Named ‘ Little Venice of the Alps’, Annecy is an alpine town nestled between Lake Annecy and the French Alps. Less than an hour from the Swiss border, this charming town seems like a fairy-tale. Annecy can only be described as a pocket of paradise with its whimsical old town and glorious natural landscape of lake and snow-capped mountains. Rated as the best place to live in France in 2020, I would recommend this vibrant, wondrous city to all. Its cobbled streets, pastel buildings and trickling canals which meander through the town make Annecy a ‘must’ for all travellers. Lose yourself among the winding streets and footbridges, enchanted by the quintessentially French beauty woven among its buildings. With its medieval architecture, Annecy is an amalgam of both old and new, and has something for everyone. Castles, cobblestones and cheese– what more can you want?
A Brief History
Traces of Annecy’s history date back as far as 4000BC, when archaeologists believe the shores of Lake Annecy were occupied. Its strategic position between Geneva and Italy was prized by the Gallic tribes. It was originally a Roman site, before being classified as French in 1860 following the long installation of the Dukes of Savoy. The eviction of the Counts of Geneva from their eponymous home led them to lay their stronghold in Annecy, with it becoming their court from the 10th century. The Castle of Annecy is an integral piece of history, built by the counts of Geneva in the 12th century. It was damaged in a fire before being restored in the 15th century. Today, it is a museum and houses art and history exhibitions.
In the heart of the old town lies the Palais d’Ile, a recognizable feature of Annecy built on the River Thiou in 1132 and declared a historic monument in 1900. Originally designed to house high class residents, it became a prison in 1325 thanks to its tactical location, before becoming a home for the elderly between 1865 and 1880. Today, it is art gallery which is open to the public. A more comprehensive look at Annecy’s history can be found here.
One of the largest lakes in France and one of the cleanest in the world, Lake Annecy was formed from the melting alpine glaciers over 18,000 years ago. A haven for locals and tourists alike, the view of the lake and the snow-capped mountains at its edge will take your breath away. The turquoise waters shimmer, complimented by the tropical flowers which encircle it. Paragliders float like balloons above the crystal waters, whilst swimmers bob below.
Pont Des Amours is the iron ‘lover’s bridge’ which can be found at the threshold of the lake. Legend states that a kiss shared on the bridge will birth life-long love, though the views from this bridge will at the very least make you fall in love with Annecy. Bejewelled with lovers’ locks, the bridge promises memories of a lifetime. Look ahead to the panoramic views offered by the lake and its mountainous border, though don’t forget to look back! There you will find the canal, snaking back towards the city and home to many moored boats.
Things to Do
Annecy encompasses all that is beautiful. Loved for its idyllic splendour and alpine backdrop, there is no better way to pass the time than simply ambling around. Take on the French ‘flâneur’ persona and wander aimlessly through the narrow streets and stone steps of this beautiful city. As well as being picturesque, Annecy is mostly pedestrianised, permitting tourists to stroll lazily through its winding streets. Huddled within the archaic arches of the old town are a range of restaurants, bars, boutiques… it truly is France’s hidden gem. Amble down Rue de Sainte-Clare, whose medieval arcades remain despite the test of time. All apartments are limned with flowery shuttered windows which seemed to perfectly embody the idealism of ‘Mama Mia’. Spoilt for choice on where to dine or which waterfront café is the prettiest, you cannot go wrong. Awash with colour, Annecy’s canals are bedecked with flowers, and there is no greater way of exploring the city than a stroll through the old town. Stumble upon a new bar or restaurant, tucked away behind corners. It is like walking through the pages of a story book, and you simply don’t want it to end.
Stroll along the River Thiou until you find yourself in the Jardins de l’Europe which boast of lakeside views and fauna. Why not sit beneath the trees, feeling the dappled sunlight on your face and watching the aqua water lap lazily against the shore? Annecy will make autumn your favourite month. The mountains explode with colour, fiery and setting the lake ablaze. Le Pâquier can also be found lakeside, open space spanning across 7 hectares and providing the perfect picnic destination. Here you will find a merry-go-round and pop-up stands serving French delicacies designed to delight.
Who would have thought that you could lounge on a beach in the middle of the French Alps? With summer temperatures dancing on the cusp of 30 degrees, Annecy is both a summer and winter resort. A beach day is the perfect way to enjoy the summer sun as it dwindles over the lake- bask in the heat before taking a dip in the soothing waters of the lake at one of Annecy’s many beaches:
• Plage des Marquisats offers a grassy bank revered by both holiday-goers and locals.
• Plage d’Imperial is coated in both grass and sand, with a summer entrance fee which can be justified by its waterslide into the lake and leisure activities: table tennis, volleyball, trampolines, crazy golf…
• Plage d’Albigny is the largest beach and has gentle sands sloping into the water.
Miscellaneous jetties jut into the lake, tantalizing swimmers and serving as popular reading spots.
Annecy has a plethora of wealth as many of its constituents work in Geneva, where the wage is higher. It is therefore home to many boutique shops and high fashion. A favourite pastime of mine involves sitting amidst the archaic architecture and people-watching, observing the incomparable French style. Head over to Rue Carnot to begin your shopping trip, until you find yourself at the doors of the commercial center and lose yourself in the marvels of Sephora. Despite the luxurious characteristics of Annecy, you can enjoy it on the most modest of budgets. Visit the artisan workshops dotted along the streets or pick up a souvenir at one of the many shops living in the old town.
