When the words the French Alps are echoed, conjured images of partying European aristocrats, Moncler puffer jackets and ritzy 4-star chalets may twinkle in the mind’s eye. While there certainly is a scene for the upper echelon holidaying in the Savoie Mont Blanc region of France, there is also the equivalent humble lifestyle of the Annecy mountains - ones where artisanal masters still craft their ancestral art, cowbells ring like a melodic chime among the cattle, and cosy cabins serve the heartiest French food.
Places like Le Grand-Bornand and La Clusaz, both nestled in the same region - are such multi-faceted towns. For those intrepid travellers who are curious about this other face of the mountains, look no further than the shoulder seasons. Whether it’s when the snow has melted and before the wave of summer, or during the snug season of autumn - it’s during these months of comfort when the big crowds are temporarily gone, the locals take back to their streets, and you can authentically experience the French Alps like a true local. Curious? Follow me on Instagram and YouTube for more adventures!
1. Alps Music Festival
Every day for the last week of August, kicking into September’s Autumn is the annual Alps Music Festival in La Clusaz. This joyous celebration is a gathering of alpine traditions and music. You’ll see locals wearing traditional folk costumes from the alps, with different events each day hosted in and around La Clusaz, Le Grand-Bornand, as well as in Thônes in the heart of the valley.
There will be live singing and dancing while playing the traditional accordion and the alphorn - a long horn made out of natural wood played by Alpine herdsmen and villagers. People of all ages participate and come to watch. It’s a jovial atmosphere in a region which shares its authenticity and culture openly with each other and for anyone visiting.
2. Weekly artisanal markets
Amongst the many things, France does oh so well - no matter which big city or which small alpine village you’re in - are weekly markets. This is a “I rest my case” situation that when you go to a French market, you will be spoiled with delightful flavours and regional specialities. That’s why a market in Bourdeaux cannot be compared to a market in Normandy - nor does one in the Savoie Mont Blanc. On Mondays, La Clusaz host their traditional market from 8:00 to 12:00. While Le Grand-Bornand hosts theirs on Wednesday from 8:00 to 12:30. Both are in front of the main village’s churches.
If you’ve been to a French market before, you can’t miss out on the weekly traditional markets in La Clusaz and Le Grand-Bornand. And if you haven’t been to a French market - then you’re in for a treat. The ones hosted in these two French ski resort villages is a year-round feast. We’re talking about the best local Reblochon cheese made from alpine cattle, Aravis liqueur, Savoy sausages and delicatessens that are smoked and cured right here in the alps. Oh and don’t get me started on the artisanal honey! Let me just say, mountain bees know a thing or two about proper pollination to make delicious honey. Nearby Thônes in the heart of the valley also has a bustling Saturday street market worth checking out.
3. Traditional hearty mountain bites in an alpine chalet
Atmospheric with every wooden table filled to the brim with in-the-know locals… Lunch at La Cheminée is an experience for any traveller to peek into what life is like in the mountains. A local restaurant in a traditional chalet, its interior is adorned with rustic relics like a boar’s head hung on a crest, an old fireplace in the middle of the dining room, and that iconic red and white checkered print that tells you that you’re in the mountains.
Make a reservation ahead of time if you want to get the best seat in the house - which is the back room where you have two windows that gives a full clear view of the alps. Their dishes are super affordable - and that’s why the locals love it. At La Cheminée, you can get a full omelette for 6 euros and a three full set course for 21 euros. Also, they serve up no-nonsense honest French cooking - from gooey cheese omelets, to gigantic bowls of salads topped with bacon and local cheese. I got the classic and crispy French beignets and tariflette served with a side of saucission du pays. Let's just say that’s enough for lunch and dinner - even though it’s for the price of one meal anywhere else. The kicker? The blueberry pastry tart is filled with fresh blueberries licked from the nearby alps - literally a few metres away. It doesn’t get more local than this!
4. Visit the alpine pastures in Le Grand-Bornand
Getting out of the villages and civilization is a big part of why anyone shares such a huge love for this region of France. It doesn’t take long or far either to reconnect to a slower pace of life, a life where cowbells chime on the lush sprawling fields, where hard-working shepherds and milkboys help graze cattle. It’s a different way to reconnect to a way of life that has been here long before technology and our hyper-connective world today. Perhaps that’s why a visit to the alpine pastures around Le Grand-Bornand feels so grounded and humbling.
The natural area is filled with local culture and identity - and the locals who live here hold onto them proudly and strongly. They have been livestock farmers for over millennials and today, that way of life is still well-preserved. From Le Grand-Bornand town, it’s an easy mountainous drive up to Chemin de la Grande Montagne to experience this pastoral and peaceful outdoors.
