The old town of Annecy
Between lake and mountains, the medieval historic centre of Annecy is an invitation to stroll and discover. With its cobbled streets, its colourful buildings and its emblematic buildings, the Venice of the Alps is a city rich in heritage. As you stroll along the canals, let the riches of the past be told to you.
© Monica Dalmasso
How can we talk about Annecy without mentioning its old town?
Not to be confused with the delegated municipality of Annecy-le-Vieux, the fortified town originally named “Boutae” – then “Annecy-le-Neuf” before becoming “Old Annecy” – can boast one of the most ancient pasts with, in particular, important remains of “lacustrine villages” dating from the Neolithic period (-4000 BC).
In the Middle Ages, many craftsmen settled on the banks of the Thiou River and took advantage of its power. On both sides of the river, feudal lords settled, as did the Count of Geneva in Annecy. The integration of the Genevois territory into the Duchy of Savoy, the creation of the Genevois apanage, the Wars of Religion, the accession of François de Sales to the episcopal see or the attachment of Savoy to France were all events that transformed the town of Annecy.
As you stroll around, you can feel the history that gives Annecy its charm. Between historic monuments and canals, in the narrow streets or under its medieval arcades, the old town invites you to stroll through the corridors of time… Discover the top 15 emblematic places in the old town of Annecy!
1. The Palais de l’Ile
Built on a natural rocky island, the Palais de l’île is certainly the most emblematic (and most photographed) monument of Lake Annecy! It seems to be moored like a stone boat in the Thiou river, bordered on each side by houses bathed in water, giving it a postcard look. In the 12th century, it was in fact a modest fortified house and the residence of the lord of Annecy.
At water level, its sturdy gates are a reminder that it was later a prison. It was also an administrative building, a prison, a court, a mint, an archive…
It was classified as a historical monument in 1900 and now offers the most picturesque view of the Old Town.
© Monica Dalmasso
2. The Musée-Château
The Château d’Annecy sums up the history of its town, over which it seems to watch over as it did in the Middle Ages. As soon as you enter the courtyard, you can admire the harmonious development of the facades, the fruit and witness of four centuries. You cannot miss the enormous Queen’s Tower, which is the oldest part, dating from the 13th century.
Created by the Counts of Geneva who lived there from 1219, it was bought by Savoy in 1401, to become the residence of the Dukes of Genevois-Nemours in the 16th century, but also a barracks during the Spanish occupation at the end of the 17th century, and then declared a national asset when it housed the Republican or Imperial armies, keeping this function until the Second World War. In 1952 many homeless people invaded the castle, until the commune of Annecy bought it and restored it the following year. Today it houses the Castle-Museum and the Regional Observatory of the Alpine Lakes (ORLA).
© Gilles Piel
3. Canals and the river Le Thiou
Canals animate the old quarter, bringing it a freshness and life that lovers of the picturesque do not fail to appreciate. It is not uncommon to see artists setting up their easels there!
It should be noted that it is above all one of the elements that has shaped the town. Indeed, the Thiou river, with its almost constant flow, has ensured the permanent operation of devices, wheels, mills or hammers, thus giving this town a manufacturing character since the Middle Ages.
It was also used as a very convenient transport route and facilitated the transport of agricultural products or materials from the banks of the lake to the very heart of the city. Finally, the canal was used to build fishponds or fish reserves.
It is one of the shortest rivers in France (3.5 km) and also the natural spillway of Lake Annecy.
© Gilles Piel
4. The Pont des Amours
An ideal setting for lovers and a must-see for visitors to Annecy.
Whether you come from the Pâquier or the Jardins de l’Europe, after your walk along the water, stop on this footbridge to admire the landscape. Indeed, a beautiful point of view is offered to you with on one side the lake of Annecy and its mountains in background and, on the other side the Canal du Vassé which flows peacefully, with its boats which wait quietly, under a marvellous canopy of plane trees.
This bridge is not lacking in romanticism and bears witness to the iron architecture of the early 20th century (1907). It is the work of Claude Grandchamp and is the result of several projects to replace the old wooden footbridge.
Legend has it that a kiss exchanged on this bridge would unite lovers for eternity.
© Gilles Piel
5. Le Pâquier
If you visit Annecy, you will surely come across the “Champs de Mars” better known as the Pâquier, which means “pasture” as it was once at the gates of the city.
In the 17th century, the generous owner donated it to the town after promising not to build on it.
