The terrifyingly beautiful reasons to visit Chamonix in the French Alps
Chamonix makes the perfect French Alps getaway with many top things to do in the quaint village before embarking up the French Alps and the towering Mont Blanc.
Our family resides in the United States but every fall and summer we uproot ourselves and temporarily expatriate to a different country for a month. We embed ourselves in the culture and pretend to make a foreign place feel familiar. We try to travel to and live in places with landscapes that amplify the experience and flavour of the local food. This makes Chamonix, a small commune in the Rhone-Alpes region, one of our favourite locations as it pivots around the culinary junctions of France, Switzerland and Italy.
Reasons to visit Chamonix
During winter Chamonix is a thrilling ski village but in summer it becomes an outdoor adventurers’ playground with lifts and cable cars for tourists to experience the mountains while they are a beautiful, felty green. Summer weather allows for hiking, paragliding, picnicking and rock climbing amid the dramatic landscape.
Chamonix pinions you between the vaulting Alps and an undulating milky river that races through the charming village. A miniature train follows the river's route and rides through the charming town, filled with tiny shops, cafes and a few touristy restaurants. In the narrow streets we could smell the restaurants’ warm fondues and soft, creamy cheeses, smells which gently contradicted the severity of the natural terrain.
As charming as it is, the village of Chamonix does not attempt to override the immense beauty of the Alps. The valley is instead an exaltation to the museum of nature surrounding the town centre, and many tourism offices and companies advertise ways to experience the panoramic beauty of the mountain range.
Our favourite was the Montenvers Train, the first custom-built tourist attraction in the valley. The 100-year-old train rides up a steep track on the mountain, taking you to explore the Mer de Glace, the largest glacier in France and one of the biggest attractions in Chamonix. If you’re braver than me, there’s a haunting Ice Cave, a dark, wet cut-out in the mountain that my small children loved racing through because of the echo. The café there is mediocre – and doesn’t pretend not to be – but it sits right at the base of the glacier where the ice turns blue from the trapped air inside. For the price of a coffee, you’ll have views of some of the most extraordinary peaks in Chamonix: Les Drus (3,754m), Les Grands Jorasses (4,205m) and the Aiguille du Grepon (3,482m).
While these views are spectacular, the best place to see Mont Blanc is to be suspended on the Brevent. From Chamonix you take the gondola to Plan Praz (while unaware of the scariness to come), and then the cable car to Le Brévent. The Brevent quickly glides through an impasse between the mountains. Of course it’s safe, stoically racing across the divide, and I was the only person to accidentally scream when we jetted forward the slightest bit from the wind. Everyone else (except my husband) looked completely unworried, even as our young kids swung on the metal guardrails and pressed their faces against the glass to peer straight down.
From the top of the Brévent, there is a footpath that goes to Aiguillette des Houches via the Bel-Lachat mountain hut. There are also climbing walls that face Mont Blanc, just a five-minute walk from the top of the cable car. They offer a sunny, quiet spot but our family decided on sitting down for warm drinks at Le Panoramique restaurant.
On the return trip, we were able to catch our breath long enough to realise Plan Praz was actually an excellent starting point for day hikes, including an enjoyable walk to Lake Cornu and Grand Balcon Sud. We had missed this detail on the way up because we hurtled our family from one lift to the next. There is also another very casual café at Plan Praz that cuts into the mountain exactly where the sun creates a triangle of warmth; on days when the village below got too hot, this café became the perfect (sunny but cool) place to spend the afternoon.
Separately, L’Aiguille du Midi offers a cable car experience that swings you up the Mont Blanc massif in a safe large glass enclosure. Children are permitted but there are age restrictions so this was an event my husband and I enjoyed alone.
Exploring the tranquil Chamonix
Most of the above incredible experiences are listed in travel books for good reason but the moments we liked best were the ones we discovered on our own.
