Nestled between the remarkable geographical beauty that is Lake Annecy and the French Alps of the Aravis massif, Thônes and its 7 villages is a hidden gem in plain sight.
Like a secret remedy to Annecy’s bustling scene, Thônes is a place where you can base yourself to truly escape into the mountains and discover authentic French experiences. Even though this historical and postcard-like commune is only a 20-minute drive from Annecy, not many have uncovered the beauty of Thônes. Autumn here is then left unspoiled and fleetingly rare, especially for such an illustrious region of France.
Nevertheless, Thônes and its surrounding 7 villages are full of life during the shoulder seasons. Sure, winter is prime for winter sports and summertime makes for a great holiday - but if you want to experience a slice of the Savoie Mont Blanc grandeur with what feels like having all the space to yourself, and amongst true locals, autumn is the perfect season. In this round-up, these 16 non-touristy things for you to experience aren’t only immersive, but a proper bite into what life is like in Thônes and the French Alps.
1. Explore the historical architecture and streets of Thônes
Anchoring the main street of Thônes is Église Saint-Maurice, which is like the heartbeat of the town. The 15th-century Catholic church is already an architectural jewel on the outside - with its gothic touches like the window and bell tower that still chimes to this day. But given any day of the week, you can push open its large wooden doors and explore the inside. Walking down its nave, the church surprises you with baroque details and frescoes of the choir that familiarly resembles Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper.
Pass. du Vieux Pont is a lovely stone bridge that will remind you of a bygone era - one that sometimes walking around Thônes, you’ll still feel is very much alive. Le Nom, the glacial alpine river, runs underneath it, connecting it to the bigger Fier river.
When the sun comes out over the mountains, the golden light makes the pastel-colour buildings of Thônes look like a glistening charm bracelet. Pops of light green, peach, and lavender adorns the building surrounding the apricot colour Mairie - which is the city hall.
A picturesque street to stroll down is Rue des Clefs, where you'll see timber window sills among the storied buildings. Keep an eye out for a little stone archway by Bar Le Central which makes for a cool passageway within Thônes.
2. See foliage at its finest
During autumn, one street in Thônes always ‘blooms’ first. It’s a special sighting each year for the locals as it is for any traveller who gets to be in this valley during a cosy season.
Head to Rue Louise Haase for rows after rows of tall planted trees. These are Freeman maple trees, which are common in North America but planted uniquely along this street in Thônes. Even in mid-September, these Freeman maple trees that look out into the mountains are bursting with red, orange and crimson, lighting up the street with their autumnal flair.
This is my favourite spot in the whole town since there’s such a quaint beauty to something as simple as seeing the changing of the season in an urban atmosphere. The leaves themselves are giant like the size of your palm, and whether you’re biking or walking along them - it truly feels like a real-life movie set.
3. Making your own soap …with herbs foraged from the alps
Life in the French alps prides itself on living sustainably and locally. And that even comes down to the soap that you use! For some people, soap may just be a means to just get squeaky clean but for some in Savoie Mont Blanc, they know the true appreciation in the joy of self-care with personable soap. A fun activity that you can do either solo, as a couple or in a group is a masterclass lesson in soap making. In Alex, a nearby village just right outside of Thônes, is Cimes & Racines, where Laetitia Hespel, trained at the French Institute for Herbalism, teaches you step by step how to make your own soap.
I got the pleasure to spend an afternoon participating in this ancestral art at Cimes & Racines. In Laetitia’s workshop, I got to use the hand-picked homegrown organic flowers that she grows (just right behind the studio on the side of the mountains!) as well as wild plants that she forages in our soap. Like a chemist or a baker, I donned an apron and safety gloves, and whisked a concoction with specific measured-out ingredients. There are over 30 different flowers, plants, and herbs that you can mix and choose to decorate and craft your goods. At the end of the workshop, you get to bring home your homemade soap with instructions on how to use it!
