Chamonix has been a favorite vacation destination since the 19th century, and you'll know why at first glance. The town, with its elegant period architecture, is nestled at the foot of the tallest peak in the Alps. Snowy Mont Blanc towers over 15,750 feet above, creating a valley with steep, rocky sides, and dramatic views near the Swiss border.
Glaciers cling to the mountain sides, which offer skiers a range of challenges from beginner to advanced levels. In summer, the hillsides are green and the area has become a haven for outdoor adventure sports, making it a true year-round resort town. English men "discovered" the area in 1741, and the town's first accommodation, the Hôtel d'Angleterre, was built in 1770, hosting the very first Winter Olympics of modern times in 1924.
Despite its small size, Chamonix is surprisingly cosmopolitan. The town's continued success and stunning location has attracted a wave of artists, entrepreneurs, and young professionals that give the city a vibrant retail and entertainment scene to add to its natural charms.
Skiing is the biggest lure here, and while there are slopes for every level of expertise, the most iconic runs are reserved for the more experienced. The Aiguilles de Chamonix - meaning the Needles of Chamonix - is the name given to the steep, jagged series of peaks that offer a world-class skiing experience with an adventurous side.
You've got a wealth of options when it comes to the nightlife scene, whether your preference is for music venues or trendy cocktail lounges. There are ultra-modern bars, casual rock caves, and crowded dance floors to warm up on after a day on the slopes.
When the snow melts, the challenging natural terrain is the perfect place to explore adventure sports like extreme hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, paragliding, and wingsuit flying. Cable cars will take you to the highest alpine slopes, and the town has many stores where you will find the latest gear for your sport.
Much of the town features preserved historic buildings in the Victorian and Belle Époque styles, with ornate detail that creates an enchanting streetscape perfect for strolling. There are streets lined with shops and cafes to sit and linger away the afternoons in spectacular scenery, along with art galleries and other artisan stores to browse through.
There is a thriving fine dining scene in Chamonix that gives you plenty of options, from classic French cuisine to fusion dishes. Local cuisine is based on cheeses, meats, and fresh produce. Competing for tourist traffic, many restaurants go over the top in terms of offering atmospheric decor and imaginative menus.
One of the most iconic views in all of Switzerland, Mont Blanc or "White Mountain" is the highest peak in the French Alps and the largest in Western Europe. The mountain is popular in both the summer and the winter, though the skiing and snowboarding opportunities tend to be the most popular attraction. Mount Blanc is surrounded by both quaint wooden chalets and mountain lodges alike, making it easy to fully immerse yourself in one of Europe's most beautiful natural wonders.
For those looking to brave icy tundras without having to endure the long winters up north in Norway, Mer de Glace is the perfect Southern European alternative. Mer de Glace is a valley glacier 5.5km wide located on the slopes of Mount Blanc to the north. The dramatic views from the surrounding mountains offer some of the most famous photography opportunities. Fun fact: in the winter season this sea of ice generates its own electricity thanks to tunnels which collect hydroelectricity and channel it down to a nearby hydropower facility.
Take a cable car up to Aiguille du Midi to experience the higher peaks within the French Alps without the long treacherous hike. The mountain's flat terrace top offers some of the most breathtaking views of the converging Italian, Swiss, and French Alps. The newly instated 2013 exhibit A Step Into the Void also gives brave visitors some truly once-in-a-lifetime views, with its 2.5m glass cage which looks down into a 1,000 meter precipice. Also included on-site are a a cafeteria, and a souvenir shop to relax and soak in your trip into the icy void.
You're never too far from civilization to miss out on attending a Roman-Catholic mass service. Visit this modest church in the middle of Chamonix, conveniently located right across from the Tourism office. The Saint-Michel church was originally built in the 11th century, but has since undergone several fires, snowstorms, and restoration efforts. The current structure dates back to the 1830, with stone floors and stained glass windows beckoning worshipers back into another time. From the outside, the church is perfectly framed against the backdrop of the impressive peaks of the French Alps making for a perfect postcard pic for back home.
Southwest of the Aiguille du Midi, the Col du Midi is another popular outdoor winter hiking opportunity in the French Alps. The area receives less traffic than the busy infrastructure centers present in both Chamonix and other tourist hot spots. Nevertheless, it's natural beauty and challenging terrain make it a great choice for visitors who like off-the-beaten-track adventures. The hike between Aiguille du Midi and Col du Midi takes about 2 hours, including steep slopes, ice walls, and deep valleys. Due to the unpredictable climate, this area is better suited for Autumn and Spring hiking.
