A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital

Tallinn is one of northern Europe’s best-preserved medieval cities, and an unsung gem of the Baltic region. My city guide to this fairytale capital shows you where to find the best food in Tallinn, which beautiful districts to explore and how to find spectacular skyline views.

Have you ever been somewhere that surprised you by how much it exceeded your expectations?

That’s how I felt when I arrived in Tallinn two weeks ago.

Naturally, I’d heard some good things about the old town, and friends who’d visited in summer had given good reviews.  Otherwise, I suppose we might not have taken the plunge and booked our flights.  But I’m never quite sure how well the reality will match up when you’re in a new country, and you’re travelling out of season.

Tallinn delighted from the moment we arrived, to the moment we said goodbye.

The old town is larger, more beautiful and more animated than I’d expected (especially given that it was late October).  The views over the rooftops are breathtaking, the restaurants and cafes of the old town as cosy and charming as you’d hope, and the surrounding residential districts are a rainbow of wooden houses.  There’s a lively creative scene in the city and a wealth of contemporary restaurants that are serving a modern twist on Baltic food (that would cost three times as much if you were to skip across the water to Sweden or Finland).  It feels like a young city with historic roots, that’s alive and kicking.

In a few short days I fell in love with Estonia.

In this city break guide I’ll share with you the highlights of our trip, and what you absolutely shouldn’t miss if you’re visiting Tallinn.  I hope you enjoy it.

P.S. Wondering what Tallinn would be like in winter? We were lucky enough to catch the first snowfall of the winter on our trip. You can see just how bewitching the city looks dusted with snow in 8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow.

Alexander Nevsky cathedral in the old town of Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Alexander Nevsky cathedral at the top of Toompea Hill, Tallinn old town

The old town

Tallinn’s old town has to be one of the most underrated in Europe (and that’s not a statement I make lightly).  The architecture is beautiful and distinctively Baltic, the cobbled streets are picture-perfect, and there’s an abundance of viewpoints that feel like a gift that just keeps on giving.

It’s colourful, ancient, diverse and alive.

The old town is  centred around the vast town hall square that’s surrounded first by a labyrinth of pretty, winding streets and passages, then by ancient stone walls peppered with towers, and finally by a sprinkling of leafy parks.  There’s a lot to discover in this central part of town.  Exploring the streets will keep you happy for hours, but if the weather turns there’s the excellent Estonian History Museum inside the old Guild Hall, that’s worth a visit just to see the fascinating interior of the building.  In places, you can go inside some the many fortified towers and even walk along the top of the walls – but I’ve another trick for getting great views over the rooftops.

Top tip: If, by chance, you find yourself in Tallinn on the last Thursday of the month the Estonian History Museum is also free.

Gateway to Toompea Hill in Tallinn's old town | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

My favourite part of the old town had to be Toompea Hill, that rises towards the north of the old town and is crowned by the spectacular cathedral – all onion domes and glittering gold details.  It looked especially gorgeous dusted with snow.  There are more colourful buildings to discover up here, but even better there are viewpoints around every corner. Each looks down over the rooftops and spires of different parts of the city, a bright and busy skyline that runs down to the crisp Baltic sea.  Meander around Toompea at any time of day (it’s always a delight) but make sure you head up here at sunset for the real magic, when the sinking sun turns the city all the colours of the rainbow.

Toompea Hill viewpoint in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Where to eat and drink in Tallinn’s old town

Unsurprisingly, there’s an abundance of cafes, restaurants and bars in this part of the city, but experience told me it was worth heading away from the main square if we wanted to find something that was more our cup of tea (i.e. a bit more budget-friendly and a little less enthusiastic on the medieval dress).

Wander just one street away from the square and you’ll find Clayhills on Pikk Street, a beautiful little restaurant that served home-cooked comfort food by candlelight.  Try the soup of day as a starter just to experience the deliciousness of the rustic bread with heavenly honey butter on the side.  It’s got bucket loads of atmosphere and not a medieval peasant smock in sight.

The best coffee in the old town can be found at the (slightly dubiously named, but nonetheless delightful) Epic Coffee tucked away in a little side street near Viru Gate.  It’s like curling up in someone’s slightly shabby front room with a perfectly brewed pick me up.  Adventurous sorts will love the toilet-in-a-cupboard that’s an unintentional joy in this little cafe (friends, some of you would find this most entertaining!).

Medieval main square in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Town hall square at dusk

If you’re after something to nibble on, try Inspiratsioon (another side street find) for a light lunch. Veggie friends, you’ll be happy here as all their food is homemade and vegan-friendly, and even if you’re more omnivorous I challenge you to not find their falafel wrap delicious.

Lastly, I wouldn’t be the girl with a saddle bag if I didn’t suggest somewhere to cosy up with a cold beer on an evening.  Our favourite discovery? Hell Hunt (give it a try even if the name and exterior doesn’t excite you).  It’s a warm, cavernous bar that’s more like a small beerhall, with a huge range of interesting beers, bar snacks and strangely, herbal teas.  They brew some of their own beers too – their Weissbier was particularly splendid.

Rotermanni (or the Roterman district)

Step outside the Viru gate and you’re greeted by a cacophony of trams, buses and neon lights.  This is one of Tallinn’s biggest junctions, but step beyond it and you’ll find one of it’s most upmarket districts.

A five minute walk takes you to the centre of Rotermanni and what was, until relatively recently, an area of dilapidated brick-built warehouses near to the port.  In the last few years, they’ve sensitively redeveloped the area – keeping some of the old charm but mixing it up with contemporary architecture. It’s smart and hip without being pricey and intimidating, and I rather liked it.

There’s not too much to see here but it’s nice to wander along the little passageways of shops, offices and restaurants, and pause for a coffee break.  What it’s really good for though is eating.

The Rotermanni district in Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow | Travel Guide | City Guide| Girl with a saddle bag blog

Where to eat and drink in Rotermanni

Like pastries?  Me too.  In that case, Røst will be your new favourite place in Tallinn.  It’s perfect for breakfast, lunch or coffee and I challenge you to resist sampling their cinnamon buns and other baked treats that stream in from the open kitchen the moment they’re out of the oven.

I also loved Flamm (inexplicably they don’t have a website), almost opposite.  It’s dedicated entirely to the Alsatian dish of Flammenküchen, a cold weather treat that’s similar to pizza.  Delicious toppings (traditionally crème fraîche, bacon and cheese although all sorts were on offer in Flamm) are piled on top of a thin dough base and cooked quickly in a hot oven ready for you to devour it with your hands.  Why Tallinn is the only city I’ve come across with a restaurant dedicated to this yumminess is a mystery to me (I’ve only encountered it on Christmas markets before) but we had great fun eating our fill and then enjoying a drink in Brewdog next door.

Flamm restaurant and wine bar in the Rotermanni district of Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Flamm: home to Flammenkuchen, the best thing on bread since pizza

Kalamaja, Balti Jaam and Telliskivi

Even if you’re only in Tallinn for a day, it’s well worth exploring beyond the old town – and I loved the area of Kalamaja and Balti Jaam that’s just a stone’s throw away.

Kalamaja is a residential district that’s packed with colourful, traditional-style wooden townhouses that give you a real feel for Estonian architecture.  It’s also home to the fabulously named Balti Jaam station, the city’s discrete but central transport hub.  A railway station alone isn’t enough to recommend a place though – it’s Balti Jaam Turg next door that is.  This contemporary covered market is an absolute gem, opened in 2017 to replace a well-loved but dilapidated Soviet era market.  As well as bringing some upmarket deli’s, cafes and streetfood stalls to Balti Jaam, it’s still home to the old stallholders and you’ll find everything and anything for sale here: from high quality meat and fresh Baltic seafood, to homegrown vegetables and your Estonian granny’s knitting.  It’s the perfect blend of old and new and pretty much summed up everything I loved about this city.

Balti Jaam Turg streetfood and produce market in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Balti Jaam Turg market

Just around the corner, past some colourful murals, is Depoo – a slightly more confusing market that’s part-traditional clothing market, part-upmarket vintage store and cafe (but if I’m honest it was a little hard to tell where one started and the other finished).  It’s worth a nose around, but more importantly it’s a stepping stone to nearby Telleskivi.

I suppose you could call Telleskivi a creative centre, but I think it’s better described as an slightly shabby warehouse district that’s slowly being overtaken by some seriously cool bars, restaurants and independent shops. It’s kind of an unpolished Rotermanni, and it’s got attitude. Explore the boutique shops and stop for a coffee by day, definitely come for dinner and drinks by night.  But be warned, this is where Tallinn locals come, so you might have to fight for a table.

Telleskivi creative centre in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Where to eat and drink in Telleskivi

You won’t struggle to find good cafes, bars and restaurants in this part of town.  We were only able to scratch the surface in a few days, but discovered a goldmine of food just waiting to be explored.

For a brew, we enjoyed Renards – a cafe with a difference.  As well as serving up seriously fancy coffee in a lovely lounge area, it’s also (slightly mysteriously) a motorcycle clothing shop, barbers and mechanics garage in one.  It’s worth a stop just to marvel at this seemingly random combination of businesses under one stylish roof.

For lunch (although dinner also looked great), try Frenchy bistro.  We had the most delicious budget-friendly lunch here, where the plat du jour is €4,80 everyday.  When we arrived, that was €4,80 for perfectly-cooked duck with beautiful vegetable sides which seemed unbelievably good value for money.  With a retro, French-inspired interior I couldn’t think of anywhere better to fill up and frankly I could have stayed all day!

On an evening F-Hoone seems to be the place everyone in Tallinn everyone is vying for a table at.  If, like us, you optimistically rock up mid-week without a booking be prepared to wait a while at the bar, this place is seriously popular for good reason.  Three divine courses in their converted dining space came to a grand total of €30 for two hungry people – you’d be mad not to step out of the old town for an experience like this.

After eating our fill, we headed to nearby Pudel for after-dinner drinks.  It’s a smart craft beer bar with a warm atmosphere and extensive beer menu (and some excellent sounding bar snacks that I would have tucked straight into if I’d not been stuffed from our trip to F-Hoone).

Kadriog and Pirata

Step outside of the city centre in the opposite direction and a mile or so down the road (or tramline) is Pirata, the city’s Baltic promenade. As we visited on a snow day, there erm, wasn’t actually anything to see apart from a complete white-out.

But bear with me. I’ve no doubt on a clear day that Pirata is lovely, however it’s not just the promenade locals come here for. It runs along the northern edge of Kadriog Park, an elegant expanse of lawns, avenues of trees, palaces and national monuments. It’s home to the Song Festival grounds – a spiritual home to a huge part of Estonian culture and a literal turning point in the country’s history, which is worth a visit in it’s own right.  You’ll also find the elegant Kadriog palace – a colourful riot of old-fashioned splendure.

Whatever time of year you visit, I’d recommend spending a little time exploring the city’s green spaces.  They’re quite enchanting, and rather magical if there’s been a dusting of snow.

Beautiful traditional wooden homes around Kadriog Park in Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Tallinn is a city of joyful contrasts – medieval yet modern, cultured yet charmingly dishevelled in places. But most of all it feels authentic and alive, which makes it stand out from some of southern Europe’s fairytale, fortified towns which are sometimes a little too close to becoming a pastiche of themselves.

The Estonian capital well and truly deserves to be recognised as one of Europe’s most delightful … and I’m already thinking about when to go back.*

Have you been to Tallinn?  Did it cast a spell over you too?  Tell me all about it in the comments below.

