First time in Chamonix? Here’s five things you really shouldn’t miss.
1. The Aiguille du Midi
The Midi just has to be the number one on this list. I never, ever get tired of going up there – just for a coffee or to cool down on a hot day. It’s unlike any other cable car in the world in its scale and beauty. This may be a slightly pointless tip – it’s not like the Midi needs any help from me, it’s one of France’s biggest attractions! But it truly is unmissable. If you haven’t been before I would allow at least half a day for it, to give yourself plenty of time to explore its many terraces. At peak times (most of July and August) it can be very busy – try and get there before 9 a.m. to miss the queues.
If it’s running, don’t miss the Hellbronner Panoramique, which sails from the Midi, across the Glacier du Geant, for quite a different experience – silent, serene and spectacular. The station at the other end (The Torino Hut) is in Italy so stop in for an excellent espresso, a look over the velvet green valley and dramatic needle-sharp peaks of the Val d’Aosta and some fun Franco-Italian border photo-ops. Not many people go on this wonderful ride but I think it’s one of the best things the Midi has to offer and well worth the extra cost. NB at the moment, the cable car will not descend to Courmayeur in Italy, due to renovation, but you can still go to the Torino Hut. More about the Aiguille du Midi with photos and tips here
2. A high Alpine walk
Whether it’s strolling along the high, level balcony walks, with their wonderful panoramic views, drifting through the high meadows full of flowers, or the tougher but rewarding ascents like the pale green, snow-fringed Lac Blanc or the glacial amphitheatre of La Jonction, there is something for every level on Chamonix. Just walking at the valley floor level is beautiful, and the views that open up as you go higher are jaw-dropping. Have a look at our hiking pages for some favourites
3. The Montenvers Railway
The glossy red retro engines of the Montenvers railway chug up the mountainside to reach a point high above the Mer de Glace glacier, with a stunning view of the Dru and the Grandes Jorasses. There’s a lovely old atmospheric restaurant and a newer terrace restaurant jutting out over the glacier, which is reasonably priced and has a fantastic view. (Avoid the small cafe at the platform, it’s lousy). The ice caves and exhibitions on crystals and Alpine fauna are fun, but the best thing to do here is just wander around the trails and take in the unbelievable natural drama of the setting – you don’t have to go far to lose the crowds. You can walk across to the Midi on the Vallot Path (also know as the Grand Balcon Nord) – this is especially spectacular via Forbes Signal, above Montenvers (ask them to point the route out to you if you miss the sign)
One of the great joys of being in France is of course the food – French gastronomy was recently awarded UNESCO status! – and Chamonix has everything from double-Michelin-starred gastroparadise at the Albert Premier, to homely, cosy mountain huts. Most places in Chamonix are pretty good, but here’s some particular recommendations of mine.
Le Bistrot at the Morgane – ignore the unprepossessing exterior and delight in their exceptional cooking. They already have one Michelin star and are working on getting the second – meanwhile the set lunch for 18 euros is an absolute steal!
Casa Valerio – you know that when the Italians give pizza awards to the French, it must be really good. Friendly, local’s favourite, also does take-away.
L’Atmosphere – my favourite classic French restaurant…try and book one of the tables that hang out over the river.
Moustache et ses Filles is a very charming Savoyarde restaurant with reasonable prices and bags of character.
37 Impasse des Rhododendrons (alley behind and to right of the Super-U), tel 04 50 93 49 68
(The lovely Hotel Eden with its emphasis on clear, refreshing flavours was perhaps my favourite in the valley, but seems to be having some serious problems under new management. I hope to see it improve again, but as of Summer 2013 it is not recommended)
You can get wonderful food from the Saturday Market – local, fresh and delicious, get a picnic from here and choose your spot!
Or for a super-deluxe picnic, let Mountain Gourmets set you up one of their Meals with Altitude
Chamonix is one of the best places in the world for paragliding (the French word is parapente), with its combination of easy launching, incredible scenery and reliable thermals. On any clear day, you’ll see dozens of the bright wings drifting high above the valley. Luckily, the fun is easily accessible to most people via a tandem flight, and this is something I’d highly recommend to anyone!
Done all these? Next up is a post on Chamonix’s hidden gems…