Every year, millions of tourists descend upon Venice, but roughly 400 miles west of this overtouristed city, a more intimate destination beckons with its own Venetian-style charm.
Annecy is located in southeastern France, in the heart of the French Alps. Quaint canals and storybook bridges thread under and over the cobbled streets, calling to mind Italy’s floating city. Indeed, Annecy is nicknamed the “Venice of the Alps” due to this resemblance.
Annecy sits on the shores of a glacial lake, considered one of the cleanest in Europe. Rising from Lake Annecy’s crystalline waters are massifs and rocky peaks that are reflected on its glassy surface. The Thiou river, an outflow of the lake, runs through La Vieille Ville (Old Town) in translucent, sea-green canals. Visitors walk along their flowering banks, exploring private passages and secret spaces.
Annecy has an active, outdoorsy lifestyle. Scuba diving, water skiing and paragliding are a few of the most popular local sports, not to mention hiking, biking and sailing. Near the Vassé Canal, beautifully restored 1930s wooden boats are available for guided tours. However, I recommend renting an electric bike instead from a company like Cyclable, which will enable you to pedal around the lake at your own unhurried pace. Great for a range of fitness levels, the e-bikes offer an assist on the 25-mile cycle route, which takes approximately three hours from start to finish.
While the ski resorts surrounding Lake Annecy are popular in winter, on summer weekends families and friends flock to the water for boating, swimming and sunbathing. Others play volleyball on soft sand courts. The effortlessly stylish and sophisticated scene recalls the glamorous lifestyle portrayed in the famous photographs of Slim Aarons.
High above, Château d’Annecy crowns a hilltop. Reaching it requires a steep uphill trek, but the views over the rust-colored rooftops and sparkling waters make it well worth the effort. Today, this medieval castle turned museum is dedicated to the history of the lake and the heritage of the region. Within the castle complex, visitors will also find the Animated Film Museum. Annecy is known for its International Animated Film Festival, which has been drawing people from around the world since 1960.
Most popular of Annecy’s landmarks is the medieval Palais de L’Île. Once the city courthouse and prison, this historic monument is built on a natural island, parting the Thiou river into two canals. The Palais de L’Île’s pointed stone façade resembles a large boat moving through the water. Visitors can tour the grounds and see the dungeons, a minting workshop and the original spiral staircases.
As the capital of Haute-Savoie, Annecy has a trifecta of cultural influences. The French city is just 45 minutes from Geneva and less than two hours from Italy. The local cuisine has a rustic mountain sensibility, and many restaurants, like La Cuillère à Omble, serve flash-fried perch caught fresh from the lake and cheese dishes such as fondue and tartiflette (a gratin of potatoes, onions and cheese). For a traditional Savoyard raclette, we recommend L’Etage on the bustling Rue du Pâquier. This savory dish features a chunk of cow’s milk cheese broiled tableside and served with boiled potatoes, gherkins, dried meats and pickled onions. Many first-time visitors also enjoy a trip aboard Annecy’s only floating restaurant, the MS Libellule, which offers panoramic views of the lake, along with music and dancing.
For an upscale gastronomic experience, La Ciboulette is a great choice, as is L’Auberge du Lyonnais, a lovely hotel restaurant where patrons dine canal-side while enjoying seafood dishes like house-smoked salmon and Coquille St.-Jacques carpaccio.
While there are no Hideaway Report-recommended hotels in Annecy, Clos Des Sens is a fine option for an overnight stay and boasts a wonderful two-star Michelin restaurant helmed by Laurent Petit. About 10 minutes away, in Veyrier-du-Lac, Restaurant Yoann Conte is a hotel-restaurant housed in an elegant lakeside villa. Expect a two-Michelin-starred take on peasant fare like veal sweetbreads smoked over pine cones and served with grilled leeks in a savory vinaigrette.
Despite Annecy’s many dining options, picnicking in Le Pâquier, with its soft, manicured grasses and views of snow-capped mountains, is a local favorite. Find superb picnic supplies at the best cheese shop in Annecy, Pierre Gay, which has been run by the same family since 1935.
Residents also pick up their fare at the city’s outdoor market, which is widely considered one of the best in France. Every Tuesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the streets morph into a maze of stalls selling cheeses, fresh-baked breads, dried sausages and seasonal produce. In one direction, rotisserie chickens turn on steel rods, and in the other, bright-red and indigo berries ripen in crates next to thick white asparagus and baskets of summer cherries. Farther down the street, a merchant carves the skins of oranges and radishes into miniature floral sculptures. There is something for everyone, which makes leaving empty-handed impossible. In order to carry your finds, we suggest buying one of the many woven baskets sold around town.
As the sun slips behind the mountains and the city pales to a rose-gold glow, locals relish the last of the day outdoors. Townspeople stroll through the Jardins de l’Europe or cross the Pont des Amours footbridge. Chances are, as you walk in the fading light and overlook the twinkling lake, you too will be seduced by this fairy-tale city.