A delightful combination of medieval France and Alpine heritage, Annecy is a town that has attracted visitors for centuries. The city is famous not only for its charming old town, but also with some of the most extraordinary scenery in all of France.
And given that there are plenty of things to do in Annecy, the capital of the Haute-Savoie department in Eastern France is certainly making the most of that popularity. Nearby are the towns of Chambéry, Aix-le-Bains and Grenoble, all of which make this a popular area to visit.
Occupying a position between the crystal clear waters of Lake Annecy and the snow-capped mountains of the Alps, Annecy immediately reinvigorates the senses. The crisp fresh air and glorious panoramas capture the true essence of life.
Floral-lined banks and idyllic bridges add to the allure of Annecy all while overlooked by majestic scenery. After just a couple of hours walking these streets, it is clear why Annecy is often referred to as the “Pearl” or “Venice of the Alps”.
In addition to being beautiful, Annecy bills itself as the European capital of outdoor sports. It surely must be one of the towns with the healthiest and most active population in France. With such a splendid environment, the cleanest lake waters of Europe and the surrounding mountains their claim is fully justified.
In the summertime, the town’s narrow streets do get quite crowded. Luckily, along with history, there are also countless outdoor activities on offer which have to top the list of things to do in Annecy. So let’s look at all there is to do, shall we? Allons-y!
History of Annecy
With natural riches and a strategic location, the shores of Lake Annecy were originally occupied by Gallic tribes such as the Allobroges until their defeat by the Romans in 62 BC. It remained a Roman colony until the 10th century.
In the 10th century, Annecy became the home of the Counts of Geneva before passing to Savoy in 1401. In 1434 Annecy became the capital of Savoy, which at the time was an independent duchy.
These days the medieval center of Annecy still boasts the old colorful facades, quaint houses, and narrow pedestrian cobbled streets similar to the nearby historic cities of Colmar and Strasbourg.
Following the opening of a railway line in 1866 and its proximity to winter ski resorts, Annecy’s reputation as a center for tourism grew considerably.
With the opening of the fine art exhibitions in 1956 and the introduction of the Animated Film Festival first held in 1960, the town has become a cultural center as well as a major tourist attraction.
Things to do in Annecy
1. Wander through the Old Town
Walking the narrow cobbled streets of the old town of Annecy (possibly with an ice cream) is a must.
The charming streets make the perfect destination for a mid-afternoon stroll shopping in the many boutiques and sampling the many products of the Haute Savoie region.
The Thiou river crosses the city creating lovely canal-side vistas and pleasant quays that are lined with charming cafes and restaurants.
2. Visit the Palais de l’Ile
Look out for the photogenic Palais de l’Ile 12th century castle standing on its own island in the river Thiou.
This former palace was the home of the Counts of Genova before they built the Château d’Annecy on higher ground (a few hundred meters away) and moved in there.
It would go on to serve as prison and courthouse until the French Revolution, after which it alternated between army barracks and a prison.
The Palais d’Ile was classified as a Historical Monument in 1900, but was used again as a prison during WWII. Today it is home to a small local history museum that you can visit, which is open all year round.
3. Cycle around Lake Annecy
Boasting over 25km of cycle paths principally along its western shore a cycle around the Lake is a hugely popular activity.
Just watch out for steep climbs to the roads on the eastern side around the villages of Veyrier du Lac and Les Champs. There are plenty of cycle and segway tour options that you can see here.
4. Stand on the Pont des Amours
As charismatic and seductive as this old town is, the true wonder of Annecy is the lake itself.
The Pont des Amours (bridge of lovers) connects the Pâquier to the Gardens of Europe, and is a few steps away from the Old town of Annecy. This location, it is said, made it the place where lovers would go to find refuge and tranquility.
The urban legend relating to this bridge says that two lovers kissing each other in the middle will be united for life. A more cynical source mentions that the Pont des Amours owes its name to its former frequentation of meeting for courtesans and escorts.
These days it does get quite busy, so lovers looking for privacy or courtesans looking for clients are scarce!
Don’t let that put you off from visiting however. Standing on the Pont des Amours looking south, the beauty of the lake envelops you as it stretches miles into the distance. The pristine waters of Europe’s purest lake shimmer with the reflections of mountains and verdant hillsides.
