Resting on a natural terrace above Lake Geneva’s southern shore is the spa resort of Thonon-les-Bains.
There’s a trusty old funicular railway running up the slope, dropping you at Thonon’s panoramic gardens where it’s a wrench to turn away from the epic lakeside views.
Thonon was the capital of the historic province of Chablais, and you can discover medieval castles in between voyages and watersports on one of the largest lakes in Europe.
You won’t be far from the Portes du Soleil, the second largest ski area in the world, while in summer the lakeside is a hiker’s dream.
Lets explore the best things to do in Thonon-les-Bains:
Dating to 1888, the funicular trundles 46 metres up the slope from Quai de Rives to the upper part of town.
Since 1989 the trains have been entirely automated, and the thing that sets it apart from every other funicular in the world is that the track curves to the top instead of running in a straight line.
Tickets are €1 for a one-way trip or €1.80 for a return, and at quiet times of year the upper office is sometimes unstaffed so you’ll complete a journey and then settle up at the bottom.
Stepping out from the upper station you’re confronted by the invigorating sight of the lake far beneath you and the Swiss Jura Mountains on the north shore.
The belvederes are well-tended gardens, linked by a path with benches so you can stare stupefied for as long as you want.
This path fenced by iron railings and with a couple of telescopes that let you take a closer look at the Swiss side or the lake’s glowing waters, sprinkled with yachts in summer.
3. Musée du Chablais
Right at the heart of the belvederes is the 17th-century Château de Sonnaz, which the museum about the historic Chablais Province shares with Thonon’s tourist office.
It’s the site of a much older castle that was besieged in 1589 by forces loyal to the French King Henri III, which ended with Thonon’s inhabitants being forced to swear their allegiance to the French crown.
Inside you can get the lowdown on Thonon’s smugglers, and the old “Barques du Léman”, cargo sailboats that crossed the waters from the 1700s up to the 20th century.
There are also contemporary sculptures by the local artist Marguerite Peltzer and Roman finds unearthed at local digs.
4. Château de Ripaille
The story of this fine estate on the edge of town begins in the 1300s, when it was a holiday escape for the Dukes of Savoy.
It later became a Carthusian monastery and was then a ruin for hundreds of years until a local industrialist bought the property in the 19th century to restore it.
The château has many strings to its bow, as the interiors are fabulous, particularly the kitchen with its gigantic fireplaces and historic water-heating system.
There’s also a 22-hectare vineyard on the estate, producing the high-quality AOC Ripaille, a crisp white that pairs with freshwater fish and raclette.
The tour ends in the cellars where you can sample this wine and buy a bottle or two.
5. Memorial National des Justes
The Domaine de Ripaille is the 50-hectare forest where the Dukes of Savoy used to hunt when they stayed at the château, and after the property was refurbished a lovely arboretum was planted on one side.
Visit to wander or ride through mature oak woodland with uplifting views of the lake.
You can also pay your respects at the “National Memorial of the Righteous”, inaugurated by Jacques Chirac in 1997 to remember people around the world who have saved others from genocide.
They chose this location because during the Second World Wa Thonon’s locals helped Jews flee the Nazi regime by crossing the border into Switzerland.
6. Port de Rives
Thonon has the largest marina on the French shore of Lake Geneva, with all you need for a fun and fulfilling time on these waters: There are 800 berths accompanied by restaurants, shops, bars and a service station equipped with a crane.
And if you’re not planning to set sail you could simply idle by the water at a cafe terrace and feast your eyes on the lake and mountains around its shores.
Later, if you can rouse the energy, set off along the promenade to natural beaches cloaked with pines and chestnut trees.
7. Église Saint-Hippolyte
Begun in the 12th century, this church has been altered a lot over the last 900 years, endowing it with an arresting mix of designs.
The oldest feature is the Romanesque crypt, which has been the same since the 1100s.
The rest though was rebuilt in the 17th century with Savoy baroque architecture: The exuberant frescos of saints apostles were painted at this time, as were the masterful stucco vaults.
This ornate makeover took place only after the church had become Catholic again following a period under protestant Bernese rule from 1536 to 1594.
8. Food and Drink
If you want to get really authentic you can ask for the Thonon delicacy, “atrial” at traditional restaurants.