5. Trekking Col des Annes
Hiking is a huge part of life for the locals in and around this area. The thing is, if you’re not from here it may sound like hiking is a feat. Or any form of trekking. But with plenty of trails and viewpoints, it’s easy to just strap on your boots and take a walk in any direction in the early mornings or after lunch. In Savoie Mont Blanc, you can weave hiking into your regular life that easy - do it before work, during lunch, or after work. This is a great autumn alternative to winter’s skiing - both activities the locals love to do during an extended lunch hour to enjoy more daylight.
From Le Grand-Bornand, Col des Annes is an area with a trail that starts at 1720 metres in altitude, leading you up to the craggy silhouette of the French alps. It’s a stunner of an autumn-time walk. You’ll see the deep red lands where blueberries had been plucked from, the orange branches hanging with yellow leaves. On this trek, no matter where you turn - you’ll be embraced like a giant hug from the alps, surrounding you on all corners.
6. Explore the old world and way of life at La Maison Du Patrimoine
Life now in the alps is relatively easy - with the help of modern inventions and technology. But back in the 1900s - during the winter with everything being manual labour - dealing with the hay and fields is no task for the weak. The residents of the alps back then were also sleeping in shared stables with their cattle! It was a difficult life - one that prioritized working hard with your hands and surviving.
In Le Grand-Bornand at La Maison Du Patrimoine, you can be teleported back to this still frame of the alps. As an open heritage museum, the walls and rooms of a traditional working alpine hut are open for you to explore. You can really see into the life of some of these farms, the main room with the main cooker and next to them space for cows - which was their natural heating back in those winters! And above, a huge second floor that wasn’t made for bedrooms but just for hay to feed the cow. It was a very basic life and at La Maison Du Patrimoine, it’s a really cool experience to walk in the same space that lived it.
7. Authentic Génépi tasting at Distillerie des Arvais
Have you ever heard of Génépi liqueur? Native to the French alps, Génépi is a herb from the sage family that’s similar to chamomile with a soft olive colour. When turned into a liqueur, Génépi makes for a great digestif or just for those who like to drink the aromatic plant. In La Clusaz, brother and sister duo Sarah and Romain who descends from a line of distillers own and operate Distillerie des Arvais specializing in Génépi liqueur.
The Génépi liqueur made at this distillery is an ancestral art form - using a traditional method that goes all the way back to 1876. You can do a tour of their space and have a tasting at Distillerie des Arvais, led by Sarah herself! It’s a remarkable experience to see the passion for a highly localized and sustainable product being created and enjoyed by the Savoie Mont Blanc community and beyond. The Génépi liqueur here comes in different flavours and alcoholic percentages, and I highly recommend the vanilla-infused Génépi for a harmonic and tantalizing drink.
8. Street art dedicated to cows in Le Grand-Bornand
Yep, you read that right! All around Le Grand-Bornand are murals and artworks sprayed and painted in different creveases of the village of… cows. There are dancing cows, cows wearing sunglasses, cows standing on two legs, cows dressed up, and cows celebrating. Cattles are like royalty here - and their image adorns Le Grand-Bornand.
Taking a stroll around the dashing alpine village with its many beautiful chalets is already a visually pleasing activity, but why not keep an eye out for the cow artworks all around Le Grand-Bornand? They’re up all year round, made by different artists. If you want to hit them all up - and find the metal and wooden cow sculptures - go to the information visitor centre for a map of your own self-guided cow art walk. I mean, where else but the French alps for such a kitschy unique activity?
9. Life at Lac des Confins
Nearby La Clusaz is Confins Lake, locally known as Lac des Confins - a much-loved local spot where, no matter what season it is, you can stroll around its outer shores and enjoy the serene spot. If you want more of a thrill, you can zip-line across the lake during the weekends - there’s an actual zipline hung over the water! Or, in the winter, there’s an event where people come down the mountains right above the lake and try to ski right across it with their winter skis. There’s a competitive spirit to see who can cross the lake with their skis all the way from the top of the mountain. The lake doesn’t freeze over in the winter to make this possible!
After exploring the lake, head to Chalet du Lac for authentic Savoyard cuisine - go for lunch or dinner to taste really honest kitchen cooking. The restaurant has a stunning terrace overlooking the lake, hosted in a traditional well-preserved chalet. The chalet is built low in the ground because historically that’s easier to heat the chalet and keep it warm with timber - so it’s a cool experience to be able to have a meal in a working historical place! The stand-out dish? The fish at the restaurant is served uniquely with nettles found in the mountains. So while nettles aren’t nice for the human skin - you definitely don’t want to touch it or fall in it - the sauce the restaurant makes out of foraging it is lovely with the fish.
10. Luxuriate in the Deep Nature Spa
When the weather gets chilly and that evening crisp settles in, the best way to warm up and unwind is to head to the Deep Nature Spa in La Clusaz. The modern and high-end facilities are located in the Hôtel Prestige Odalys Le Chamois, spread over two floors. The first floor is for treatments like massages as well as a nordic-inspired chill room. This is where you can simply sit with the complimentary infused tea and relax with a magazine, overlooking an opening to the downstairs spa. This leads us to the piece-de-resistance, the Deep Nature Spa pools, saunas and hammam itself.