*Only partly to quell my cinnamon bun addiction

P.S. Don’t forget to take a look at this beautiful city in the snow in 8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow


The practical bit

We flew to Tallinn with Easyjet from London Gatwick. Once you’re at the terminal (which might just be the nicest I’ve ever travelled through, they’re aspiring to be the world’s cosiest airport and I think they might just be), you’ll find the brand-new tram stop just outside the door. Tram number 4 takes you to the city centre and old town, and tickets are a very reasonable €2. Just knock on the driver’s window to buy on board.

Home for our stay was the Knight House Hostel – a thoroughly recommendable and cosy little place. Located in the old town, it’s only a few minutes walk from the main square of the old town in one direction and Freedom Square (and its tram stop) in the other. Not only is the street quiet (and the hostel set back from the road in a little courtyard), it’s ever so pretty.

Knight House is a budget option, but offers plenty of bang for your buck. There’s ten private rooms: ours was clean, comfortably furnished with all we needed and home to some big, beautiful old windows and some impressively warm heating. The bathrooms, although shared, have all recently been renovated to a very high standard (better than many hotels I’ve stayed in recently) which was a nice surprise. The crowning glory is a cosy common room area where a simple breakfast is served everyday – homemade pancakes cooked fresh for you no less.  I often struggle choosing between hotels, hostels or an apartment for a city break – but we made the right choice here, and I’d happily return.

Knight House, Rüütli 16, 10130 Tallinn, Estonia

A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

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8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow

A medieval gem nestled on the coast of the Baltic sea, Tallinn is one of Europe’s most underrated yet most beautiful capital cities.  Wrap up warm and you’ll see an even more special side to this city in winter, when the pretty rooftops and streets of the old town are scattered with snow.

There’s something a little bit magical about snow.

The way it dusts trees and roofs and leaves and streets with a glistening icing sugar coating.  The way it softens the air, wrapping you in cloud of sparklingly silence, cut with crispy crunching underfoot.  The way it transforms a skyline and rooftops, highlights details and brings lamplight to life.

It’s one thing to visit a new place in spring, summer or autumn, it’s quite another in a northern European winter.

So when Tallinn’s first snowfall of the winter fell when we were in the midst of an autumn city break last week, I couldn’t have been more delighted.  After a few days exploring this beautiful Baltic city decked out in russet colours, a sprinkling of snow was the perfect way to see the town in a whole new light.  Two seasons in one week?  That’s twice the fun.

Let’s be honest, we weren’t expecting winter to arrive so soon (my slightly sad looking city boots are now testament to that).  But Tallinn had surpassed our expectations already, so a snow day – or two  – was an unexpected surprise and a chance to explore all over again. We would never have thought to visit in mid-winter, but now I’ve experienced it in real life I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it – provided you pack your thermals.

I wanted to share the unexpected magic of this Baltic beauty. So here’s an ode to Tallinn in the snow – eight reasons why I think you’ll also fall in love with this city.

P.S. If you want to find out more about the beautiful city of Tallinn, and what to see and do during your stay, check out A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital.  It’s also packed with my recommendations for where to stay, where to eat and how to get around.

1. The old town hall and square look spectacular dusted with snow

The huge cobbled town square in Tallinn is ringed with medieval merchant houses and bustling cafes and restaurants that spill out across the stones, even during the colder months. Above them all towers the delicate spire of the town hall, almost 500 years old and as imposing now as it was then.  Whilst you can’t explore inside during the winter months, there’s plenty of details to be seen from the outside.

The old town square in Tallinn looks magical in the snow at dawn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

2. You can cosy up in restaurants and cafes that look this pretty

Why wouldn’t you want to curl up inside some of these beautiful buildings?  Estonians are great at coffee and comfort food, so indulge yourself and warm up indoors.  Head away from the old town square for the best goodies, and try the local dark rye bread with whipped honey butter – it’s divine.

Peppersack restaurant in Tallinn's old town | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

3. Toompea Hill offers magical views over the old town below

Toompea Hill is the crown on Tallinn’s old town.  This little hilltop is home to two of the city’s cathedrals, pretty pastel-coloured townhouses and jaw-dropping viewpoints.  Here you’ll realise just how lovely the rising spires, little turrets and towers, pitched rooftops and ornate weathervanes of this medieval city are.  I loved this area at sunset when the sky came alive with different colours.

Magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

4. Beautiful Kadriog Park looks like it might be Narnia

Go a little way out from the city centre and you’ll find Kadriog Park.  This huge green space is home to the colourful Kadriog Palace, elegant avenues of trees and wide open spaces as well as some delightfully pretty traditional wooden Estonian townhouses.  If you’re out early after a fresh snowfall like we were, you can enjoy the immense fun of being the first to make footprints in the snow.

Kadriog park in Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
That little dash of colour in the distance? That’s Kadriog Palace
Traditional Estonian wooded houses in Kadriog Park in Tallinn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Colourful wooden townhouses line the streets around Kadriog Park

5. Fresh cinnamon buns are all the better when it’s cold

Røst is a new bakery in the Rotermanni district of Tallinn and was one of my favourite places to cosy up with a cup of coffee in Tallinn.  Housed in a converted warehouse, the bakery has been designed so that the kitchen isn’t shut away – you can watch their skillful bakers plaiting pastries, and count down the seconds between a fresh batch of treats leaving the oven and landing on your plate.  A bottomless cup of (yummy) filter coffee is only €2.50, and their cheese gougères are scrumptious.

Rost bakery and cafe in the Rotermann district of Tallinn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

6. The old town gates look like the entrance to another time

Viru Gate used to be part of the city’s defences but now welcomes visitors to the old city. With its little rounded turrets lit up in the dark, it’s quite the charmer.  You can climb up onto the old city walls near the gate, and survey the rooftops from the covered passageway along it’s top.

Viru gate at the entrance to Tallinn's old town | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Viru Gate, one of the many fairytale gates around the old town of Tallinn

7. The churches of the old town look even prettier with a little sprinkling of glitter

Alexander Nevsky Cathedral sits on top of Toompea Hill in the old town of Tallinn. Surrounded by colourful townhouses, it’s a spectacular structure topped with onion domes and glittering gold crosses. Dust it with snow, and it becomes even more enchanting.

Alexander Nevsky cathedral in Tallinn dusted with snow | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Alexander Nevsky Cathedral at the top of Toompea Hill

8. A little dash of snow makes the colours sing

The houses of the old town of Tallinn, and the nearby neighbourhoods of Kalamaja and Kadriog are painted almost every shade of the rainbow from dusky pinks to sage greens. Once the snow had settled we realised how much these colours came to life.  Stroll around and enjoy 500 years of architecture in perfect pastel technicolour.

Snowy streets in the old town of Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Pastel coloured buildings at the top of Toompea Hill in the old town of Tallinn, Estonia | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Isn’t this the most cheerful looking Post Office you’ve ever seen? This sea-green beauty is at the top of Toompea Hill

Have I managed to convince you that Tallinn is worth exploring in the winter months?  I hope so.

To make the most of a trip here during the colder months, and especially if there’s frost and snowfall around, here’s a few tips;

  • Head out as soon as possible once snow has started to fall.  You’ll find more chances to explore undisturbed snowy streets and be the first to make footprints
  • Wrap up warm, and stay dry.  Let’s face it, northern Europe isn’t warm in winter.  To enjoy it, you’ll want to be properly prepared.  Shoes that’ll keep your feet dry and won’t slip are essential, as are plenty of layers and a waterproof outer or umbrella if snow is falling.
  • Dawn and dusk are pretty special in the snow.  After dark is also a great time to explore as the streets are quieter and the snow glitters in the lamplight.  The city is well-lit both from a practical and a pretty perspective, but I found dawn was most magical when the cloudy sky warmed in colour but the twinkling lights were still on.
  • Dry out and warm up regularly with a hot beverage or a baked goods in the many cosy cafes around the city – you’ll enjoy your time outside all the more for it.

Where’s your favourite place to visit during the colder months?  And do you have any tips for other great cities that look great under a blanket of snow?

Want to find out more? Find my ultimate guide to a stay in Tallinn in A city guide to Tallinn: Baltic beauty in the Estonian capital

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8 magical reasons to visit Tallinn, Estonia, in the snow | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

 

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now

Autumn might just be one of my favourite times of year to get away. And it might just be the best time of year to explore Northern Europe. Trees ablaze with fall colours, cosy cafes, charming cobbled streets in the late afternoon sun – it sounds good, right? So, as the seasons start to turn I’m sharing my secrets for the perfect city break now.

After the crowds have melted away and the leaves have started to turn copper and gold, Northern Europe comes alive.  It’s the perfect time of year to find out what Europe is really like, rather than the version intended for summer travellers.  And I much prefer it.

It’s easy to worry about unreliable weather and shorter days, but the truth is that you won’t even notice if it’s a little inclement when there’s so much to see and do. You’ll find heaps of local events, fabulous seasonal foods and plenty of places to snuggle up indoors with a comforting coffee or craft beer if the weather isn’t quite up to scratch.  With it being cooler, it’s also a better time to head out on foot and really get to know a place – it’s my favourite time to go stomping through drifts of leaves to discover new parks, museums and beautiful streets. It’s definitely worth a shot.

For the ideal autumn destination, there are two must-haves for me;

1. Open spaces to explore and experience the changing colours of the season
2. Great places to cosy up indoors to escape cooler days and nights

There are four cities that I think fit the bill perfectly – Stockholm (Sweden), Vienna (Austria), Munich (Germany) and Bratislava (Slovakia).

I’ve tried-and-tested these four cities over the past four years and had a whale of a time – and I’d also go back in a flash.  Here are my top tips – I hope they’ll inspire your own adventures.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Witty sign outside Meatballs for the people, Stockholm, Sweden | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Ah, the witty folks at Meatballs for the people, Stockholm, Sweden

Stockholm, Sweden

Don’t be put off by the northerly location of Stockholm – the dusky evenings and chilly air add to the atmosphere of this beautiful, vibrant city.

The first thing that struck me about Stockholm was how immaculately well-cared for this city is. Locals take great pride in their capital, and the city streets manage to be immaculate without feeling false. Swedes love fika, a coffee break with a pastry or bake to nibble on, and so Stockholm is packed with enticing cafes. In the old town, they can be pricey, although for a one-off treat it felt like an exuberant delight. But wherever you go in the city, a good kaffe won’t be far away – so don’t be put off.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Afternoon light in Stockholm, Sweden | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag
Sodermalm, Stockholm, Sweden. Yes, I know it sounds like a piece of Ikea furniture

Stockholm is a city of many islands, each characterful in their own ways, with watery views around every corner. Spend some time exploring the island of Djurgarden, close to the old town. It’s an enchanting place that’s a patchwork of formal gardens, wild woodland and ornamental buildings – with views across the water to the city centre. Alternatively, head a little further out from the city centre to Hagapark. We arrived here on the most perfect autumnal morning, all blue skies and cascading gold and copper leaves. Choose a woodland walk and kick up leaves underfoot or stroll through the more formal parkland. Look out for some of the more extraordinary buildings in the park, including the Chinese Pavilion and Copper Tents. These slightly magical additions were whims of Swedish royal family in the 18th century, who built Haga Palace at the centre of the park. It’s fun to plan a route around these bewitching additions.

