Icicle's town tour of Chamonix Mont Blanc
Until the year of 1786, when Mont Blanc was first ascended by Balmat and Paccard, the town of Chamonix was very small and isolated. The ascent of Mont Blanc soon made Chamonix a popular tourist location, and just over 200 years ago the railway track to the town was built. This facilitated the access to Chamonix for the tourists, and the town grew quickly. In 1924 the first ever winter Olympics were held in the town, and Chamonix really established itself as the Alpine capital. Each year ski and climbing world cup events are held in the town, as well as many famous sporting events, such as the Mont Blanc Ultra Trail.
"If you like Winter - if you like Winter so much that you like even the word
'Winter' - if you long for snow and are willing to work at whatever keeps you
in it, then sooner or later you come to Chamonix. That's just how it is."
Extract from the novel 'Cham' by Jonathan Trigell
The town today
Many first time visitors are surprised how large the town is, as Chamonix is very different from 'twee' mountain resorts such as Zermatt and St Anton. You get the flavour that Chamonix is a working town, and there are as many visitors in the summer months as during the winter, which is rare in Alpine towns. The history of Mont Blanc dominates the town, and the names of Jacques Balmat, Dr Paccard, and Horace Benedict de Saussure, are used for roads, buildings, and square names. There are roughly 10,000 permanent residents of Chamonix, though this figure can treble when tourist numbers are added. As a town catering for 30,000 people, Chamonix boasts a sports centre, swimming pools, ice rinks, climbing walls, schools, the national Guide and Ski Instructor school, and literally hundreds of shops and bars.
The buildings are a mixture of old and new, but there are a lot of typical haute savoie (pronounced sav-waa) chalets and buildings, such as the Maison de Montagne and the Majestique, dotted around the town centre. This photo is of the central square, and on the right is the l'Arve river which flows through the middle of town. When you are in Chamonix, you will notice that the river changes colour as a result of the weather. Hot weather causes lots of glacial melt, and the water is chalky white. In cold conditions the water runs clear, and when it is rainy the water is brown.
Restaurants & Bars
As the population of Chamonix is so large in the peaks of season, it has a huge selection of places to eat and drink. Instead of providing a boring list of everywhere that is open, we have selected our favourites. Needless to say, we are climbers and skiers, so our focus is on good food in large quantities and cheap bars with great atmospheres, so if you are after "nouveau cuisine" we can't help!
Munster Irish Bar
Located in the 'Sud' just around the corner from the Icicle office, you are always sure of a great welcome from Chris, Claire and Sarah. Guiness is on tap, and we often end up here on the last night of the courses.
Caveau Restaurant
It may be hard to find (opposite the cimena, and below the Chinese restaurant), but it is worth searching for. Built in an old stone cellar, these pizzas and garlic bread with mozarella should not be missed. Good pastas too.
Micro Brasserie de Chamonix (MBC)
As you may have guessed from their logo, it is run by a crazy bunch of French Canadians. Living up to its name all the beer is brewed on-site, and there are three key choices; the Blonde (lager), Granite (bitter), & Drus (stout).
Vagabond Bar
On the edge of town, the Vagabond is famous as a gite / bunkhouse, as well as for its bar. It serves Guiness and has a great terrace outside, from which you can admire the whole Mont Blanc massif. Also does BBQ nights.
Jekyll Pub, Food, and Bar
The only Irish bar in Chamonix, close to Chamonix Sud and the campsites. As well as good drinks, the food is very good. The bar is on three floors, though you are advised to book ahead if you wish to eat. Wood beams throughout.
Cantina Bar, Food, and Club
Excellent Mexican restaurant, with the best fajitas and frozen margheritas in Chamonix. The club underneath is open until 4am, and offers regular Drum & Bass nights. There is even a hotel above the restaurant, which is cheap.
