Chamonix (officially Chamonix-Mont-Blanc) is a resort in the Haute-Savoie region of France, bordering Italy, at the foot of Mont Blanc. It's regarded as the birthplace and one of the capitals of mountaineering.
Traditional mountaineering was a practical business of hunting and farming, and of leading travellers over the passes by the safest route, tugging their pack-mules through the sleet. The 18th C saw a desire to climb the highest peaks primarily for scientific enquiry. In 1760 the scientist Horace Bénédict de Saussure put up a prize for the first ascent of Mont Blanc. In those days the mountain lay in Savoy, an independent country that included Nice, Aosta, Piedmont and Sardinia. Not until 1860 was the territory definitively incorporated into France and Italy, with Mont Blanc marking the border.
De Saussure himself made several attempts, but the first successful ascent of Mont Blanc was on 8 Aug 1786 by Jean-Jacques Balmat and Dr Michel-Gabriel Paccard. Over the next century all the great Alpine summits were conquered, culminating in the Matterhorn ascent of 1865. Mountaineering was now the opposite of getting over the pass safely: a new breed of paying clients wanted to climb as high and as hard as they could, and peaks were climbed in a spirit of "because it's there". Railway connections made the area more accessible, lifts took the hard slog out of getting up the slopes, hotels and other amenities developed, and Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympic Games in 1924. Almost a century on from those Games, fashions in skiing and other winter sports have come and gone, but the Chamonix area's preeminence is assured, especially as global warming drives visitors away from lower resorts.
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Most visitors fly into Geneva (GVA IATA) which has global connections, and is the usual route for budget flights. There are frequent buses from the airport to Chamonix (90 km) run by Chamexpress, Ouibus, Transalis and Alpybus. By car, follow A40 (Autoroute Blanche).
A private helicopter transfer between GVA and Chamonix run by Heli Securité takes 20 mins and 2000€ per person. They also do speedy inter-resort transfers.
From Paris and other points west, the usual route is via Geneva (3 hr 15 from Gare de Lyon) then to Martigny (90 min, frequent trains towards Brig) to join the mountain railway. The other approach is via Annecy then bus to join the mountain railway at St-Gervais-les-Bains. In winter St Gervais has direct trains from Paris.
The mountain railway is a single track metre-gauge line between St Gervais and Martigny, passing through Chamonix and crossing the border at Vallorcine. The trains, which run hourly year round, also call at les Houches, les Bossons, les Praz de Chamonix and Argentière. The line is jointly run by SNCF and SBB.
Ouibus runs between Chamonix and Geneva Airport (four per day, 1 hr 45 min, €20).
The stop for all inter-city buses in Chamonix is outside the main railway station.
3 Chamonix Sud - Bus station. Bus stop for Ouibus, FlixBus.
Coming from Geneva or anywhere in France, take A40. From Switzerland, take A9 to Martigny then the mountain road over Col des Montets into France. From Italy, take A5 up Val d'Aosta into the Mont Blanc tunnel, emerging in France at Chamonix.
The Chamonix valley is a long straggly affair, and includes everything from Servoz through Les Houches, Chamonix, Les Praz, Argentiere and Vallorcine up to the Swiss border; the term isn't used for St Gervais or other points lower down the Arve valley. Booking accommodation (including hostels and campsites) entitles you to a Carte d'Hote which allows free travel on trains and buses between Servoz and Vallorcine. Skiers with lift passes likewise travel for free. Otherwise, you can buy a Carte d'Hote for €10 from Chamonix Town Hall or Tourist Office, or buy a day ticket on the bus for €3.
See "Get in" above for the valley railway between St Gervais, Chamonix and Martigny.
- Montenvers Railway. This metre-gauge rack railway ascends from Chamonix SNCF station to 4 Le Montenvers at 1913 m, overlooking the Mer de Glace. Trains run every 30 mins May-Sept and hourly Nov-April, taking 20 mins. The railway is routinely closed in October for annual maintenance. Adult return €33.5, child & senior €28.5.