Autumn glories: Northern European cities perfect for visiting now | Hagapark in Stockholm, Sweden, in autumn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Trees ablaze with colour in Hagapark, Stockholm

Bonus points

Cooler evenings call for comfort food, and I can’t suggest better than the awesome Meatballs for the people in Södermalm. It’s a bit of a hipster Swedish-cool kind of place that serves everyone’s favourite Scandinavian dinner alongside local craft beers. The food is homemade and organic, the atmosphere is dark and cosy and candlelit and it’s a whole lot of fun.

Vienna, Austria

The Austrian capital has a reputation for elegance and sophistication that doesn’t disappoint. It’s also famed for it’s cafe culture – and if you want to experience this at its best, you’ll want to visit in the cooler half of the year.

I’ll be honest and say that I can be a little sceptical of anything that falls into the category of “most famous for” when visiting a new city, as it can also often mean clichéd, crowded and inauthentic. But provided you steer clear of Café Demel and Figlmüller, where queues trail out of the door day-long, there are some true delights to be found. In the old town, seek out Kaffee Alt Wien that’s the epitome of old-fashioned Viennese coffee houses. Dark, smoky and eminently cosy, it’s charmingly real – a juxtaposition of excellent drinks and service with a delightfully dishevelled interior. I could spend all day here.

Explore beyond the old town and you’ll find more fantastic cafes on almost every street corner. They’re packed with locals at any time of day, and the perfect escape from a chilly autumnal afternoon.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Beautiful buildings on the Ringstrasse, Vienna, Austria | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Gorgeous buildings on the Ringstrasse, Vienna

For seasonal colours, stroll along the canal or visit the Prater Park. Head away from the amusement park to reach the more natural woodland at it’s far end, meandering as you go. But if you want to see autumn in all it’s glory, you’ll need to hop on a tram.

Nussdorf is at the end of the line but less than half an hour from the city centre, and well within the city limits. And it’s a gateway to a world of the unexpected. Vienna is a wine-producing region, and Nussdorf is the home of it’s vineyards. From here, there are miles and miles of Wanderwegs (or footpaths to us English-speaking folk) that’ll help you to explore this glorious little region that feels both a million miles from the city centre yet curiously close-by.  We ventured up the Kahlenberg (more of a hill than a mountain) for views over the city – only with our usual luck to discover it was so misty we could barely see a thing.  But the vineyards themselves and winding trails were a joy, ablaze in greens and golds and bounteous with autumn fruits, and more than made up for it.

You can read more about my adventures in Vienna in Oh, Vienna! Coffee, castles and craft beers in Austria’s capital.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Nussdorf vineyards in Vienna, Austria | Travel guide | City guide| Girl with a saddle bag blog
Meandering through Vienna’s vineyards in search of the Kahlenberg

Munich, Germany

“Oktoberfest” I bet you’re thinking. A bit obvious? Exactly. I don’t do obvious. Whilst the world’s biggest beer festival takes over the Bavarian capital in late September and early October, you shouldn’t rule out this city once the festivities are over.

We visited at the end of October, a few weeks after the excitement had died down. It was brilliant. Firstly, you can explore without the crowds. It’s a charming city centre packed with monumental department stores, gothic civic buildings and some fantastic contemporary additions, such as the Viktualianmarkt covered market. But the real showstopper is the Englischer Garten, a huge park in the centre of the city. It’s here that feels really alive as the seasons change, with sweeping woodlands turning every colour of the rainbow and outdoor beer gardens packed as locals make the most of days light and warm enough to still be out.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Visit the legendary Hofbrauhaus in Munich, Germany | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Beer comes in itre steins in the Hofbrauhaus.  It’s not the faint-hearted!

The Englischer Garten can happily occupy hours of any visit, but once the sun starts to go down, what next? Beer halls, that’s what. You don’t need to visit during Oktoberfest to discover Bavaria’s brewing heritage and love of comfort food – there are beer halls open all year round and they’re fantastic. The Hofbrauhaus is the arguably the most famous, and with 400 years of history and a cavernous interior it’s not hard to see why. But don’t just stop here, there are more beer halls peppered throughout the city, each with their own brews to try and different menus (although admittedly heavy on the mashed potato and pork in most). We loved the Augustiner Brauhaus on Neuhauserstrasse for it’s cosy atmosphere and delicious Weissbiers.

Bonus points

Geography fans will tell you that Munich sits just on the northern edge of the Bavarian alps. On a clear day you can see the mountains, but better still take a train out from the city centre. The metro lines will take you as far as Starnberger See, a vast alpine lake where the mountains meet the water and fantastic walking can be found. This is where the wealthy of Munich built extravagant summer homes in days gone by, and it’s glorious. Stroll around the lakeside, kick up leaves and reward yourself with a steaming hot chocolate in town.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Munich city centre, Germany | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
The market square, central Munich

Bratislava, Slovakia

Bit of a left-field choice this one. But Bratislava is an underestimated central European gem that’s perfect for a short weekend away.

The old town centre of Bratislava is charming at any time of the year, but in autumn you’ve got the best of both worlds. There are heaps of delicious cafes and bars to explore and none of the summer crowds to have to share them with. At the end of October, when we visited, it was mostly locals we met and enjoyed these spaces with – and I think it made us warm to the city all the more. Think cosy coffee shops with cafe tables outside and colourful blankets to wrap yourself in whilst you enjoy a hot chocolate or two.

Walk up to the castle for displays of autumn leaves to look down on – complemented by the warm earthy tones and green copper roofs of the old town below. You’ll suddenly realise the whole town looks like it’s decked out to celebrate the changing seasons.

Bratislava is less than an hour away from Vienna, so for bonus points try to combine both capitals into one trip. This is what we did – and I loved the contrasts between the two.

You can find out more about Bratislava in my guide to Bratislava in a day: Cobbled streets and cafes, Slovakian style.

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for city breaks now | Bratislava, Slovakia, during the autumn | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Looking down over the old town from Bratislava castle

So there’s my highlights for exploring at this time of year – beauties any time, but extra special as the trees turn in colour and the nights draw in. The end of the summer doesn’t mean it’s no longer a great time to explore northern Europe – for me, it’s an even better time.

What are your favourite places you’ve enjoyed in the autumn? (And where should I go next year?!)

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Autumn glories, northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Autumn glories: Northern European destinations perfect for a city break now | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

 

 

9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France

Whether you’re planning a city break for a few days, or a mountain adventure for a week or more, there’s an incredible variety of things to do around Lake Annecy. Here are my tried-and-tested recommendations for activities that’ll delight all your senses and help you discover hidden alpine gems.

If you’ve read my guide to Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret you’ll know that this beautiful region of alpine France is one of my favourite places to visit in Europe.

What makes it worth returning to? Aside from the awe-inspiring scenery, it’s the sheer variety of things to do. Whether you fancy a city break day or a mountain day, you’ll never be bored here.

So I’ve assembled my ultimate list of nine of the best things to do around Lake Annecy. Consider it a guide to the unmissable and the downright beautiful.

This is the second in a series of posts about Lake Annecy, you can check out Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret and Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation for more about this region.

1. Head to Col de la Forclaz for the best panoramic views

There are stunning and ever changing views all around lake Annecy. But if you really want to get a feel for the area there’s no place better than Col de la Forclaz, perched towards the southern end of the lake above Talloires.

Here, at the top, the vista unfolds to include the whole lake, city of Annecy in the distance and Massif des Bauges to the south.

You’ll find a couple of café restaurants, a working alpine dairy farm and a whole lot of cyclists and paragliders at the Col. It’s a mecca for sporty types who like going up mountains, and for those who like jumping off them. There’s a fabulous spot for watching paragliders set sail, and if you’re a keen cyclist there are serious cycle hire centres around the lake (try Basecamp in Talloires for top quality road bikes) that can kit you out for the 10km climb from the lakeside. I tackled it for the first time this year – and it was breathtaking in every sense of the word! It’s not for the faint-hearted, but it’s an irresistible climb if you’re a two-wheeled enthusiast.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy | View of Lake Annecy from Col de la Forclaz, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
View from Col de la Forclaz, towards Annecy in the distance

2. Take to the water

Locals here live for the water. It might not be the first place you’d think of for a beach break but let me persuade you otherwise. Lake Annecy is Europe’s cleanest lake and is home to some of the most idyllic swimming spots I’ve ever found.

If you’re here between June and September, follow the locals and head to the lake the moment the sun comes out.

You’ve got two options – settle down for the day at a beach, or rock up at the side of the lake (quite literally wherever you fancy) and go for a dip – this what you’ll spot the locals doing.

You’ll find a beach in almost every town and village around the lake, with some well-maintained parks with sandy beaches between the old town of Annecy, Sevrier and Saint-Jorioz on the west side of the lake. On the east side of the lake, make a beeline to Talloires. You’ll have a pay a few Euros for entry, by Le Savoyard restaurant, to la plage but it’s more than worthwhile for the extraordinary settling. Imagine a large, shaded park running down to the water, mountains ahead and behind, and a vast expanse of deep blue water opening out ahead of you. It’s pretty darn wonderful. There’s a nice little bar in the chalet at the back of the park, lifeguarded swimming, a diving board and shaded children’s paddling pool – making it popular with families and all ages.

The area’s also hugely popular with watersports enthusiasts, and you’ll find boat, kayak and paddleboard hire around the lake if you fancy exploring on, rather than in, the water.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Talloires bay, Lake Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

3. Explore Annecy by night

Sometimes it’s all about the timing, and I think the evening is hands down the best time to explore the old town of Annecy.

The soft twilight makes the stone buildings glow with jewel-like colours, and the canal twinkles with lights reflecting in the water from the restaurants and bars along its length. Whilst it can be a little challenging to escape the ubiquitous alpine offering of tartiflette (delicious, but not made for mid-summer) there are some great restaurants to be found, as well as old-fashioned bars that spill onto the street where you can people-watch and sip a cool beer as the sun goes down.

Take a stroll around town, grab an ice cream from the Glacier des Alpes (an institution that’s been in business since the 1960’s, and that I’ve frequenting since the early 90’s – it’s that good), and walk down the waterside to enjoy the lights glittering over the lake.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Annecy old town by the river Thiou at dusk | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

4. Enjoy village life

The city might be at the heart of this region, but to really experience Lake Annecy don’t miss exploring some of the smaller towns and villages that punctuate the lakeside.

People have been living and working by the lake for centuries and these lovely little towns reflect the changing lives of the communities over the past half millennium. You’ll find everything from historic abbeys to contemporary marinas, ancient alpine churches to breathtaking bays. It’s a little bit French, a lot alpine and an awful lot friendly.

On the côte ouest, the town of Saint-Jorioz has a glorious terrace that sweeps down from the rustic creamy-coloured stone church to a fantastic turquoise-blue expanse of water, with the jagged peaks of La Tournette ahead and the elegant little château at Duingt to your right.

On the côte est, Talloires and Menthon-Saint-Bernard have a special place in my heart – they were the places I first explored as a child. In Talloires, ancient stone buildings cluster around a spectacular natural bay, fringed with little boats and a vibrant flowers.  Menthon-Saint-Bernard has a lively village square with an unassuming bakery that’s been run by the same family since the 1940’s and makes the most incredible artisan breads and pastries. However it’s the waterside here that’s best, where turn of the century villas sit in rambling gardens running down to the lake. An Art Nouveau hotel looks down over a little patch of park where families and friends gather daily after work and every weekend over the summer, to picnic and pass the time (it also happens to be my favourite, free swimming spot).

