One of France’s prettiest medieval towns is right on the shore of Europe’s cleanest lake. It just doesn’t get much better than this. Annecy is laced with canals and the historic streets have fun passageways darting off to the sides.
The lake is glorious, bordered on all sides by mountains and with crystalline waters that call your name on hot summer days.
Half the time you may lose yourself staring at scenery – Lac d’Annecy has a year-round gossamer haze – but there’s a breathless amount of activities to do and places to see. This is Europe’s outdoor sports capital after all.
Lets explore the best things to do in Annecy:
1. Lac d’Annecy
Whatever your reason for coming to Annecy, “Europe’s Cleanest Lake” will be in your plans.
Lake Annecy has the quality of staying peaceful at all times of year despite all the activity on its shores If you come in summer you can’t be blamed for passing hours lazing by the transparent waters at one of several beaches around the shore, in awe of the Alpine landscapes.
Two beaches, Plage la Brune at Veyrier-du-Lac and Plage Municipal in Saint-Jorioz, have earned the Blue Flag for the undeniable quality of the water and the facilities like restaurants, play areas and lifeguard patrol.
2. Vieille Ville
Annecy has earned the eminent French label “Ville d’Art”, and just within its compact old town there are 21 historical monuments to be found.
The medieval core on the Thiou River is extremely pretty, with canals, arcaded pedestrian streets and exciting little passageways that have you fumbling for your camera every few steps.
You could put yourself in the capable hands of a guide for the complete inside track on the city’s history and the unexpected vestiges that constantly catch your attention.
On Tuesday there’s a food market in the old centre, which adds real colour and energy to the old streets.
3. Jardins de l’Europe
It’s hard to conceive of a municipal park blessed with better panoramas anywhere in the world.
The Jardins del’Europe are in front of Annecy’s city hall, and before the embankment and Vassé canal were built had actually been a marshy island outside the city.
In the 19th century the city plotted an English garden, and more than 600 deciduous trees were planted around the statue of the pioneering chemist Claude-Louis Berthollet.
In any weather you have to walk down to the water, sit back on a bench and feast your eyes on the peaks around the lake, out to La Tournette high above the southeast shore.
4. Pont Des Amours
There are many picturesque bridges in Annecy, but when it comes to scenery none can compete with this one on the lakeside.
Pont des Amours spans the Vassé canal and connects the Jardins de l’Europe with the Jacquet Promenade, a walkway blessed with yet more sumptuous views of the lake and mountains.
The story goes that any lovers who kiss while on the bridge will be together for life.
The mountain vistas make it a very romantic spot, but you should also look back towards the city along the canal, which is flanked by trees and has charming jetties where small boats are moored.
5. Palais de l’Île
You won’t be the first person to have stood on Pont Perrière for a photo of this fortified palace in the middle of the Thiou, but you have to do it anyway.
Although it has been rebuilt several times in its extensive history, the complex dates to the 1100s and for hundreds of years it was a residence handed down the noble families of the County of Geneva.
From the 17th century the palace became a prison, and then after the Revolution it had many different functions, as a home for veterans, a warehouse and barracks.
Today it contains exhibitions about Annecy’s architecture and heritage, and you can take a look around the old courtroom, dungeon, cells and chapel.
6. Cathedral and Basilica
Saint-Pierre Cathedral is also admired for the way it interacts with the water, and is partly built over the canals.
Saint-Pierre is a lovely renaissance building, constructed in the 1500s, and if it seems a bit subtle for a cathedral that’s because it wasn’t made one until 1825. Make the steep walk up to the Basilique de la Visitation, high to the south of Annecy.
The tower of this 19th-century church can be seen for miles around and possesses one of the best local views of the city.
Inside are the tombs of two saints, Francis de Sales and Jane Frances de Chantal.
7. Château d’Annecy
The seat of the Counts of Geneva, Château d’Annecy dates to between the 12th and 16th centuries, and there are a few good reasons to climb the steep hill up to this building.
You can spend a while pottering around the castle’s towers and halls, and there’s a museum giving you a window on the lifestyle of the itinerant rulers of Savoy.
Poke through the large displays of medieval furniture, beds, chest chairs and tables, as well as more precious illuminated manuscripts.
A lot of visitors opt not to enter the château and instead admire one of the definitive views of Annecy from the terrace.
8. Gorges du Fier
Minutes west of the city is a marvellous river canyon cut by the Fier River.
