On the eastern shore of France’s largest freshwater lake, Aix-les-Bans is a chic Savoy resort that radiates old-world glamour. In the 19th century the lake, mountains and curative waters contributed to one of Europe’s most fashionable destinations.
Kings, queens, dukes, maharajas and counts all descended on the resort, and opulent art nouveau palace hotels were built for them. Aix-les-Bains still resonates with this mystique, and is a luxurious home from home for people embarking on mountain hikes, cross-country skiing or watersports on the lake’s glassy waters.
Lets explore the best things to do in Aix-les-Bains:
1. Lac du Bourget
Aix-les-Bains is on the east shore of the largest natural lake in France.
Unlike many French lakes there’s no complete perimeter trail, and that’s because the mountains on the west shore plunge almost vertically to the water, which adds to the drama of the place.
But you can ramble to some remote spots to find hides where you can watch the lake’s waterfowl and raptors.
In summer you could have a dip these glacial waters at one of Aix-les-Bains’ three sandy beaches, while the marina can be your hub for water-skiing, diving and sailing.
There’s also a directory full of companies offering guided or self-navigated canoe, kayak and paddleboard outings on the lake.
2. Musée Faure
In the 1940s the rich doctor Jean Faure bequeathed his stupendous art collection to Aix-les-Bains, and this is still the basis for the Musée Faure.
In it is France’s second best set of sculpture by Auguste Rodin and a top-notch array of impressionist painting.
Cézanne, Sisley, Degas and Pissarro all appear, along with earlier works by Camille Corot.
Johan Jongkind and Eugène Boudin, who are often seen as impressionism’s trailblazers.
There’s also a small display on the top floor about the poet Alphonse de Lamartine’s who lived in a predecessor to this building in the early-1800s.
3. Casino Grand Cercle
To infuse some Belle Époque pizazz into your trip you can play a few hands or spin the wheel at the Grand Cercle Casino.
In the 19th century you would have been in the company of Queen Victoria, the King of Greece and all sorts of other nobility and industrialists.
This was France’s first casino and even if you can’t afford to be a high roller it’s worth going in to get an eyeful of the art nouveau interior design.
This is opulent in the extreme, with gilt statues, marble floors, chandeliers and fine stained glass windows.
4. Esplanade du Lac
Few lakeside ambles could be as scenic as in this 10-hectare park right on the shore of the Lac du Bourget.
There are pollarded plane trees, large lawns for picnics and play areas for children.
But your eye will always be drawn to the opposite shore of the lake where the rugged slopes of the Dent du Chat rise up menacingly.
Pause here to meditate over the view and spot sights like the Hautecombe Abbey where members of the House of Savoy are buried.
5. Mont Revard
Constantly in the background at Aix-les-Bains is this mighty peak climbing above limestone cliffs.
In the winter there’s a ski station at the top, endowed with the largest network of cross-country trails in France (140 kilometres). In summer road cyclists try to tackle the ascent, which has been on the Tour de France route five times, most recently in 2013. There are also mountain biking hiking trails on the cross-country ski routes and a couple of “via ferratas”, guided climbing courses on the cliffs.
But if all that sounds too much like hard work, you can drive through the coniferous forest to lookouts for rousing views over Aix-les-Bains and Lac du Bourget.
6. Thermal Baths
It’s been a long time since hydrotherapy was the main draw for tourists in Aix-les-Bains.
But you could make like a 19th-century aristocrat and book an afternoon of treatments at any of the spa centres in the resort.
One, Valvital has large indoor and outdoor pools fed by the local spring waters, which come through at 33°C. These waters are claimed to have therapeutic properties for complaints like arthritis, but are pleasant enough just to soak in for a little while, if you don’t mind adhering to the strict dress code.
Valvital also has an “aquagym” , sauna, hammam and the usual menu of massages and mud wraps.
7. Roman Ruins
These springs drew Roman settlers as long ago as the 1st century, and there are some fascinating clues about their presence around the resort today.
The most complete of Aix-les-Bains’ Roman structures is the Temple of Diana on Place Maurice-Mollard, one of only three intact temples in France.
If you join the “Balade dans Aix” guided tour in summer you can go inside to see the lapidary museum and get a feel for life in Aix in antiquity.