You can find tips on travelling to, and staying, the villages around the lakeside in Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Alpine chalet in Menthon-Saint-Bernard on the edge of Lake Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
I dream of living in this fabulous house in Menthon-Saint-Bernard, overlooking the lake

5. Tackle the Tour du lac

One of the best ways to get to know Lake Annecy is on two wheels.

This region is hugely popular with cyclists, but don’t assume they’re all here to tackle huge mountain climbs. The lakeside is home to a fantastic cycle path that’ll let you explore the villages along the lakeside. And, as a bonus, it’s beautifully flat.

Depending on your enthusiasm and legs, you can cycle the full Tour du lac (do-able in a day at a leisurely pace) or just explore sections. The main path or Voie Vert, is a converted railway line that runs from the centre of Annecy to Doussard at the southern end of the lake, and beyond. From Doussard, it’s more of a patchy route back into Annecy along the east side of the lake (parts are still under construction as of August 2017) but it takes you through yet more pretty villages and past some great swimming spots.

Cyclable Annecy is situated right on the edge of the old town, and is a thoroughly recommendable bike hire shop. I hired one of their standard bikes last year (2016) and was impressed with how well it stood up to our 50 mile day out (I earned my beer at the end of that ride).

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Cycling the Voie Vert cycle path around Lake Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

6. Delight all your senses at Annecy’s market

The old town of Annecy plays host to a market three times a week – on a Tuesday, Friday and Sunday.

France is home to many great food markets, but Annecy has to be up there as one of the best. It’s a feast for all the senses, fragrant with fresh produce and cured meats, noisy and bustling with shoppers, cool and shady in the shadows of the narrow cobbled streets. The setting is atmospheric and lively, crowded largely amongst the narrow ancient streets of the old town and spilling onto the flower-draped bridges over the canal.

The market is biggest and busiest on a Sunday. If you’re keen to discover and stock up on alpine produce try a weekday market and arrive early – before 11am – to shop with the locals and enjoy a bit of banter with the store holders. Don’t leave without field-fresh vegetables and Tomme de Montagne or Reblochon cheeses produced on the mountains around the lake.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Annecy market in the old town | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Friday morning market in Annecy is full of sights, sounds, fantastic colours and tastes

7. Hike to your heart’s content

You could spend a lifetime walking and exploring the mountains, woodlands and villages around Lake Annecy and never bore of the ever-changing scenery.

So here’s a starting point: some of my favourites that never fail to delight.

For an afternoon stroll – explore the Roc du Chere between Menthon-Saint-Bernard and Talloires. A protected nature reserve, this rocky outcrop is cool and shady on a summer’s afternoon. There’s a secret path that leads to a viewpoint overlooking the bay of Talloires and a scramble down to the lakeside that’s more adventurous than it first looks.

For a mini-adventure – discover the Cascade d’Angon. A perfect circular walk from Talloires, you’ll climb out of the village on the old road to the church of St Germain, paved in places and loose stone underfoot in others. It weaves through a few small hamlets and then woodland before emerging at outside the church, where you’ll find panoramic views of the southern end of lake. From here, return back to the lakeside through the village of Verel and a wooded path that’ll bring you to the Pont du Fer and cascade – a spectacular gulley of rushing water hewn into the rocky hillside that suddenly gives way to a crashing waterfall.

For the adventurous – clamber up Mont Veyrier for a stunning view over Annecy itself. There are several routes to choose from, of differing difficulty and from diverse starting points. But all promise adventurous climbing and a spectacular moment that’ll take your breath away when you reach the viewpoint.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Mont Veyrier, overlooking Annecy, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
At the top of Mont Veyrier, where you can see the city of Annecy spread out on the plain below

8. Hit the pistes

You’re less than 30 minutes from Les Portes des Aravis ski area here – but don’t assume it’s just for winter visitors. The towns of La Clusaz and Grand Bornand are well worth a visit at any time of year. Aside from the more modern snowsports infrastructure, you’ll find charming village squares, ancient alpine churches and chapels and more mountain cheese than you can shake a stick at.

Spend the day walking amongst the wooded slopes above either towns, indulge all your senses at the Monday morning market in La Clusaz (not as big as Annecy, but featuring many of the same local producers) or head to Col des Aravis to be greeted by spectacular rock formations, glorious herds of grazing alpine cattle and a breathtaking view of Mont Blanc.

Tip:  Try the ridiculously enjoyable summer luge in La Clusaz, which includes a trip up the mountain in a modern cable car (kids and big kids will love it).

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Col des Aravis, near La Clusaz | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Rocky outcrops at Col des Aravis above La Clusaz

9. Watch the sunset over the lake

Very much weather-permitting, my last recommendation is one of the simplest of joys in the Alps. Watch the sun sink behind Annecy in a cacophony of colours. Because my goodness, it’s beautiful. Rather than find words to persuade you, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Sunset over Lake Annecy, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Sun setting over Lake Annecy, France, at the Fete du Lac 2017 | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Watching the sun set over the lake before the start of Fete du Lac, a huge firework spectacular in Annecy held every year in August

Tip:  The sun sets over the west side of the lake – so the best views overlook Mt Semnoz  and Annecy itself. You’ll find great spots to watch the sun sink alongside the lake in Menthon-Saint-Bernard and Veyrier.

Of course there’s much, much more to this vibrant region than this list alone. But you’ve got to start somewhere, and these are great places to begin. Explore, eat, sleep, repeat – it’s a simple recipe to enjoying a stay on the glorious Lake Annecy.

Have you visited Lake Annecy? Let me know your favourite things to do, and any surprise discoveries you’ve made, in the comments below. I might try them out!

If I’ve captured you imagination and you’re looking for practical advice for planning a stay on Lake Annecy, don’t forget to check out my helpful guide – Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation.

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9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret

There’s a city in the French Alps that crowns an incredible, deep-blue lake. From the lakeside, sweeping mountains rise to rocky peaks grey-green in the sunlight. It’s my favourite place, and I’m going to share it with you.

I didn’t know whether to write this post.  It feels a bit like I’m giving away a family secret, or that at the very least there should be some kind of initiation ceremony before I tell you.  But the whole point of this blog is share my travel secrets with you lovely people, and I’m about to give away my biggest one: My favourite place to escape to in Europe.  And you might just have never heard of it.

I love exploring new places, but there remains a part of me that finds huge pleasure returning to those that have tugged most at my heartstrings.  It’s one thing to enjoy a flying visit, but it’s something else to spend some time really getting to know somewhere.

For me there’s a region that occupies a special place in my heart, that keeps luring me back – Lake Annecy, in the French Alps.

I first arrived in Annecy in 1991, and despite being 5 years old I have incredibly vivid memories of my first trip.  I remember watching the Tour de France whoosh by us on a roadside – a travelling carnival of anticipation followed by a blur of cyclists – I saw soaring mountains for the first time and I paddled tentatively in the lake fresh from my first swimming certificate.  The colour and warmth of the place stayed with me.

Since then, I can’t count how many times I’ve returned, both with my family as I grew up and more recently with my other half.  Each visit adds to a rich patchwork of memories and a greater understanding of, and love for, this region.  I’ve followed new paths, explored new towns and relived my favourite places.  And as I do, the magic grows.

So here’s my ode to one of France’s most beautiful cities and one of Europe’s most breathtaking landscapes.  I think you’re going to like it.

This is the first in a series of posts about Lake Annecy, you can also check out 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France and Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation for more about this region.

Lake Annecy, France's best-kept secret | River Thiou, Annecy | Travel guide | City guide| Girl with a saddle bag blog

Let me introduce you to Lake Annecy

Annecy is the largest town in the alpine department of Haute-Savoie in eastern France.  It sits at the top of a lake 14 km long, which is the third largest in France and the cleanest in Europe.  Whilst the surrounding peaks are tipped with snow in winter, it remains relatively mild at the lakeside until the summer sun beckons in warm, dry weather more akin to the Mediterranean than mountainsides.

Lake Annecy and it’s mountainous surroundings are the most spectacular outdoor playground for those who love walking, cycling, swimming, sailing, running, paragliding, skiing, paddleboarding… in short, for those of us who love exploring and love dramatic landscapes.  For most people who come to visit, this is what brings them here – but it’s also what keeps a smile on the face of the locals you meet.

Go beyond the lake and you’ll find one of France’s lesser-known but most beautiful cities.  You’ll also find lakeside towns and villages where old and new comfortably rub shoulders, where old farming traditions remain an integral part of village life but outdoor sports enthusiasts and campers are welcomed with open arms. Sit in Café de la Place in Menthon-Saint-Bernard nursing a noisette and ponder whether you could find a more perfectly French spot to pass the morning.  It’s a region that’s moving with the times, but it’s not worried that the ancient charms of alpine life will be lost – they’re very much still alive here.

In Annecy you don’t need to compromise.  You can enjoy the delights and comforts of a city, with ancient streets to explore and cosmopolitan Geneva just around the corner.  You’ve also got the great outdoors on your doorstep, at it’s grandest scale.  But mystifyingly, word hasn’t spread far.  Annecy is popular with French holidaymakers – and reasonably well-known in Northern Europe.  But mention Annecy in the UK and you’ll normally hear “Where?” in return.  Search online and you’ll find little more in the English language than some of France’s most unassuming little towns.  It’s still a region for those in the know – and that’s a part of its charm.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | View of lake Annecy from the old church at St. Germain | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

The city of Annecy

There are two parts to the city of Annecy:  the medieval streets of the old town that lap against the shores of the lake, and the modern, vibrant city that’s alive with culture and people.

The ancient thoroughfares of the old town cluster around the River Thiou – a rushing body of turquoise water that’s bridged by wrought iron beauties heavy with colourful flowers. The pastel facades of buildings hint at the city’s alpine location – wooden balconies peek out from upper floors, stone arcades hint at crisp winter weather and rooftops starts to look a little chalet-like – but they’d look equally at home in the Languedoc or Provence.

There’s also plenty to keep you occupied beyond the charming corners of the cobble-stoned vieille ville. If history is your thing, there’s a majestic little castle perched above the town, the Palais de l’Isle – an ancient prison situated mid-stream of the Thiou, and a smattering of Italianate churches that look especially good lit up an night.  But I’d recommend experiencing Annecy like a local.

Come into town early and pick up a breakfast pastry at Marmillon on Rue Sainte-Claire (or try one of their magnificent homemade praline meringues).  Then get a flavour for the award-winning local produce at the thrice-weekly street market, and watch the hustle and bustle of a quintessentially French spectacle over a coffee.  Pick a restaurant a little way off the main street or alongside one of the little canals for dinner, and savour alpine flavours.  And for a truely magical end to the day, stroll the Jardins de l’Europe to the lakeside and the Pont des Amours, and watch the lights dancing on the water.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Buildings along the river Thiou in Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

The lake

The lake is the living, breathing heart of this region.  And whilst every alpine lake has a spectacular, raw beauty, there’s something extra-special about Lake Annecy.

First, it feels almost impossible to escape views of the water.  It seems like wherever you look, vistas open up that capture it’s magic from a slightly different angle.  The colours of the water, the reflections on its surface, its setting in this spellbinding landscape – it all changes as you move and look upon the water from different places.

Secondly, embrace the lake like a local (it won’t take long to resist).  If there is one thing the locals love to do, it’s be in, on or next to the water.  The lakeside beaches are glorious emerald green expanses of grass gently sloping down to the water, packed with picnickers and paddlers, serious swimmers and sunbathers every single day from early June to late September.  In every village you’ll find moorings and slipways for boats and on a breezy day the lake swarms with yachts and dinghys.  Paddle boards and kayaks are an everyday entertainment.  The beautifully clean and clear water is an irresistible temptation the moment the sun is out.  Here it’s not just about looking at the lake – it’s all about enjoying it.

