Crystal clear waters surrounded by snow-capped peaks. Quaint medieval buildings along hillside cobblestone streets. Canals lined with cafes, criss-crossed by bridges. Lakefront parks. A castle and hilltop church overlooking the whole scene. It sounds pretty perfect, doesn’t it?
I am only a two hour – and €18 – bus ride from my apartment in bustling Lyon, but breathing the alpine air I feel worlds away. I sit on a bench on the sunny side of a grassy park and eat my solidly un-French by wonderful bagel sandwich, gazing at Lake Annecy and the mountains beyond. It is crowded here by the lake during the lunch hour, mainly with locals as tourists fill the cafes in the old town. Rowers ply their sleek boats through the water, which is as clear as any I’ve seen.
Annecy is a mid-sized town in the French Alps. A relatively late addition to France, it was annexed in 1860 from the King of Sardinia, and made the administrative center of its region, Haute-Savoie. (The name is no accident, as the department includes most of the ancestral lands of the Counts of Savoy.)
Annecy is gorgeous!
Proximity to the mountains and its namesake lake makes Annecy a popular destination for outdoor enthusiasts. While arriving immediately to escape into nature is understandable, you should make sure to spend at least a few hours wandering the city itself. The old city is built along the banks of the Thiou River, a small and shallow canal-like stream, swift-moving waters as clear as can be. There is also a small system of canals feeding off of the river, which is why many have referred to Annecy as “The Venice of the Alps.” (Don’t let this name confuse you. There are maybe half a dozen canals, and resemblance to Venice is really only gained by squinting.)
It’s not Venice, but it’s beautiful.
The official sights of Annecy are few. The Chateau d’Annecy, a restored medieval castle, is now a museum with an apparently eclectic art collection. The Palais de l’Ile is a house built on a small island in the river to resemble the bow of a ship, also now a museum. Prices are reasonable – a combination ticket allowing admission to both is €7.20. However, both are closed from 12-2pm during the traditional French lunch break and can get crowded when open, with tourists looking for a bit of culture or local students on a field trip for their history classes. I actually chose not to visit the Palais since as soon as it opened at 2pm, a group of 40 loud teenaged students were let in just in front of me.
The Palais de l’Ile and its boat shaped architecture.
Both buildings are easily viewable simply from a walk, as is the nearby Basilica of the Visitation, which to me looks more like a Bavarian castle!
Basilica or castle?
Spend your day in two areas: the old town and the lakefront. As mentioned above, the old town is built along the Thiou and several canals. While most of the buildings have been repurposed to house the cafes and shops that one would expect in a touristy locale, that fact takes little away from the beauty of those buildings to begin with. Small passageways through some of the buildings lead easily to other canals and hidden squares, and the ever-present Notre Dame Church (it seems each French city has one). There are also a few lovely parks on small islands in the river, great places to sip a coffee and watch the tourists go by.
Annecy’s Notre Dame.
The old town is also a great place to try alpine favorites if you aren’t headed to Switzerland. Fondue and raclette (basically an inverted fondue where the cheese is poured over potatoes and other tasty bites) can be found all over, as well as French mainstays such as crepes. Or you can get a bagel to go at Bagel Corner near the lake like I did, foregoing regional specialties altogether in favor of quick and portable.
The lake is the other place you will want to spend some time. Numerous cruise options exist if you want to get on the water, and though I didn’t see any, I would be shocked if kayak rentals were not also present. Lake Annecy is known as Europe’s cleanest lake, and it shows. The water is shockingly clear – I’ve said this a few times but it bears repeating – and surrounded by mountains that, at least in March, had a decent amount of snow. Benches are everywhere, although you’ll have to get a bit lucky to find one during lunch on a beautiful day. This view, however, makes the effort worthwhile!
Not a bad view with lunch!
The combination of medieval old town, hilltop castle and church, and stunning lake make Annecy perhaps the most beautiful town I’ve seen in France. I highly recommend it, at least as a day trip from Lyon or Geneva.
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