It’s made with liver, chopped pork, herbs and spices wrapped in a caul fat casing and roasted.
You can have it hot in winter when it comes with a white wine sauce, or get it cold in summer as a sort of cold cut.
The dish has been around for hundreds of years and is a cross-border speciality also enjoyed in Switzerland.
Try some other Savoy classics like fondue and raclette, both made with melted cows’ cheese, freshwater fish like perch or whitefish, or tartiflette, a hearty gratin with potatoes, onions, lardons and reblochon cheese.
9. Écomusée de la Pêche et du Lac
Housed in three traditional huts in the fishing village is a museum about the lake’s wildlife and the fishing industry in Thonon.
The setting is a delight, on a quay where people still make a living from the lake.
So you can watch the boats come and go, and see nets drying in the sun.
Inside are antique tools of the trade, including vessels, engines and nets, and insights about the life of a fisher in Thonon.
it’s also a useful resource for the region’s nature as there are aquariums with the lake’s freshwater fish and panels to help you identify the birdlife around the shore.
10. Lake Sports
Thonon-les-Bains is one of 36 places around France awarded the Four-Star France Station Nautique Award.
There’s hardly a watersport that isn’t offered at the marina, and sailing, windsurfing, water-skiing, kayaking and canoeing are all specialities.
In July and August the paddle-boarders are out in force; paddle-boarding has taken Thonon by storm because it’s so easy to pick up and almost the whole family can do it.
Meanwhile if you value a bit of independence you can hire a rowboat or motorised craft, even if you don’t have a boat licence.
11. Dranse River Rafting
Originating high in the mountains, the Dranse is a high-volume river that cascades down from the Chablais Alps and empties into Lake Geneva between Thonon and Évian-les-Bains.
To get your adrenaline pumping book a white-water rafting trip on these ferocious waters.
You’ll join a crew of six or eight, helmed by an experienced guide as you try to steer the craft down the rapids.
The experience is pulsating, but you’ll have all the right safety gear and will never be in danger.
If white-water rafting with a crew isn’t crazy enough you could also don a wetsuit and flippers and take on the rapids while clinging to an individual “Hydrospeed” raft.
When the weather’s good it’s almost impossible to look at the low wooded slopes to the south of Thonon and resist the urge to disappear on a trail.
There’s a ten-kilometre buffer of gentle hills before the Alpine mountain ridge, so most of the local walks are suitable for younger members of the family.
The standout is the trail to the ruins of the Château D’Allignes, which you can pick up from Thonon’s Place de Crête.
The 11th-century castle was a stronghold for the Dukes of Savoy and there are 1,000-year-old frescos still visible.
The panoramas from this elevated spot are sublime, and with benches and grassy areas it’s a dreamy place for a picnic.
13. Winter Sport
From December to March Thonon can be a lakeside home-from-home after days flying down the pistes.
There are eight resorts in the region, and Thonon is just 18 kilometres from the closest at Bernex, which has 19 kilometres of slopes served by 12 lifts.
But you may be inclined to go the extra mile and make the 40-minute drive to the world-famous Portes du Soleil for your snow thrills.
Lift passes are pricier than the other resorts in the region, at €51 a head, but you’ll have access to 540 kilometres of slopes at the second-largest ski area in the world.
14. Natural Spring
Thonon became an official spa town in the 19th century, adding “les Bains” to its name.
The Versoie natural spring here had first been exploited by the Romans, and St Francis de Sales, the famous Bishop of Geneva wrote fondly about these waters.
You can try them for yourself at the Parc Thermal where the water flows from a fountain, so you need only bring a cup or bottle to fill.
Thonon spring water is bottled near the source and sold all over France.
In the same park Valvital centre has just been refurbished and has been offering courses of balneology and hydrotherapy for more than a century.
While you’re on the French shore of Lake Geneva, pay a visit to the medieval town of Yvoire about 15 minutes to the west by ferry or on the road.
It’s one of the 155 “Most Beautiful Villages in France”, a distinguished label for small settlements around the country.
If there’s one man to thank for this award it’s the 13th-century Count of Savoy, Amadeus V. The village’s position on a promontory next to the lake made it a strategic prize, so he beefed up the defences that continue to protect most of the village today.
Inside the walls and gates are alpine-style medieval houses with wooden terraces and galleries.