15 Sep Summer in the Chamonix valley: A week in Les Houches
Nestled at the foot of Mont Blanc is the Chamonix valley. An alpine wonderland of mountain trails, traditional villages and glistening glaciers, it’s best-known as a winter sports and mountaineering destination. But those in the know will tell you it’s also an outstanding spot for summer hiking and biking, with some of the best views in the French Alps.
I’m not normally one for last-minute plans, but our trip to the Chamonix valley this summer was a bit of a spontaneous booking. We’d been busy moving house, and not really had time to think about travel – or anything else for that matter – for a couple of months. But, in the way that magic sometimes happens, we sat down for coffee one Sunday afternoon and before we knew it, a week in the Alps was booked. The stars had aligned, and we’d stumbled across a nearly perfect combination of flights and accommodation.
Introducing the Chamonix valley
The Chamonix valley is the metaphorical heart of the French Alps, and somewhere I’d wanted to visit for a long time.
Towering above the valley floor is the magnificent Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. But there’s much more to Chamonix than just one mountain. Ribbons of breathtaking peaks extend in very direction, each offering unique views of this alpine playground. And as you take a moment to enjoy any view, glittering glaciers catch your eye – scattered around the mountainsides – something you really won’t find in many other places in Europe.
Lower down, you’ll find traditional alpine farming communities, cosy ski resort villages and Chamonix itself – a town with a rich heritage welcoming visitors for over 200 years. Located in the outstandingly beautiful department of Haute Savoie (that I have a real soft spot for), Chamonix is less than an hour by road from the cosmopolitan city of Geneva but feels a million miles away.
Up in the mountains, you’ll find mile after mile of unspoilt landscapes, and jaw-dropping view after jaw-dropping views. But this pristine wilderness belies that Chamonix isn’t completely on the edge of this earth – even though it feels it at times. This is a place where you really can find the best of both worlds. You can start your day with a traditional French cafe breakfast in town, take a cable car ride to explore a ski area mid-morning and spend your afternoon hiking to a remote mountain refuge, on winding paths that snake alongside rock faces and torrents. And after all this, you can be back in time for a smart dinner out in town – or a drink or two at one of the valley’s many microbreweries. That sounds pretty good to me.
Why you should head to Chamonix in the summer
During the summer months, aside from the odd wet day, it’s gloriously warm and sun-drenched here. It’s weather that gives you a chance to see the valley and the mountains at their best.
Chamonix is a veritable playground for walkers and trail runners, mountain bikers and mountaineers. This is what we love about the Alps in summer – being on our feet exploring all day. And here, there are more trails and viewpoints to discover, and more infrastructure to help you do so, than almost anywhere else I’ve visited.
The Chamonix valley also has a surprising amount more to offer in the summer aside from getting up into the mountains. Whilst it’s at it’s busiest during the winter ski season, Chamonix and the surrounding villages have plenty going on. Bars and restaurants are open, with fantastic food to be devoured on their many scenic terraces. There’s local events taking place and a lively atmosphere – but at no point does it ever feel so busy that it’s uncomfortable.
Read more: You’ll find tips and advice for packing for your alpine adventure in my guide to packing for the mountains in summer
Getting to Chamonix
Chamonix is just over an hour by road from Geneva airport. It’s a fairly easy to navigate airport, and you’ll be in arrivals before you know it.
The best way to get to Chamonix from Geneva is by road. You could hire a car (there are lots of big-name options here) but I’d recommend booking an airport transfer bus like we did. Fast, fuss-free and budget-friendly, they’re easy to book in advance and many will drop you at your door.
- AlpyBus – Offer very frequent services and drop you at your door. We used on our way to Les Houches
- EasyBus – Departing from Chamonix Sud bus station, Easybus offer scheduled services to and from Geneva airport. The cheapest service we found, it was ideal for our return journey as we got to enjoy lunch in Chamonix before picking up our transfer
- Mountain Drop-Offs – Very visible around the Chamonix valley, Mountain Drop-Offs provide a 24/7 door to door service that could be helpful if you’re arriving at unusual times or with plenty of luggage
If you’re travelling from further afield by car, getting to Chamonix couldn’t be easier. Coming from France or Switzerland, you can follow the A40 Autoroute Blanche straight into the Chamonix valley – whether you’re heading via Geneva or Lyon. And from the south, the Mont-Blanc Tunnel provides a swift road connection from the Aosta valley and autostrada network in Northern Italy.
Travel in the Chamonix valley
Once we’d arrived, we actually took very little public transport. The Chamonix valley really is one of those places where there’s a bounty of things to do outside your front door. We were mostly running and walking, so didn’t miss having a car.