My favourite was the hammam - it was a rejuvenating experience that tingled my skin with alpine herbs as I sat in the relaxing calm heated room. And the gigantic pool that’s composed of 8 different themes? Impeccable. From hydromassage jets, swan-neck fountains, water blades that soften your shoulder and back, to a counter-current walking corridor, and air and water longers to massage the arch of the foot.. Let's just say whether it was a long day skiing or hiking, your body and mind will feel renewed and refreshed.
You can book a time slot in the morning from 10.00 to 12.00 for 26€ or in the afternoon from 14.00 to 20.00 for 32€.
11. An interactive ski history and cheese museum
By now you know that the French alps hold its own traditions, heritage and folklore compared to other places in the country. It’s incomparable to the cafes of Paris or the hillsides of Provence because spots like the majestic Lake Annecy and the nearby Thônes in the heart of the alpine valley are so drastically different (physically and culturally).
In La Clusaz, perfect for children and families to learn about the magic of the French alps, is Le Hameau des Alpes. Hosted on a traditional wooden farm, there are different animated rooms and interactive displays that teach you about the world of Savoie Mont Blanc. In the main building, you can learn about Reblochon, while on the second floor is a dedicated showcase to the history of skiing in France. What I love about this is the live display of vintage skii teleportations that you can sit in for yourself! Le Hameau des Alpes also has other traditional spaces like a farm loft, a sawmill, and a homespun oven to explore like an open-air museum.
12. Cheesy Reblochon and fondue at La Ferme
With views that can’t be paralleled, the terrace of La Ferme makes for a stunning dining location. That’s because it overlooks the town of La Clusaz, as the cosy wood-shack farmhouse is built perching on the side of the mountainous slopes. La Ferme is also a contemporary luxury boutique hotel, with rooms that offer the same panoramic views and an adorable little wood tube for a sauna. But the restaurant you can dine in whether you’re a hotel guest or just in the neighbourhood.
And boy, what a delight of an alpine culinary experience it is at La Ferme’s restaurant. First, you can have your local Reblochon two ways - one served as a half block of cheese, on display so you can scoop out the melting inside onto your plate. Or, with an antique coal grill, where you put in a mini cast-iron skillet that holds your Reblochon and the top coals simmer and braise it for you to carve it onto your selected potatoes and charcuteries with a wooden spoon. Let me tell you - both are quite a show, and both are beyond tasty. Then there’s the classic fondue - but fondue at La Ferme is like I’ve never tasted before. That’s because in the pot, they melt Reblochon in addition to two other cheeses to create a flavour that is simply out of this world. Whichever alpine cheese experience you go for - your trip wouldn’t be complete without it.
13. Visit a Master saddler and cowbells workshop
Learn more about the praised cattle culture of the French alps (I mean, the cow art all around Le Grand-Bornand already immortalizes cows right?) by visiting one of the last leather artisanal and bell makers left in Le Grand-Bornand. It’s quite a title that’s well crowned at Chez Le Bourrelier by none other than Mr. Didier Perrillat-Monet. The man himself still works with techniques that have been long passed down for generations in making leather and cowbells.
He says cowbells can be gifts for when there’s a birth of a baby or wedding! Popular accessories to the cattle of the alps, farmers know which bell belongs to which cow even. This is because each cowbell comes with its own unique ring. When they buy the bells, they can choose a different sound for each bell so that the cattle will make a harmonic melody when they’re all grazing together. In Chez Le Bourrelier, you can see this magical process come to life!
14. Rock climbing the surrounding mountains
When you live in the mountains, the mountains are life… And the geographic location impacts your passion, interests, and simply all aspects of living. This includes your free time of course. Locals love to go rock climbing - why go to an indoor place when you have a whole side of the alps just a stone’s throw away? Whether you’re an expert or a curious beginner, have your hand at the alps - the location in La Clusaz is so jaw-droppingly stunning that you should gear up for it.
You can go with a guide with Compagnie des Guides Arvais - and they’ll help you map out which route is best for you, as well as provide the equipment you need for rock climbing. You can also do mountaineering and canyoning with them in different parts of the nearby French alps. In the wintertime, snowshoe hiking and glacier hiking are also possible. The activities to get your heart pumping out in nature are endless when you’re in this region.
If you’re more curious about other nontouristy things to do in the French Alps…
Discover more authentic things to do in the Savoie Mont Blanc region of France with our round-up activities in and around Thônes as well as recommendations on how to spend 48 hours in Annecy here.
And if you’re a food lover - you can also explore our gastronomic itinerary in and around Annecy here.
The Savoie Mont Blanc region is huge - one where you can explore year-round, so come and adventure it for yourself!