The commune of Chamonix situated in south-eastern France and north of Mont Blanc is a photographer’s delight. Surrounded by breathtaking mountains, it draws mountain climbers from all over to scale the beautiful rugged terrain, especially that of Mont Blanc. During the winter, the slopes around the area are buzzing with activity as skiers and snowboarders enjoy what the region has to offer. Chamonix has the distinction of being the venue for the first-ever Winter Olympics held in 1924. The quaint little alpine town is throbbing with life throughout the year as visitors constantly flock here to climb, hike or just enjoy the splendor of the surroundings. The town boasts of top-rated Michelin starred restaurants and some of the fanciest hotels in the French Alps.
The breathtakingly beautiful Mont Blanc, is the highest mountain in the Alps, rising to a height of 4,810 meters. It is also the highest in Europe west of the Caucusus peaks of Georgia and Russia. The summit was first conquered on 8 August 1786, by Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard, and has since attracted many climbing enthusiasts. The mountain is a popular destination for climbers with an average of 20,000 mountaineer-tourists annually. There are numerous options for those not interested in going all the way to the top with trails ranging in difficulty from easy walking to more rigorous climbs. Mont Blanc is shared by France and Italy as the border between the two countries passes through the summit of the mountain.
One of Chamonix’s most famous hiking trails leads to the gorgeous Lac Blanc set between rocks and surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. Set in the heart of the Aiguilles Rouges nature reserve, the panoramic view from the lake is astounding. The hike is not as difficult as most of the other treks but is still quite strenuous and a lot easier if you take the Flegere cable car and then start the ascent. Don’t be surprised if you spot some wild animals like the ibex, marmots, and deer along the way, or are so enraptured by your surroundings, you may not make it all the way to the lake. A small cafe near the lake provides refreshments but it’s always a good idea to carry some snacks of your own as the cafe is sometimes closed.
Aiguille du Midi
One of the most distinctive features of Chamonix is the Aiguille du Midi rising from the Mont Blanc massif to a height of 3,842m. This vantage point can be accessed by the ‘Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi’ and takes about 20 minutes from the center of Chamonix to the top. Predictably, the 360-degree panoramic views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps from this vantage point are stunning. During the summer between May and September, you can take the other cable which travels over the Glacier du Geant for another 50 minutes to reach Pointe Helbronner on the France-Italy border. Make sure to be warmly clad as the temperatures at the top are extremely low even in the summer.
Mer de Glace
The ‘Sea of Ice’ as this glacier is called is the largest glacier in France and ranked among the largest in Europe too. This 200m deep glacier is 7kms long and flows down the northern side of Mont Blanc, creating crevasses, seracs or pockets of water because of its weight. Visitors can reach the glacier via the Train du Montenvers which departs from Chamonix. The glacier can also be reached on foot with the help of an experienced guide; the trek uphill takes two hours from Chamonix. From the glacier, visitors can descend to the ice cave nearby via a cable car. It is then a climb down 430 steps to the manmade ice cave, the ‘Grotte de Glace,’ which provides visitors with an inside view of the glacier. Check out the ‘Gallery of Crystals’ which features a fine collection of crystal specimens in the Mont Blanc massif.
After all that mountain scenery, the village of Argentiere may appear a little too ‘tame’ but it’s still worth a visit. The picturesque village with its traditional architecture and baroque church, 8kms from Chamonix town sits in the Argentiere basin, adding to its charm. Surrounded by mountains, the village looks straight out of a fairy tale and is extremely popular with skiers, snowboarders, and hikers, especially in the winter. It is the starting point for the Telepherique du Lognan cable car up to Les Grands Montets. To the southeast of the village is the beautiful Argentiere Glacier, another glacier in the region which is shrinking at a steady pace.
The summit of the Le Brevent mountain is at 2,525 meters and offers some great hiking trails. The mid-station situated at 1,999 meters can be accessed by the Plan Praz gondola or on foot. From this point, you can take the Brevent cable car up to the summit to start your hike or just soak in the stunning views of the Mont Blanc massif. Many paragliders use the mid-station as a take-off point. During the summer the Vertical Kilometer race is held where runners race to the mid-station from Chamonix town center.
Brevent-Flegere Ski Resort
The biggest ski area in Chamonix with 56 kilometers of ski runs is the Brevent-Flegere Ski Resort. The two ski areas are connected by cable car which makes the wide terrain easier to access. Skiiers are transported to the slopes via 17 lifts which go up to elevations of 1,030m and 2,525 meters in the winter. The variety of slopes make this an ideal choice for skiers of all levels. The panoramic view of the Mont Blanc range adds to the charm of skiing down these powder snow slopes.
The Grands Montets which is situated at elevations between 1,235meters and 2,800 meters is a popular skiing destination in the winter right up until May. The pistes (ski runs) are spread over three slopes – the Lognan, the Pendant and the Argentiere glacier, and are hailed as some of the best off-piste terrains in the Alps. During the summer visitors to the area can enjoy some spectacular nature walks with viewpoints of icy pinnacles.
The Alpine Museum is housed in the Chamonix Palace in the center of the town. The museum provides visitors with a deeper insight into Chamonix’s past and mountain history. Through an excellent array of prints and photographs, visitors are provided with a glimpse of the development of the town between the 18th and 20th centuries. Besides the permanent collection that the museum has, it also hosts temporary exhibitions throughout the year.
Cold de Balme
The Col de Balme pass is located on the border between France and Switzerland, at an elevation of 2,195 meters. The area is especially beautiful in summer when colorful wildflowers cover the green pastures. Gentle hiking trails through this breathtaking landscape make this a popular choice for families. For those driven by adventure and challenges, there are a few difficult trails too.
Tramway to Mont Blanc
Tramway du Mont-Blanc (TMB) is the highest mountain railways line in France and the fourth highest in Europe. For those not energetic enough to scale the high peaks, or go hiking in the area, one of the best ways to experience the beauty of the surroundings is by taking the tram. The tramway leaves from Saint-Gervais or Le Fayet and has two stops; Bellevue at 1,900 meters and Nid d’Aigle at 2,372 meters. It travels through some breathtaking mountain scenery, going past glaciers and providing extensive views of Mont Blanc. Tourists on the train can enjoy a scenic walk around the pastures at the stop at Bellevue. The second stop, Nid d’Aigle, sits under the rugged Aiguille du Gouter mountain peak and also provides sweeping views of the Bionnassay glacier and the surroundings.
Les Gaillands Rock Climbing
This is one of the most popular rock climbing sites for visitors and locals because of its convenient location, close to Chamonix town center. The crag is hardly a minute’s walk from the car park and about 2kms from the town center. There are about 150 fully bolted routes on the crag which make it easy for beginners too. Visitors can stroll around the lake area or just soak in the stunning views of Glacier des Bossons and Mont Blanc before or after climbing.
Just So You Know:
- Step into the Void – the skywalk at Aiguille du Midi is touted as the highest attraction in the world, sitting at a height of 3,842 meters. Three glass walls, a glass floor, and glass ceiling make this a thrilling experience.
- The speed record on foot for Mont Blanc is held by Kilian Jornet who summited the peak and returned to Chamonix town center in 4 hours, 57 minutes and 34 seconds.
- The three trains that are a part of the Tramway du Mont Blanc are named Anne, Jeanne, and Marie after the owner’s daughters.
- The Compagnie des Guides de Chamonix was established in 1821 and were the first mountain guide company in the world at the time.
Get Some Culture:
- Le Musee des Cristaux – The Crystal museum with its permanent collections of crystals that have been found in the Alps and around the world will leave you in awe. Some of the minerals on display are from private collectors.
- Chamonix Fete de la Musique – This music festival is celebrated across France on 21st June to mark the Summer Solstice. In Chamonix, this free event spills out onto the streets and embraces the music of every genre. The whole town comes alive during this festival.
Grab A Bite:
- Le 3842 – Just like the name suggests the restaurant sits at an elevation of 3,842 meters on L’Aiguille du Midi. Apart from the breathtaking view that the restaurant provides, the food is also delicious, especially the crepes. It’s a great place to enjoy some snacks and expresso in some surreal surroundings.
- Le Cap Horn – A two-story chalet has been converted into this great restaurant that serves a fusion of French and Asian cuisine. The restaurant is extremely popular so it’s a good idea to make a reservation in advance.