Whether it’s world class skiing, Michelin-starred eating, soaking your aches away in a natural hot spring or simply taking in the views on a quiet hike – the French Alps has something for everyone
Here are six of the loveliest, most charming towns, resorts and villages guaranteed to take your breath away – regardless of which time of year you visit.
Alpine guide and director of Simply Savoie Mark Tennent says: “For one of the most beautiful villages in the Alps I recommend Pralognan-la-Vanoise. For a great walk, try the Lac des Vaches and the Col de la Vanoise from the village.”
Only 700 people live in Pralognan-la-Vanoise, and the village is as charming as it is beautiful. Located in Vanoise National Park under the shadow of Grande Casse and its impressive glaciers, the village’s stone and wood shingle roofs and winding narrow streets blend in harmoniously with its natural surroundings.
During the height of its fame in the 18th century, Aix-les-Bains was best known for the calibre of its guests, rather than its stunning scenery and healing thermal baths. Britain’s Queen Victoria and French superstar Edith Piaf were just some of the famous names to stay here, and when you see the Belle-Époque village with your own eyes, you’ll know why.
The resort of Aix-les-Bains sits in the shadow of Mount Revard and on the shores of Bourget Lake – the largest in France – and the town offers unrivalled beauty and a host of activities to enjoy.
No visit is complete without a soak in Aix’s magical thermal waters at the Thermes Chevalley spa. The calcium, bicarbonates and other minerals in the water are said to help ease everything from tendonitis to arthritis and stress.
Once out of the water, there’s plenty more to see and do in the town.
A walk through the old town, for example, is to embark on a journey back in time. Take in the 1st century Roman Arch of Campanus, thought to symbolise crossing into the afterlife, followed by the gothic 15th century castle that is now the town’s City Hall. Shop along the picture-perfect Rue Albert 1er, and gaze upwards at the abundance of flower-adorned balconies.
Even if you’re not one for gambling, one of the grandest examples of La Belle Époque architecture is The Casino Grand Cercle, complete with wonderfully ornate mosaics and stained glass windows.
Tennant says: “Another favourite Alpine city and recommended stop in the region is of course, ‘The Venice of the North,” – the beautiful town of Annecy. Visit in the summertime for a dip in Lac d’Annecy, which is surrounded by mountains and is surely one of the most jaw-droppingly beautiful places to go wild swimming in the whole of Europe.
Wander the cobbled, flower-lined streets of the vielle ville (old town) and enjoy all the artisanal shops, canal side restaurants, brilliant antique and food markets - all served with a serious slice of history. Don’t miss the 12th century Palais de L’Île (Island Palace) - originally a prison - which jets out iconically into the main canal, and stroll under the archways of the picturesque Rue Filaterie.
For the best photo op of Lake Annecy and her surrounding snow-capped peaks, walk over the Pont des Amours (Lovers’ Bridge). Connecting Esplanade du Paquier with the European Gardens, the bridge is fabled to grant lasting love to any couple to steal a kiss on it.
The village of Saint-Véran, rightfully hailed by the association Les Plus Beaux Villages de France as one of the country’s most picturesque stopovers, is surrounded by the Queyras Regional Nature Park, right on the border with Italy.
Saint-Véran sits at an altitude of over 2,000 m, and the magnificent architecture gives a fascinating insight into how villagers adapted to life quite literally among the clouds.
Chocolate box Alpine chalets are a dime a dozen here, and the tree trunk stacked upper walls – called a fuste – and shingle roofs are captivating. The village’s listed church is well worth a visit, as is Saint-Véran’s oldest building, a house built in 1641, which is now home to a museum showcasing local arts and traditions.
A small town popular in both warm and cold weather months, Beaufort is nestled among the Beaufortain region in the Savoie. Most visit for its natural beauty and proximity to first-class hiking trails and ski slopes, but the town itself should not be overlooked. Flower-covered stone bridges and quaint houses make this town feel like a respite from the modern world.
And if French cheese is your thing, you’re really in luck. Tennent advises: “Definitely visit the Cooperative du Beaufort. There’s a visitor centre where you can learn (and taste) about the production of Beaufort cheese.”
Located about 20 minutes from the town, this world-famous yellow mountain cheese was awarded the highly regarded AOP (Appellation d'origine protégée) label back in the 1960s. This means when you eat Beaufort cheese anywhere in the world, this is where it’s produced, matured and perfected. Local restaurants prominently feature Beaufort cheese dishes such as pasta sauces, fondue and dauphinoise potatoes.
Chock full of history (like all the other towns on this list) Chambéry has it all - Alpine surroundings, world-class skiing, water sports on nearby Bourget Lake and easy access to Geneva’s international airport just across the Swiss border.
The town itself is beyond charming and easily walkable. Don’t miss the impressive 17th century Fountaine de Elephants which at nearly 18 m tall honours local legend General Boigne. For something even older and grander, take a tour of Château des Ducs de Savoie, which dates back to the 11th century and offers a mix of Medieval and Gothic architecture as well as pristine gardens.
The former home of the great philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Le Musée de Charmettes, is also worth a visit along with its surrounding 18th century garden. For more awe-inspiring architecture, take a leisurely stroll to marvel at the grand, aristocratic homes along the Rue Croix-d’Or.