It is no secret that the French are famed for their gastronomical endeavours, and Annecy is no exception. Its cobbled streets are peppered with restaurants, and there is certainly no shortage of cheese. A personal favourite of mine is the famed fondue cheese- a warm, hearty pot of melted cheese in which you swirl a hunk of fresh French bread. Why not opt for the mushroom fondue and wash it down with a glass of red wine? A guaranteed recipe for success which I trialled at Le Lilas rose during my stay. This cosy, traditional French restaurant hidden in the old town is easily missed as you weave through the alleys but is always a worthy find. Have an ice-cream at Glacier des Alpes, which ranks in the top 10 ice-cream vendors in France. Though its queue may be long, it is representative of the quality of its produce.
An evening in Annecy is incomplete without a trip to the old town. Laced between the canals are many bars, as well as restaurants and cafés which put on their dancing shoes at later hours. La Buvette de Marché and Le Munich are social hubs in the old town of Annecy and the perfect place for a vin chaud or a beer. With outdoor seating trickling onto the cobbles, the classically French bars of the old town will be abuzz all year round. Finn Kelly’s is Annecy’s resident Irish pub which, like everywhere in the world, attracts mounds of tourists. Embellished with brick, it has more of a home-from home feel. Although nightclubs may seem like a thing of the past due to COVID-19, Annecy may very well revive their memory with popular clubs ‘La Queue du Coq and ‘Beer O’Clock’.
Every Tuesday, Friday and Sunday markets spring up in the old town, selling food, souvenirs, flowers… they are a trove of French goodness and make you feel as though you are Belle of beauty and the beast, skipping among rows of fresh oranges and wheels of cheese. Humming with jovial francophone ambiance, the markets entice all manner of visitors between the hours of 7am-1pm. On Tuesday, the markets primarily sell local produce. Offering a wide array of foods, including the very best cheeses and meats, fruit, vegetables, it is impossible not to gorge yourself on the kindness of stall owners and their plentiful samples. The markets are a culinary delight, and you are likely to leave with bags of goods. The market expands on Fridays and Sundays, selling textiles, household ware and souvenirs. It’s likely that you will stumble across a few antiques! Entranced by the aromas and colours, listen to the upbeat sound of vendors and locals bartering and immerse yourself into the vibrancy of Annecy’s market life. You will not regret it.
Annecy’s striking location between the Alps and lake Annecy makes it optimal for water, winter and athletic sports. Lace your shoes (unless you are in the lake!) and indulge in the activities on offer around Annecy.
Swimming and Water Sports
With a maximum depth of 80m, the tepid waters of Lake Annecy are inviting. Whether you fancy a leisurely splash or a serious swim, it is the place to be. If you would rather be astride the water, you can hire a paddleboat or a motorboat and drift across the lake at your own pace. Pedalo’s and kayaks are also very popular and are abundant on lake Annecy in the summer months. If you’re feeling brave, try paddle boarding! A local ferry also runs on lake Annecy, taking you to different ports across the lake and serving as the perfect day out. All water activities can be found at http://www.en-lac-annecy.com.
Annecy is replete with hiking routes thanks to its prime spot at the foot of the Alps. The modern hiker can download the app ‘ViAnnecy’, suggesting routes for even the most inexperienced. La Tournette provides the highest viewpoint of Lake Annecy, taking almost 7 hours to complete and requiring ladders strewn to the rocks to reach its summit. No easy feat, but certainly worthwhile. It is the perfect place for adventure.
For more information on Annecy’s best hikes, visit http://www.activ-annecy.com.
The city’s aversion to cars makes it ideal for a cyclist, ripe with cycle paths. Why not cycle around the entirety of Lake Annecy? The 50km route shadows the old railway track which connected Annecy to Albertville, skirting around the perimeter of the lake and offering wonderful views. Dedicate a day to complete the invigorating journey as the cycle takes up to 3.5 hours without stops. Though, of course, you must stop off for a refreshment in Annecy’s neighbouring towns! There are several places where you can rent a bike.
What better way to admire the breath-taking views of Annecy by flying above it? Col de Forclaz is a paragliding hotspot where you can soar over Lake Annecy and take in the unforgettable views. There are several companies offering a paragliding experience, such as Parapente Annecy and Kydo Paragliding.
The natural beauty of Annecy and its surrounding areas makes it a winter paradise. Snow-capped mountains and steep inclines are a playground for winter sports. Annecy’s proximity to France’s most popular ski resorts makes it a jewel for skiers and lovers of winter sport. Skiing, snowboarding, dog sledding… there are endless possibilities in the mountain ranges encircling Annecy, with ski hotspots being a stone’s throw from the city:
• Le Semnoz is the closest station, located South-West of Annecy and offering wonderful views of Mont Blanc, Haute Savoie and Savoie.
• La Clusaz is a large resort less than an hour from Annecy and is the home of 210km of pistes.
It is also just over an hour away from the great heights offered by Chamonix, rated the 10th best ski resort in the world, as well as popular destinations Val D’Isere and Val Thorens.
A beautiful city of romance and adventure, Annecy can only be described as utopian bliss and I would recommend anyone and everyone to go at least once.
One thought on “Travel Guide: The Beautiful Old Town of Annecy, a Hidden Gem in France”
What great place to visit.