The ski resort of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is famous for its ideal location at the foot of Europe’s highest peak. What was a small mountain village until the end of the 19th century has now become a cosmopolitan centre in the French Alps of Haute-Savoie. The resort is a good base to explore three iconic sites: the Aiguille du Midi, the Mer de Glace and the Brévent mountain.
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc: a bit of history
Before the 18th century, Chamonix (or Chamouni as it was then known) was situated in a remote position at the foot of Mont-Blanc, “the doomed mountain”.
In 1760, Swiss geologist Horace Bénédict de Saussure (1740-1799) offered a reward to the first man to reach the summit of Mont Blanc. Two Chamonix men, Michel Paccard and Jacques Balmat made it to the summit in 1786 for the very first time in recorded history.
Since then, and for over two centuries, Chamonix has been welcoming travellers from all over the world. Wealthy visitors were drawn to the resort by its reputation of outdoor pursuits: mountaineering, hiking, climbing, mountain biking, paragliding, skiing and snowboarding.
Originally located on the lands of the Duke of Savoy, the commune of Chamonix became French on the 4 April 1860. It took the name Chamonix-Mont-Blanc on the 21st November 1921.
An imperial visit!
On 2 September 1860 (a couple of months after Chamonix became French) Emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie arrived at Chamonix for a 2-day state visit. The following morning, the imperial couple got up early to climb to the Montenvers summit. From there, they admired the Mer de Glace. The imperial visit contributed to the fame of the village.
But Chamonix really owes its fantastic development as a skiing resort to the first Winter Olympic Games that were held there in 1924.
Chamonix-Mont-Blanc: a dynamic resort!
The population of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc accounts for approximately 9,000.
However, it faces important demographic variations depending on the tourist seasons:
- 60,000 visitors enter the Valley of Chamonix in Winter and
- more than 100,000 in Summer.
There is not much of interest in the town itself apart from admiring the former palaces that once hosted famous visitors.
Check out the fine balcony railings here and there, Art Nouveau architecture reminiscent of the Belle Epoque era.
To be honest, it is the magnificent surroundings that make Chamonix’ so much worth a visit.
Since 1965, Chamonix has been linked to Courmayeur in the Aosta Valley by the 11.6 km long Mont Blanc Tunnel.
It runs beneath the mountain just under the Aiguille du Midi. Alongside the St Gotthard and the Fréjus tunnels, it ranks as one of the major trans-Alpine transport routes.
Explore the Mer de Glace with the Montenvers Railway
The Montenvers mountain railway (Chemin de fer du Montenvers) is a train service that departs from Chamonix and goes up to the Montenvers Hotel (1.913 m). The line is 5.1 km long and trains take 20 minutes, running at 14 to 20 kph.
Onboard, you can admire the beautiful mountain landscape which dominates the valley of Chamonix.
The inauguration of the first section of the line took place in 1909. Visitors embarked on trains pulled by steam locomotives. Until the railway line was electrified in 1953.
A breathtaking panorama!
On arrival at the Montenvers upper station, visitors can opt for a 20-minute walk or a short gondola ride down into an ice cave carved out of the Mer de Glace (in summer only).
The panorama at Montenvers is exceptional with the Mer de Glace and the impressive “needle” of the Drus.
The Mer de Glace (literally Sea of Ice) is a 7 km long and 200 metres deep glacier. It is the longest glacier in France.
Until the 19th century, the glacier, then visible from Chamonix, was even longer, reaching the hamlet of Les Bois. It attracted painters and later photographers, such as William Turner with the 1816 painting “Source of the Arveron in the Valley of Chamouni Savoy”.
Today, the glacier is steadily retreating: at Montenvers station, it has thinned by 190 metres since 1820.
► Read more about my visit to the Mer de Glace on board of the Montenvers train on my French blog!
► Find out more about the Montenvers Train (tickets, passes and timetable).
An unforgettable journey to Aiguille du Midi
The journey to Aiguille du Midi is arguably one of the most exciting cable-car rides in the Alps.
It is a two-stage journey, lasting only 20 minutes with an ascent of 2,800 m. The cable car first leaves the centre of Chamonix to Plan de l’Aiguille (2,308 m) suspended part of the time 500 m above ground.
From there, some visitors prefer to go on a great day excursion to the Montenvers train station and take the train back down to Chamonix.
From Plan de l’Aiguille, a second cable car rises up without any support pillar, to Aiguille du Midi with fantastic views of the jagged Aiguilles de Chamonix and the upper parts of the Mont-Blanc massif.