The ski season typically begins in November and reaches full swing in mid-December. There is a partial closing in April, with some slopes available until the beginning of May. When the ski season ends, the summer outdoor adventure season begins. Winter temperatures average below 30 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, with lows dropping to 5 degrees Fahrenheit at night. Summers are quite warm, with average temperatures ranging between about 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit.
The nearest airport is Geneva (GVA) located about 51 miles away from Chamonix. Private shuttle services such as Easybus, SAT, and Starshifter cost about EUR25. A taxi to Chamonix will cost you about EUR200. Remember that Geneva is in Switzerland and you will have to have the necessary travel documentation for both Switzerland and France.
The Chamonix train station, via the Mont-Blanc Express Train, connects with Eurostar and TGV rapid train service to Paris or Lyon. The scenic Mont-Blanc Express Train takes you through the Alps with stops between Saint-Gervais-le-Bain and Martigny.
Chamonix connects to Geneva via the Autoroute Blanche or A40 highway. As you'll be driving briefly in Switzerland, you will need what is called a "Swiss vignette" or a sticker that is applied to your windshield. It costs CHF40. The A40 also connects with Mâcon and the Loire region. The town also sits at the opening of the Mont Blanc Tunnel, which connects to E25 and Italy.
Several private bus companies run service from various centers, including Paris, Geneva, London, and Milan, to Chamonix. As a popular resort, the Chamonix-Mont Blanc bus station, in the center, is a busy destination year round.
The Grand Hôtel des Alpes gives you a great location in the center of town, in a charming whitewashed building with alpine charm. Hôtel du Clocher offers comfortable rooms in a picturesque older building. The Hôtel l'Héliopic offers sleek, modern luxury in a convenient spot near the ski shuttles.
Chamonix Village - this is where you'll find many of the area's hotels, along with shops and entertainment options. Be sure to check out the many boutiques, including Lucie F. jewelry and Eric Bompard, as well as many upscale and luxury brands.
Les Houches - this skiing resort, part of the Chamonix commune or township, is preserved as a historic mountain village. Located at an elevation of 3,000 feet at the foot of Mont Blanc, there is a traditional farming and alpine culture to explore, with its own ski area.
Argentière - this picturesque village is part of the Chamonix-Mont Blanc commune, located near the head of the valley. This is where to access some of the finest skiing and outdoor adventure, including the Argentière glacier and Aiguille d'Argentière, one of the so-called needle cliffs.
There is a free bus service that runs through the center of the town called Le Mulet or simply Chamonix Bus. There is also a municipal bus system with stops at the major ski resorts. The flat fare is EUR2.00. You can get up to the heights year round with the Mont-Blanc Tramway. Consisting of a small railway car, it goes from Saint-Gervais-les-Bains to the Eagle's Nest (Nid d'Aigle) with breathtaking views of the glaciers below. A return lift pass starts at EUR31.50.
There are several taxi companies to choose from in Chamonix, and it's a good way to get around town when you don't want to walk. Average fares around town run about EUR30.
Many of the village's hotels offer free parking, and the town itself is small in distance and easily walkable. Rentals are available from companies like Hertz and Sixt at Geneva Airport, starting at about EUR85.
The Galerie Alpina on Place du Mont Blanc is a shopping center where you'll find fashions and also mountain and outdoor gear shops. There are clusters of shops along Rue Joseph Vallot and Avenue Michel Croz, including clothing, arts, and artisan shops.
Carrefour is a national chain of supermarkets with well-stocked shelves and reasonable prices. Casino supermarket is located in Galerie Alpina, offering a somewhat more upscale selection. A quart of milk costs about EUR1 and a dozen eggs about EUR3.10.
Le Panier des 4 Saisons offers classic French cuisine, including favorites like pepper steak and pea soup, and plenty of seafood dishes, starting at EUR51. For a quick bite American-style, try Cool Cats, where gourmet hot dogs start at EUR3.75. For imaginative dishes like lobster burgers and other French/Continental cuisine in a stylish modern dining room, try La Télécabine, where prix fixe menus start at EUR29.00.