Mountains loom large almost everywhere you look in Chamonix. Skiers and sightseers are launched by cable car to heights of 3842m on the Mont Blanc massif, while the glacial void of La Vallée Blanche – one of Europe's most fêted off-piste adventures – beckons to the brave. Skiers and boarders have a choice of pistes along the valley, while in summer the same lifts access hiking and biking trails.
Chamonix has a long history as a winter-sports hub. Rediscovered as a tourist destination by Brits William Windham and Richard Pococke in 1741, Chamonix hosted the first ever Winter Olympics in 1924.
For all the desolate beauty of the mountains, downtown Chamonix hums with life. Streets are lined with Michelin-starred restaurants, sports gear stores and some of the French Alps' fanciest hotels. And if you do the nightlife justice, it'll exhaust you as much as the mountains.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Chamonix.
The great rocky fang of the Aiguille du Midi (3842m), rising from the Mont Blanc massif, is one of Chamonix’ most distinctive features. The 360-degree views of the French, Swiss and Italian Alps from the summit are (quite literally) breathtaking. Year-round, you can float via cable car from Chamonix to the Aiguille du Midi on the vertiginous Téléphérique de l’Aiguille du Midi. Dress warmly: even in summer, temperatures at the top rarely rise above -10°C (in winter prepare for -25°C).
France’s largest glacier, the 200m-deep 'Sea of Ice', flows 7km down the northern side of Mont Blanc, scarred with crevasses formed by the immense pressure of its 90m-per-year movement. The Train du Montenvers, a picturesque, 5km-long cog railway opened in 1909, links Gare du Montenvers with Montenvers (1913m), from where a cable car descends to the glacier and, 420 stairs later, the Grotte de Glace. Also worth a visit is the Glaciorium, an exhibition on the formation (and future) of glaciers.
The highest peak on the western side of the Chamonix Valley, Le Brévent (2525m) has tremendous views of the Mont Blanc massif, myriad hiking trails through a nature reserve, ledges to paraglide from and some vertiginous black runs.
This diverting two-level museum allows you to wander through Chamonix history, from butter moulds and farming tools of yore to the dawn of the 18th-century tourism boom. There's mountain history galore, including the early days of the high mountain guides and fascinating stories of the first female alpinists, as well as 19th-century oil paintings of the valley's timeless landscape.
Beautifully lit collections of crystals, many from around Mont Blanc, are exposed within this small museum. The adjoining Espace Tairraz focuses on the art and science of mountaineering with creative interactive displays and photos and videos of seemingly impossible ascents. Situated behind the church.
Step directly inside the glacier at this tunnel of ice, reshaped every year for the past half-century, which sparkles with perennially recreated ice sculptures. To reach it, you'll need to get to Montenvers station (1913m), before jumping onto a cable car and then descending more than 400 steps.