- Mont Blanc Tramway. Operates during high season only. This metre-gauge rack railway ascends from St Gervais, with the valley 5 station "Le Fayet" next to the SNCF station. It ascends to 6 Gare de Bellevue at 1794 m then 7 La Station Nid d'Aigle at 2380 m. There are trains roughly hourly and the journey takes 80 mins. Adult return €38, child & senior €32.
Buses run along the valley every 30 mins between Les Houches, Chamonix, and Le Tour above Argentiere. Buses run from 06:00 to 20:30 and there's also a late bus "Chamo'Nuit" until midnight. Buses only reach Servoz four times a day. Chamonix has its own frequent town shuttle, "Le Mulet". "Mont Blanc Bus" operates all buses in the valley and publishes their schedules at chamonix.montblancbus.com.
By cable car
See "Do". Riding over to Italy involves five cable-cars: two to ascend Aiguille du Midi, one to cross Vallée Blanche to Punta Helbronner, then two stages of the Monte Bianco Skyway to descend to Les Paluds near Courmayeur. Check ahead that all links in this chain are working.
- Mountains and glaciers - Chamonix's most impressive sights are free and impossible to miss. To get closer, you'll need to go up in one of the cable-cars, see "Do", or mountain railways, see "Get around".
- 1 Jacques Balmat memorial. Jacques Balmat (1762-1834) was one of the pair who first reached the peak of Mont Blanc. The statue, erected in 1887, is a popular photo spot, looking south so that Mont Blanc forms the background. But where's his climbing companion Michel-Gabriel Paccard? Not there: the second figure is de Saussure, who'd put up the prize for the ascent, and who Balmat later guided to the summit. Balmat was a very talented mountaineer, but overplayed his celebrity, and wrote Paccard out of history. Not until 1986 did Paccard earn a statue, sitting alone with his alpenstock on ave Michel Croz near the Alpine Museum - the first version became frost-damaged and was replaced in 1991. Dr Paccard (1757-1827) went on to be a leading local citizen and magistrate, and married Balmat's sister. What was his non-personning really all about?
- 2 Musée Alpin (Alpine Museum), La Résidence 89 avenue Michel Croz, ☏ . July-Aug daily 10:00-18:00, Sept W-Su 14:00-18:00, closed Oct-Dec bar school holidays. Located in an early 20th century hotel, it shows the development of alpinism in the region from the first ascent of Mont Blanc to the modern sports climbers by means of historical paintings, photos and maps. They also host interesting temporary exhibitions. Adults €6.
- 3 Musée des Cristaux - Espace Tairraz (Crystal and Mineral museum), 615 allée du Recteur Payot (behind Maison de la Montagne), ☏ . July-Aug daily 10:00-18:00, Sept-Dec 14:00-18:00 plus 10:00-13:00 in school holidays. Impressive collection of crystals, mostly from Chamonix (smoky and rose quartz), but also from the rest of the Alps and worldwide. Describes the geology and formative processes involved. Adults €6.
- 4 Mer de Glace (Ice Sea). One of the largest glaciers in Europe, 7.5 km long - 12 km if its tributaries are included - but shrinking fast, and rattling along at 1 cm an hour. It's usually admired from Hotel de Montenvers at the top of the rack railway (see "Get around"). There's a museum within the hotel, a cave serving as a small crystal museum, and a small glacier museum in a nearby hut. You can also visit an ice cave inside the glacier itself, either by descending the 550 steps, or by a short cable car ride. Caves and museums free.
Be prepared! It's very cold and windy up there, even in summer. Fog, blizzards and thunderstorms may suddenly sweep in, at any time of year. And suppose the cable car breaks down while you're up there? So you need at least to carry (if not initially to wear all of) anorak, pullover, thermal undies, gloves and sunglasses.
Check the webcam or at the base station about conditions up top: there's no point going up just to see the inside of a cloud of drizzle and sleet. It's vexing if you've come a long way to take the ride but if conditions are marginal, ask yourself which would be worse: standing at the base station wishing you'd gone up, or shivering up on the mountain wishing you'd stayed below.
The cable cars are quite popular in the tourist seasons, so consider reserving your places beforehand. Prices given in the listings are for simple return trips, but if you're taking more than one ride, it's cheaper to buy a Mont-Blanc multipass, available for 1–10 days, for instance, 1 day pass costs €65, 2 days pass - €77.50. The cable car operator is Compagnie du Mont-Blanc S.A, +33 04 50 53 22 75, see their website for times & prices, sights and hikes from the cable car stops. There is also an interactive map depicting all chair-lifts in the valley.
