Geneva has been called the world's largest small city and the world's smallest large city. to some outsiders it is a Swiss jewel -- gateway to the scenic and recreational wonders of this alpine country. To others, it is a gray place of cold affluent people and unproductive international meetings.

But foreigners are not the only ones who have mixed views about Geneva. Even to the Swiss it is something of a paradox:

It is a staunchly capitalistic city that recently had a communist mayor. Born of many wars, it is the global center for peacemaking. Its official language (French) is one Switzerland's German-speaking majority uses sparingly, and a sizable fraction of Geneva's citizens -- a third are non-Swiss -- speak altogether different languages. It is an independent-minded city-state within a highly nationalistic country -- the 350,000 residents of the metropolitan area are Genevans (Genevois) first and Swiss second. Their most celebrated holiday is not the Aug. 1 national holiday but Escalade, the Dec. 12 anniversary of the city's biggest victory over outside military aggression.

Geneva enjoys an unusual status among the world's cities. Including its suburbs, it has less than one-thirtieth the population of greater New York, yet is equally well known. It lacks even one embassy (not being a national capital), yet world leaders choose to meet on its neutral ground (President Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev were the latest).

You can find other cities that arguably can boast of as nice a setting or as much history. But the combination of international status, alpine gateway and attractive metropolis makes Geneva a refreshingly different kind of urban travel experience.

Some find Geneva tranquil and orderly. Others find it dull and cold. The lack of warmth that visitors often complain about is rooted in the Genevois nationalism -- outsiders historically have not been trusted. To understand Geneva, then, is to know a bit of its history.

For centuries the state of Geneva was regularly under attack from the outside. Surrounded by Catholic France, Geneva was a Protestant island -- and a religious eyesore -- to the French. Neighboring Savoy tried desperately to capture Geneva. Its ill-fated attempt on a chilly December night 383 years ago forever set the independent tone of the city. On Dec. 12, 1602, Savoyard militia planned to scale the high walls of the hilltop city in darkness and take it by surprise.

Specially constructed ladders (escalades) were placed against the 40-foot walls and heavily armed soldiers began their ascent. But an elderly somnolent cook named Me're Royaume foiled Savoy's last major attempt to annex Geneva. She was up late making a large cauldron (marmite) of vegetable soup when she heard a Savoyard sneaking up his ladder. Legend has it that she dumped her boiling concoction on that poor soldier and his screams awakened the sleeping city. The Savoyards lost their element of surprise and their prize.

When daylight came, the few invaders not killed in the attack were hanged on a scaffold visible to the surrounding valley. The message to the outside was clear: Geneva is independent.

Geneva stayed independent until the early 19th century, when it became the last addition to the Swiss confederation. Some of its inward-looking tradition remains, however, and this is what visitors often feel. If you are looking for friendly natives to run up to you on the street and ask you in for tea, you're in the wrong city. But that is not to say that Geneva is without its charm.

The center of this charm is Vieille Ville, the old city. For, like other major European centers, this is where the soul of Geneva lies. It is the elegant birthplace of independent Geneva and the right place to become acquainted with the town. And the best way is a leisurely walking tour.

The Vieille Ville was built on a natural fortification -- a half-mile-square mound that rises a few hundred feet above the surrounding valley. The cathedral at its summit is the focal point of old Geneva.

Start at the foot of the Vieille Ville at Place Neuve, Geneva's cultural center, surrounded by concert halls and museums. The stately Cafe' Lyrique, more Viennese than Swiss, is at Place Neuve. Opposite the Lyrique is the site of the old gate to Vieille Ville. On the night of Escalade, it was lowered barely in time to keep out the invaders.

Walk up the Rampe de la Treille, an attractive tree-lined way that leads to the heart of Vieille Ville. As you huff and puff up the Rampe (which is straddled by one of the world's longest benches), you can see and feel the fortress-like nature of the old city.

The object of Catholic France's unfulfilled desire lies at the end of your climb: Cathedrale St. Pierre. It was from the pulpit of this mighty church that Calvin preached his fiery brand of Protestantism in the mid-16th century and exercised tough political leadership that transformed Geneva into a Protestant bastion.

