Annecy, France: is it really France’s prettiest town? It’s all subjective, of course, but a lot of French like to say so.
It’s certainly a lovely city, and named the second-best French city in which to live. It’s been called the Venice of the Alps, a French fairy tale and one of France’s top 10 cities. Even CNN calls it one of France’s most beautiful destinations. And the Michelin guide calls it “one of the most remarkable landscapes in the French Alps”, itself an area already famous for its remarkable areas.
So what is it with this small city most tourists never get around to visiting?
FRANCE, A COUNTRY OF SUPERLATIVES: IS ANNECY THE BEST OF THE BEST?
Let me start by saying this will not be an objective story. I won’t be fair or impartial. In fact, I’ll be ridiculously biased.
You see, I’m a little protective of Annecy – because I live here. At least I live nearby, over a mountain around here, that’s like being a block away.
So yes, this is in a way my town.
The first thing you’ll notice about Annecy is the setting. With a lake this beautiful, it’s going to be hard to tear your eyes away and head into town. Still, if you want to get it out of your system, it won’t take much more than half an hour to drive up the mountain to enjoy Lake Annecy from above. If you’re not in a driving mood, a stroll or a bike ride along the shore at sunset will re-energize you, an activity the French call “se ressourcer”, to re-source yourself. But you may feel like you need to see the lake before you tackle the city.
Leaving the lake behind (only temporarily, don’t panic!) and heading into town – about a minute away – is another world altogether, filled with food and history and character.
Annecy is a perfect destination for a solo woman: it’s safe, and just touristy enough that no one will even notice you’re on your own. I’ve never felt uncomfortable in a restaurant by myself, or concerned on the streets at night.
I’m going to provide you with a list of things to do below – but you’d be forgiven for throwing it out and spending a day or so just walking.
Your starting point will inevitably be the center of town, along the Thiou River (reputed to be Europe’s smallest). Tiny shops, cafés and restaurants almost tumble over one another in an effort to be cute and outdo one another with flower boxes and pretty views. A stroll under the medieval arches at dawn, before visitors crowd around, can feel like a walk through a past century.
Once you’ve walked around, taken your selfie against the backdrop of the old prison and slurped a licorice or violet-flavored ice cream cone in Annecy, things to do still abound!
STILL WONDERING ABOUT ANNECY, FRANCE THINGS TO DO? HERE ARE MY FAVORITES
- Go to the market: Annecy has definitely fine-tuned the art of the market. On Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays, locals bring in their produce, cheeses and sausages, or saucissons, which come in varieties ranging from garlic to hot espelette pepper. The last Saturday of the month, food is replaced by a fabulous antique market, which carries slightly more sophisticated wares (mountain-style furniture) but plenty of bric-a-brac. Because of its proximity to Switzerland, prices can be a bit high but you can bargain, and you can also find the occasional excellent deal. Persevere!
- Eat a fondue or a tartiflette – I had an exquisite truffle fondue at l’Etage in the old town (see that mouthwatering photo below). In case you’re wondering about the tartiflette, it’s a much-loved local dish made with potatoes, cheese, cream, onions and bacon – to die for! Curiously, this isn’t actually a traditional dish but was invented in the 1980s by producers of the local Reblochon cheese, whose sales were weak. Now, it’s one of the most popular dishes locally and I never go a winter without treating myself to one.
- Speaking of eating cheese, drop by the Fromagerie Pierre Gay, make your way to the back of the shop and bravely stand on the thick glass floor: below you, hundreds of cheeses are busy ageing until maturity. And then buy some at the counter.
- Go hiking, almost within the city’s limits. Whether just above the city or around the lake, you can walk or hike for an hour or a day, from beginner to expert and everything in-between.
- Ski or snowshoe in winter, with five ski slopes within an hour’s drive of the city (I don’t ski but I do love ploughing around the snow in my rackets!)
