Field Guide: Annecy, France

One of the most undeniably beautiful places on the planet, Lake Annecy lies nestled in the Alps of southeastern France. It should go straight to the top of your adventure destinations list.

8th March 2024 | Words by Dave Hamilton

Nestled in the majestic, snow-peaked mountains of the Rhone-Alpes, Lake Annecy’s crystal blue waters beckon like a siren’s call, enticing adventurers from across the globe. This glacier-fed lake sits on the western fringe of the Haute-Savoie region of France, an area of high mountains, alpine pasture and wild conifer woodland close to the borders of Switzerland and Italy.

During the summer, the cool waters of the lake contrast with rising temperatures, encouraging wild swimmers to dive in, looking for relief from the summer sun. Boats of all kinds take to the waters to escape the heat and at any given time of day pedalos, rowing boats and leisure craft can be seen navigating around its shores. Back on dry land, cyclists and walkers flock to the region all year round to make the most of the many well laid out trails and paths criss-crossing through the hills and mountains.


Once the cold winter months come round, the region is transformed once again into a paradise for lovers of winter sports. Skiers and snowboarders fill up the many ski resorts dotted around the hills above the lake, taking to the slopes in one of the most picturesque parts of France. During the festive period the Christmas market comes to town. There are light shows, food stands and a creator’s market with unique gifts of jewellery, clothes and other handmade goods.

History and geology

The area which would become Lake Annecy began life 18,000 years ago as the last Ice Age ended. Immense forces were at play, carving out valleys and lakes as huge sheets of ice cut their way through the landscape. Rocks carried along in the ice carved out the basin of Lake Annecy along with other lakes in the area. As temperatures rose, the meltwaters filled the basin with the crystal blue waters we still see today. Annecy is often cited as the cleanest lake in Europe and scientists come here to study the undisturbed sediment at the bottom, as it was deposited when the lake was first formed.


Annecy town

Annecy is also the name of the largest settlement around the lake, comprising Old Annecy or Le Vieil Annecy and neighbouring Annecy-le-Vieux, a suburban region which merged into the old town in 2019. Le Vieil Annecy is a labyrinth of narrow cobbled streets and brightly painted medieval buildings with terracotta tiled roofs. Stone bridges cross clear blue rivers, while small bars and cafes spill out into beautifully kept terraces – all with the backdrop of snow-capped mountains.

Wild swimming

As summer temperatures rise, tourists and locals alike take to the waters to escape the heat. It’s frowned upon to just jump into the lake at any given point but there are permitted swimming zones all around the lake. These often have grassy or stony beaches for sun-bathing and ladders to climb down or jetties to jump off. Although the beaches can be crowded, the lake is so large that it is easy to find your own spot for a good swim even in the height of the season.

For those in the city, Plage d’Albigny is the best place to head for a dip. Situated on the far side of Parc Charles Bosson, just off a well-maintained cycle path, it is an easy place to while away a sunny afternoon. Mature trees provide a little shade and during the summer and lifeguards are on hand should you get into any difficulty. There are also showers, toilets and places to eat and drink nearby.

Heading out of the city, Plage du Chateau in the village of Duingt is a great place to stop for a quick dip whilst navigating the cycle lanes around the lake. This beach doesn’t get the high numbers of tourists that the city beaches or those close to the resorts do, so you should find enough room to lay out your towel without feeling territorial. There’s also a good-sized supermarket nearby selling fresh juices and ice cream.


Walking and hiking

Annecy is a great place for a hike; the hills close to the lake offer outstanding views at altitudes just high enough for a challenge without the need for specialist mountaineering equipment. You will find chains on some of the more difficult sections up the mountains though, so it’s worth doing your research first before heading up with less experienced walkers. On the other hand, keen scramblers will relish the chance to get hands-on with the rock.

Thankfully the local tourist office has done much of the leg work for you (pun intended). They have put together an app called ViAnnecy, which you can download straight to your smartphone. The app has four grades of colour-coded walking routes: green (easy), blue (medium), orange (moderate) and red (hard). There are also filters for the time you wish to spend walking, the distance you want to cover, how high you wish to climb and what ‘theme’ you’d like for the walk (such as fauna, flora and if the walk is accessible by wheelchair, pushchair or buggy).



Like much of mainland Northern Europe, the Annecy region is perfectly geared up for cycling. There are miles of dedicated on-road and off-road cycle routes as well as navigable sections on quiet roads. Nervous cyclists might be relieved to hear that drivers in the region are more used to cycle traffic and as a result are often a little more respectful than they can be in the UK. Most of the 43km perimeter route around the lake is relatively flat, save for some climbs on the eastern side. It takes about 3-4 hours to circle the lake in the recommended clockwise direction, making it well-suited to an afternoon or morning jaunt. Heading away from the water, you’ll also find reasonably flat valley routes heading to idyllic little towns and villages (with fantastic pâtisseries). Away from the flatlands at the base of the hills there are more than enough steep climbs to challenge even the fittest cyclists.

The choice of bikes available for hire reflects the huge mix of abilities and requirements of any would-be cyclist. There are mountain bikes and gravel bikes for off-roaders, Ebikes and road bikes for tourists and a good choice of children’s bikes, tag-a-longs and child seats for families with young children.