- 1 Brevent cable car. Operates 20 Aug - 16 Sep, 8 Dec - 14 Apr. This is north side of the valley, opposite to Mont Blanc, so it gives you better views of the massif. The valley station is in Chamonix town centre, and the first car rides up to Planpraz at 1999 m. The second car rises to 2525 m. As it's south-facing, the lower slope loses its snow early, so it may be possible to drive up to or walk down from Planpraz. Further along the valley, another car ascends from Les Praz at 1060 m to La Flegere at 1894 m. Day return adult €33.5, child & senior €28.5.
- 2 La Flégère cable car. Operates 16 Jun - 4 Nov, 8 Dec - 14 Apr. It goes from Les Praz village to the La Flégère site at an altitude of 1877 m. With a further chair lift ascending to an altitude of 2595 m. Round-trip adult €29, child €24.70.
- 3 Bellevue cable cars. Operate 16 Jun - 23 Sep, 24 Nov - 14 Apr, opening hours depend on the actual month, but roughly 8:30 AM - 5 PM. Two cable cars (Bellevue one and Parion gondola) ascend from Les Houches, 5 km down the valley from Chamonix. The larger cable car rises to the ridge of Bellevue at 1794 m. As the name implies, there are excellent views of the Chamonix valley, with Mont Blanc to one side and Brevent to the other, and a short walk over the ridge brings St Gervais, Sallanches and the Glacier de Bionnassay into view. Bellevue is on the usual climbers' ascent of Mont Blanc towards Nid d'Aigle. The smaller cable car, rising to Prarion at 1900 m, is same price as the larger. Adult return €18, child & senior €15.30.
- 4 Grands Montets cable cars. These serve the ski area above Argentière at 1252 m. The highest is the two-stage ascent to Lognan at 1972 m then Grands Montets at 3275 m. The lower cable car runs year round, the upper only in ski season. Return adult €36, child €31.
- 5 Le Tour cable car. Near the top of the Chamonix valley, this cable car rises above Le Tour village (at 1462 m) to Charamillon at 1850 m. A chairlift continues to Les Autannes at 2195 m. Another cable car starts from Vallorcines village. Either way, you'll need skis or snowshoes to approach the Swiss border, and there are no trails down the Swiss side. Return adult €29, child €24.
Crossing to Italy
It involves five cable cars: the two-stage ascent of Aiguille du Midi, the ride across Vallée Blanche to Punta Helbronner on the Italian border, then the two-stage descent towards Courmayeur:
- 6 Aiguille du Midi cable car (Téléphérique de l'Aiguille du Midi). This is one of the highest cable-cars in the world. The valley station is in Chamonix town centre at 1035 m. The first car ascends to Plan de l'Aiguille at 2310 m. From there the second car ascends to 3810 m, including one 3 km gulf between pylons, with the complete ride taking 20 minutes. At the top there is a restaurant and viewing platforms, and you can take an elevator to the summit of Aiguille du Midi at 3842 m. Dress very warmly. This is the highest point of the lift system, and the summit of Mont Blanc looks temptingly close, but don't be deceived: it's an arduous up-and-down route that needs a full day to ascend and return. You can continue towards Italy by the Vallée Blanche cable car (listed below); expert skiers can descend the Vallée. Day return adult €63, child & senior €52, one way adult €50.
- 7 Vallée Blanche cable car (Télécabine Panoramic Mont-Blanc, Funivia dei Ghiacciai). Starting from Aiguille du Midi at 3778 m, the first section runs to Gros Rognon at 3536 m. This is just a technical station where the cable takes a corner, and you can't get out. The second section is near-level over the Glacier du Géant, to Punta Helbronner at 3466 m on the border with Italy. This is the cable car that infamously stranded 110 people, some overnight, in Sept 2016; it's also the one that a French military jet tried to fly beneath in 1961, and took out three cars. Return from Chamonix adult €92, child & senior €78.