It was such a joyful experience and a unique way to connect with the mountains and local arts. Plus, with Christmas in a few months - my soap will make for a personable yet luxurious gift for my friends.
4. An authentic Saturday street market
Come every Saturday from 8am to 1pm, a vibrant scene of stalls, vendors and tents stretches up and down the cobblestone streets of Thônes. One thing to keep in mind about Thônes is that this commune is in the heart of the valley - so traders and farmers from all corners of the nearby lake and mountains congregate here each weekend.
And boy, do they bring the utmost high-quality selection of their produce. We’re talking about the finest cheeses crafted from the nearby alpine pastures, honey that has been collected from bees buzzing in the alps, delicious charcuterie of various types of meat, hand-knit clothing and family-made accessories. It’s a joyful and warm way to start the weekend, as the locals of the valley do - head on down to the Saturday market.
I’m a sucker for good, drooping honey. And just beside the town library, La Miellerie is a stall that’s dedicated to the golden nectar. There’s actually quite a variety - some honey made from the ethereal scent of lavender, others from unique plants like acacia and fir.
5. Embark on a biking adventure
L’fier is a river that runs through Thônes and weaves its way through forests. Running just beside it is a smooth, well-made trail that makes cycling through the valley’s nature super fun. A bonus, the trails are really flat (especially for being in the French Alps) so it’s easy for any age to leisurely peddle their way.
If you’re wondering where you can get bikes, head to Sports Affaires Montagne, a shop that also doubles as a sporting goods store. Here, you can rent any type of bike you have in mind - from a mountain bike, to regular, to electric bikes for your adventure. The staff are really welcoming and are helpful with any questions you may have about which trails you want to explore!
6. Taste fresh alpine milk… From a milk vending machine
Yep, you heard that right. For those of us who don’t live in the French alps, we may be more used to vending machines that stock goodies like chips, fizzy drinks, and sugary candies. But for the locals of Thônes and those in and around its 7 villages, fresh healthy milk from a vending machine is just a daily fixture.
This milk is even better than getting it from a grocery store - since there are plenty more probiotics that are good for your gut health. On Av. d’Annecy, just at the entrance of Thônes, is a little alpine stall with a wooden makeshift sign that says “Lait fraise de montagne” which means Fresh milk from the mountains. There, you can get fresh milk 24/7 from the vending machine.
No cup or bottle in sight? That’s alright, you can get one for 40 cents. Then fill the whole litre up for only €1.80. The machine doesn’t take any cards, so be sure to bring extra change! For a city boy like me, the whole experience was enchanting - and the milk itself? A yummy balance between being naturally sweet, and ever so creamy.
7. Try Reblochon - the tastiest cheese in the French Alps
For a country that is known for its cheeses, one of the tastiest cheeses in France is hailed from right here in the Savoie Mont Blanc region. I’m talking about none other than the Reblochon de Savoie. Commonly referred to as Reblochon, it’s a heavenly soft cheese that’s made out of raw milk from cows that have grazed the surrounding alpine pastures. Reblochon is made to be smeared, and melted - eaten by itself or as an alternative to raclette. Biting into it is nutty, the well-aged process of Reblochon blessing it with savoury softness.
The best place in town to get Reblochon? It’s no coincidence that it’s right beside the 24/7 fresh alpine milk vending machine. At the start of town, the wooden chalet of Coopérative de Thônes - le farto is the de facto place to get it. This store is known for its fair prices and superb quality as well as quantity of produce, as well as alpine cosy wooden interiors. They also stock a wide variety of regional produce from the Aravis massif and Savoie Mont Blanc to accompany your cheese - like sausages, wine, and more dairy products. Take a browse around, from the open window you can take a peek at the cheese-making process and see how characteristic Coopérative de Thônes - le farto just is.
8. Celebrate the traditional Saint-Maurice Fair
Every last Saturday of September, for over 7 centuries, is the traditional Saint-Maurice Fair which is also known locally as the la traditionnelle Foire Saint-Maurice. If you’re in Thônes and the valley - you cannot miss out on this celebration of heritage with an alpine pomp and circumstance.