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Lake in summer | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

The mountains

The mountains around Lake Annecy are alpine, but not high alpine.  Approaching from the north (as most visitors do), you’ll meander through a landscape of rolling hills and valleys.  But nothing aside from the altitude change hints at your alpine approach.  It’s not until you’ve navigated your way through the city streets and appear, all of a sudden, at the lakeside that you’ll see any big peaks.  But when you do, it takes your breath away for a moment. Every time.

These beautiful creatures rise into the distance from the town of Annecy: to the north is largely alluvial plain, but each side of the lake is capped with majestic peaks – not as high as some of their southern and eastern cousins – but no less awe-inspiring.  The western side, côte ouest, is generally less explored, but miss it and you’ll miss the imposing Mt. Semnoz.  It’s a hiker’s and cyclist’s dream with unmissable views from the alpine meadows at its peak on a clear day.

It’s the eastern side of the lake, côte est, that’s home to the biggest peaks and the most challenging walking and climbing.  The rocky outcrops of La Tournette and the jagged teeth of the Dents de Lanfon dominate the skyline and attract some serious climbers as well as alpine wildlife.  There’s walking aplenty in the luscious evergreen woodland of the foothills of these peaks, whilst the high alpine meadows above blossom with a rainbow of wildflowers in the late spring and early summer.

Lake Annecy, France's best-kept secret | Lake Annecy at dusk | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Annecy is all about contrasts and complements, city streets and rugged mountain peaks.  And whichever you prefer, there’s no escaping the mesmerising waters of the lake.  For someone like me who finds it hard to make a call between the wild beauty of rural France and energy of a city break, this region is the perfect compromise – and one that has kept me coming back for nearly 25 years.  I’m ready to go back again already… do you want join me?

If I’ve piqued your curiosity about Lake Annecy, you can find out more about my favourite things to do in this region in 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France or find practical travel advice in Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation.

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Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with

Lake Annecy: France's best-kept secret | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Welsh wanderings: Incidental adventures in mid and west Wales

The dramatic landscapes of Wales never fail to disappoint. My photo journal from a recent weekend adventure in the Elan valley and the north-west Welsh coast showcases some of the contrasts and colours of this wonderful little country.

I hadn’t originally intended to post about this trip, as I found myself in Wales a few weeks back for a trail race – and I figured most of you would aren’t here for quirky race reviews (although let me know if not, and I will try to oblige!).

But I ended up taking a handful of photos I loved and I wanted to share them with you. Maybe they’ll inspire your own Welsh adventure.

View of the Garreg-du dam in the Elan valley, Wales
Garreg-du reservoir in the Elan valley

We were ultimately heading for the north-west Welsh coast but stopped on the way in the Elan valley. This stunningly beautiful series of reservoirs set amongst the rolling, heather-covered hills of mid-Wales feeds much of the Midlands with water. A lovely friend of mine introduced to this area a few years ago, and it’s stayed with me ever since. We spent an afternoon dodging showers and tramping round the Garreg-du reservoir, reminding ourselves why we love this little country so much.

Downstream of the Pen-y-Garreg dam in the Elan Valley, Wales
Downstream of Pen-y-Garreg dam

Our base for the weekend was Hendre Hall camping and glamping in Llwyngwril – more specifically one of their little glamping pods. Seriously, I couldn’t recommend this place enough – the pod was great (the perfect compromise between creature comfort and life in the great outdoors), and we looked out over the railway line and beach beyond. And boy, were we glad we’d gone for the pod over our slightly-ratty old tent – in typical Welsh fashion it rained pretty much all the weekend … in August.

Llwrynwril beach in west Wales
Looking towards Barmouth from Llwyngwril beach

Our weekend was mostly all about completing Race the Train – a epic 14 mile trail race that follows the route of the Tallylyn steam railway, starting in the little seaside town of Tywyn. It was all about mud, mud, more mud and glorious Welsh landscape. With a bit of running thrown in for good measure. Trail running friends, you’ll love this race.

Madness aside (I’m never going to pretend this is a normal way to spend a Saturday afternoon), Tywyn’s a town with old world charm and some stonkingly good places to eat. We ended up the Salt Marsh Cafe twice – once for carb-loading on their homemade pizza and burgers, and later for a quiet drink. It’s a fun, cosy space with lovely staff and a mouth-wateringly good food and drink menu. As a post-race splurge we indulged in three courses of delicious at Proper Gander, where they somehow manage to turn out incredibly refined local dishes from a kitchen the size of a cupboard. Importantly, in a state where I was woofing down cereal bars post-race like no tomorrow, their portions were reassuringly satisfying and we left very full and very happy.

View from Tywyn town, Wales
Tywyn

Our last stop on our whistle-stop weekend was just outside Builth Wells. It’s landscape of lush green valleys, peppered with little stone farmhouses and shy sheep. High up, the hills sing with purple heather and damp pools reflect the vibrant vegetation. Yes, it was damp and grey, but no, it didn’t disappoint. It’s always a good day for a walk in Wales.

Welsh hillsides outside Builth Wells
Moorland above Builth Wells

If you’d like a little more inspiration for a Welsh adventure of your own, try my guide to three unmissable stops on a road trip around Wales – complete with pictures to prove the sun does actually shine in Wales from time to time (just not always when I’m there).

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Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to travel and accommodation

The secret to enjoying the perfect stay on Lake Annecy is making travel and accommodation plans that’ll help you to explore the parts of this region that excite you most. My guide will point you in the right direction whether you’re planning a city break in central Annecy or an Alpine adventure in a lakeside village.

Lake Annecy and the city of Annecy itself are picture-perfect. With breath-taking clear lake waters, craggy alpine peaks papered with lush green woodland and a jewel-coloured old town, there are a million reasons to want to visit this less well-known region of France. Maybe I’ve even managed to persuade you in Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret and 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France – where I admit that return visits over the past 25 years have left me with a huge love for this Alpine wonderland.

If you’re thinking of planning a trip here – great news – I think that’s a fantastic idea! However, these wonderfully diverse surroundings and the enormous range of possibilities can make planning your stay more than a little intimidating. It’s not a small city, and the lakeside towns and villages that twinkle in the distance on an evening pose a myriad of options for accommodation and exploration.

But, knowing where to stay and how to get around will make all the difference – as it’ll put you at the heart of the action you’re most keen on throwing yourself into. It’s the perfect way to upgrade your holiday from good to pretty darn perfect.

So, to give you a helping hand I’ve put together a guide to help you navigate planning a trip to Lake Annecy.

I’ll share my recommendations for getting there, getting about and share some secrets to finding the best places to stay for the type of adventure you want to have. Shall we get started?

This is the third in a series of posts about Lake Annecy, you can check out Lake Annecy: France’s best-kept secret and 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France for more about this region.

Before you begin

With so much on offer, it’s worth taking the time to decide on your priorities before booking. Think about what you’re planning to spend most of your time doing – are you hoping to hike or cycle to your heart’s content, bask by the lake or indulge at some of the city’s enticing restaurants? Don’t forget to check my guide to 9 unmissable things to do around Lake Annecy, France for a little light inspiration.

You’ll also want to think about what time of year you’ll be visiting, and what type of accommodation suits you best – whether you’ll be looking for home comforts, outdoor space, room for a crowd or somewhere a little out of the ordinary.

Once you know what you want to do, you can shape your trip around this – so you make the absolute most of it.

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | River Thiou, Annecy, early in the morning | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Early on a summer’s morning, Annecy is quiet, peaceful and beautiful

Getting to Annecy

You’ve got three options travelling to the city of Annecy – road, rail and air. The best fit for your trip will depend on where you’re travelling from and, to some extent, whether you’d like the freedom of having a car to get around.

To Annecy by air

Although Annecy has it’s own airport, it’s largely served by internal flights so for international connections and budget airlines you’re best heading to nearby Geneva or Lyon. Both have great road connections to Annecy, with Geneva a little over 40 minutes away. Hiring a car can be a wise choice – and makes it easy to explore beyond the city and up into the mountains.

From Lyon

If public transport is more your thing, high speed rail services connect Annecy and Lyon Saint-Exupéry TGV (the station is just a few minutes walk from the airport terminal), and Annecy’s modern station is conveniently located on the edge of the old town. Alternatively, Ouibus offers a less frequent, but generally faster bus service from the airport to Annecy.  You can check timetables and ticket prices for both trains and buses on SNCF’s website.

From Geneva

Public transport from Geneva airport is possible but is complicated substantially by the border crossing from Switzerland and the closure of a major station in Geneva. I attempted this option last year (2016), but found it fraught with difficulties so I’m not in a rush to recommend it. In a rare twist of things going completely down the pan, we ended up being rescued by our wonderful airbnb host thanks to a catastrophic (I’m exaggerating, but felt it at the time) combination of delayed airport arrivals, multiple stations with the same name, closed stations and a very approximate bus timetable.

I’d seriously recommend saving yourself the worry and take the (infrequent but direct) bus to the centre of Annecy or hire a car from the airport instead.

To Annecy by rail

The small but perfectly formed railway station in Annecy gives you access to the French mainline, high-speed rail network – an easy way to reach most of France’s major cities.  A direct train from Paris’ Gare de Lyon takes just shy of 4 hours, which sounds impressively quick to me. Check out the SNCF website (France’s national rail network) for timetables and fares.

To Annecy by road

Annecy is well-connected to the French autoroute network via the A40 and A41, making it easy to reach from most of northern and western Europe. From the UK, it’s about an 8 hour drive from the Channel Tunnel (if you want to turn your journey into more of an adventure, check out my guide to Troyes, a pretty city in the Champagne region, that makes a great mid-way stop).

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | View of Annecy from Talloires | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
Looking towards Annecy from the woods above the pretty village of Talloires

Getting around

The best way to get about will depend on how long you’re staying for and how keen you are to get out and explore.

On foot

The city and it’s nearest beaches are all easily explored on foot, with wide promenades along the northern end of the lake. If you’re planning a short city break walking’s the perfect way to get around – perhaps with a little cycling and the odd bus journey thrown in.

By bike

If you’re feeling enthusiastic, the lakeside villages are easy to reach by bike. Follow the Voie Vert – a fantastic cycle path that circles the lake – to find new places and to branch off for more ambitious routes. There are bucketloads of hire shops around the lake, with options from hourly to all day rentals.

  • Cyclable Annecy is situated right on the edge of the old town and a stone’s throw from the Voie Vert. I gave one of their standard bikes a 50 mile thrashing in a day last year, and I’d happily recommend.
  • For serious cyclists, try Basecamp in Talloires for high-end Cannondales that will see you through some major mountain climbing. I’ve not tried out their bikes, but breakfast in their cafe is delicious (clearly this is important on any cycle trip). Despite being the new kids on the block in 2017 they appear to have a very professional set-up.

By bus

If you’re keen to discover the lakeside towns and villages without a car, you’ll find reliable bus services throughout the day and week operated by LIHSA. As well as being great value routes with regular services, in places they connect with free shuttle bus services to help you get higher up into the mountains. Try taking the LIHSA to Talloires and then the free Navette (summer season only) to reach the stunning viewpoint at Col de la Forclaz.

Note:  LIHSA doesn’t have it’s own dedicated website, which can make it a tad tricky to plan journeys in advance if you’re not a confident French speaker. You can try their French site here or contact Annecy’s tourist office for more visitor-friendly help finding the right services.