- 8 Monte Bianco Skyway. From Punta Hellbronner at 2466 m, the upper cable car descends to Pavillon du Mont-Frety at 2200 m, where there's an alpine garden, winery and two restaurants. The lower stage descends to Portal at 1300 m, near Les Paluds above Courmayeur. The Skyway runs every 20 mins, last ascent 16:30, last descent 17:00. The usual way to complete the circuit back to Chamonix is to take the SAVDA bus through the tunnel. This cable car is routinely closed in November for annual maintenance. Adult return €49, single €37.
The town is renowned for winter sports, and there is a wide choice of skiing areas. Most pistes are over 2000 m altitude so winter snow is as reliable here as it can be anywhere.
Three ski areas can be accessed directly from Chamonix: Brevent, La Flégère and Vallée Blanche. There are no pistes connecting them, but buses run along the valley between the base cable car stations. Other extensive areas are Les Houches lower down the valley, and Grand Montets and Le Tour / Vallorcine higher up. The "Mont Blanc" ski pass is valid for a total of 700 km of pistes, including the neighbouring valleys as well as Courmayeur in Italy. In order of difficulty they are:
- 9 La Flégère (north of Chamonix). Mostly easy pistes, a suitable resort for families.
- 10 Les Houches. South of Chamonix, this is likely the best choice for families, and often has the best low-altitude conditions. It is the only ski area below the treeline, so it is a good place to go in poor visibility.
- 11 Le Tour (at the far end of the valley, towards Martigny). This has easy slopes for beginners, but also some out-of-bounds skiing if you are willing to hike up with your skis. The front side of Le Tour is sunny, but it can still be very windy. The other side of the ridge descends into Vallorcine.
- 12 Brevent (west of Chamonix). Skiing for all levels, but mostly mid to extreme, good for ambitious and experienced skiers.
- 13 Grands Montets (north of Chamonix). Accessed from the town of Argentière, this has the highest and toughest slopes. The signature descent is from Grands Montets down the Argentière glacier, descending 2000 m, for experienced skiers only.
- 14 Vallée Blanche (White Valley). The easiest descent is "red run" standard, well within the capability of a confident intermediate. But there are also great difficulties and dangers up here, on an ever-changing glacier, and you need a guide. The descent needs a full day from Aiguille du Midi at the top of the cable car system. You then slither and slide down an icy path to the glacier located 300 m below. The route (which is by no means a "piste") leads down through the Vallée Blanche and Mer de Glace.
- Mont Blanc is very high and very cold and windy. The ascent is strenuous and hazardous, and involves 3 days and 2 nights on the mountain; so this is proper mountaineering, not just a hike. The most popular ascent route is Voie Royale, reached by the Mont Blanc Tramway from St Gervais. Two routes from Chamonix are 3 Monts and Grands Mulets, both accessed from l'Aiguille du Midi cable car.
- Compagnie des Guides (mountain guides), 190 place de l'Église, ☏ . Established in 1821, they lead day trips and longer mountain tours.
The hiking paths offer splendid views of the highest massif in Europe. Tour du Mont Blanc is a classic hiking trail that takes about ten days to walk. For shorter visits, take the telepherique to the top of a nearby peak and hike down. Or try hikes between two telepheriques, for example between the Brevent and la Flegere or between the Mer de Glace and the Plan de l'Aiguille
There is a fantastic view on both the Mont-Blanc/Aiguilles de Chamonix range, and the ribbon of the Fiz limestone range. Take the Brevent telepherique, then walk down the crest to the Bel-Lachat mountain hut, then walk down to the Rocher des Gaillands or (if slightly more courageous) to the Aiguillette des Houches and down, or walk up the steep lane from the Gaillands to Plan-Lachat, then Bel-Lachat, then on, up along the crest to the Brevent (about six hours and rather hot in summer: start early, but it is really worth the effort).
Several great glacier hikes exist. Even if you can't get right up to the glaciers and touch them, you can still get close enough to get some amazing views.
- Glacier des Bossons - depart either from Les Bossons (at the base of the ski jump) by foot or by chair lift, or drive up to the entrance of the Mont Blanc Tunnel for a shorter, flatter hike. Warning, do not attempt to "touch" the glacier here, it is possibly the most dangerous place in the valley.