Aiguille du Midi: a breathtaking view
The Aiguille du Midi culminates at an altitude of 3,842 metres. From there, the mountain view is breathtaking. It embraces the Swiss, Italian and French Alps as far as the Matterhorn and Monta Rosa.
The Aiguille du Midi (literally Needle of the South) is said to have been called so by the local population as its position indicated the South.
The highest tourist attraction in Europe!
The station of Aiguille du Midi consists of two panoramic viewing platforms, a café and a gift shop. The Gourmet restaurant named “3842” is one of the highest restaurants in the world.
The cable-car station is situated at an altitude of 3,777 m. A footbridge connects it to the central pillar of the needle.
You can actually walk all around the central pillar thanks to a series of galleries, stairs, lifts and outdoor terraces. One of the latest additions is Le Tube (the Pipe). The 32 m long steel gallery made it possible for visitors to circuit around the central pillar of the Aiguille du Midi without backtracking.
The ice tunnel!
One of my favourite attractions was this ice tunnel:
Inside the rocky needle is a lift that brings visitors on a final 42 m ascent to the top terrace at 3,842 m.
This is where you’ll find the daring Step into the Void attraction. It consists of a 2.50 m glass room suspended over a 1000 m precipice.
The Aiguille du Midi is the closest visitors can get to the Mont Blanc without climbing!
Above the Vallée Blanche
From Aiguille du Midi, another cable car (summer only), continues the formidable journey for 5 km and 30 minutes towards the Pointe Helbronner (3,462 m) above the Vallée Blanche and Glacier du Géant.
The Pointe Helbronner, marking the border between France and Italy, is served by another cable-car descending to La Palud, a village near Courmayeur, in the Aosta Valley, Italy.
► Read more about my visit to the Aiguille du Midi on my French blog!
► Find out more about the cable-car Chamonix-Aiguille du Midi (tickets, passes and timetable).
The majestic view to Mont-Blanc from Le Brévent
One of the best views of the Mont Blanc massif is at Le Brévent. This mountain rising on the other side of the valley is accessible by gondola from the centre of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc.
It takes 20 minutes only to reach the relay station of Planpraz at an altitude of 2,062m. The site offers beautiful views over the Chamonix Valley and Mont-Blanc. Planpraz is an ideal start for great classical hikes leading to magnificent mountain lakes or down to Chamonix.
The second stage of the journey, also by gondola, transports visitors to the summit of Le Brévent at an altitude of 2,526m within 20 minutes. From here, the view reaches over to the French side of Mont Blanc.
An adult ticket from Chamonix to Le Brévent (as of November 2017) is a €31.50 return.
► Find out more about the cable-car Chamonix-Brévent (tickets, passes and timetable).
How to get to Chamonix-Mont-Blanc
BY CAR. Chamonix-Mont-Blanc is easily accessible by car.
- From Paris, take the A6 to Mâcon and the A40 to Chamonix (this motorway is also called “Autoroute Blanche” – the white motorway!)
- From Marseille and Provence, take the A7 to Valence before connecting to the A49 to Grenoble and then the A41 through Chambéry and Annecy till it reaches the A40 motorway.
BY TRAIN. Chamonix is also easily accessible by train, with regular TGV service from Paris Gare de Lyon and to Geneva or Annecy. From there, take a TER (regional express train) to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains before connecting to Chamonix with the Mont-Blanc express service. Some TGV can also lead you directly to Saint-Gervais-les-Bains, located 20 km from Chamonix.
BY AIR. If you travel from Australia or America (or any other parts of the world!), take a flight to the Swiss airport of Geneva Cointrin (88 km) or to Lyon Saint-Exupéry (220 km) and rent a car from there. Geneva, Switzerland is by far the closest airport to the Savoie region.
More info about Chamonix-Mont-Blanc
Here are a few links to other pages and sites about the resort of Chamonix-Mont-Blanc:
- My article on Mont Blanc, Europe’s highest peak
- Discover the historic province of Savoie
- My visit to the Aiguille du Midi on my French blog
- My visit to the Mer de Glace on board the Montenvers train on my French blog
- The Official Website of the Tourist Board of Chamonix
- For info about the ski lifts opened all year round, visit the website of Mont-Blanc Natural Resort
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I’d like to thank the Compagnie du Mont-Blanc for making this discovery of Chamonix, Aiguille du Midi and Mer de Glace such an amazing and unforgettable moment!