Currently undergoing needed renovation, St. Pierre's is a classic, albeit stark example of the grand cathedral architecture of Europe -- with the added twist that it is Protestant. It was begun in the Romanesque style in 1160 and finished as Gothic 60 years later. St. Pierre's has long been a symbol of Genevois independence. So closely tied has it been to the life of the city that it was fully supported by public taxes until the first part of this century. It has housed refugees from past wars and today is the site of the pomp and ceremony of the city's mayoral inaugural. St. Pierre's also hosts frequent concerts for the benefit of its restoration.

If you are still feeling hardy after your ascent to St. Pierre's, a climb to the cathedral's summit is highly recommended. The 146 spiraling steps inside the slender north tower lead to a superb vista. Straight ahead is the 475-foot jet d'eau, a graceful column of water pulsing out of the harbor, a liquid exclamation point. Beyond the jet is the long blue water of Lac Le'man (called Lake Geneva by the Genevois) where long, low ferries shuttle between shores of the lake.

Lake Geneva feeds the Rho ne River, which flows turbulently below through the center of the city, separating the old and newer sections. To the west, along Quai Wilson (after Woodrow Wilson, advocate of the doomed League of Nations, which was headquartered here), are the Casino and some of Switzerland's best-known hotels, including Hotel Le Pre'sident, a hangout of Middle Eastern visitors that serves food from that region.

Lush lakeside parks are beyond, in the new city, with the international quarter -- including the European headquarters of the United Nations, the Red Cross and other world organizations -- beyond that and slightly inland. Past this lies the suburb of Ferney, where Voltaire enjoyed an affluent self-exile in his quest to avoid the Bastille.

Following the east side of Lake Geneva is the Route du Lac. Starting at the flower clock in the Jardin Anglais -- a 15-foot-wide working clock whose face is a brightly colored flower bed -- the Route du Lac is flanked by a wide promenade and yacht basin on one side and high-rise offices and apartments on the other. It passes the stately Eaux-Vives park as it makes its way to the French border about 10 miles to the northeast.

The rounded Jura Mountains to the west and the sharply chiseled French Alps, with Mount Blanc, to the east complete the picture: a big little city on a lake, surrounded by mountains. But the mountains are often obscured by fog or low clouds in winter and pollution in summer. And the lake's water quality, especially near Geneva, is dubious. Yet the setting is an unusually attractive one; on that proverbial and increasingly rare clear day, Geneva is an exceptionally beautiful part of the world.

But Geneva needs to be seen from the ground as well as the heights. Climbing down from St. Pierre's tower and past the Place de la Cathedrale brings you into the narrow streets of Vieille Ville. A few steps from the Place is one of Geneva's best-known culinary landmarks -- Les Armures.

This very comfortable restaurant, popular with residents and tourists alike, offers a relaxed yet intimate drinking and dining environment. Its house fondue, served with mounds of dark bread that you break into pieces, is tops. The second floor of this small restaurant provides the raison d'e tre of the name Les Armures, which means "the armors." Several authentic suits of medieval armor adorn the upper rooms. Les Armures also includes a recently renovated hotel, one of the few hotels in the old city.

Rue L'Ho tel de Ville, which runs from the cathedral area down to the edge of the old city, is one of Vieille Ville's most varied streets. The Rue is named after the stately city hall (Ho tel-de-Ville). The Ho tel de Ville restaurant is one of the city's best. It has one rather small, crowded and brightly lit room, but the food is excellent and moderately priced.

As you wander past boutiques and galleries, Rue L'Ho tel de Ville gives way to Place du Bourg du Four, the old city's center. This demure little square is a rendezvous for office workers, shoppers and those living in Vieille Ville.

Stop at the Place du Bourg du Four for coffee and pastries at one of its cafe's or patisseries. The surrounding maze of narrow streets and alleys offers ample excuses for rambling and browsing. The Museum of Art and History -- on the far side of the old city, away from the lake -- includes graphic displays on Geneva's military history, including a bona fide guillotine. Featured in the museum is a ladder of the type used by the Savoyards in their 1602 attempt to capture Geneva.

The cocoon known as Vieille Ville is small, however, and one way or another you eventually will find yourself wandering out of it. Walking down toward the lake, past the picturesque Place de la Madeleine (considerably smaller and quieter than its famous Parisian namesake), brings you out of that cocoon onto Rue du Rhone.

