If you’re into pastel buildings floating between idyllic canals, you should be heading to France, not Italy.
Are you adding some of the most beautiful spots in Europe on your travel list? We definitely think spots in Italy and France should make your list! Both of these countries boast charming villages, picturesque cities, impressive history, and the yummiest foods. You'll find some of the most popular cities to visit in France and Italy for those very reasons! We love some of those huge tourist destinations; I mean, you can’t visit Paris and skip the Eiffel Tower, right?But just because some city is a total tourist magnet doesn’t mean it’s the only place of your dreams.
One of those places that is cool, but skippable is Venice. Shocked, right?
Don’t get us wrong; we love, love, love the circle brides over the gondola-filled canals, licking gelato as you admire crumbling brick and painted villas. What we don’t love is how touristy and crowded Venice is. The hordes of tourists trying to take a good picture gets in the way of appreciating that charm you’re looking for.
And guess what? You can get a (better) “Venice” experience — the same pretty canals, the same Euro-vibes, and the same postcard pastel homes in this lesser known city in France. Now, this place isn't without its tourists, but you'll see far less in high season than you do in the more famous city of Venice. So, if you’re even more of an adventurer, join some of the trendsetters heading to Annecy, France for a beautiful canal-filled experience.
Here's all the info about traveling here while you're in France:
Soak Up The Sites
So you’re probably here to see the canals, right? You can easily soak in the picturesque Old Town situated on these waters, but if you have more time, we also suggest going out to see the pristine lake in Menthon St. Bernard — there’s a towering castle that’s nestled right in the Alps, AKA it’s gorgeous.
Seeing The Canals: AKA, Le Palais de I'lle
A quick Google search of the canals of Annecy will probably give you a picture of the Palais d'Isle — a palace-turned-prison that floats atop one of the canal’s intersections. See the re-tiled spires and stone walls in that picture? That's the Palais d'Isle.
More About The Museum
Built on a rocky island way back in the 12th century, Palais de I'Île has served many functions over the years: a prison, a courthouse, a minting workshop, an administrative building, a gymnasium, and a school for stone carvers. Deservedly listed as a historic monument in 1900, the original medieval structure now plays host to a museum. The building is always available to admire from the outside, but if you'd like to visit the museum, it's open from 10:00 AM - 12:00 PM, then from 2:00 PM to 5:00 (closed Tuesdays). Get more museum info here.
If You're Here For The Canals
This is the best starting point to admire that aspect of Annecy. We recommend heading here to start your wandering, just strolling down the streets, crossing over bridges and gazing up at flower-filled window baskets that encircle the Palais d'Isle. This place is a dream, and to make things even more magical, swans are known to float gently on the calm waters. Amazing.
Vieille Ville (Old Town)
Another way to spend your time is walking around the cobbled streets and winding canals found in Old Town. You'll naturally stumble upon it if you're headed to the canals, but keep an eye out for delicious gelato stands selling coconut and lavender flavors. There really isn't an agenda for this part of Annecy, just the plan to walk around and see what catches your attention (there are multiple bakeries and cafes to take a break before you start your wandering again). It's one of the best spots to just soak up the fairytale charm of Annecy and get lost for a little bit. Just wander slowly, photographing basically everything, because it’s just so pretty here.
We also love visiting the food markets if you time your visit right (it's only on certain days that shift depending on the time of the year — get the details, here). The markets in Annecy are some of the best around, boasting breads, cheeses, and fruits from both France and Switzerland. They're typically from 7:00 AM to 1:00 PM, meaning you can head here for breakfast and pack up a few items for a lakeside lunch later in the day, or find yourself here for lunch if you're busy in the mornings.
Visiting The Pristine Lake
Once you’ve had your fill of meandering the city itself (there are dozens of cozy restaurants, eateries and boutiques, that spiral out from the canals, by the way) we recommend admiring the nearby lake that hugs one side of the city.
Lake Annecy isn't only one of the largest lakes in France, it's one of the most picturesque, thanks to the glittering pristine water. The entire lake is created and fed by pure mountain springs that travel all the way from the snowy mountain peaks that surround Annecy. Once you get your fill of the city of Annecy, it's time to enjoy the lake (there's a lot to keep you busy). Find pretty lake beaches, boat rides, catamaran rentals, and more.
Beaches To See
The most popular beaches nearby Annecy are Plage des Marquisats (A 15-minute walk south of Palais de I'lle) and Plage de l’Impérial (a 20-minute walk north of Palais d’Isle, or you can take an 8-minute cab ride). Both of these beaches are free of charge.
Plan on bringing your own towel and snacks and soaking up all the sunshine after you go for a swim. It's a lovely spot to pack up a picnic if you have the time. Find more beaches to visit here, if you're interested.
Bike Around The Lake
There are places where you can rent bikes to bike around the whole lake (it’s a 50km ride) but you can always get a bike and just turn back when you get tired! Or go the e-bike route and see if you can tackle the whole thing.
One ILP volunteer who visited Annecy gave this a glowing recommendation, an absolute must-do "you HAVE to put aside a day to rent bikes and bike around the lake. There is a bike ride which is sooooo beautiful and it gives you a taste of authentic, countryside France." The cycle path is open year round, and several rental shops are dotted around the city.