This is where major players of the agricultural industry bring their proudest livestock to be put on display for various activities. We’re talking decorated cows with huge leather bands donning personal cowbells, mountain goats and sheep being paraded in and around the city hall of Thônes. It’s truly a sight to behold. There’s a competition for the best breed of cows, cheesemaking showcases, and of course - artisanal honey and local Reblochon cheese competitions. During the traditional Saint-Maurice Fair, there’s also a carnival and outdoor flea market, making this time of the year utterly boisterous.
9. Paraglide over the fall colours
Nearby (between Lake Annecy and the mountains) is Col de la Forclaz, the most famous launching site for paragliding in France. Even if the temperature gets chillier, if it’s clear skies - it’s the perfect time to try out this thrilling sport high above the alps.
While it’s popular year-round in the right wind and weather conditions, paragliding during autumn is even more of a treat. You’ll get your usual surreal views of the rugged terrains and snow-capped mountain tops, but between late September and early November, the full colours of the forest go through a firework-like metamorphosis. An explosion of gold, yellow, and oranges light up the leaves, and a wide foliage show is on display. While it’s always beautiful on the ground - seeing it as a bird while paragliding adds to the region’s beauty.
10. Go apple-picking and drink authentic alpine cider
Just 10 minutes by car from Thônes is Maison de la Pomme et du Biscantin in Serraval. This is where you can uncover the speciality in what sets a mountain apple apart from a regular apple (hint: it’s the local bees and their magic during pollination). It’s essentially a museum that’s a love letter to the ancestral activity of apple production in Serrval. This is also where, pending the time of the season that year, you can go apple picking in the orchards.
Inside Maison de la Pomme et du Biscantin is a cosy wooden alpine interior - complete with a mounted deer head and traditional equipment for apple production. Here, you can also try biscantin, which is an alcoholic drink made from mountain apples. It’s similar to cider but still, you can’t compare without trying it. Biscantin is typical for the Savoie Mont Blanc region and a bottle here only costs about €5 - grab one to go for your next fondue!
11. Indulge in fondue with local biscantin
If you’ve never had fondue - the classic gooey, melted cheese dish served in a communal pot where one can dip different charcuterie, potatoes, and veggies in - oh boy, are you ever in the right region to do it. And if you have had fondue before - make sure you enjoy one with the special reblochon cheese of this Savoie Mont Blanc region.
To pair with this hearty meal, traditionally most people like white wine with fondue. But since it’s autumn and you’re in the valley with Thônes - switch out that white wine for the ever earthy and crisp Biscantin. Made from the mountain apples of the region, the fruits are then pressed and fermented to create the unique french alpine alcohol. It’s like cider… but not quite! Though it’s the perfect autumnal pairing with fondue, and actually cuts through the heavy cheeses way easier than wine.
12. Family fun at Ecomusée du Bois et de la Forêt
For all ages, go on a timewarp back to the days of the mountains when life depended on sawmills and working as a carpenter in the valley. Ecomusée du Bois et de la Forêt is an open-air museum that adapts its activities for all of its visitors, adults and children, to learn about sustainability in the alps. From themed walks and outings that revolve around environmental awareness, to workshops on eco-activities in the forest, a visit to this ecomuseum is beyond lively.
You’ll get the chance to explore inside a 19th-century hydraulic sawmill, with a live sawing demonstration too! You’ll also be shown a unique technique of wood skidding by cable, and see their woodworker's atelier. The guide here is truly passionate about the ongoing development projects to make a forest sustainable, and anyone would be in wonder of how he shows the demonstrations of the craftsmanship.