Even in the French Alps, which are famous for their natural wonders, the gorge is a must-visit.
That’s down to how accessible it is: There’s a series of walkway suspended 25 metres above the river letting you marvel at the odd shapes create by many years of erosion.
In places the gorge is so narrow that the cliffs almost meet overhead, and you’ll be able to touch the rock face on the other side.
There’s also a free path delivering you to a natural pool where people come to sunbathe and swim in the summer.
9. Château de Montrottier
Combine your trip to the Gorges du Fier with this castle, which looks down on the river.
Château de Montrottier dates to the 13th century and is open during the summer months.
The architecture is impressive, with a tall circular tower dominating the landscape.
But the big story here is the collection of Léon Mares, who was a 19th-century explorer and prolific collector.
Mares hoarded priceless items from around the world and when he passed on specified that he wanted the collection to be presented exactly as he left it.
So the 90-minute tour shows you round masses of historic tapestries, antique weapons, armour, period furniture, ceramics, glassware and the many items he acquired while travelling Asia and Africa.
10. Winter Sport
Annecy is close enough to resorts like Manigod, La Clusaz, Le Grand Bornand and Saint Jean de Sixt to make it a ski destination.
If you want a more cultured base than a typical village, Annecy is a beautiful place to return to after a day on the slopes and isn’t more than 45 minutes from any of the local ski areas.
They’re all at low altitudes and well-suited to families and newcomers: Manigod for example has 17 kilometres of wide and an easy slopes, while Le Semnoz offers short-term lift passes by the hour or day, which obviously makes things a lot more flexible.
Highest-rate of all is La Clusaz, with the most challenging runs of all the resorts around Annecy.
A big directory of companies awaits your business at Lake Annecy in the summer, providing almost any watersport under the warm July sun.
Just to reel off the list, there’s waterskiing and wakeboarding for people who need high-speed, motorised exhilaration.
But you can also push off onto these glistening waters on a paddle-boarding adventure or, if you’re really sure of yourself, try open water swimming.
Due to the easy learning curve paddle-boarding is now a hit with families.
Best of all it gives you an opportunity to look up every now and take in those views .
12. Hiking and Cycling
Around the lakeshore are a load of viewpoints with spellbinding vistas of the lake and mountains.
Getting up to these lookouts is a joy too, as you ramble through upland pasture, orchards and woodland.
Here’s a few to seek out: Le Taillefer, the Semnoz Plateau, the Laudon Circuit, the Oratory in Entrevernes and the La Frasse Pass.
All are achievable for families and you only need a pair of good shoes.
Lake Annecy also has the ultimate greenway for cyclists, starting in the city, running down the lake’s east shore and ending up in Marlens in the Fauverges Valley 35 kilometres away.
13. Local Food
Annecy is cheese heaven as the city is in four designated production areas: Gruyère, Emmental de Savoie , Emmental français est-central and Tomme de Savoie.
And if you’re really curious about cheese you could track down rural shops Ferme de l’Angelie and Fromagerie du Cruet selling their cheese on the farm premises, along with homemade jams and sausage.
A lot of freshwater fishers make their living around the lake and anchor their boats in the Vassé: The arctic char, perch and trout that they catch could be on your plate at one of Annecy’s fine restaurants on the same day.
An easy road trip southwest of Annecy is this spa town on the shore of Lac du Bourget, founded by the Romans and wildly popular with Europe’s wealthy in the 19th century.
They came to take the health-giving waters, and during this time fitted Aix-les-Bains with grand Belle Époque hotels, townhouses and a casino.
Whether you feel like gambling, or just to gaze awestruck at the art nouveau interiors, you need to call in at the Casino Grand Cercle.
If you need cosseting after your outdoor excursions at Lake Annecy, Aix-les-Bains is still a top-class spa resort with pools and saunas, and all the restorative treatments you could hope for.
Push on a bit further to reach this exquisite Alpine town, with an old centre that you can’t resist exploring.
The medieval buildings, tight passageways and renaissance arcades have survived the years, but what’s great is that they’re part of a working town, and not kept like museum pieces.
The major sight is the Fontaine des Éléphants, dedicated to Benoît de Boigne, a Napoleonic military man who helped train and lead the Maratha Empire against the British in India.
The Château de Chambéry was another in the roll call of palaces belonging to the Counts of Savoy, and is still a regional government building, but open for tours.