By car

Lastly, I wouldn’t be honest with you if I didn’t tell you that having a car is one of the best ways to make the most of a trip to this stunning region. Not only does it give you the freedom to travel when and where you’d like, it’s also the best way to cover ground. Ski resort breakfast walk, afternoon on the lake, evening dinner in town? It’s easier by car.

It’s nice to take it slow from time to time, but having four wheels will open up a far wider range of accommodation options, places to explore and new things to discover. As a bonus, it’s also delightfully easy to park around here (although I’m not giving away all my best secret parking spots!), so unless you’re planning a stay in the old town parking will likely be free and plentiful.

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning travel and accommodation | La Tournette | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog
La Tournette in the late afternoon sun

Accommodation

There’s no perfect answer to ‘where should I stay’ on Lake Annecy – there are so many fantastic options, but every traveller has different priorities. So help you narrow down what might work well for you, I’ve suggested some options for different types of trip you might be embarking on.

City break

Ideal for urban explorers visiting for a short stay, more likely travelling by public transport.

  • When: Throughout the year.
  • My recommendation:  Opt for a hotel, bed-and-breakfast or airbnb in, or close to, the old town of Annecy.
  • Why? If you’re looking to make to most of a short trip you’ll want to be in right in the heart of things. Make the most of an opportunity to stay in one of the charming historic buildings in this part of town and soak up the atmosphere. Plus you’ll find great public transport connections if you want to get out of town.

I can’t hesitate to recommend this fabulous airbnb we spent three days in during July 2016 – our host Laurane went out of her way to be helpful, it’s just round the corner from one of my favourite cafes and you couldn’t be better located for enjoying the old town.

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | Colourful townhouses along the River Thiou, Annecy | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Family fun

Crowd-pleasing ideas for families and groups of friends looking to make the most of the lake and mountains, with own car or bike.

  • When: Late spring through to late summer.
  • My recommendation:  Embrace the great outdoors and enjoy one of the dozens of campsites around the lake. You’ll find some fantastic sites, many with direct access to lakeside beaches. Look along the western side and at the southern end of the lake (in particular around the villages of Saint-Jorioz, Duingt and Doussard) where you’ll find everything from old-school pitches for campers and tents, EuroCamp sites with pre-erected tents, holiday chalets to glamping pods. I’ve also got a soft-spot for the village of Talloires which has a stunningly-located little campsite that traditionalists will love – Camping l’Horizon – as well as a beachfront campsite, that comes highly-recommended, at the Plage d’Angon.
  • Why?  Camping is budget-friendly, fun and sociable, plus you’ve got a wide range of accommodation options to suit your group. These sites are ideally located for those who want to spend the majority of their time at the lake or out exploring, and most are within an easy stroll of one of the pretty lakeside villages (for your everyday essentials and a slice of Alpine life).

Mountain adventurers

Alpine inspiration for couples, friends and families planning a longer stay (a week or more) to explore the mountains and more of the region.

  • When: Throughout the year
  • My recommendation: Rent an apartment, gîte (French holiday home) or airbnb in one of the lakeside towns and villages. This is my favourite way to spent time on Lake Annecy.
  • Why? If you’re keen to get out on foot or two wheels, staying outside of the city of Annecy will make it easier. Most apartments and homes will have parking, and a kindly word with your host will help you to find out whether bikes are also welcome. Staying here will give you a chance to enjoy small town life and indulge at some of the quintessential village cafes, bars and patisseries – plus Annecy is rarely more than an half hour drive away. Generally speaking, you’ll find better value rentals on the western side, côte ouest, of the lake, but for the best sunsets and easy access to the biggest peaks opt for the côte est, or east side.
Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation
Looking down on Doussard and the southern end of Lake Annecy from Col de la Forclaz

So there’s my guide to one of France’s most beautiful cities – and some inspiration for shaping your stay into your perfect holiday.

Is there anything more you’d like to know? Post your Lake Annecy travel questions below and I’ll do my best to answer.

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Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Lake Annecy, France: A practical guide to planning your travel and accommodation | Travel guide | City guide | Accommodation guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Postcards from Troyes: A brief encounter in Champagne

Pretty half-timbered houses, cobbled streets, fantastic food – Troyes is the perfect place to break a journey or stop for a weekend if you’re travelling in France.

This past month has taken us on a bit of a French adventure.  Living in the UK means that travelling to France by road can be just as easy – if not easier – than flying, and besides which, it had been a while since I’d last been on a proper road trip.

So we packed up the car for a jaunt to the continent.  As we had a long road ahead of us, it made perfect sense (or rather it was the perfect opportunity) to make the most of our journey and weave in some interesting stops along the way.  The curious traveller in me loves pouring over a map and picking out places that sound interesting … which is precisely how we ended up in Troyes.

Troyes happened to be the perfect half-way point between our channel crossing and our final destination in the Alps, but also sounded enticingly interesting.  I’d heard that it was beautiful, but a bit of exploring online left me none the wiser when it came to the city’s charms.  Rather than letting this put me off, there was only one thing to do – go and find out more.

Beautiful buildings n Rue de la Monnaie in Troyes, France

Tell me about Troyes

Troyes is a historic town in the heart of France’s Champagne region.  It’s a region littered with well-groomed vineyards, perfect sandy-coloured hilltop towns and decadent Champagne houses. But Troyes adds a colourful juxtaposition, with an old town centre full of teetering half-timbered medieval buildings that wobble three and four storeys high in winding little streets packed with cafes, restaurants and shops.  The river Seine winds languorously through the town, with colourful flower boxes topping every bridge.  It’s undeniably pretty, and a surprising contrast to it’s surroundings.

Rue Emile Zola in Troyes, France

It’s not a huge city, and you can comfortably explore in just a few hours.  This makes it a great stop if you’re travelling south to the Alps or the Mediterranean from the UK or northern Europe.  It’d also make a great base to discover the surrounding area which includes the Fôret d’Orient national park, home to vast lakes as well as diverse woodland that’s perfect for walking and cycling.

With only a quick overnight stop for us to make the most of, we embarked on a whistle-stop tour (of sorts, invented on the spot) of Troyes’ highlights.

What to do in Troyes

The old centre of Troyes is loosely ringed by the Boulevards Gambetta, Victor Hugo and du 14 Juillet, and by the river Seine as it snakes it’s way through the city.

(At this point I’d like to clarify that I didn’t make these names up or steal them from a school French textbook – Troyes really does have the most quintessentially French sounding street names!)

Place Marechal Foch, Troyes, France

The very centre is largely pedestrianised, and I’d recommended navigating your way to the Place Maréchal Foch to begin your explorations.  From here, enticing winding streets disappear off in all directions, beautiful buildings look down on your from every angle and there’s a vibrant, lively feel with the street-side cafes full – in the early evening – with locals and visitors enjoying a last coffee of the day or a sneaky apertif.

The streets east of Place Maréchal Foch are amongst the prettiest, with ancient buildings and characterful restaurants and cafes woven amongst little squares and upmarket shops.  Alongside Boulevard Gambetta you’ll find the verdant Jardin du Rocher and Jardin de la Vallee Suisse, a pair of pretty parks lush with vegetation in contrast to surrounding buildings.

Head west towards the river and you’ll find the delightful Mairie with colourful formal gardens laid out in front of it.  Keep going in this direction and you’ll stumble across the monumental Cathedral of St. Pierre and St. Paul, a cluster of stunning gothic churches including the Basilica of St. Urbain as well a some of the city’s oldest university buildings.

Wooden tower on medieval building in Troyes, France

There was plenty to keep us occupied for a few hours.  Troyes in a town that’s best explored slowly, and on foot.  There’s great architecture details to be found, an attractive riverside and an abundance of lively cafes in which to soak up the traditional French atmosphere.

Where to eat in Troyes

Much as I could quite happily have spent our short visit munching my way through as many of this city’s establishments as possible so that I could share them with you, sadly common sense prevailed and instead I’m making one outstanding recommendation.

Restaurants on Rue Urbain VI in Troyes, France

You’ll find plenty of smart-looking looking restaurants around Place Maréchal Foch, Rue Urbain VI and Rue Champeaux. They mostly offer typical French dishes, with appetising menus du jour advertised on chalkboards where the resturant tables spilled onto the street.  But we were looking for something a bit more unusual that a bit of online research had hinted at.

Just before 7pm we headed to Les Halles, the old covered market building close to the town centre.  In the square outside was just what we were hoping for – a big, red double-decker bus.

Claire et Hugo, the burger bus of Troyes, France

Claire & Hugo rolls into town most weeknights, and some lunchtimes (check their Facebook page for more details as their schedule seems to vary occasionally). They park up, put up pretty little cafe tables and umbrellas outside and proceed to cook incredible hand-made burgers, desserts, and quite determinedly, no chips.

We couldn’t have wished to find anything better.  Their menu was genuinely interesting, with fantastic burger toppings (Parmesan on a burger just happens to be the greatest thing I’d never tried) and delicious side salads that outshone most burger joints I’ve ever visited.  No chips meant oven-roasted, local Charlotte potatoes with just a touch of salty butter.  Home-made pannacotta with ginger, nectarine, raspberry and mint was an absolute delight.  And all this, for less than €30 for the both of us, including drinks.  I’d go back to Troyes just to try it all again.

Classic burger at Claire et Hugo, Troyes, France

We only had a few hours in Troyes before heading off to our Airbnb a few kilometers out of town, and then on towards the Alps.  But this delightful little city really charmed me, and felt surprisingly alive and very French even during the peak of the European-summer-holiday-season.  There’s a great feeling when leaving a place you’d be happy to return to again, and would even go out of your way to revisit – and that’s how I felt about Troyes.  I’ll be back one day, and I hope to enjoy it just as much.

Have you discovered any hidden gems en route to other destinations? I’d love to hear your stories (and borrow some inspiration) below.

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The practical bit

If you’re travelling by road, as we were, Troyes can be reached from junction 23 of the A26 autoroute.  It’s about a ten minute drive to the city centre.  Parking can be found on Boulevard du 14 Juillet at a rate of about €1 per hour.  If you’re heading back to the autoroute, you’ll pass through a commercial centre on the outskirts of town – fill up on supermarket petrol here to save a generous amount compared to motorway service stations.

Troyes is also served by high speed rail services from Paris, with direct trains from Gare de l’Est taking as little as an hour and a half.  Check out the SNCF website for more details.

Postcards from Troyes, France: A brief encounter in the Champagne | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

Postcards from Troyes: A brief encounter in Champagne and a city guide

A beginners guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi

With it’s fairytale turrets, ancient stone walls and commanding views over the vineyards of southern France, the fortified medieval town of Carcassonne is steeped in history and an unsung Mediterranean hero. But there’s more than meets the eye – fantastic food, an enchanting city centre and the Canal du Midi add to the rich patchwork of this spectacular French town. My travel guide shares the highlights and lesser-known gems of this region that I’ve tried and tested.

There’s something timeless about the south-west of France, where it feels like the narrow, winding streets of sleepy market towns have changed little in centuries, and the Canal du Midi snakes languorously through vineyards and fields sheltered from the heat by ancient plane trees.

At it’s heart you’ll find Carcassonne, a medieval fortified town that crowns a green hill perched above the river Aude.  With it’s soaring towers, imposing gateways and panoramic views there’s plenty to take your breath away.  But its fairytale appearance is just the start, as a labyrinth of ancient streets and warm stone houses lure you in and invite you to explore.