- Glacier d'Tour - depart from the town of Montroc, near the ski resort "Le Tour".
- Glacier de Trient - depart from the top of the Col de la Forclaz, in Switzerland (before descending to Martigny). One hour, flat.
- Glacier de Bionnassay- depart from the top of the Bellevue cable car.
The first three could feasibly be done in one day if you are up early and have a car, but Bionnassay will require a half-day.
- Alpine Skiing World Cup: in 2018 / 19 none of the races are being held in or near Chamonix.
- The Climbing World Cup is often hosted by Chamonix, most recently in July 2018, however the 2019 event is in Denver.
The town itself has a lovely collection of sporting, alpine and local shops. (including some fleece shirts for as little as €8, that's 2 for 16!). The best place for shopping is the main street, 1 Rue du Docteur Paccard.
- Chalet Academy, 716 Route de Gaillands. Runs cookery courses specifically tailored to train you as a chalet chef or host.
It's France. The food is all good, though it can be quite expensive in the touristy places. Open a can of Ravioli from the supermarket and eat it with your freshly purchased Swiss Army Knife. If you've been hiking all day, it'll be the best meal you've ever had. Other regional specialties (Quand meme!):
- Pierrade or Pierre chaude - a hot piece of slate on which you cook your own slices of meat at the table.
- Raclette - like fondue, this is a multi-person event that involves more melted cheese, potatoes and cold cuts.
- Croute savoyarde - a toasted piece of bread soaked in white wine and then baked with melted cheese and possibly mushrooms or tomatoes.
- Tartiflette - potatoes and bacon smothered with melted roblochon cheese.
- Toasted goat's cheese salad with nuts.
- 1 Satsuki, 288 Rue Joseph Vallot. Daily 12:00-14:30 & 18:30-22:00. Usual Japanese fare.
- 2 Munchie, 87 Rue des Moulins Chamonix. Daily 19:00-01:30. French / Asian fusion.
- 3 Le Délice, 130 Rue Eglise, Les Houches (9 km down valley from Chamonix). Tu-Su 12:00-23:00. Good wine & food including vegan.
- 4 Le Basilic, 105 Place de la Fruitière, Les Houches (10 km down valley from Chamonix). Th-Tu 18:30-22:30. Authentic French food, but not typical Savoyard.
Drinking in Chamonix is relatively expensive. Expect to pay around €5 in most places for a pint of beer, though most places will sell pitchers which can work out cheaper. There are many happy hours during the late afternoon. The Microbrasserie de Chamonix (MBC) has different kinds of microbrews, in an American/Canadian ambiance (serves onion rings and hot wings, for example). Otherwise, most places serve standard pilsners, such as Heineken or 1664. Just ask for 'un demi pression' for tap beer, or a 'demi panache' for a mix of half beer, half Sprite, a refreshing alternative with less alcohol. A pint is called a "serieux" or for better value, order a "pitcher". Although most people working in the tourism/hospitality industry will speak some English, making the effort to speak a little French is always appreciated. So throw in a little bonjour (hello) or merci (thank you) when you can.
- 1 Chambre Neuf, 272 av. Michel Croz, Chamonix (Centre of town), ☏ . Open daily until 2AM. Popular with the après-ski crowd and expats, Chambre Neuf offers a classy location for a tasty and reasonably-priced lunch, a bite to eat, or a happy-hour cocktail.
- 2 Le Garage, 270, av. de l'Aiguille de Midi (Slightly out of the centre (walking distance) near the Aiguille de Midi), ☏ . Chamonix's largest nightclub may be a bit empty out of season (even though it's often the only late-night joint open) but it's still fun and a good place to mingle with tourists, expats and even a few locals!
- 3 Le Tof, 58 Pl. Edmond Desailloud (Chamonix Sud), ☏ . Gay-friendly nightclub in Chamonix Sud. Good place for a boogie.
- 4 Vagabond, 365 Av. Ravanel le Rouge (Chamonix Sud), ☏ . While the walk to 'the Vag' can be a chilly one in winter, you'll probably be met by a roaring fire, football on the TV and a fun crowd of regulars (expats) and backpackers staying in the adjoining hostel. A good place to watch sport or for a low-key midweek chat.