The best choice for hire shops is in the town of Annecy itself. Véloc' Location de vélo à Annecy and Outside Bike are both highly recommended. If you are staying outside the city, Coolbycycle in Saint-Jorioz or Nomad Bike to the south of Talloires easily rival some of the larger shops in the city.

To help you find routes, download the ViAnnecy app (previously mentioned in the walking section). This allows you to find trails for mountain bikes and Ebikes all over the Annecy Lake region.


Skiing and Winter Sports

To the west of Lake Annecy is the Semnoz Mountain, part of the Massif des Bauges Regional Nature Park. It is a resort for both skiing and snowboarding, with over 18km of runs and 10 lifts to get you up to the slopes. The slopes hold plenty of interest in beginner to intermediate skiers but as Semnoz is more of a large hill by alpine standards, advanced skiers might be a little disappointed. In sharp contrast, with beautiful views of the lake below and Mont Blanc on the horizon, Nordic or cross-country skiers find it one of the most satisfying parts of the region.

The next nearest ski resort is La Clusaz, just 20km from the town of Annecy. With an extensive network of 81 lifts to get you up to its 220km of slopes in the surrounding mountains, this small village packs a punch far exceeding its weight. There are runs for every ability and a good range of routes for cross-country skiers. The resort is geared up for family holidays but not exclusively, making it the perfect destination for winter sports lovers of all ages.

Where to stay

Annecy Hostel is a no-nonsense affordable hostel in the heart of the city. It’s an ideal spot for young backpackers wanting to meet up with like-minded travellers.

Hotel des Alpes offers well maintained rooms, friendly staff, decent showers, great breakfast, and a good central location all at an affordable price. A good option for budget travellers who still want a bit of luxury.

Imperial Palace might not be in the centre of town but don’t let this dissuade you. There are fantastic views of the lake and it is a stone’s throw from one of the prime swimming spots. It has free parking and a great breakfast, but evening meals can be a little underwhelming.

Where to eat

L'Auberge du Pere Bise - Jean Sulpice is both a hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant which should be high up on the list of anyone visiting the area. To eat here on the shores of the lake is an unforgettable experience.

La Petite Fringale Snack Bar is a great no-nonsense place to eat with its own beach and mountain views. The staff are attentive and although it might not be fine dining, the food is unpretentious and cooked to a high standard.

Getting There

Overland by train

Getting to Annecy by train couldn’t be easier. Jump on the Eurostar to Paris then, after a bit of sight-seeing, change to Gare-de-Lyon to board the direct TGV which runs three times a day, taking less than four hours. Once you’ve considered travelling to and from the airport parking, check-in time, passport control and baggage retrieval, the journey time is quite comparable to flying but with far less of the stress and hassle.


It is also possible to drive from the UK to Annecy in a day, taking the well-maintained French roads. One of the most pleasurable routes is to cross the Jura mountains on ‘the White Motorway’ or ‘Autoroute Blanche’, which acts as the main artery to the winter resort towns and villages of the Alps. Although the driving is often more straightforward than in England it is still a considerable distance to travel. As such, it’s best to go with an additional driver and if you have the time, break the journey up with at least one overnight stop. At the time of writing fuel is more expensive in France than the UK so if you can, leave British shores with a full tank.

By Air

Geneva is the nearest airport, around an hour away from Annecy by car or up to two hours by public transport. Further afield, it is possible to fly into Lyon or Zurich, especially when travelling from outside of Europe. However, connection times can stretch to over 3 hours, so do factor this in if you chose to travel this way.

Getting Around

During the summer months bus travel is free in Annecy. The buses can get crowded, especially at peak times but as they are air conditioned, they are rarely uncomfortable. Look out for routes not only around the lake but also up into the mountains at Semnoz.


By Bike

All around the lake you’ll find municipal bike hire stations, much like those found in London and other larger cities. These ‘Vélonecy 60 minutes’ hire stations allow you to hire bikes by the hour for very low rates, sometimes even free. Accessed via a downloaded app, users scan a QR code at the Vélonecy 60 stations to unlock the bike. Then, when you have reached the nearest station to your destination, just scan a code again to return the bike and you’ll be charged accordingly. For short journeys under an hour these are a smart choice but for those longer day trips, I would stick to the conventional bike hire.

By Car

Roads aren’t too hectic, even at the height of the season, so hiring a car is a worthwhile option, as much of this idyllic part of France is best accessed via the network of lanes through the hills. Most of the car rental offices are close to the train station. Here you’ll find a lot of the big names alongside local companies and smaller chains. It’s worth reading reviews as some are far better than others!

By Foot

Criss-crossed with backroads, lanes and footpaths, the towns and villages are easily negotiated on foot. And whilst it is possible to circumnavigate the lake without a vehicle, there are some areas are more challenging than others. However, drivers are tolerant of walkers so short sections of road walking are very possible.

Dave Hamilton is a photographer, forager and explorer of historic sites and natural places. A father of two boys, he writes for BBC Wildlife, Countryfile, and Walk magazines.

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