I first discovered Carcassonne as a eight-year old … a highlight of summer holiday adventures in the Languedoc.  A couple of summer’s ago I decided to head back, not quite sure what to expect, but curious to see if it had changed.

Returning to somewhere you loved as a child requires a bit of optimism and crossed fingers, and I’d had my doubts when we booked our trip. Would two twenty-somethings really love a city that had captured my imagination all those years ago?

Thankfully, the crossed fingers worked.  The delights of the castle – known as la cité – hadn’t diminished at all since I was half the height I am now.  Carcassonne today is just as awe-inspiring as it was twenty years ago – and the surrounding city and region is blooming.  Architecturally, it’s fascinating, but it’s also great fun. Whether you’re into vineyards, history or pretending you’re a medieval knight for the day, there’s something for everyone in this magical French town.

A potted history of Carcassonne

The area around Carcassonne has been inhabited since neolithic times.  But the first major construction in the region began under Roman rule, when a hilltop castle was built on the site of the current fortified town. A small settlement grew up around the castle, but things didn’t really get interesting until the Visigoths came along in the 5th century.

Building on the footings of the now decaying Roman stronghold, the Visigoths constructed a substantial and strategically-located fortress and thus, the medieval city of Carcassonne was born.  Despite the rise and fall of the Visigoths and many attempts to take the fortified cité, Carcassonne not only managed to survive but also sustain a community both inside and outside of it’s walls for almost a thousand years.

The fortified walls of the medieval city of Carcassonne, France
The walls of Carcassonne are built on Roman foundations but the crenellations and turrets are more than a little creative licence

It wasn’t until the Treaty of the Pyrenees in 1659 that the state of Rousillion, of which Carcassonne and it’s surrounding lands were a part, was ceeded to France and much of the city’s military importance diminished. From this point onward, without a substantial military presence, the town fell into disrepair and was largely abandoned.

All wasn’t lost though. The Ville Basse, which had grown up around the foothills of the castle, began to flourish as a market town and a burgeoning industrial centre as the nineteenth century arrived. Two other arrivals were to prosperity to the city: the Canal du Midi in the late eighteenth century, and architect Viollet-le-Duc.

A nostaglic interest in medieval France and it’s architecture started to bloom in the early nineteenth century, and Viollet-le-Duc was hired to undertake restorations of some of the country’s most iconic buildings.  Alongside Notre-Dame de Paris, Mont St. Michel and Fougere, he tackled the crumbling remains of Carcassonne, bringing la cité back to life (and embellishing slightly as he went, die-hards will tell you the pointed turrets are not original – but I rather like them).

In the last hundred years or so the Ville Basse has continued to grow into a lively, vibrant city, and the castle on the hill has flourished.

La Cité

There’s more than enough to keep even an intrepid visitor occupied for a day in the fortified cité.

Medieval towers in the fortified city of Carcassonne, France

My best advice is to follow your feet and happily explore.  If you have the chance, come back at different times of day to experience atmospheric evenings and enjoy cool, quiet mornings.  To get you started, here a few of my favourite things to do;

  • Get lost in the labyrinthine streets.  Explore beyond the main street and find hidden alleyways, cosy squares, beautiful houses as well as monumental gates and doorways.
  • Walk the walls.  In parts, you can walk between the two outer walls of la cité (between the Porte Narbonnais and the smaller gate near Place Saint-Nazaire) looking up at the imposing towers and fortifications.  Or, to escape to a part of the medieval city without any crowds, head out the Porte de l’Aude to the west and wander the rugged little footpaths that hug the outer walls, clinging on between the castle and vegetable gardens below.
  • Discover the Château Comtal.  Or rather the outside of the château.  Confession: I’ve never actually been inside (it’s worth noting you’ll need to buy tickets if you want to look around the interior).  But the building is one of the most impressive you’ll see within the fortifications, and if you take a little side street to the right of the entrance, you can stroll around the little ornamental garden at the foot of the castle walls.
  • Find stunning stained glass in the Basilique Saint-Nazaire.  The extraordinarily colourful windows in this medieval church are believed to be the oldest in southern France.
  • Soak up a panorama or two.  Head out towards the walls and you’ll find spectacular views opening up.  To the south, look out over a vista of vineyards as far as the eye can see, and to the north take in the town centre with it’s own city walls.
  • Eat.  Yes, I’m predictable.  But you might think that somewhere this popular isn’t the best place to find delicious local food.  However, I’m happy to report that with a little judicious decision making there are some great restaurants to be found in la cité.  Plus, the atmosphere on a summer’s evening can’t be beaten – grab yourself a table on a terrace and a glass of delicious local wine.

The fortified walls of Carcassonne, France

Whilst during the summer months you might have to negotiate the winding streets with crowds during the day, don’t be fooled into thinking Carcassonne is just for show.  24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 356 days a year the town is alive.  Beyond the château, shops and restaurants, real people live here too and one of the charms of the place is spotting to the signs of everyday life that pepper the streets.  And for more local flavour, head towards the Ville Basse beyond.

The Ville Basse

Whilst most visitors stay within the walls of the castle, you’re missing a trick if you don’t explore the rest of the city.

Step away from the entrance of the Porte Narbonnais and you’ll find a few winding streets weaving their way down to the river Aude.  Here you’ll find the old bridge, now pedestrianised, that invites you to explore the other side to this remarkable city.

The Ville Basse (also known as the Bastide Saint-Louis) is the living, breathing heart of the modern city of Carcassonne – but it’s all relative. The town grew up in the middle ages and the majority of buildings now occupying this space date from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Thanks to flourishing industry over the past few centuries and a location at the centre of a prosperous winemaking region, the town has thrived.

City gate in Carcassonne, France
Gateway leading to the Ville Basse in Carcassonne. This lovely street is packed with elegant shops and bakeries

The old centre is loosely ringed by old city walls – not in the same league as the castle on the hill, but reminiscent of the bastide towns you find in this part of the world. Enter through one of the old city gates and you’ll find yourself in a warren of cool, shady streets that criss-cross and intersect with one another. Whilst you’ll find a few local cars here, it’s best explored on foot.

At the geographic and metaphorical centre you’ll find the main square – Place Carnot, home to the Saturday morning market that explodes weekly in a riot of colour, scent and sound. Any other day, you’ll find it a quieter spot to enjoy coffee under the shade of the plane trees or an early evening aperitif. There’s a nice selection of shops to explore and a fantastic old-fashioned covered market building just off the main square is home to the traditional butchers, cheesemongers and fishmongers of the city.

Old shop signage in the bastide town of Carcassonne, France

I love the streets of the Ville Basse best early in the morning, on my way to pick up fresh bread and pastries for breakfast from the boulangerie on Place Carnot.

Beyond the centre

Carcassonne might be a city, but that doesn’t mean green spaces don’t abound. Aside from the rolling countryside and farmland of the regions, two of my favourite places to walk are alongside the river Aude and the Canal du Midi which weave their ways through the city centre.

The river crashes it’s way down through Carcassonne from its source in the Pyrenees en route to the Mediterranean coast. In summer, it’s quite gentile, and it’s river banks are a cool and shady spot to stroll and escape the heat of the day. You’ll also find some great campsites along its banks as you head out of town.

Canal du Midi in Carcassonne, France

The canal may be more sedate but it’s no less beautiful. Join the towpath near the railway station and walk in either direction. We hired mountain bikes and headed out discover the countryside, and followed the canal as far as Trebes – about 10km out of town – before heading off into the vineyards and sun-soaked farmland beyond. Cycling alongside the canal is glorious, and the shade of the plane trees offers a little relief from the sun on a hot day.

Although the Mediterranean coast is only an hour or so away by car or train (and that’s a story for another day), there’s a refreshing alternative nearer to town. Lac de la Cavayere is where the locals go to cool down.  A short bus ride or drive from town brings you to this pretty little lake – set in a midst of a Mediterranean pine forest.

Lac de la Cavayere started life as a reservoir before becoming a beach and the spot where Carcassonne locals come to escape the heat and crowds and make the most of the summer (it’s surprisingly common in south-west France even if it feels a little alien to us Brits).  It’s somewhere you can swim, sunbathe and stroll to your hearts content.  Family-friendly, it’s also great for active folks with trails all around the lake and nearby woodland, watersports and picnic-spots galore.

The city of Carcassonne in the south of France
Looking out over the modern town of Carcasonne from the walls of La Cite

Have you visited Carcassonne, and found any hidden treasures I’m yet to uncover?


The practical bit

We flew direct to Carcassonne from Bournemouth with Ryanair. From the airport, it’s a short bus ride (services run regularly) or taxi to the city centre.

We booked a fantastic apartment (Apartment Massena to be precise) right in the centre of things from the incredibly nice people at Carcassonne Apartments. Beautifully restored and comfortably furnished, it was the perfect base for a week’s stay and only a few minutes walk from the highlights of this small city. It’s located on Rue du Pont Vieux, halfway between la cité and the Ville Basse, and only a minute or two from the river Aude.

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A beginner's guide to Carcassonne, France: Medieval magic in the Midi | Travel guide | City guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

A beginners guide to Carcassonne: Medieval magic in the Midi, France

4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

There are few more beautiful, and dramatic, landscapes to walk in than the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland. My guide to four breathtaking walks in this incredible region take in some of the absolute highlights, all in the shadow of the Jungfrau and Eiger mountains.

Last summer we spent a week in the spectacular Bernese Oberland in Switzerland.  There’s a lot to love about this mountainous region, but it’s also a funny one.  The towns are neat and pretty and very Swiss, but they’re not all packed with character.  It’s an area that’s been welcoming tourists for well over a century, but in places feels a little like its heyday has been and gone.  There seems to be few people visiting to walk, camp and discover it’s wild wonders, yet many arriving to tick off photo opportunities and railway stations.

You could look at this and wonder, is this really somewhere to come and explore the mountains?  The answer is an emphatic yes. It doesn’t matter if the majority don’t fancy treading the mountain trails – you can adventure without crowds and enjoy the peacefulness of the alpine pastures.  It doesn’t matter if camping isn’t the most popular choice here – you can enjoy great campsites, in stunning locations, without steep prices and often without having to book ahead.  There’s an awful lot of reasons to give this region a chance.

Exploring Staubbach falls, a spectacular waterfall in Lauterbrunnen, Switzerland

For me, exploring the walking trails of this alpine region were the highlight of our trip.  And to be fair, one of the main reasons for coming here in the first place.  Nothing makes this spectacular landscape feel more alive than the crunch of stone underfoot, the heady scent of pollen from pasture flowers, the gentle lolling sound of bells around grazing cow’s necks and the feel of sun on your back.  Travelling slowly on foot gives you a chance to take it all in, spot the details and soak up the grandeur of it all – from the granite coloured peaks to the tiny alpine flowers peppering the meadows.

You can read my itinerary for a perfect 7 days in the Bernese Oberland here, but today I’d like to share my four favourite walks from our trip – and share the much-underrated side to this popular part of Switzerland.

A note on walking

This post tells the story of some our hikes – but isn’t intended as a guide or map to help you reach these locations.  If you’re planning on walking in this area, seek advice from the helpful folk at Interlaken Tourism who can point you in the direction of recognised routes.  You’ll also find many well-signposted paths with distances estimated in hours rather than kilometres that will help you plan your own adventures.  We’re experienced road and trail runners who were tackling challenging paths in good weather, it might not be possible to replicate these routes on your visit.