Hidden in the outer perimeters of Chamonix is a stunning tennis area where you can stop for lunch before walking farther to a natural park with walking trails. Mountaineers and extreme hikers could explore more challenging ways to scale the beauty surrounding Chamonix but we preferred luxuriating on the ground after our two days of peering down. We drank wine and ate cheese, looking up to watch the vivid wings of paragliders as they jumped off the mountain edges above and floated down into distant fields.
That afternoon, the kids were happy grabbing pastries from one of the local shops. We brought paper bags (giving us away as Americans) so we could walk to the playground and mingle with the other international kids. It was there we were told about the Parc de Planards, a local and very accessible amusement park with toboggans, trampolines and splash boats for the kids but we unable to coordinate our time to experience it.
We have stayed in Chamonix many times but the most magnificent time was during the summer, when our room at the hotel residence (Balcon du Savoy) was stationed with the windows directly en face to Mont Blanc. We woke daily staring at the sheared cliffs and the big melting white glacier. Taking a 10-minute walk into town for fresh croissants or to visit the cute playground, we would cross high grassy fields of wildflowers and floating dandelion feathers and watch paragliders glide silkily across the sky.
There are so many moments of magic in Chamonix: breathtaking landscapes, bright mossy greens and radiant blue skies against the saturated white of the glaciers, polka dots of paragliders down into the meadows and of course the charming village itself.
Weather and when to go
There are no promises of exactly what you’ll see. Nature firmly commands Chamonix and the weather can be severe and abrupt.
In June one of the years we were there, it was cold rain and endless grey skies. We spent weeks in brand new windbreakers purchased from one of the tiny local shops. We would sit outside drinking lattes and seeing how much our new coats could endure while we waited for the skies to clear. It was a slow, familial pace with coffees and delicious food that our young boys really connected with – until they grew restless and bored.
And yet another June, the sky was shockingly beautiful and hot and the whole village seemed to be a place of magic – until we heard about a fatal avalanche occurring earlier that morning. I’d expected the entire village to buckle up around the moment, my intrepretation of a small town's reaction to an enormous upset. I thought the adventure shops would close or the mountaineers would be forced to stop. But the tragedy was met with a different kind of sadness and understanding.
Chamonix exists in the middle of climatic volatility and natural extremes – the thrilling and dangerous beauty of the Alps can also choke the throat of the sweet little town. We had forgotten for a moment, in our tender time with our little boys walking past little shops of ice-cream and souvenirs and past the town centre where there is sometimes music, that the real extraordinariness of this village is the delicate properties of it’s location. It's a charming French mountain village, gently pushed into the middle of one of the most magnificent mountain ranges in the world.
How to get there
Chamonix is located at the foot of Mont Blanc, an hour away from the Geneva international airport in Switzerland. The SAT bus company provides daily transfers from the Geneva airport to Chamonix. There are also many private transfers available to and from Chamonix via Geneva. Cham-Express and Deluxe-Transfers Chamonix are two I’ve had personal experience with. It is strongly recommended that you coordinate transfer arrangements in advance.
Lyon airport, only two hours away, is conveniently served by a TGV high-speed train station for easy connections. Tickets can be arranged through their website www.sncf.fr. There are also regular trains to Chamonix from Paris, Lyon, Annecy, Bellegarde, Geneva and Martigny.
The Mont Blanc Tunnel provides direct access from Italy by car but because Chamonix is increasing its dedication to eco-responsibility, public transport is advised.
An eco-friendly digital application called Itinerio can be downloaded onto a smart phone or a tablet for an interactive exploration of the Chamonix Valley prior to your arrival.
Robyn Bernstein / Expatica
Robyn Bernstein, a former New Yorker, lives in Arizona with her entrepreneurial husband and three energetic boys. She and her husband cook, ski, skate and travel with their happy circus of kids, focusing on affordability, good food and great views as the deciding factor for where they go. Robyn is the author of Strange Matter, her not-yet-published first novel about the struggles of a young misfit using scientific theories to understand tragedy in her own world. She's available on Twitter @NYCAZWRITER and hopefully in bookstores soon. Thumbnail credit: Benh LIEU SONG via Wikimedia Commons.
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