Paralleling the lake one block inland, Rue du Rhone is the right-of-way for Geneva's last remaining tram and the city's smartest shopping street. Placette and Grand Passage are Geneva's top department stores and have their main outlets here. On one two-block stretch of the Rue du Rhone, only streetcars and pedestrians are allowed, and turn-of-the-century tea rooms coexist with contemporary stores and offices.

The tram that eases down Rue du Rhone, No. 12, is worth jumping on. Its southbound destination is Carouge, a charming old village that has nearly been swallowed by metropolitan Geneva yet still retains its artistic flavor. Often seeming more French than Swiss, Carouge is home to a well-respected repertory theater and several appealing cafe's, restaurants and galleries.

The Carouge tram wanders back to Geneva's center past the Plaine de Plainpalais -- one of the biggest public open spaces in Geneva -- past specialty shops like Brochard, with its fancy paper goods, and onto the Rue du Rhone.

Just off the Rue du Rhone, near the Flower Clock, is the major point of departure for the grands bateaux ferries. They make from two-hour-long cruises to full-day trips to attractive lake cities like Lausanne in summer months.

A walk along the nearby flagstone quais of the Route du Lac is a refreshing way, in most any weather, to enjoy Geneva's natural setting. This side of the lake has many attractions for the wanderer: The Natural History Museum and the Musee de l'Horlogerie (Watchmaking Museum), a few blocks inland off the Quai Gustave Ador. The Petit Palais, Geneva's foremost art museum, at the southern edge of the lake. Victoria Hall, off Place Neuve. This is home of one of the world's finest orchestras -- Orchestre de la Suisse Romande ("Suisse Romande" refers to French-speaking Switzerland, of which Geneva is the center). A Victoria Hall concert, particularly with the orchestra (alternate Wednesdays, October through March, tickets nearly always available on concert day) is a unique experience: sitting in cane seats that creak at every shift of body weight, in an intimate setting with razor-sharp acoustics, hearing superb music; sipping an intermission aperitif at the quietly sophisticated downstairs bar; joining in foot-stomping bravos of the audience.

Across the river from Victoria Hall is downtown Geneva -- that is, the commercial center radiating north and east from the central railroad station (Gare Cornavin). It is a strong and rather unwelcome contrast to the likes of Vieille Ville and Carouge. In fact, downtown is a good place to avoid. But that is not altogether possible, since public transportation -- from the Swiss and French national railways to the city buses and even the airport buses -- is centered at Gare Cornavin.

The station itself includes a new underground shopping plaza and parking garage. The little patisserie in this plaza has some of the best lemon tarts and other inexpensive goodies in town. There is also an indispensable stop downstairs -- the little window where bus tickets are sold.

Geneva's orange and white buses fan out to all parts of the city and the French suburbs. The 33 trolley bus takes you to the airport in about 20 minutes for 50 cents. The E, F and O lines head out toward the international quarter (less than a 10-minute ride). These are among the most scenic bus routes in the city, with stops throughout the nerve center of the quarter. Headquartered here are the Palais des Nations (the old part of which is the original League of Nations headquarters), the International Labor Organization, the World Health Organization and other worldwide groups. Perhaps the most curious of these is OMPI, the International Intellectual Property Organization, a U.N. agency across from the Palais des Nations.

OMPI is worth a visit for two reasons: its foyer and its food concession. The foyer of this bluish-green high-rise is a breathtaking collage of marble from around the world. Black marble from Vermont, dazzling white Italian Cararra and a dozen hues of stone mesh into abstract designs that make the spacious foyer uniquely handsome. And on the top floor of OMPI (open to visitors) is Geneva's best bargain for dining with a view. The OMPI cafeteria, with wraparound windows high above the surrounding city, serves food that would hardly be classed as "cafeteria food" on this side of the Atlantic: a choice of three or four entrees, usually including steak, fish and a vegetarian dish, good (and inexpensive) Swiss wine, and full meals for just a few dollars.

In addition to being a working international city, Geneva is also a center for reaching other areas. Whether it is the massive European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) right across the border in France, or ski resorts in the Alps, the city is accessible to an array of destinations for business or pleasure. It is less than two hours by air from most European cities, and less than two hours by train -- door to lift -- to the ski slopes.

So Geneva is, in all seriousness, a good place to leave as well as to visit. It is one of those rare places that merits a unique corner in the traveler's memory.