Today, these 7 hectares make it a large space available to all, it is a bit like the Central Park of the inhabitants of Annecy who like to meet there!
You can also enjoy a superb panorama with Lake Annecy at its feet and the mountains plunging into the lake all around. An orientation table will reveal the name of each summit.
Don’t be surprised to see swans wandering around, many of them have taken up residence here!
© Gilles Piel
6. The Jardins de l’Europe
A stone’s throw from the Old Town and on the edge of the lake is an English-style park with century-old plantations and a variety of species, where the people of Annecy like to stroll…
In the Middle Ages, this park was home to “health huts” nestled on marshy islands where people went during epidemics when they were infected.
Acquired by bankers from Lombardy in the 14th century and then by the Nemours family in the 17th century, who made a first promenade of it, the Gardens of Europe were finally given to the Order of the Visitation.
The nuns turned it into an enclosed garden linked to the convent by a covered bridge and it was also used for local crafts before being declared a national asset during the Revolution. The town hall then launched a competition to design the garden in the 19th century and gave it the British style it is known for.
Today, you can identify the trees in the Jardin de l’Europe by means of small plaques. There were already 650 trees and over 1000 shrubs in 1864. You will also be able to note some sculptures that honour you with their presence along the paths of the garden, such as the engineer Berthollet, to whom we owe the bleach.
© Gilles Piel
7. The 5 bell towers district
Annecy’s religious heritage is of great interest to history buffs. Indeed, the Old Town is home to emblematic bell towers such as the Basilica of the Visitation Order, the church of Notre-Dame-de-Liesse, the church of Saint-Maurice, the church of Saint-François de Sales and the cathedral of Saint-Pierre.
5 bell towers, 5 eras, 1 history.
The Basilica of the Visitation is an important place of Salesian worship and receives thousands of pilgrims from all over the world every year. The cathedral of Saint-Pierre was intended to serve as a chapel for the Franciscan convent established in Annecy at the beginning of the 16th century before becoming the temporary cathedral of the bishops of Geneva. In the church of Saint-François de Sales, the Visitandines housed the remains of their founders. As for the church of Saint-Maurice, it was built in the 15th century as the former church of the Dominicans.
Do not hesitate to enter these religious buildings to discover more about their history and secrets!
© Gilles Piel
8. The fortified gates
Very little remains of the old city wall, which surrounded the city and remained almost intact until the early 19th century. However, Old Annecy has been able to preserve the most typical elements of the fortified town, namely the gates. At the time, a tax had to be paid to pass through them and enter the alpine city.
To the south is the Perrière Gate. Cut through the thick wall directly connected to the castle, it was for centuries the main entrance to the town. Facing Faverges, Albertville and Italy, the Perrière suburb was under the close surveillance of the high tower bearing the same name.
The Porte Sainte-Claire was oriented towards Chambéry. It was itself reinforced by a gate to the west, the so-called “sepulchre” gate, in memory of the former convent of this order located nearby. Note its wide ogival opening giving access to the old quarters, with its machicolation, its bell tower and its hinges worn by time.
© Christian Molitor
9. Hôtel de Sales
Rue du Pâquier is home to the former Hôtel de Sales. It has an elegant façade decorated with 4 busts representing the seasons. You will notice a beautiful porte cochere and the ironwork of the balcony with interlaced laurel leaves, symbol of eternity and the letters BMS for Benoît Maurice de Sales.
Built by the de Sales family, more particularly by a grand-nephew of François de Sales, in the 17th century, this house was used as a residence for the princes of the House of Savoy in Annecy, during their stays in the town. In the 19th century, it became the headquarters of the Banque de Savoie.
This establishment had the privilege of issuing banknotes, so much so that after the Annexation of 1860 it entered into direct competition with the Banque de France. It took several years of confrontations and negotiations to obtain the purchase of this fund by the latter.
© Lac Annecy Tourisme
10. The well of Saint-Jean
The crossroads formed by the intersection of Rue Carnot, Rue Royale, Rue Notre-Dame and Rue du Pâquier has always been known as the “puits Saint-Jean”, because of the location of a well situated, according to an ancient custom, in front of the main entrance to the church of the convent of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem.
Although the establishment disappeared at the time of the French Revolution, the well remained until 1805, when it was filled in, both for reasons of health and ease of movement. It was at this time that the Rue Royale was opened, which was to become the main thoroughfare of the town of Annecy.
The names of the syndics of Annecy who repaired it in 1689 can be read on its edge.
