France's Chamonix Valley is one of the most scenic places on the European continent. A narrow river valley which houses everything from rock climbing centers to pulsing bars and pubs, on both sides of the valley the peaks of the French Alps explode thousands of feet into the sky. While there are numerous ways to experience the grandeur of the Alps from Chamonix--riding the ski lift at Les Grands-Montets, mountain biking along the steep ridges, or paragliding off of the many peaks--the most accessible for the common layperson is to ride the Aiguille du Midi cable car, a hair-raising ascent which gains 9,200 vertical ft. over the course of 20 minutes. From the summit perch it's possible to take in a 360-degree view beneath the base of Mont Blanc, and from this frigid vantage point set nearly at the top of Europe, it's almost possible to reach straight out and touch the sky.
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Views and Brews in Chamonix
Here's my favorite half-day hike from Chamonix, commonly known as the "Traverse Plan de l'Aiguille - Montenvers Train Mer de Glace." Be sure to get up early, so that the line isn't too long at the cable car to reach the Aiguille du Midi. Have your water and snacks packed and even in the middle of the summer be sure to have your rain jacket, winter hat, and gloves. Double-check to make sure the ticket you're purchasing not only gets you up to the Aiguille du Midi point, but also then lets you hop on the next cable car to head towards Helbronner (the incredible viewing spot that hovers over the border of France and Italy). Once you step out, you'll see hundreds of teams tackling the more technical descents on the snow and ice. You'll then descend by cable car back to the mid-station at the Plan d'Aiguille (that you saw on the way up). From there, you'll walk the steep, zigzag, wooded track back down to Chamonix (3–4 hours) or cross over from the Plan d'Aiguille to the Montenvers train/Mer de Glace station (3 hours) to take the tourist train back down to Chamonix. Either way, you're guaranteed inspiring views. By your return to town you'll have worked up an appetite worthy of the delicious Chamonix Micro Brewery at 350 Route de Bouchet. Walk along the river to head toward the pub and enjoy the food, beverages, and cozy atmosphere. Toast to taking advantage of all that this rugged setting has to offer, and honor its past too—it was home of the first Winter Olympics, in 1924.
We arrived in Cham late the night before after a long week in Munich. When we got up the Aguille du Midi was back lit and majestic. We had ten days of new snow and great terrain accompanied by enormous amounts of incredible cheese. The Saturday market in Chamonix brings out vendors with locally cured meat, regional cheese and fresh baked croissants for a fraction of the price of the stores in town.