But for trips into Chamonix, and for travel elsewhere in the valley, never fear! There are plenty of options that won’t leave you lost.
First up, local buses are a great way to get around. Running frequently throughout the day, they seem to stop absolutely everywhere, which makes it easy to find a stop close to where you are staying. They’re also useful for reaching less obvious, but helpful, locations like cable car stations. In August 2019, an adult day-ticket cost €3 for unlimited transport.
Buses run from early morning until the evening, but once the sun sets you’ll need to look out for Cham’nuit. This night bus service operates throughout the valley until late.
You’ll also find great rail connections here. The Mont Blanc Express runs the full length of the valley from St Gervais (where you can find mainline connections). Services are regular and welcome bikes and dogs (good news for mountain explorers). Plus, travel can be free! If you’re staying in a holiday apartment or hotel in the valley, you’ll receive a Carte d’Hôte entitling you to free train travel on this line during your stay.
(It’s worth noting that if you’re staying in an airbnb, as we did, you won’t automatically get a Carte d’Hôte. However, you’re able to pick one up for just €10 per week at local tourist offices)
If heading up into the mountains is something you’re keen to do, don’t feel that you’re limited to long walks up from the valley floor every day. There’s an extensive ski lift network open during the summer months that will help you to reach higher altitude hiking routes and viewpoints. There’s also the Tramway du Mont Blanc, a charming little funicular railway that takes a scenic route from St Gervais towards the glaciers of Mont Blanc. It stops at several mountainside stations en-route. Whilst both options are more expensive than public transport down in the valley, they’re a great way to help you experience more of this majestic landscape.
Check out the Chamonix Mont Blanc tourist office website for lift prices and more details. You can opt for single or return tickets for most ski lifts, and there’s day passes available if you want to pack more into your time.
What to do in the Chamonix valley in summer
There’s so much to do here that I can’t possibly pack it all into one blog post. So, I’ve got a couple more that are works in progress. I can’t wait to share more about the walks we did here, and some of the events taking place during our stay. But, to whet your appetite, here are some of the very best things to in the Chamonix valley;
Discover the town of Chamonix
Chamonix isn’t a huge town, but it is packed with plenty to see and do. There’s some surprisingly beautiful architecture to seek out, like the fin de siecle railway station and villas that skirt the hillsides, as well as several small museums. You’ll also find a great variety of cafes, restaurants and outdoor clothing shops (my favourite kind of retail therapy) – plus a microbrewery. We enjoyed pottering around the town, soaking up its upmarket ski resort atmosphere, both when the weather was great and also when it was grey. It was just as charming on both occasions.
Exploring the mountains – and the valley – on foot
This is what we came here for, and it surpassed even our wildest imagination. The paths here really are some the very best walking routes you’ll find in the Alps. Enormously varied, well-signposted and taking you to spectacular locations around the valley, there’s no end of trails that you’ll love. We enjoyed lowland woodland walks and high-altitude beauties and still left with a hundred more ideas for more routes we’d like to try.
Get involved at local events
There’s much more going on here than you might expect. Chamonix plays host to a number of major events during the summer, and many of them offer visitors the chance to spectate and be part of the festivities free of charge.
Chamonix Jazz Festival takes place every July and features free live music from world-class acts at locations throughout the valley, including up on the mountain. Come August, you’ll find the Fete des Guides in full swing, a celebration of the Mountain Guides who’ve been sharing the valley with visitors for over a hundred years.
Or come in the last week of August, like we did, and be prepared to be astounded by Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc. During UTMB week, Chamonix hosts some of the most gruelling mountain trail running events you’ll find in the world, with fierce competition even for the limited number of entries. As well as seeing some serious professionals and extraordinary amateurs taking part of the roads and trails around Mont Blanc, you’ll find free events taking in Chamonix itself as well as in the villages the races pass through.
Take two wheels down the mountain
Road cyclists are few and far between here, as it’s the mountain bike that rules the roost here. You’ve got the option to explore the myriad of walking trails on two wheels, or head to some of the specially-designed bike trails that pepper the mountainsides. Most of them start close to the top of lifts, so you don’t need to slog uphill to enjoy dashing down. We saw some great looking trails running down from the top of the Prarion lift into Les Houches.
Visit the valley’s biggest attractions
Admittedly this wasn’t something we chose to do whilst we were here – we prefer getting out and about independently. But I’d be remiss not to mention that there are two extremely popular things to do here. The first is to visit the Mer du Glace – the largest glacier that flows down from the peak of Mont Blanc. Guided tours will take you here without the need for any mountaineering, giving you the chance to see this extraordinary landmark up close.