- Attend a festival – if you’re an animation fan, then don’t miss Annecy’s renowned Animation Film Festival in June. The rest of the year is filled with festivals and special events and they change, so visit the Tourist Office’s schedule for the rest: theater, literature, sports…
- Enjoy all the seasons, and this is one Annecy’s biggest attractions: in summer you have the lake and the mountain and all the sports that go with summer in nature, in spring and autumn you have the old town and strolls along the canals and in winter you have ski slopes an hour away.
- What to see in Annecy? The standard sights – Annecy’s Chateau (nine centuries old); the Pont des Amours, or Bridge of Love, at the edge of town – lovers like to meet here (in the past, it was more of a ‘pick-up’ point for ladies of the night); two popular nearby areas: the Jardins d’Europe, a pleasant park with centuries-old trees, and the Paquier, a former cow pasture turned mega-lawn by everyone to relax, have picnics, walk dogs or play ball.
THERE ARE ALSO SOME OFFBEAT THINGS TO DO IN ANNECY
So yes, all of the above are fun, glorious even, but if you’re feeling adventurous or want to do something a little less usual, there’s plenty of that, too:
The mountains around Annecy are spectacular and any sunny summer day you’ll see the sky above the lake dotted with paragliders.
One of my favorite outings is to drive up to the Col de la Forclaz and then walk up to the jumping off point for paragliders. While I’m not adventurous enough to throw myself off a mountain (that vertigo, remember?) I do get a thrill from watching others do it.
Before driving up, stop by Pauvert near the old town and stock up on top-of-the-line salads, cold cuts and why not half a lobster or two and make a picnic of it? If you’d rather eat than paraglide, there’s the very tasty La Ferme, a rustic farm where the cows are right next door. This, by the way, is one of the world’s best-known paragliding sites, in case you were wondering…
Each year, on the first Saturday of August, this small town of 50,000 swells to 200,000 as people congregate to see Europe’s most spectacular fireworks. They date back to a “Venetian” celebration in 1860 in honor of Napoleon III’s visit – the fireworks have somewhat evolved since then.
Here’s something that might make your heart drop: a suspended lunch over Lake Annecy. And if that’s too tame, why not try spending the night hugging a cliff, under the stars? Just writing those words make me gulp (I tend to break out into a sweat above the third floor) but it’s suitable for children over 10, so surely it’s survivable? Check out the excitement at Inax-adventure – they apparently even have a heart-pumping version. As if…
Some of you may remember these – you may have even owned one or traveled long distances back in the late 1960s and early 1970s: the Volkswagen van! Now you can rent one and drive around Lake Annecy, reliving that misspent youth in vintage style. It does look like fun!
Once you get tired of all that action, head back into the old town and have what some people consider the world’s best pastry – the Mr Smith (the green apple tart) at Philippe Rigollot, winner of the world’s best pastry chef award. On two separate visits I tried four pastries and I’m partial to the dark rich chocolate ones… and the apple… and the passion fruit… and the…
TOURING AROUND LAKE ANNECY
The city has its beauty but what truly raises it out of the ordinary is the setting, the rippling lake and towering mountains that fringe it. You can walk or cycle all the way around to get a true sense of its beauty.
You can drive around the lake in both directions. I’ve done it both ways and it’s equally pleasant. Watch out for rush hour – you want to keep well away of traffic heading into Annecy for work in the morning and back home in the evening.
Gorgeous villages and points of interest around Annecy Lake
I’ve driven around Lake Annecy on my own several times, stopping in different places – always fun and restful as long as you avoid rush hours and peak weekend times.
You can drive around quickly, in a couple of hours, or you can take your time and stop off at each of these villages. In summer, your day lasts a lot longer and you can take far more advantage of daylight hours.
You could also consider driving in the opposite direction from the one I list below, starting in Annecy in the morning, driving up to the Col for lunch, spending part of the afternoon watching the paragliders, coming back down, having a bit of a swim and walking around some of the local villages, with an early dinner at one of the renowned establishments nearby. This means that you’ll be only a short drive from Annecy after dinner.
