For serious skiers, Chamonix is the holy land. This 10-mile-long valley lined in jagged, glacier-draped peaks serves up one lively town of 10,000 residents, four ski areas, and lift access to some of the best adventure skiing anywhere—all at the foot of Mont Blanc, highest peak in the Alps at 15,776 feet.
Thanks in large part to Mont Blanc, which was first climbed in 1786, Chamonix is considered the birthplace of alpinism, and the sport has shaped all aspects of life there, including its skiing.
“What makes Chamonix unique compared to any other ski town is that it’s the center of mountaineering and alpinism, and the fact that you can get into this high-mountain environment on the lifts and experience what you might only otherwise get to experience if you were an experienced climber,” says Miles Smart, an American guide and owner of Smart Mountain Guides, who has spent 17 winters in the Alps.
That access facilitates big-mountain adventure skiing—rappelling into couloirs, 12-mile-long glacier runs, 50-degree lines—of the first order. All of that is made possible by Chamonix’s insane infrastructure—think trams, trains, gondolas, and more—that ferries skiers to the wildest corners of the mountains in a matter of minutes.
Take the Aiguille du Midi cable car, for example. Perhaps the most iconic lift on the planet, it rises 9,187 feet up from Chamonix to the top of the 10,948-foot Aiguille du Midi in 20 minutes, depositing visitors at the doorstep of Mont Blanc, the Vallée Blanche, and some of the world’s hairiest steeps, like the Couloir des Cosmiques, a 2,600-foot, elevator-steep couloir that usually requires a rappel in.
But one of the great things about Chamonix is that it offers something for everyone. At opposite ends of the valley are Les Tours and Les Houches, two family-oriented ski areas that offer plenty of beginner and intermediate slopes. For those who don’t ski, the bustling town teems with shops, cafés, museums, and even an English-language cinema. Chamonix is a place where you could spend a week or a month and never get bored.
What to Do
Iconic Run: While the Vallée Blanche is Chamonix’s most iconic run and should not be missed, Smart also suggests the Pas de Chevre, a 7,545-vertical-foot run that features two bowls and a short couloir. “It’s just a spectacular run. You travel from the Grands Montets, miles up the road in Argentière, and finish at the après ski in Chamonix,” he says.
Best Après: “Basically, the après corner is the train station corner. You have three bars there: Moö Bar, Elevation 1904, and Chambre Neuf. For late-night bars, go to Rue du Moulin.”
Best Hotel: Pointe Isabelle. “It’s a really convenient location, recently renovated, and the staff is friendly. You have a nice lounge area and you can walk 30 seconds to the après, walk to the Aiguille du Midi, and walk to Brevent if you want.”
Best Restaurant: “For French food, the Panier des 4 Saisons or, for haute cuisine, try Auberge du Bois Prin,” says Smart. For French-Asian fusion and a lively local scene, try Munchies, but reserve early—it gets slammed.
Insider Tip: “Even for people who are really experienced, hire a guide for at least a few days of your trip. You’re going to have a much better experience and really be able to take advantage of all that Chamonix has to offer,” Smart says.
The Top 7 Ski Resorts in Europe Right Now
With 7,500-vertical-foot descents, mountains etched in couloirs, and liberal backcountry policies, Europe serves up some of the best skiing on the planet. You’ll schuss in the shadow of Mont Blanc, stay in 12th-century villages, and dine at haute mountain refuges. Needless to say, skiing in the Alps will change your notion of the sport forever. With recent storms blanketing the Alps in early season snow and the euro approaching an all-time low, there’s never been a better time to go. —Kelley McMillan Manley