Chamonix and its surrounding ski areas are some of the most emblematic names in winter sports, attracting thousands of advanced-level skiers, snowboarders and ski-mountaineers from all over the world each season.
Chamonix isn't your average ski resort. This historic valley town at the foot of Western Europe's highest peak, Mont Blanc, is the birthplace of modern mountaineering and is now a year-round tourist destination in its own right, buzzing with sightseers and commerce and surrounded by some of the most majestic mountain scenery in the Alps.
Ever since Jacques Balmat and Michel Paccard made the first successful ascent of Mont Blanc in the summer of 1786, Chamonix has been a Mecca for serious Alpinists and mountain tourists alike; it is also regarded with reverence by the world's best big-mountain skiers and riders who come here to tackle the area's huge vertical descents and extreme off-piste terrain. Likewise, masses of aspiring advanced skiers and snowboarders are drawn to Chamonix each season, intent on ticking off one of the most hyped high-mountain off-piste routes in the Alps: the Vallée Blanche.
You don’t have to be an expert to enjoy Chamonix though, there are other more conventional ski areas in the Chamonix Valley, five in total, although only the linked Le Brevent and La Flegere areas are directly accessible by ski lift from Chamonix itself; the others are all separate and situated some distance away from the town, but served by bus and/or train links. These can get very crowded however! The town also has a well-deserved reputation for lively nightlife.
All snowsports enthusiasts should plan a pilgrimage to Chamonix to experience the magic of the Mont Blanc massif at least once.
From a snowsports perspective, Chamonix is best known for its outstanding off-piste terrain and for being the defacto capital of European big-mountain freeriding.
The Aiguille du Midi is the area's iconic lift-served highpoint, directly accessible from Chamonix town via the world's highest vertical-ascent cable car, and is the starting point for the well-documented and much-hyped Vallée Blanche descent; the astounding summit terminal on the Aiguille du Midi is a must-see viewpoint for most visitors to Chamonix, and is also the link point for the lift connection with the Italian ski resort of Courmayeur. The ski routes off the Aiguille du Midi are accessed via a catwalk along an exposed arete, are totally off-piste, and shouldn't be attempted without a guide.
The Grands Montets ski area at the resort village of Argentiere, 8 km up the valley road from Chamonix, is the other principal playground for serious freeriders and fans of steep-&-deep terrain. Beyond Argentiere, at the village of Le Tour at the head of the Chamonix Valley, is the more conventional La Balme ski area, which offers the most suitable slopes for novices and intermediates.
Chamonix's own local pisted ski slopes are found on the lift-linked Le Brevent and La Flegere ski areas, directly accessible by gondola from Chamonix (for Le Brevent), and by cable car from the neighbouring village of Les Praz (for La Flegere). These twinned areas offer a good range of intermediate-level cruising pistes and some excellent inter-piste freeriding terrain, but the only home-runs to Chamonix are steep black runs (alternatively, download by lift).
A further major ski area is located at Les Houches, 6 km down the valley from Chamonix; the pleasant wooded slopes at Les Houches are popular on days when visibility is poor higher in the valley, but this fairly extensive ski area is generally much less busy than Chamonix's other more adrenaline-stoking sites.
Off the slopes and apres ski
The attractive and atmospheric town centre of Chamonix is a pleasant place for a stroll and has a good selection of shops plus a wide range of good restaurants, cafés, and bars. The town has good local bus and rail connections; quick and easy bus links with the Italian resort of Courmayeur are possible thanks to the nearby Mont Blanc Tunnel.
Chamonix's sports facilities include a public swimming pool, ice rink, and tenpin bowling alley. As well as the serious mountaineering challenges offered in this region, other more tourist-friendly activities include ice-circuit driving, paragliding, dog-sledding, snowshoe trekking, snowmobiling, and tobogganing.
The appeal of Chamonix to the 'climb hard, ski hard, play hard' fraternity is further supported by its very lively apres-ski scene and buzzing nightlife; the town has numerous bars and pubs, many of which feature live music and entertainment, as well as a number of nightclubs, plus a casino and a 'gentlemen's club'.
The key apres-ski spots for happy-hour shenanigans and live music are Chambre 9, Monkey Bar, South Bar and MBC, the latter of which features its own in-house micro-brewery. All of the most popular bars and lounges keep rocking until well after midnight, diehard party animals then move on to the town's nightclubs - Amnesia is the largest, White Hub is arguably the hippest.