13. Hit up the hiking trails - especially the summit of La Tournette
Now if there’s one thing that this valley in and around Thônes isn’t lacking - it’s hiking trails. You are after all in Savoie Mont Blanc where the French alps spill out into the lakes and towns. One of the most beautiful hikes is up to La Tournette. Now imagine this, on the summit you’ll see the ever-expansive blue of Lake Annecy, all of the surrounding mountains of the French alps including the Italian and Swiss alps. How’s that for a jaw-dropper?
Hiking to the summit of La Tournette is a popular trail during the summertime, and can often be clogged with groups of people. But during autumn it’s like you have the passageway all to yourself. Enjoy the foliage along the way and see the normally lush green lands in an array of flaming warm colours. There are several departure points for this hike, but I recommend starting at the chalet de l'Aulp, above the Col de la Forclaz. It’ll take you on average 4 hours for the whole trip (there and back, no round loop), arriving to the summit at 2,351 metres. The views from up top? Needless to say, incroyable.
14. Go on a French gastronomic journey
In the centre of Thônes is Restuarant du Commerce, attached to Hôtel du Commerce - which is probably the biggest hidden gem for food lovers in the valley. Outside on the street, it’s nondescript. Inside, however, this is where you can sit for hours in the comfy alpine-like booths with wooden mountain interiors for dinner.
Indeed I had a multi-course dinner at Restaurant du Commerce that spanned almost 4 hours! But you know, for the French, food isn’t something to just fill the hunger. It’s a way of life. It’s intimacy, its love, its culture and art. And if you can take your time enjoying it, it’s an appreciation of the ingredients and the craftsmanship as well as the creativity of the chef.
The stand-out staple dishes here that I’d highly recommend to experience French cuisine are the delicate foie gras for starters, the gamey roasted duck for your main, and Blackberry tart for dessert. The blackberries are picked from the mountains and you can tell because they’re these tiny pearls rather than the mass-produced big ones we know in most grocery stores. Trust me, I’m still dreaming of those blueberries and the crumbly pastry tart it was built on to this day.
15. Relax at the calm Lake of Thuy
A half an hour walk from Thônes city centre is Lake of Thuy, commonly known to the locals as Lac de Thuy. This is a lake that sits right at the foot of the mountains, and - on some autumn days - the clouds can descend upon it, adding to its mystical Twilight-esque environment.
Some locals come here to stand on the wooden dock and fish, others come for a picnic (bringing their own Reblochon and biscantin of course). The emerald body of water makes for a great place to take a mini trek around, or just have a moment to yourself.
16. Sink your teeth into the delightful French pastry
Behind the city hall is Patissier Chocolatier Fontaine - a chic pastry shop that is a much-loved place amongst the residents of the valley. In its clear glass patisserie case, various artful pieces of French pastries are put on display to tempt your senses. They’re baked and made fresh each day - each one like jewels in a treasure chest, of pastel creams and gorgeously crafted chocolate.
The menu here changes to reflect the season - after all, even for pastries, the bakers pride themselves in local and seasonal ingredients. For this, Patissier Chocolatier Fontaine is recognized by the esteemed Gault & Millau restaurant guide for 6 years in a row. My absolute favourite? Go for the classic French éclair. This heavenly choux that’s been infused with vanilla beach cream topped with a coffee-flavour glaze was my version of a perfect breakfast (but you can have it any time of the day).
Where to Stay in Thônes
Right in the middle of Thônes, on the main street is Hôtel du Midi Thônes. It’s a lovely mid-range accommodation with a traditional alpine heritage design. If you’re like me, ask for a room that faces the town’s historic city hall. You’ll be able to open your suite’s window and peer out into landmark sites like Église Saint-Maurice, the baroque church and tower. Or if you prefer, there are rooms with mountain views. The hospitality at Hôtel du Midi Thônes is welcoming and if you’re having breakfast here - don’t you dare miss out on the honeycomb croissants.
If you have extra time in the French Alps…
Pair your trip in Thônes with our tailor locally made what to do in 48 hours in Annecy recommendations here. The Savoie Mont Blanc region has so much to offer and this is just the tip of it!