Go For A Boat Ride
Make sure you do a boat tour! Many companies dock at Quai Napoléon III at the Jardins de l’Europe in Annecy, and offer 1 hour to full day tours. If you head east from Palais d’Isla, you’ll run into Quai Napoléon III — it hugs the coast of the lake on the outside of the city; between the city of Annecy and the lake, there’s this gorgeous park that you can walk through.
There are also paddle board and kayak rentals.
Jardins de l'Europe
Find this park on the shore of the lake, filled with towering trees and a green space wide enough to spread out if you'd rather relax here than on the shores of the lake. Don't leave without walking around a bit to admire the artwork spread around the trees (or do some people watching — lots of people come to the trees for some shade in the summer months).
A Few More Recommendations
A Favorite Crepe Place
If you’re like me, the best vacations seem to have the best food … am I right? Luckily, Au bord du Thiou is the place to go for crepes in this cobblestoned wonderland. Look for the red awnings below a sorbet-pink apartment building right across the island where you’ll see the Palais d’Isle. Some say the crepes aren't the best they had in France, but you really can't beat the view right along the canals.
- Address: 4 Place Saint-François de Sales, 74000 Annecy, France
Hours: 10:30 AM to 5:30 PM
Head Here For Gelato
If you're like me, a day on vacation isn't complete until I've had dessert. If you're craving some ice cream to enjoy while you're taking in the sites of Annecy, some say that the very best gelato around is Le Palais Des Glaces. Find flavors like tiramisu, vanilla and peach, chocolate swirled with different candies, pistachio, and mango. Good luck choosing! Oh, and this spot also serves up fantastic waffles if you're looking for an excuse to head here for breakfast.
- Address: 6 Rue Perrière, 74000 Annecy, France
Hours: 10:30 AM to 10:30 PM
When Should I Visit Annecy?
Thanks to the colorful buildings and canals, Annecy is beautiful no matter when you visit (even in the rain). However, if you can time your visit to hit the best weather with the least amount of crowds, head here in the fall. September to October still boasts great weather but is technically the shoulder season, so the best viewpoints aren't going to be too crowded. Spring is another good bet, especially when the balconies are full of flowers in bloom. It's also rather nice in the summertime, though temperatures are on the higher side and the little city is at its busiest — that's also the best time to enjoy the lake, so every time you visit comes with caveats.
How Long Should I Visit?
Annecy is small, a perfect 1-2 day stop until you head off to your next adventure. You can read more about this in a second, but Annecy is easily accessed by other spots in France (Paris, Lyon) as well as Switzerland (Geneva). Past ILP groups have headed to Annecy for a quick visit before hopping on a train to explore other cities on their itinerary.
GettingYourself To Annecy
This gem of a city sits in southeastern France, rather close to the border of Switzerland — so if you’re picturing charming towns rimmed with neighboring peaks (hello, French Alps), you are absolutely right. Since the city is close to some major cities that are probably on your bucket list, it’s easy to get to:
Spend a few days in Paris, then take a 4-5 hour train ride to Annecy (some trains take about 3.5 hours if you’re willing to pay a little more for the fast trains). Multiple trains per day leave Paris for Annecy, so it’s easy to find a time that fits into your schedule. Book tickets and check schedules here.
Lyon is close, only about a 2-hour ride away. Several trains leave daily meaning you can easily squeeze this into a day trip while you're exploring Lyon. Book tickets and check schedules from Lyon to Annecy here.
Annecy is a very popular day trip from the Swiss city of Geneva — plan on catching one of the frequent city buses that can take you there (it's about an hour), or traveling by train on the same timeline.
Geneva is also the closest international airport, so it's an easy pick if you're wanting to start your trip in Annecy and travel around from there.
+ Getting Around Annecy
Really, all the spots you'd like to see are very walkable. The "center" of the canals is around the le Palais de I'lle, surrounded by red topped apartments and shops surrounding that center, before the canals flow into the huge lake. You can walk to the lake from the canals and vice versa. As always, taxis are available on the outsides (the center is pedestrian-only) to take you where you want to go. Also, renting bikes is a very popular way to get around the city (and the lake).
A Nearby Castle
Just outside Annecy is an oh-so-dreamy castle that you can't miss while you're in the area. It's even said to have inspired Disney's Sleeping Beauty! It was home to a family for over 100 years, and luckily for us, is now open for visitors. You can wander the castle and the gardens outside, plus soak in the stunning views.
The castle, Chateau de Menthon, is only about a 15-20 minute drive away from Annecy. The quickest, easiest, and most popular option is to grab a taxi in Annecy which will take you directly there. It is also possible to take the public bus in Annecy to the stop Chef Lieu Menthon — that's about a 35-40 ride to the bus stop and then about a 15 minute walk to the castle.
There's way more to France than just Paris!
Okay, we also love Paris, but love it even more when ILP volunteers spend time in some of the other cities France has to offer. If you're loving the idea of living in Europe and having weekend trips and vacation time to explore places like Annecy, I have great news for you — Come volunteer in Europe with ILP! Click that button to learn a bit more about what volunteering with us is like: