An Introduction & guide to Chamonix
Chamonix is a French town with a big international reputation, as the home of extreme sports and it's most famous landmark Mont Blanc, the largest mountain in western Europe, drawing crowds here from around the world.
Many people talk about Chamonix being extreme and it’s true, this is an extreme sports paradise (for mountaineering, trail running, walking, cycling, mountain biking, paragliding or wingsuit flying). But don't worry you don't have to be extreme to enjoy a trip to Chamonix, as most people just come here to admire the spectacular views of the mountains and glaciers from wandering around the shop-lined streets or from the warmth of a nice coffee shop or restaurant!
Whether you're coming here on a day trip, a week's holiday or for a longer stay, Chamonix welcomes visitors from around the world, all year round. It's a great place for families as well as the more adventurous traveller, as you can do as little or as much as you like here, with an almost endless list of possibilities.
Food is a great part of life in the French Alps, and with all those outdoor pursuits to try you can rest assured it is all very hearty! Local specialities are often cheese or cream based (sometimes both…), featuring local meats, potatoes and green salad. The food in the Alps is often accused of being unadventurous and ‘lardy’ but there are plenty of delicious regional dishes besides the good old fondue. The emphasis is very much on fresh local produce and so cured and seasoned meats will have come from cattle grazed on Alpine pastures, the local cheeses of Abondance and Beaufort will be prevalent and although there isn’t a coastline in sight there is still a regional fish dish! The féra is caught in nearby Lake Geneva and is a popular dish served in many restaurants, alongside other lake fish such as Omble Chevalier (char), truite (trout), brochet (pike) and perche (perch).
Where is Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley?
Chamonix is located in the Haute-Savoie region in the east of France, on the borders of Switzerland and Italy. It takes a little over an hour to get here from the nearest airport at Geneva, making it a popular destination for quick weekends away and short trips. It's location and accessibility to neighbouring countries make it a great destination for people touring through Europe in summer as well as to ski the varied terrain in winter. A 15 minute drive through the Mont Blanc Tunnel will take you to Italy, or at the head of the Chamonix Valley you can drive or catch the Mont Blanc Express train into neighbouring Switzerland.
Events in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
Regardless of the time of year there is always something going on here, from music events and festivals to sporting competitions and races and classic car tours. The big sporting events include the Freeride World Tour in January were you can see pro skiers & snowboarders making extreme tracks down the mountain, the various Mont Blanc Marathons in June, the World Climbing Festival in July and UTMB in August. Other events worth visiting the town for are the lively Fete de la Music in June where dancing in the streets until the small hours is standard, the Cosmo Jazz Festival where you can enjoy music at the end of sunny July in different mountain locations and Black Crow’s ski and music event in March, Chamonix Unlimited Festival.
Sights & Attractions in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
Chamonix has a lot to offer in terms of sites and attractions. The main attraction that brings tourists to this picturesque town is Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Europe at 4810m. Visitors either come to reach the summit themselves, view it from the station at the top of the Aiguille du Midi cable car (3842m), which also enjoys spectacular views of the Mont Blanc range, or take it in from the valley floor. As Chamonix’s history is tied in with various Mont Blanc expeditions, you’ll find several statues around the town commemorating famous mountaineers.
At the top of the Aiguille du Midi you'll find "Step into the Void" one of Chamonix's most recently added attractions. You literally step into a glass-sided box with view of Mont Blanc to your left and a 1000 metre drop under your feet... Another hugely popular place to visit is the Mer de Glace glacier (sea of ice) which is accessed by the Montenvers train. The view of this glacier from the station is impressive. From the top you can descend to the ice caves via cable car and a series of walkways and steps. Markers along the rock walls on the descent show you just how much the glacier has retreated in recent years.
You can also take the Tramway du Mont Blanc from Les Houches down into the neighbouring town of St Gervais and back again. Many mountaineers use this as the start of their access to routes up Mont Blanc, but it's even more popular with hikers and sightseers in the summer months.
Things to Do in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
The list of things you could do in Chamonix is pretty extensive, and as you'd imagine mostly involves its iconic mountain ranges. However if being more sedentary on holiday is your idea of a great getaway, there are plenty of spas and relaxation options to choose from too. For the more active person, you could walk from here to Switzerland, or enjoy the great network of trails along the length of the Chamonix Valley. You could cycle around Mont Blanc on a multi-day trip. You could take your first steps onto a glacier with a guide, or take the train to the Aiguille Rouges nature reserve and try spotting some of the local wildlife. Visit waterfalls, paddle down the river through the centre of town on a raft, take a flight in a helicopter.. are you feeling inspired yet?
Restaurants in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
Chamonix is a town inhabited by, and visited by, a large international community and its cuisine reflects that. As well as the much loved fondue, raclette and traditional French restaurants, you'll also find Indian, Scandinavian, Chinese and fusion cuisine on offer. There are literally hundreds of restaurants in Chamonix, most on the valley floor, but also a good selection at altitude, accessed by the ski or summer lifts, most of which offer spectacular views of the surrounding mountains.
Nightlife in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
The Chamonix valley offers visitors a range of nightlife, from live bands, boisterous après ski parties and nightclubs to more sedate jazz nights, the occasional music festival and film nights. In the centre of Chamonix you'll find the broadest selection of things to do, with each of the villages along the length of the valley offering their own unique selection of nightlife.
Where to Stay in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
Whilst the principal town is of the same name, 'Chamonix' is often used in reference to the whole valley, stretching over 28km from Le Fayet to Switzerland. It is, however, made up of several distinct and charming villages including Servoz, Les Houches, Les Bossons, Les Praz, Les Tines, Argentiere, Montroc, and at the top of the valley: Le Tour.
Servoz (816m) has been built on the site of an ancient lake which over the centuries was eventually filled in by landslides. The village is extremely picturesque and has numerous local artisans’ workshops to browse. Nearby is the superb Gorges de la Diosaz which is well worth a visit.
Les Houches (1000m) is composed of six hamlets and is the first big settlement you’ll come to in the valley. With its own lift-system and identity it is a ski resort in its own right and offers some exceptional skiing. (Be aware that the situation regarding whether or not the Les Houches ski area is included on the Mont Blanc Unlimited pass is a contentious one that changes from year to year, be sure to check what the current situation is before deciding where to stay in relation to where to ski.) Host to a number of world skiing events, Le Kandahar World Cup ski race is the highlight, held in February on the famous La Verte piste. The village is also the starting point for many attempts to climb Mont Blanc.
Les Bossons (1010m) is perhaps the 'base-camp' of alpinism, as it is where the first high alpine excursions used to depart from. The village is calm nowadays with several chalets and hotels looking straight up on to the Glacier du Bossons and that of Taconnaz.
Les Praz (1050m) is home to the Chamonix Golf Course, several fine hotels and chalets, and of course the Flégère cable-car giving access to the ski area and Les Aiguilles Rouges nature reserve. Situated a short drive or 20 minutes walk to Chamonix Town, Les Praz is bordered by woodland and is the start or end of some great walks, runs, or bike rides.
Les Tines is a small development of charming hotels and chalets (some of them luxurious) that borders the upper limits of the golf course and offers superb views of Mont Blanc and further down the valley. On the plateau just above you will find the delightful hamlet of Le Lavancher, which is more than suited to a quiet getaway whilst remaining in easy reach of all there is to do.
Argentiere (1250m) is the biggest village in the valley (obviously excluding Chamonix town!) and is considered one of the foremost alpine ski resorts due to its enviable location at the foot of the powder fields of Les Grands Montets (1250-3300m). It has a great character of its own, with brightly coloured buildings, notable bars and restaurants, and several choice chalets, hotels and apartments. As a location you can't go far wrong and Argentiere provides a far more laid back atmosphere than Chamonix Town.
Beyond Argentiere, on the way to Le Tour lies the pretty hamlet of Montroc. Sadly best known for being the site of the massive avalanche that killed 12 people in their homes in 1999, all that remains of the tragedy now is a small memorial at the site of the slide. Although several new chalet developments have popped up here in the last couple of years, today all you will find at Montroc is peace and tranquillity.
Le Tour is a traditional Savoyarde village situated 4km north-east of Argentiere, right at the end of the valley. It is overlooked by the spectacular Le Tour Glacier and offers a marvellous opportunity for walkers to sample a little high-altitude terrain without undue technical difficulty. Le Tour also offers some of the best views of Mont Blanc and the Chamonix Valley.
Hotels in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
Following the first ascents of Mont Blanc, Chamonix opened its doors to hundreds of tourists with the first specific tourist hotel opening in 1770. Today that tradition continues and the town has a wide range of accommodation available for visitors. There are hotels from the 5 star Le Hameau Albert Premiere Hotel to Le Morgane Hotel with its Michelin starred chef to the comfortable Alpina Hotel which is in a fantastic location right on the Place du Mont Blanc.
Apartments in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
There are a wide range range of self-catering apartments and residences which allow you to be completely independent during your holiday in Chamonix, most of which are self catered although you will find some where you can order in meals or have your own private chef.
Chalets in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
You can also enjoy the Chalet experience in Chamonix which are available both catered and non-catered ranging from the height of luxury with multiple spa facilities to warm and cosy traditional mountain retreats.
History & Culture in Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley
Chamonix first appeared in the history books back in 1091, but it wasn't until some of the early European explorers 'discovered' its glaciers that it became more widely known. Mountaineers have been coming here for over 150 years and it has been a ski resort since the early 1900's.
Also see: History of Chamonix
Location: Chamonix / Mont Blanc Valley