Back when I was a teenager, my family embarked on an epic road trip from Kuwait to Spain and back. Every step of the way was a challenge and an adventure, but the highlight of the trip was passing through the French Alps. We entered the Mon-Blanc tunnel with sunny skies and warm weather on the Italian side and existed to gloomy weather and snow-covered slopes on the French side.
Fast-forward several decades and I am back to this beautiful region of France to spend a full week exploring and experiencing the Alps.
Chamonix Mon Blanc
Chamonix is the base camp for anyone wishing to explore the French Alps and the region in general. It sits at the base of Europe’s highest peak, Mon Blanc and at the intersection of France, Italy and Switzerland.
This unique location makes it a major tourist attraction with crowds swelling during the winter season and also in July and August.
Tip: Chamonix also describes the whole valley under the slopes of Mon Blanc, so if you are booking a trip this town be very specific about the name.
During other months of the year, this becomes a sleepy town with fewer crowds and fewer activities, but it is still worth a visit.
I arrived in October so I experienced the town in a more leisurely fashion. I was still able to find things to do without having to fight the crowds.
Mon Blanc Massif
Chamonix is at an elevation of 3,396 ft, so the mountain towers above town for an additional 12,000 ft. That makes for a breathtaking view. But to really experience this awesome beauty, you must climb to the top.
Tip: Most shops and restaurants close from noon to 3 PM. If you don’t plan your lunch ahead, you may go hungry for several hours. Some ethnic restaurants like Turkish or Chinese remain open.
During the winter months, skiers take the cable cars to reach the best ski slopes. The same lifts take hikers to some challenging trails during the summer.
Aiguille du Midi Cable Car
There is a stop mid-way with great views of Chamonix down below, hiking trails and a plateau used to launch Paragliders. Once launched, the gliders can hover for a long time riding the currents like hawks.
Those thrill seekers carry their parasails in large bags in the cable car. It can get very crowded in the cabin.
Tip: The cars go up every 15 minutes. If you happen to be going up with a large group if paragliders, wait for the next car.
After this mid-way stop, you can continue on to the top platform riding the second longest single vertical span in the world.
As you climb, air pressure and temperature are dropping. You better have your winter clothes with you.
Tip: Sunglasses or ski glasses are highly recommended due to the snow glare and the high UV levels.
At the top, you can enjoy the views from the protection of the building or you can use a tunnel to venture out onto an ice ridge heading towards a glacier.
If you dare, you can walk into the Glass Skywalk called “Step into the Void”. It is a thrill to feel suspended above the snow-covered slopes. It is the closest thing to flying but without the risk.
Strolling through town
Chamonix managed to retain the charm of an old French town in spite of the great tourist influx. During our visit, we parked at the “Aiguille du Midi Cable Car” and walked down “Avenue De l’Aiguille du Midi” over a bridge and right on to “Rue du Docteur Paccard”. It is a pedestrian-only stretch with many shops, restaurants and beautiful buildings.
Along the way you can find some good places to grab some souvenirs, dine at a French café or bakery, or visit a sporting goods store to buy items you forgot to pack.
Tip: Most places you want to visit in Chamonix are a short walk from the town center, but if you are tired or not near the town center, you can hop on the free shuttles “Le Mulet” serving the town center. The minibusses pass by every 10 to 15 minutes and circle around downtown.
During your stroll, you can visit the Alpine Museum to learn about the history of the valley and skiing. Or for a more intriguing exhibit, go to the Museum of Mer de Glass to see ice sculptures that get recreated every year.
For some live music, public events or just people watching, head to the town square “Place Balmat”. This is also close to the Chamonix casino, the post office and a movie theater.
If you need additional information about the Chamonix valley, visit the tourist office, which located close to the town square “Place Balmat” or go to the Chamonix website here.
Mer de Glace
The train climbs up from Chamonix to Montenvers passing through several bridges and tunnels. Along the way you can enjoy beautiful forest and mountain views.
When you reach Montenvers you will ride a cable car to the glacier. But if you want to see the ice cave, you will need to climb down 415 steps. It is worth the effort but might be too much for young children or the elderly.
Other attractions in Chamonix
Paragliding: Even if you don’t have any experience, you can go Paragliding with an expert. Several outfitters offer tandem flights over Chamonix.
Amusement Park “Parc de loisirs de Chamonix”: Spend some time with the family trying the fun rides. The luge ride is very popular with young and old.
Chamonix Casino: If you are really dying to waste some money while in the Alps, then go to this small Casino. It has some older slot machines and the elegant architecture is worth a look.
Hiking: When the snows recede, the ski lifts become hiker’s lifts. Take one of those cable cars to the top of the mountain and explore the many hiking trails. For more info about hiking trails in the valley and the mountains go to this interactive guide where you can pick the difficulty, points of interest and length of hikes.