Or you can visit each side in a day, spending the night in-between. Doesn’t matter. It’s all gorgeous.
- Veyrier-le-Lac is the first village you’ll hit, its vineyards dating back to antiquity – and it’s home to Yoann Conte’s two-starred Michelin restaurant.
- Menthon Saint-Bernard, half mountain half lakeshore is what one would call a charming village, with a fairy tale castle perched high above.
- You can head up the D42 to the Col de la Forclaz to go watch the paragliders from here before or after lunch.
- Talloires, whose bay is famous for its beauty. It is also home to luxury, most notably but not only the Auberge du Père Bise. The road down to Talloires is narrow and winding and can get crowded just before and after lunch, as those who can afford it head in and out for lunch.
- Doussard is at the tip of the lake, at the other end from Annecy. It’s a gateway to the Massif des Beauges mountains, and home to the Bout du Lac nature reserve. And if you’re excited to watch paragliders jump, you’ll love seeing them land here.
- Duingt has not one but two chateaux, one of which is out on a promontory catching your eye from every direction.
- Saint-Jorioz is next, a flatter plain along which biking is a pleasure and a tiny beach hidden from the crowds.
A BITE-SIZED HISTORY OF ANNECY
Like most of the best towns in France, there’s something Roman around the corner. In the case of Annecy, traces of civilization date back to 3100 BCE, with the town evolving into the medieval Annecy we know and love today. When the chateau was started in the 12th century, the city was called Annecy-the-new, to differentiate it from Annecy-le-Vieux, or Annecy-the-old, a Gallo-Roman settlement on the hill above the city and which still carries that name. This is confusing, as people visiting see the name ‘old’ and head for what they think is the Old Town. It’s not.
Between the building of the chateau and the 15th century, Annecy was razed several times by fire so what we see today is “only” five or six centuries old. Modern, almost.
Being close to Geneva made Annecy a refuge for Catholics fleeing the Protestant Reformation in Geneva and earning it the nickname “Rome of France”. Even philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau called it home for a while, but for no particular religious reason.
Today Annecy is the capital of the Haute-Savoie, having finally joined France in 1860. That may have been 150 years ago, but a hard-core nucleus of Savoy separatists still haven’t accepted ‘French rule’ and believe the region should be a sovereign country. In fact, my own village of Seyssel (which spans two provinces, the Haute-Savoie and the Ain) is connected by a bridge: halfway across it, someone painted a white ‘border’ with the words “Savoie” on one side and “France” on the other.
Annecy may be France’s prettiest town but it’s still far off the tourist trail for foreigners (except the Swiss, who have always visited). It wasn’t even a dot on the tourist map until the steam train arrived in the mid-19th century. What was once the ‘end of France’ is today a quick half-hour drive from Geneva over a scenic and dizzyingly high motorway.
ANNECY TRAVEL RESOURCES
- From Paris or Lyon you can reach Annecy by train or bus. Or you can take the bus from Geneva to Annecy – it takes a lot longer than a car because it doesn’t use the motorway and winds along the old road. That said, the scenery is spectacular so… why not? You’ll need a car if you’re driving around the lake – but not in town.
- Sadly, there’s no real public transport around Lake Annecy. A great way to see the lakeside villages is to take the Omnibus Boat Tour that stops at a number of villages along the way. This is only feasible in the summer season, though. Another way of seeing the lake is to cycle. Bike paths circle most of the lake, with a few bits to be finished sometime in 2022. You can have a great day outing by renting a bicycle.
- Annecy is a perfect day trip from Geneva but if you have a choice, go on one of the market days. Just remember you’ll have to carry all your purchases back on the bus.
- Staying overnight? Compare prices for the best hotels in Annecy
- Day trips from Annecy include Geneva (of course), a drive around Lake Annecy, or visits to Grenoble, Aix-les-Bains or Lyon.
- In a shopping mood? Try the Courier shopping mall downtown – a French-sized shopping mall, nothing like its American counterparts but it has everything we need!
— Originally published on 15 February 2017