Chamonix and its surroundings are stuffed with hotels and chalets, ranging from basic and cheap to de luxe. In winter the mid-range places are often booked out to ski package tour operators. Short stays may be available, but chalets often book by the week, so these prices are given where available.
- 1 HI Hostel Chamonix (Auberge de Jeunesse), 127, Montée J. Balmat, Les Pélerins d'en Haut (Foot of town, 1 km from centre & lifts), ☏ , ✉ email@example.com. Hostel, member of the Fédération Unie des Auberges de Jeunesse and Hostelling International. From 25€ ppn.
- 2 Atlantis Chalet, Route du Bouchet 788. Private rooms with bathroom. A fridge, "common room" and yard shared with other rooms.
- BlackRock Ski Lodge, 158 Route des Aillouds, Les Houches (above Prarion Cable Car). Upmarket chalet, sleeps 14-18. Entire chalet per week self-catered €7000, fully catered €12,500.
- 3 Hotel Du Clocher, 110 impasse de l'Androsace. Two star hotel in central Chamonix. Doubles1000€ per week.
- 4 Ski Breezy, 80 Chemin D'Ile des Barrats, ☏ . Check-out: Sunday changeover. Catered 4-bedroom chalet close to the centre of Chamonix. Doubles1500-2000€ per week.
- 5 Chalets Marmotte, 31 chemin des Rambles, Argentiere (10 km up valley from Chamonix), ☏ . They let six chalets in Argentiere.
- 6 Hotel Le Faucigny, 118 place de l'Eglise, ☏ . Check-in: 15:00, check-out: 12:00. Central 3-star. Private car park. Doubles 600-1800€ per week.
- 7 Drop in Chalets, Chalet Cachat, Rue Mummery (200 metres north of Savoy nursery slopes), ☏ . Check-in: 12:00, check-out: 10:00. They run 5 chalets in Chamonix, all with catering: Chalet Cachat, 14 Rue Mummery, six bedrooms; Chalet La Chapelle, no details available; Chalet Heidi on Rue de Pelerins, five bedrooms; Chalet Cerisier, 253 Ave des Bois, five bedrooms; Mont Blanc Lodge, 90 Chemin de la Tournette, six bedrooms. Entire chalet for 4000-5500€ per week.
- Alps Magic, 26 Route des Bouchards, ☏ , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. They run three self-catering chalets in the Chamonix Valley, all around Les Houches some way from Chamonix and from ski lifts so you'll need your own car. The three are Chalet Charme at Sous les Bois, and Chalet Fiz and Chalet Narnia in Vaudagne.
All high mountain hiking, climbing, and skiing, is potentially dangerous. Bad weather may turn an otherwise easy hike into an unpleasant slog or even a disaster, and sun glare can cause sunburn or snow-blindness. Always check the forecast, and be prepared for worse than forecast. Carry a cell phone, switched off to preserve the batteries, though there is no guarantee you'll have a signal in a crisis. The highest peaks, especially Mont Blanc, should not be attempted by people lacking mountain climbing experience and equipment, even using the easiest route (voie royale).
Avalanches are likely after heavy snow or in high winds - the pistes will be protected by preventive explosions, but check before hiking or skiing off-piste.
Altitude symptoms are possible if you ascend rapidly: the Aiguille du Midi cable car whisks you from 1000 m to 3840 m in a very short time. Even a fit healthy person may experience shortness of breath, which may degenerate into outright altitude sickness, and those with cardiac or respiratory ailments are especially likely to become very ill.
- 2 Pharmacie de l'Aiguille du Midi, Ferrari, 262, avenue Aiguille du Midi, ☏ .
- 3 Pharmacie du Mont-Blanc, Piot, 3, rue Vallot, ☏ .
- Saint-Gervais-les-Bains further down the valley is the usual base for climbing Mont Blanc.
- Courmayeur in Italy is relatively quick and cheap to reach by car or bus through the Mont Blanc tunnel, or go the expensive but more scenic way by several cable cars.
- Martigny in Switzerland is much more of a valley town, with main roads and railways linking it to Sion, Brig, Montreux and beyond.