The tradition always invites the most dreamy to close their eyes, think of their dearest wish and finish this ritual by throwing a coin into the well.
© Aliouelhadj Said
11. Jean-Jacques Rousseau & the Golden Baluster
Opposite Saint-Pierre’s Cathedral, a statue of saint Pierre adorns the master’s house where Jean-Jacques Rousseau, as a teenager, learned music. Adjacent to the cathedral was the Episcopal Palace (end of the 18th century) which became the Annecy Conservatory of Music and Dance (CRR). If you cross the porch, you will reach its former courtyard.
Before its construction at the end of the 18th century, there was a small house where Mme de Warens lived, whom Rousseau met in 1728. She was 28 years old, he was 16. A small monument in which a niche with a basin houses a bust of the famous writer keeps the memory of their meeting, on Easter Day in 1728. The “Golden Baluster” is also decorated with intertwined hearts, adorned with periwinkle flowers.
You can find Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s memories of Annecy faithfully preserved in his “Confessions”.
© C. Max
12. Place Sainte-Claire
On the Place Sainte-Claire, the recent building complex is a reminder of the cotton factory founded in 1804. Indeed, until 1973, the buildings of a textile industry existed here, whose importance was considerable in the 19th century, since at its peak it employed 2000 workers. This was the company that had moved into the premises of a former convent of Poor Clares after the expulsion of these nuns at the time of the Revolution.
Near the Porte Sainte-Claire and inside the Old Town, you can admire the pretty, elaborate facade of a small 18th-century building. This is the Gallo house, named after the architect who built it to live in.
At the foot of the buttress of an arcade is the Quiberet fountain. The existence of this fountain is very old (1635). Supplied by a well, it functioned thanks to the curious device of a noria which drew water from a certain depth and emptied it into an interior basin which was emptied outside through a spout. Note the keystone decorated with the Annecy coat of arms – the silver trout.
© Gilles Piel / La Place Sainte-Claire en vieille ville d'Annecy
13. The former Hôtel de Ville
Situated on the edge of the present-day Place Notre-Dame, this small building stands out for its 18th century façade with a staircase leading to a double staircase. The beautiful wrought iron work on the gate bordering these baroque steps is noteworthy. The central part of this work, located on the edge of the balcony, features the Annecy coat of arms in its central motif.
Since their creation, it is in this building that the meetings of the town council were held, which Annecy was endowed with in the 13th century. With the development of the town in 1770, the trustees decided to rebuild the facade to give their town a hotel worthy of the town. But shortly after the revolutionary turmoil, the latter became insufficient and the town councillors undertook to build the current town hall in which they could settle more comfortably from 1855.
© Maurizio Priod
14. The Hôtel de Ville
The neoclassical architecture of the town hall building is typical of the Sardinian period known as the “Buon Governo”. It has a rigour that a recent restoration wanted to correct by choosing an ochre colour for the restoration of the upper part of the façade. The restoration has made it possible to highlight the decorative elements that were previously hidden in a uniform greyness.
The construction of this building was designed by the Geneva architect Samuel Vaucher-Crémieux and executed by the Sardinian engineer François Justin. It took almost 10 years and the municipal services moved in in 1855.
Other administrations also found easy accommodation in this vast building. First the Sardinian intendance, prefiguring our current prefecture, the court, the telegraph, and finally the museum and the library, which occupied the entire top floor. Nowadays, the building only houses the municipal services.
© Aliouelhadj Said
15. The Impérial Palace
The Impérial Palace is a 20-minute walk from the historic centre, along the Pâquier and the Avenue d’Albigny. It all began in 1912, during the Belle Époque, when René Leyraz wanted to build a luxury establishment by the lake, inspired by the 17th century French château.
The hotel opened the following year and high society was already invading the hotel, its Empire-style salons and its Louis XVI-style restaurant. Crowned heads and other personalities such as George VI, Winston Churchill, Edith Piaf and Charlie Chaplin came and went until the First World War broke out. Forced to close its doors in 1965, the city bought it to safeguard this exceptional site.
In 1991, the emblematic hotel was reborn from its ashes and welcomed the Casino d’Annecy. Wishing to develop its commercial services and the tourist sector, the city decided to install its Convention Centre there. Today, it also houses a wellness area and a beauty centre.
As you stroll through the 5 hectares of the Imperial Park, you can admire its grandiose aviary and its magnificent rose garden.
© J. Cousin