There’s Venice…and then there’s the so-called “Venice of the Alps.” Subtract the gondoliers and add some glorious mountain scenery, and you end up with Annecy, France which is the type of place you’ll become enchanted with the second you arrive in its old town.
Cobblestone streets wind past charming patisseries and cafes, a 12th century castle perches high on a hill overlooking easter-egg coloured buildings, and tiny bridges navigate over canals leading to the town’s crown jewel, the Palais de l’Ile. While there is plenty to see, the town is surprisingly walkable and one could spend an entire day simply wandering around, never tiring of the view. Here’s why you need to drop everything and go to Annecy right now.
The Palais de l’Ile is deservedly the top sight in Annecy, and it’s safe to say it’s prettiest prison ever built. Dating back to the 12th century, the stone monument has served as a jail, courthouse, administrative centre and now a museum.
Those who visit in warmer months will be treated to the sight of clear green water, bright foliage and vibrant flowers framing the structure. However, visiting in the winter means less crowds, and you’ll be free to enjoy the view of the Palais de l’Ile from the bridge without having to battle anyone for elbow room.
A steep pathway with vine-covered walls leads up from the old town to the Château d’Annecy, a beautifully preserved medieval castle. It was built to be the residence of the counts of Geneva, but after the town bought it in the 1950s it was restored and turned into a museum. Visitors can wander through the castle and enjoy exhibits, and the surrounding streets are worth exploring, if only for the view of the town spread out below.
One of the largest lakes in France, Lake Annecy is a serene, picturesque spot known as Europe’s purest lake due to strict environmental regulations. It’s popular for swimming and sailing, and there many boat cruises available where one can not only view Annecy from the water, but also the surrounding villages.
Framed by the Tournette Mountain, a pathway winds around the edges of Lake Annecy which are frequented by cyclists, runners, or those simply out for a stroll to enjoy the view.
Really, is there anything better than French food? Annecy has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to cuisine, and dining is taken quite seriously here. Museums don’t accept visitors over the lunch hour, and dinner can be the event. Don’t even think about sitting down until 7 pm, and then expect to spend hours enjoying a multi-course meal (hopefully with good company).
While the number one rule of travelling is normally to avoiding eating anywhere within a two block radius of a major tourist attraction, that’s not necessarily the case in Annecy. For example, Café des Ducs has an enviable location right beside the Palais de l’Ile, where you can tuck into a delicious nutella and banana covered waffle while people watching.
Top tip: Don’t leave Annecy without having dinner at Le 7367. Located in the old town, it serves up incredible dishes such as rabbit confit, foie gras, scallop carpaccio and Kobe beef which are so artfully presented you’ll feel bad digging in. Even those who don’t consider themselves foodies will appreciate the experience—especially those who order the Mystère d’une sphère dessert which melts before your eyes!
It’s no Paris, but Annecy has some great shopping. Most of the stores and boutiques are scattered around pedestrian-only areas in the old town, offering everything from trendy clothes and shoes to home decor and beauty products. There are also lots of cute spots to pick up fresh flowers or a bottle of wine, and North Americans will feel at home in the Courier shopping centre which has a few dozen stores including well-known ones like Zara, H&M and Sephora.
Just across from the shopping centre is one of Annecy’s Christmas Markets, so if you time your visit for December you can explore the stalls, let the kiddos ride around on a miniature horse or go skating. It’s even better after dark, when the bar (complete with disco ball) opens, serving up drinks including vin chaud as the younger crowd conglomerates around the food stalls while a DJ spins beats in the background.
If you’re more interested in picking up decorations or gifts, head back to the Palais de l’Ile where another Christmas Market winds around the main plaza and cathedral, serving up sweets like gingerbread, candy apples and real roasted chestnuts. This is also where to find beautiful handcrafted gifts like candles, shawls and scarves, or treats like chocolates, macaroons and even caviar pate.
Be sure to wander over to the nearby city hall, where a light show is displayed on the side of the building, including some drawings done by local children.
Currency: The euro. Credit cards are commonly accepted.
How to get there: Annecy is located in eastern France, just 40 minutes away from Geneva, Switzerland. It’s about an 1 1/2 hour drive to Lyon, and just an hour to the ski resort in Chamonix.
Where to stay: Hôtel Alexandra offers clean, quiet, modern rooms in an amazing location in the old town. It’s found in the shopping district, just a few blocks from the Palais de l’Ile. Parking is available for an extra charge, and hotel staff are very friendly and helpful.
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