5. Walk up to Château d’Annecy
On top of a hill, above the old town of Annecy, is the Château d’Annecy. It was built between the 12th and 16th centuries and served as the residence of the Counts of Geneva and the Dukes of Savoy-Nemours.
During the French Revolution of the 18th century, Savoy was conquered by neighboring France, but later returned to the King of Sardinia just a couple of decades later in 1815.
After ping-ponging back and forth, in 1860 under the terms of the Treaty of Turin, the Duchy of Savoy was fully annexed by France. The last Duke of Savoy, Victor Emmanuel II, in return became King of Italy.
On its return to French rule, Annecy became the capital of the Haute-Savoie in the French region of Rhone-Alps. With the advent of industrial development during the 19th century, Annecy became a center for silk manufacturing, rather than as a stronghold of the Savoys.
6. Visit nearby Chambéry
While most tourists make their way to nearby Annecy, Chambéry which is only 30 miles (50km) away, is more likely to be considered a hidden gem.
Once the capital of the Dukes of Savoy, the small town of Chambéry is a lively city that is more likely to attract locals than tourists. And this is a shame, because with its own beautiful lake and scenic mountains, it is definitely a city that gives Annecy the run for its money.
With a charming old town and a newer and hipper surrounding area, there is an architectural flair and style to Chambéry that is difficult to replicate. You can read more about visiting Chambéry here.
7. Saint-Pierre d’Annecy Cathedral
Constructed in the 16th century, Annecy Cathedral is the oldest church still standing in the city.
It is the seat of the diocese of Annecy and was classified as a historic monument in 1906.
8. Try Water sports
Unsurprisingly, Annecy is a hugely popular water sports destination with sailing, rowing, wakeboarding, and water skiing all prominent activities.
This region is one of the world’s leading locations for paragliding. The views over the lake and mountains together with those provided by nearby Aiguille du Midi must be the best in France.
Annecy is also home to an annual swimming gala attracting several hundred participants each August offering races over 500m, 1,000m, 2.4km, 5km, and 10km distances.
9. Have some chocolate
Annecy is also known for its chocolatiers. If it wasn’t for its status as Europe’s capital of outdoor sports visitors would no doubt leave with an expanded waistline!
The most famous local variety being ‘Roseau’, a glittery dark chocolate finger filled with fruit liquor.
☞ READ MORE: French desserts that are too blissful for words
10. Head to the spa at Aix-les-Bains
About 30 minutes away from Annecy by car, the lakeside city of Aix-les-Bains has attracted the rich and well-to-to for centuries.
From the ancient Romans to U.K.’s Queen Victoria, the city’s reputation for its wondrous natural thermal springs beckons visitors from far and wide.
There are a couple of large thermal spa resorts around Aix-les-Bains, using natural spring waters. The water contains calcium sulphide and is rich in trace elements of magnesium, manganese, potassium, iron, iodine, zinc, aluminum and copper.
The closest spa to the city center is Thermes Chevalley Valvital, that is in the haute (“high”) part of town. A bit further outside of Aix, on a property covering 10 hectares, is the Thermes de Marlioz. You can read more about visiting Aix-les-Bains here.
11. Relax by the Water
Annecy also offers one of life’s simple joys – the opportunity to relax and kick back on a beach, soaking in the sun as well as crisp, fresh lake air.
There are many beaches or grass areas on the lakeshore or along the canals to find your spot and take a well-earned break.
Coupled with the opportunity for a boat tour of the lake or options to rent a pedalo or small motorboat and you have the recipe for an ideal few hours.
12. Eat some cheese
Annecy is famed for its culinary products. Look out for famous Haute-Savoie cheeses such as Reblochon and Tome des Bauges or try the Alpine favorite of raclette.
Raclette can be ordered at a restaurant. Typically, a large wheel of cheese is placed in front of a bespoke heater and the melted cheese periodically scraped on to diners plates.
This heavenly French winter meal is traditionally enjoyed with family and friends over potatoes, dried meats, gherkins, and pickled onions. You can read more about Alpine foods and drinks here.
13. Visit the beautiful village of Yvoire
About 1h15 away from Annecy by car is the small French village of Yvoire. Lying on Lac Léman near the Swiss border, Yvoire has been voted one of the plus beaux village de France, meaning “most beautiful village”.