Midnight Express
For a quick snack after a climb (or at 1am after a few too many beers), Midnight Express is famed for its range of hot sandwiches, and is on the main pedestrian street in town. The top option is the baguette poulet frites.
Chambre Neuf Bar
Next to the train station in the town centre, this bar has live music on Fridays through the season, and does the cheapest pitchers of beer in town. Run by Scandanavians, the bar is always lively. Open throughout year.
Note: Be very careful where you choose to eat out or drink in Chamonix, as prices vary massively. All the places listed above are very competitively priced, but walk into the wrong place and you could be buying a five pound pint of beer, or a twenty pound salad! Generally the centre of town is more expensive than the places near the edges.
Shopping
Chamonix shops contrast massively, so don't be surprised to walk past the Chanel and Patagonia shops one minute and then bargain t-shirts, naff souvenirs, and stuffed toy shops the next. Alpine sport shops dominate the town centre, and there are tens of climbing equipment and ski shops to choose from. The main chain of outdoor shops is the Twinner 3S brand, two of which are a minute walk away from our Chamonix office. Other popular shops include the Tiarraz photography and poster shop on the road leading to the train station, and the Alpine Library bookshop (opposite Snells on the main pedestrian street) which sells a wide range of English language guidebooks as well as a huge range of Alpine maps. If you visit Chamonix from outside the EU, be sure to ask for the tax free shopping prices, or keep all your receipts to claim the tax back off your purchases as you leave France.
Views of Mont Blanc
Wherever you are in Chamonix, you only need to look up to see that you are surrounded by mountains. To to SW lies the main Mont Blanc massif, and from most places in town you can look up to the summit of Mont Blanc. Descending from the summit is the Bossons glacier, which is the largest icefall in Europe. It descends to within a few hundred metres from the valley floor. Directly above Chamonix on the opposite side to Mont Blanc are the Aiguilles Rouges (Red Needles) mountains, which get their name from the red granite rock that forms them. To the south lie the Aiguilles du Chamonix, which contain some of the most famous rock climbs in the Alps, such as the Charmoz Grepon traverse, the Fou, Blatiere, Peigne, Pelerins, and Aiguille de la Republique.
Weather & Seasons
The altitude of the town is 1030m, so almost exactly four kilometers beneath the summit of Mont Blanc. In the summer the snowline is roughly 3200m, though usually from December to March the snowline is lower than Chamonix, so the streets and roofs are covered in a blanket of snow. The differences between summer and winter are incredible, so pack your clothes carefully! In town in the summer months (June to September), you can usually walk around wearing shorts and a t-shirt and the temperatures can reach the mid to high thirties, but in winter the daytime temperature can be as low as minus fifteen in January or February, so wrap up warm. In the mountains the summer temperature is roughly minus ten on Mont Blanc in August, but take the wind chill factor into account. All visitors notice that even on a cold day in the Alps it rarely feels as cold as the UK. This is due to the air being a lot drier, and in Chamonix you are usually outside exercising, so don't get as cold.
Cable Cars
As far as ski or mountain resorts go, Chamonix is quite low at just over 1000m above sea level. However it is served by a very large range of cable cars and mountain railways, which enable you to access the high altitudes with great ease. The majority of lifts are owned by the Compagnie du Mont Blanc, and this monopoly has a clear impact on prices. A return ticket to the Aiguille du Midi costs about 43 Euros. Whilst the cable cars are not cheap, they do include some of the most spectacular routes in the world. The Aiguille du Midi is 3842m, and the twenty minute ride to its summit is worth every penny. In the winter season the Grand Montets is a favourite lift for skiers. The cable cars are very busy in season, and some start as early as 6am in the key months, but outside the busiest months (February, March, July, & August), the hours are slightly reduced, and out of season most are shut for repairs.