Also riveting is the Arch of Campanus, which may either have been a funerary arch or a grand portal to the ancient spa complex.
8. Belle Époque Architecture
The real golden age in Aix-les-Bains was the turn of the 20th century.
At this time an ensemble of regal hotels were built to cater to the venerated guests.
Most of these are now apartment buildings, but they’re listed as historic monuments and you can still ponder a dozen of them on a walking tour of the resort.
Hôtel Royal on Rue Georges-Ler was amongst the most extravagant and was built in 1914, while Beau-Site, Splendide, Excelsior and the Bernascon are all also majestic examples of the art nouveau style.
9. Aquarium du Lac du Bourget
If you’re on a family holiday and rain is forecast, the lake’s aquarium will guarantee a couple of hours of entertainment for kids.
The tanks are mostly for freshwater species that occur naturally in the Lac du Bourget, as the aquarium takes part in conservation measures and monitors stocks.
There are pike, carp, blenny, eels, catfish and crayfish in these tanks, but children’s favourite part is the tactile pool.
Here they’ll be able to touch carp and sturgeon, while finding out about their diet and habits.
10. Town Hall
Another sight to cross off your list is Aix-les-Bains’ Hôtel de Ville, which was constructed in the 1500s and is right next to the Temple of Diana.
This building replaced an earlier feudal castle and was constructed for the Marquis d’Aix of the Seyssel House, which was prominent in the court of the Savoy Family.
The architecture here is Gothic, as you might tell from the mullioned windows and the stonework around its main entranceway.
In 1866 the castle was bought by Aix-les-Bains and has served as the town hall ever since.
11. Hautecombe Abbey
You can gaze at it from a distance on the Esplanade in Aix-les-Bains, but you can also cross the lake by boat to visit the old Cistercian monastery at Hautecombe Abbey.
There’s a jetty just in front of the monument so it could hardly be easier in summer, while the serpentine drive around the southern shore of the lake is also an unforgettable way to get there.
At the monastery you’ll be handed a detailed and clear audio-guide, and there’s even recorded content for kids.
The location, on a promontory before dark wooded slopes, is out of this world.
But there’s volumes of history to investigate, most of all in the Necropolis of the Savoy House, where a long line of powerful medieval rulers are buried.
12. Dent du Chat
Probably the best of all the lakeside walks, it will take around 20 minutes to get round to the southwest shore of the lake to begin your ascent on this 1,400-metre peak.
The Dent du Chat’s rugged appearance is a little deceptive as the trail is pretty easy-going, and on the last few metres there are cables to help you make your way through the steepest part of the hike.
If you’re calves and butt are burning at this point the energising panoramas at the summit will bring you back to life.
The lake is stunning from this angle, but if you look up you’ll be able to see as far as Mont Blanc.
In mid-July the largest pop/rock festival in the entire Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region unfolds on the lake shore at Aix-les-Bains.
The event was set up in 2002 and has grown year on year, now packing in more than 80,000 spectators.
The line up tends to be strong every year, and couples world-famous artists and acts like Muse, Elton John, David Guetta and Placebo with up-and-coming bands from France and around the world.
Businesses in the town take part in the spectacle; for instance the Lac du Bourget boat company provides special cruises that let you watch shows from the water.
In 20 minutes you can be in this medieval city, which has a different and perhaps younger ambience to Aix-les-Bains.
Chambéry’s not a huge place, but thanks to the university the centre is one of the most densely inhabited in France, and there’s nightlife to be found on the labyrinth of streets that scuttle away from the main squares.
For sights you’ve got the Fontaine des éléphants, commemorating the Comte de Boinge, a high-flying general during Napleon’s rule.
The Gothic Château des Ducs de Savoie was where the Savoy line called the shots in medieval times.
When the ski industry took off in Savoy in the 1950s fondue soon followed, and the dish is now a regional speciality.
Fondue savoyarde is made with beaufort cheese, which is really the French version of Gruyère.
Diot, meanwhile, is the name given to a variety of sausages, both cured and served hot in dishes.
Diot with boiled potatoes or polenta is very typical here, and when eaten cold it goes great with Dijon mustard.
Finally tartiflette is a satisfying winter dish composed of potatoes, soft reblochon cheese, onions and lardons, and pairs very well with a glass of Jura’s Chignin white wine.