This is a travel guide to Chamonix and the surrounding mountains. Chamonix and the French Alps are ideal for skiers and hikers, making them accessible and fun in the winter or summer. I went to Chamonix in August to escape the heat and boredom of Paris (where just about everything was closed) and to get some fresh air and strenuous exercise. Here are my travel tips.
Getting to Chamonix
I took the TGV from Paris (Gare de Lyon) to Geneva, a trip that takes only 3 hours 15 minutes. From Geneva you can rent a car and be in Chamonix in one hour. If you want to take the train to Chamonix, it will take you five hours with two train changes in between (not the best way to go). If you are coming from outside France, you can fly directly into Geneva airport and rent a car.
Atmosphere of Chamonix
Old world charm, chic and urbane unlike many ski/mountain stations across the border in Switzerland. Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924. Royalty used to (and still) ski and hike in this area. King Albert I of Belgium used to come to Chamonix to ski. Because it has much tradition and has catered to upscale travellers for decades, it does not have the tacky, flashy feel of newer Alpine resorts with their hideous fast food joints and cheap junk shops. The charm and character of Chamonix are what keep people coming back. It boasts of excellent gastronomic restaurants as well as restaurants serving hearty traditional Mont Blanc cuisine.
When to go to Chamonix
You can go any time of the year but the most expensive period (high season) is Christmas, New Year, January and February, in other words, the ski season. Summer months are perfect for hiking, although it can be rainy in early June. There is a low-high season in the summer with prices for hotel rooms lowest in June, highest in August when the town is filled with people and many of the most popular hiking trails feel like a traffic jam. The queues to the Aiguille du Midi are terrible in August and you have to wait a couple of hours just to get on a cable car up to the viewpoint. Then again, many places in France are overcrowded in August (except Paris). If you can’t stand crowds, go hiking in Zermatt. Swiss people don’t all go away in August; however, you will miss the special charm and the good food of Chamonix.
Where to stay in Chamonix
If you want a luxurious place to stay, the best is Hameau Albert 1er with its two-Michelin star restaurant, Albert 1er. I wrote a review of Hameau Albert 1er and I recommend it highly. It is a quiet place with gardens, swimming pool, spa, views of the mountains and excellent, friendly staff. Where you may not want to stay is right in the heart of the town, in front of a busy pedestrian walkway filled with noisy bars, restaurants and shops. Nor would you want to stay on a busy road with cars and trailer homes zooming around all day.
Other hotels recommended by friends are Le Morgane, a modern boutique hotel close to the center but located on a busy street. I don’t know if it’s quiet but if you cannot get a room at Hameau Albert, I am told this is the second best place. Another option is the Grand Hotel des Alpes, built in 1840, located in the center of Chamonix, known for its great views of the mountains.
Where to eat in Chamonix
(1) Albert 1er: This is the one place you must not miss. It has two Michelin stars and serves modern, innovative cuisine based upon local produce and the traditional dishes of the Mont Blanc area. The dining room is quiet and elegant, but not stiff. The staff are friendly and service is proper, but again, not intimidating or frosty. Don’t let the two Michelin stars scare you away. They do have a set course menu at lunch for 39 EUR (appetizer, main course, cheese or dessert) and dinner for 68 EUR (starter, main course, selection of cheeses and desserts, including 2 glasses of wine). They have an amazing selection of cheeses, desserts and wines.
(2) La Maison Carrier: This is the other restaurant at Hameau Albert 1er. A “restaurant de pays” (country restaurant), it serves traditional food from the region in a cozy, rustic atmosphere. The dishes are hearty mountain fare, although I did have an delicious vegetable tomato soup that had a clear broth and a main dish of fresh fish with herbs. Again the cheese selection and desserts are simply divine.
(3) L’Impossible: When you are tired of heavy food and want something lighter, more modern but still very savoury, this restaurant run by an Italian woman is the perfect place. Billed as a “new organic and natural cooking Italian restaurant”, you will find dishes such as ravioli of aubergines, capers and olives on a coulis of “Burrata cheese stracciatella” and tomato; scallops grilled with honey, diced curried apples and vegetable ratatouille; and lemon and walnut pudding with melon and a glass of port sabayon. For vegans and vegetarians, this restaurant is a lifesaver. They have gluten-free, vegan and vegetarian dishes.
(4) Le Panier des 4 Saisons: I did not visit this restaurant when I was in Chamonix but it was highly recommended by other travellers. It serves local food with a modern twist (for instance, fillet of local lake white fish accompanied with tarragon sauce and quinoa; tomato tart served with a mozzarella flavoured chantilly and basil pistou).
Hiking and other activities in Chamonix
I won’t even pretend to advise you on skiing in Chamonix because I went in August and can only discuss hiking. Chamonix is a great place to base yourself in this area because it has a lot of cable cars and lifts, and many hotels, restaurants, bars, sporting facilities and mountain guides.
If you are going to hike, get this English guide book from any of the bookstores in Chamonix: “Mont Blanc Trails” (guide + map) published by the Sentiers du Mont Blanc. It has 183 summer walks and hikes. Of course you can go rock climbing, para gliding, mountain bike riding and mountain climbing (up the Mont Blanc for example, an activity not recommended for people who are not experienced mountain climbers). Note: several people died this summer trying to summit the Mont Blanc, which is the highest peak in Europe. Better to gaze upon it from Chamonix or from the Aiguille du Midi.
The other thing to do in Chamonix is to visit the Aiguille du Midi. This is the biggest tourist destination (trap) in Chamonix. The Aiguille du Midi is a mountain that stands 3,842 metres high, looming over Chamonix. You take a cable car to the summit. The cable car is called Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi, and has the worst queues in August. Best thing to do is to reserve a ticket for the time when you want to go up. If you just show up and buy a ticket like I did, you can go only two hours later and once up there, you have to stay another two hours! You are herded into waiting rooms like cattle, packed into a cable car like sardines, but then when you stumble out of the cable car at the summit, it’s like heaven. On one side you face the Mont Blanc, on other sides you see Chamonix and Monte Rosa in Italy. There’s a restaurant up there, a cafe and a gift shop, too. And you get to watch people going up and down the Mont Blanc.
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