Hiking trails in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

1: Schynige Platte from Interlaken

There are dozens of routes that can be tackled from Interlaken, but this one is special thanks to the panoramic views over some of the iconic peaks and villages of the Bernese Oberland. At 2,076m, the climb to the top is not to be underestimated but is well worth it for the views over the Eiger, Monch and Jungfraujoch, and the valleys below.

From Interlaken we took a relatively gentle walk to Wilderswil, a small village 2km out from the town at the foot of the mountain. It’s a surprisingly pretty little village with considerably more charm than Interlaken itself, and an old centre dotted with ornamental chalets and a fantastic covered bridge. Wilderswil is worth a visit in it’s own right, but if you’re planning to tackle the mountain, it’s best to get started in plenty of time.

Wilderswil near Interlaken in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

A small path leads up into woodland from behind the church, and very quickly begins to steepen. At first, it weaves in and out of lush woodland and lowland pasture grazed by goats, ponies and the odd llama. Soon enough, you leave the meadows behind and the real climb begins under the cool dark trees. The woodland is ancient and impressive, but nothing compared to what you’ll find further up beyond the treeline. Occasionally, the mountain railway will cross your path as you head steadily up.

When we tackled this route the day began wet and overcast, but after an hour or two of climbing, as the trail headed upwards at a considerable rate, the sun began to break through the trees and cast dappled light across our path. We could tell that the forest was thinning, and before long the path ahead rose out of the tree line and into high alpine meadow.

While not an accurate half-way mark, the journey up is broken by the delightful discovery of the small railway station at Breitlauenen. The station is nestled between a dairy farm and a smattering of chalets, high in a meadow. It’s the most wonderfully idyllic spot, with breathtaking views down over both lakes Brienz and Thun, and the gentle low-pitched ring of cow bells from cattle grazing all around. The station master spends much of her time chasing chickens and sleepy cats from the line whenever a bell rings and a distant rumble warns of an impending train.

View over Interlaken and Lake Thun on a hike to Schynige Platte in the Bernese Oberland

From here, the climbing is less steep but you pass in turn through woodland, meadow and along rocky paths that increasingly test your courage as you encounter a few vertiginous drops to the side of the path. You move more slowly, but the views more than make up for it. All of a sudden you round a corner and find yourself at the station and the summit. You’re now looking down on the Grindelwald valley and the mighty Eiger at it’s head.  It’s a nice spot to stop at and simply take it all in. There are alpine gardens to meander around near the station and a cafe if you’re in need of something cold and refreshing.

It is possible to complete the climb and make it back down within a day, but for us an impending storm was closing in. The scurrying clouds and dark skies looked incredibly dramatic from this mountaintop viewpoint, but we needed to take the safe option this high up, so descended quickly to Breitlauenen just as rain started to fall, and sheltered in the wonderful quaint waiting room of the station until a train came along to take us back down to valley floor.

2: Lauterbrunnen, Stechelberg, Gimmelwald and Mürren – a circular walk

This walk is a good way to get a feel for the magical valley of Lauterbrunnen.

Starting just outside Lauterbrunnen, we steadily meandered our way along the flat valley floor and through lush green fields in the direction of Stechelberg, at the head of valley. A quieter access road runs parallel to the main road (that mostly serves the Trummelbach Falls and gondola lift at Stechelberg), and you’ll find it largely empty aside from a few other walkers and the odd farmer. This alone is a beautiful walk, with some of the highest and most spectacular waterfalls in the whole valley as you approach to the small hamlet at Stechelberg. Between the crescendo of falling water and the roar of the river there’s quite a dramatic atmosphere.

Hiking in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

Once in Stechelberg you have the choice of taking the gondola (cable car) up the mountain (services run throughout the year) or taking the old path up through the forest. We opted for the latter and began to scramble up the winding rocky path alongside a crashing waterfall. The path widens out after a short but steep climb and heads steadily uphill. After a couple of kilometres, the path emerges from the trees and chalet roofs start to pop up through the pasture. You’ve reached the edge of Gimmelwald (where you can also jump out at the mid-station of the gondola).

Waterfalls in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

Gimmelwald is one of the most unspoilt alpine villages in the Bernese Oberland, in part because it’s one of the least accessible – it’s car-free, and mostly little farms and a cheery hostel. The village is perched on the edge of a hanging valley facing the imposing Breithorn mountain – which can be seen the length and breadth of the Lauterbrunnen valley. It’s a peaceful spot, with just other hikers and few goats for company.

Many of the farmhouses here sell produce from their front doors, so we indulged in fresh milk and the local Alpkäse cheese – thick and creamy and delicious beyond belief after our climb.

From Gimmelwald a paved road leads gently uphill without much of a view to hint at what’s beyond. What lies ahead is the picturesque and affluent ski resort of Mürren – a paradise of immaculately-presented Swiss chalets with balconies laden with cherry-red geraniums in August, cosy restaurants peddling hearty cuisine and jaw-dropping views across to Wengen (on the opposite side of the valley). We stopped and spent a little time exploring, and enjoying the welcoming atmosphere and an Alpkäse sandwich or two.

The pretty village of Gimmelwald, high up in the Lauterbrunnen valley, Switzerland

You can return back down to the valley by mountain train or on foot from Mürren. The little train brings visitors and their luggage up the mountain from the main station in Lauterbrunnen and takes a scenic route winding through woodland. We took the forest road down on foot – a considerably longer walk than our route up but the road was much gentler as it wove between pastures and dense forest. As you head back down into the village below, views open up towards Wengen, high on the opposite side of the valley and also towards the far end of lake Thun, glistening in the distance.

The last part of the descent back down into Lauterbrunnen is steeper, but the sound of cow bells and the spire of the village church in the distance guides you into town. Put your feet up and enjoy a well-earned coffee and slice of cake at Airtime, a vibrant little cafe at the heart of this pretty but quiet village.

3: Kleine Scheidegg and Männlichen via Wengen

Truth be told, we weren’t blessed with good weather on our trip to the Bernese Oberland, in spite of it being summer. But the day that we tackled this route the sun finally came out, blazing all day long and leading, inevitably, to moderate sunburn and excessive photographing of alpine pasture.

I just can’t help myself sometimes.

This route was probably the one I enjoyed most during our week here, as it climbs out of the Lauterbrunnen valley and into the Grindelwald valley, tucked away behind high peaks. It brings you unbelievably close to the Jungfraujoch and Monch – craggy rock faces topped with snow fill the horizon whilst you stroll short-sleeved through warm, flower-filled meadows.

Looking down the Lauterbrunnen valley near Interlaken in Switzerland as the morning sun comes up

As with the previous routes, there’s the option to take the mountain railway almost all the way to the top here, with stations at Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg, so you can adapt the route to suit your fitness and enthusiasm.

Starting in Lauterbrunnen, we tackled the first path of the day, steeply, up through the trees to Wengen. It’s not a long walk but it was one of the most strenuous. Eventually you’ll be rewarded by the arrival of Wengen on the horizon, with it’s panoramic views and cheerful atmosphere. Like Mürren, Wengen is a ski resort with a long heritage. It hosts one of the most prestigious events in the World Cup series, and has a younger and more vibrant feel than it’s neighbour on the other side of the valley. You’ll find more chocolate-box chalets and grazing cattle here, but also a lively main street with cafes, bars and shops.

After you’ve explored Wengen, it’s time to head higher for the serious views. A forest road takes you up and away from the resort centre, heading towards Kleine Scheidegg at the col which sits between the Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald valleys. The climbing isn’t too hard here, and before you realise it you’ve risen out of the trees and are facing towards the snow-capped Jungfraujoch in all it’s glory. Kleine Scheidegg is a couple of kilometres from Wengen, sitting atop a little lake with a railway station and cluster of hotels and restaurants. It’s a real little community and meeting point for hikers coming up from both Wengen and Grindelwald, and well as tourists exploring on their return from the Jungfraujoch.

Alpine cattle at Mannlichen, above the resort of Wengen in Switzerland

But if you stop here and head home, you’ll have missed the chance to experience one more stunning views over the valleys – from Männlichen. A winding but largely flat path heads from the station in the direction of this peak that sits directly above Wengen. From here you can see not only see where you’ve come up from in Wengen and the valley, but also look down over lake Thun. The Männlichen gondola makes for an exciting descent back into town after a long day on your feet.

4: Grindelwald to First and Bachalpsee

The last hike of our trip to the Bernese Oberland was from the luscious Grindelwald valley up to First. It gives you a chance to view the magnificent Eiger and it’s glaciers as you climb higher, and there are hidden treats in the form of high alpine lakes and glaciated landscapes to capture your imagination.

Walking from Grindelwald to First allows you to discover fantastic views of the majestic Eiger

A trail rises up from centre of town at first on quiet road, and then on path and forest road, roughly following the route the gondola takes to First. The gondola crosses over the path high above your heads in places, whilst you weave between pasture and deep green woodland. About midway, you reach the little hamlet of Bort, where the path suddenly widens and emerges into a bowl with a deep blue lake crowned by a couple of mountain restaurants. You’re edging closer to the Eiger here, and the trail breaks out of the trees for the remainder of the route.

The last part of the climb is hard work with tired legs, as ours were after a week of hiking. But the views were breathtaking, and stone water troughs spouting little cascades of cold, fresh spring water meant that we could refill our bottles in an attempt to keep cool. As you approach the summit the mountainside gently rolls away to your right, with curious shapes and hummocks in the landscape a legacy of glaciers working their magic over thousands of years. This is the most peaceful part of the walk, as most visitors choose to take the gondola all the way to the top from Grindelwald.

Mountain goats at Grindelwald-First in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland

Reaching the peak at First in itself is impressive – views open up across the whole of the Grindelwald valley with the Eiger to your left, Kleine Scheidegg with the pass over to Wengen and the Lauterbrunnen valley ahead, and Schynige Platte to your right. Into the bargain, you’ll find a skywalk to explore, letting you circle the cliff faces below the lift station with nothing but glass under your feet. But the real reason for coming is to see Bachalpsee, a gentle walk of a couple of kilometres from the summit.

I could describe how beautiful Bachalpsee is, the peaks all around are reflected in deep turquoise waters, but I think the pictures go someway to doing it justice.

Bachalpsee, high up in the mountains of the Bernese Oberland at Grindelwald-First

Whilst most walkers choose to head back to the lift station at First from here, or onwards to Schynige Platte, we chose to take a combination of footpath and forest road back down into Grindelwald. The path down from Bachalpsee to meet the forest road was one of the most glorious areas of pasture I’ve ever explored. Little streams trickle down from the lake, babbling amongst the stone and meadow flowers, whilst cattle and goats graze quietly, obvious to the majesty of their home. Once you hit the forest road it’s a steady, easy to follow route that soon plunges back down into woodland and dense forest in places. It eventually brings you out just above the centre of Grindelwald, where you can meander back into town.

We were exhausted.  After a week of walking almost all day, every day, we felt we’d packed in as much as we absolutely could.  But there’s still room for more – a week felt more like an appetiser for the region.  It might not be any time soon but I’ve no doubt we’ll be back, ready to spread our wings a little wider and discover some more peaks.

P.S. Don’t forget that you can find out more about what we got up to on our alpine adventure in The perfect 7 days in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland.

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With huge thanks to my ever-patient other half for his photographs featuring yours truely.

4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland | Travel guide | Girl with a saddle bag blog

4 breathtaking walks in the Bernese Oberland, Switzerland