When to visit
As you will have seen from the 'Weather & Seasons' and 'Cable Cars' sections above, Chamonix has two key seasons; winter from mid December to mid April, and summer from mid June to mid September. Outside these months the weather is generally unstable (lots of cloud and rain), and most of the cable cars are closed for the seasonal maintenance. You will find cheap flights and accommodation during these off months, but should you decide to visit, don't be surprised if you find most shops and cable cars closed and have seven days of rain. You have been warned! During the main summer and winter seasons the weather is generally stable as anticyclonic (high pressure) conditions dominate.
Places of interest
Musee Alpin: It illustrates the history the Chamonix, including the first ascents of the local Alpine summits, life in the 19th Century, paintings & ski history.
Maison de la Montagne: In here is housed the high mountain office, where route information and maps are stored, as well as weather & avalanche offices.
Place Balmat : In this central square in town, you will find two statues. One has two characters; Balmat and de Saussure. The single figure statue is of Dr Paccard.
More Information? You should visit the award winning Chamonix Tourist Office in the centre of town for free leaflets and advice on all the tourist attractions mentioned here. Most of the staff speak English, and are very helpful. If you want to visit their web site, click on the following link: Chamonix Tourist Office Website.
Top 10 activities
1. Aiguille du Midi cable car. At a height of 3842m, this is the highest passenger cable car in the world, and offers great views of the Mont Blanc massif. There are several viewing platforms, shops and even a restaurant. Remember to wrap up warm.
2. The Montenvers mountain railway gives access to the Mer de Glace (Sea of Ice) Glacier, with spectacular views of the Grandes Jorasses and the Dru / Aiguille Verte massif. The glacier also has an ice cave and crystal gallery to look around.
3. Gaillands: a famous rock climbing crag on the edge of town, by woods and lakes. 4. Arve: the river that runs through town is famed for its hydroglisse and rafting. 5. Mountain Biking: you can hire good bikes in town, and get lift passes for many runs down. 6. Canyoning: there are several good gorges in the region for canyoning days in summer.
7. Paragliding: you can opt for tandem flights from a variety of cable car stations in the valley. 8. Helicopter Flights: there are flights available from £25pp, and you can fly over Mont Blanc. 9. Vallee Blanche: hire a Guide for the day and descend the world famous off piste route. 10. Snow Shoeing: in the winter months, this enables you to walk in some remote areas.
Sightseeing nearby
Chamonix is situated within a half hour drive of either Switzerland and Italy, so if you have some time to spare, this section offers some advice on sightseeing in all three countries within a maximum drive of one hour from Chamonix.
France
Italy
Switzerland
Le Brevent - excellent view of the massif including the Aiguille du Midi & Mont Blanc.
Lac Blanc & Flegere - view of the Mer de Glace and summits of Verte & Jorasses.
Aiguilles Rouges - nature reserve centre at Col des Montets, and good trekking paths.
Musee des Mines d'Argent - silver mining museum of the history running up to 1908.
Gorges de la Diosaz - the gorge of the Diosaz contains waterfalls and via ferrata.
Notre Dame de la Gorge - chapel, built in 1707, at the heart of a wooded valley.
Courmayeur - Italy's answer to Chamonix, on the south facing side of Mont Blanc.
Val Ferret - here there are many good walks on sections of the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Val Veny - the glaciers from the south side of the massif almost reach the valley floor.
Val de Cogne - most famous in winter for the huge range of ice climbing routes that form.
Macaby - a huge rock climb (with path up the back) to reach a ruined monastery on top.
Dalle de l'Amone - a huge slab, that is good rock climbing in the dryest summer months.
Martigny - an old Roman town, surrounded by vineyards, and containing a very well preserved amphitheatre, a sculpture park, and some very famous art galleries.
Emmoson - this dam was famed for the Bond film Goldeneye, where the opening scene involved a bungy jump from the top. Good walks around both lakes.
Dinosaurs - above the higher Emmison lake there is a rock where many hundreds of dinosaur footprints have been clearly preserved. About a three hour walk total.
 
 
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