Yvoire’s narrow cobblestone streets are a big part of its appeal. They are filled with eateries, studios, galleries, and tiny boutique shops, which attract tourists from all over the world every year.
The town’s stone and larch wooden buildings are covered in flowers, which make it the perfect place for all photography and nature lovers. You can read more about visiting Yvoire here.
14. Enjoy the local wine
Wash it all down with local white wines such as Apremont and Roussette. Made predominantly from the local Jacquere grape these wines are typically light and dry with floral overtones. You can read more about French wines here.
15. Go to the beach
Who says you need salt water to go to the beach? There are several excellent beaches near Annecy around the lake, so if you are visiting in the warmer months, you may want to go in for a dip.
The best beaches around Annecy are:
- Plage d’Albigny – free sandy beach that is about a 15-20 minute walk from the Old town. It does get quite crowded during good weather, since it is so close to Annecy city center.
- Plage des Marquisats – Another free beach that is also about 15-20 minutes away from Old Town, but on the other side than Plage d’Albigny. With grass and sand areas, restrooms, showers and a snack bar during the summer months.
- Plage municipal – this is the local municipal beach that is a little further away from Annecy town center. It is a grassy lakefront area with toilet facilities, cafés and small kiosks selling items for children.
- Plage de l’Impérial – private beach requiring entrance fee. Beach is family-friendly, and facilities include tennis and other sports courts, a pool & a water slide.
16. Visit the Old Town Market
If you are in Annecy, don’t forget to look out for the famous markets held in the center of Annecy on Sunday, Tuesday and Friday mornings.
Market stalls are set up in a zone that is entirely pedestrianized in the Old Town of Annecy, with everything from artisan foods to antiques and souvenirs. Entrance is free, so it can get rather crowded.
17. Take a day trip to Geneva
About 26 miles (42km) away from Annecy is the beautiful Swiss town of Geneva in Switzerland. With a charming historical old town and new international district, it makes for a lovely day trip.
You can drive over or take a guided tour to Geneva that will show you the best of both cities.
18. Visit during the Venetian Carnival
The city of Annecy has a lot of canals and so is called the “Venice of the Alps“. At carnival time, they take it one step further with a Venetian style parade of masks. The parade is usually held over a weekend in March.
It starts with a Night walk on the Friday night of the weekend, and then day time parades on Saturday and Sunday. So if you happen to planning your trip for March, make sure to check out the carnival of Annecy to partake in all the festivities. You can read more about carnivals in France here.
Where is Annecy?
At an altitude of 446 meters, Annecy sits on the northern tip of Lake Annecy in the east of France. Overlooked from the east by snow-capped mountain ranges of the Alps the Swiss city of Geneva is just 35 km to the north. Lyon, France’s 3rd largest city 150 km west.
How to get to there?
With its eastern location and proximity to Switzerland and the Alps, Annecy is somewhat detached from the remainder of France.
By train: Gare d’Annecy does offer a high-speed TGV service reaching Paris in around 4 hours and other direct lines to major cities of Lyon and Grenoble.
By plane: International visitors are able to reach Annecy via the nearby Geneva, Lyon, and Chambery airports.
By car: Annecy lies near the A41 linking Geneva to Grenoble in the south.
How many days should you spend here?
As active as Annecy is, the principal joy of this town is to absorb its nature, incredible scenery, and reinvigorate. This is not a town or area you want to rush in to or around. In order to fully appreciate the history and unique natural qualities spend at least 2 days.
How easy is it getting around?
Annecy is not a town that requires a car to enjoy. If anything, relying on a car will cause more frustration as you find yourself in one of many jams, particularly to the western shore and access to the A41 highway.
Avoid driving within the city as much as possible as the one-lane lakeshore roads do fill very easily. Make the most of the cycle paths and walkways. You will be far more relaxed out in Annecy’s undeniably fresh and clean air.
Cycle paths make it simple and pleasurable to explore lake side destinations and small neighbouring villages.
So are you ready to brave the crowds to visit Annecy, or are you planning on heading over at a quieter time of the year? If you enjoyed that article, you may like to read more about traveling around the Alps. Bon voyage and à bientôt!
✎ Contributions by: Paul Rought | The Two that Do | Instagram | Pinterest | Facebook