602.ch), you might see over 1000 marchers in festive costume as they parade to the steps of St. Peter's Cathedral with lit torches, or witness children smashing chocolate pots filled with marzipan vegetables. The tower at St. Peter's Cathedral is a good place to get an excellent view of the city if you don't mind climbing stairs. If you fill up on chocolate cauldrons, you can work them off by jumping into freezing cold Lake Geneva on December 15 in the Coupe de Noel (coupedenoel.ch, register ahead) an event that's dubbed "the world's biggest swimming race in open waters." Many participants dress like Santa for the plunge.

La Vielle Ville, or Old Town, is an easy walk from the train station in town centre, and is threaded with narrow cobbled streets that put on their Christmas best. On your way to Old Town, you should be able to glimpse the famous Jet d'Eau, one of the tallest fountains in the world, though if it's windy or below freezing the fountain automatically shuts off.

The Carouge area, across the River Arve, is another place to immerse yourself in Christmas cheer and get in a little shopping. The Greenwich Village of Geneva, Carouge is packed with craftsmen, antique dealers, and trendy spots like Pakupaku (43 Rue Vautier; pakupaku.ch) a moderately-priced Japanese restaurant serving mostly hot food like soft-shell crab brochettes and an array of yummy dumplings.

ALPINE ASCENT

On clear days, Mont Blanc looms majestically over Geneva, luring travellers with its wintry mystery. Less than an hour away in France, the town of Chamonix, host of the very first Winter Olympics in 1924, sits at the foot of the famous mountain and is an ideal place for skiing, cable car-riding, and general snowy sightseeing in one of Europe's oldest ski resort towns.

Drive across the French-Swiss border through the stunning Arve Valley, to Chamonix. From there, ride a two-stage cable car all the way to Aiguille du Midi, a rocky peak near Mont Blanc with year-round snow (booking.chamonix.com for tickets; €50 per adult) and views of the French, Italian and Swiss Alps. You may even glimpse the Matterhorn, that icon of Switzerland. Stay for skiing, or if you don't plan to spend the night in the mountains, head back to Chamonix for a home-cooked meal of fish pie, asparagus with pumpkin seeds and artichokes, and tiramisu in a jar at Le Vert Hotel (964 Route des Gaillands, Chamonix; verthotel.com; doubles start at €60). The hotel, self-described as "hip and affordable," has an in-house pro shop and free buses to the slopes if you plan to stay for skiing.

Ride the little red Montenvers Train (35 Place de la Mer de Glace, Chamonix; chamonix.com/montenvers,81,en.html; roundtrip ticket with attractions €27.40) up to the Mer de Glace, where you'll have a view of the massive blue-tinged glacier. Don't miss the Ice Cave and the Glaciorium, a new museum devoted to glaciers.

For more info, visit geneve-tourisme.ch and chamonix.com.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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