The second is to take the magical-looking cable car ride to the top of the Aiguille du Midi, one of the highest peaks in the valley and the highest lift in the Alps. With snow here year-round, it promises to be a pretty spectacular adventure, although the price tag will make a rather spectacular dent in your travel budget.
Indulge in alpine food
I know, I’m more than a little predictable. But finding high-quality, locally-produced food is enjoyably easy here. From delightfully authentic Savoyarde restaurants (more on that later) to farmers selling straight from the farm gate, you’ll be hard-pressed not to stumble across great food. Look out for local markets too, taking place throughout the week.
Staying in Les Houches: One of our best decisions
Choosing where to stay in the Chamonix valley can feel daunting. There’s a huge range of options – from luxury hotels to mountain refuges. But there’s also a choice between the town itself and the surrounding villages.
As we were booking late in the season and with a limited budget, we decided to explore options outside of the city centre. Although more luck than judgement, it was one of the best decisions we made
We opted to stay in Les Houches, one of the larger villages in the valley. Around 4 miles from the centre of Chamonix, it’s easy enough to reach and a great base for walking and exploring. Les Houches is a little more chilled out than Chamonix itself and full of charm. Whilst the (very well-appointed) village centre may look modern, there’s an abundance of traditional chalets and chapels that give it a traditional feel that fits in with its alpine surroundings.
As well as easy access to some fantastic trails, you’ll also find everything you need for a week here. With two small supermarkets, artisan boulangeries, a generous handful of bars and restaurants and a small microbrewery (what more could a girl want?), it’s hard to think of anything Les Houches doesn’t have. There’s also two ski lifts that operate during the summer season, giving you an easy way to access high-altitude walking, cycling and viewpoints.
We loved Les Houches’ laid-back ski resort atmosphere, beautiful old chalets, mountain views and the friendly events taking place in the village.
Eating and drinking in Les Houches
Les Houches may be much smaller than neighbouring Chamonix, but it punches well above its weight. There’s a good handful of nice bars to stop at for a beer on an evening, and more than enough restaurants to keep you entertained for a week. You’ll find a few traditional options, but most places offer skier-friendly diner-style food.
Whilst the summer is far quieter than the winter season here, everywhere (apart from some mountain restaurants) was open in August and most places were quietly busy.
Eric Jacquier Patisserie
First up, I’d like to give an honourable mention to Eric Jacquier. I have no shame in admitting that I came here every single day during our stay. In all seriousness, this is a particularly good independent boulangerie and patisserie with two stores in the village. Be sure to ask for their pain traditionel for the very best, sourdough-style, bread and treat yourself to a few of their homemade pastries. For me, it’s an affordable indulgence on a self-catered trip – and best enjoyed on a terrace with mountain views.
If you’re keen to try local food, I’d recommend the well-reviewed Le Basilic. One of two Savoyarde restaurants in town, the small and cosy interior belies that it’s a very popular spot. It’s not standard tourist fayre here, it’s genuinely delicious alpine dishes made from local ingredients without a gloopy tartiflette in sight. The raclette and pain perdu were particularly excellent when we visited, although I’ve a sneaking suspicion everything here might be.
Le Delice wasn’t top of our list of places to try, but surprised us. Our dinner here was a little spontaneous (having realised, too late, that the local supermarkets close early on Sunday). The menu is small, mostly burgers and tapas-style dishes, but the portions and flavours are big. Their terrace is also a great place to watch the world go by.
The Kitsch Inn
If you’re heading down the mountain at the end of a day walking, stop by the Kitsch Inn close to the Bellevue lift station. This cheerful bar is very clearly one of the village’s apres-ski spots come winter but it’s still a nice place to stop by for a cold beer on a summer evening. If you’re a little peckish you might, like us, enjoy tucking into some of the nibbles on their light bites menu – like their hummus, crudites and homemade bread platter.
Last, but by no means least, you can’t come to Les Houches and not try Le Solerey. A pretty old chalet near the village centre, it’s actually a surprisingly contemporary bar inside with two terraces to enjoy eating outside. They’re a microbrewery, pouring pints of three different brews that you’ll find both here and in other local spots.
It’s a beer and burgers kind of place, not what you might expect to find in France. But I have to stay both were exceedingly good – no Kronenberg and plain old meat patties here. It’s beautiful home-smoked brisket and Belgian-style blondes all the way. We stopped here a couple of times, once for food and again for a few drinks, and enjoyed it both times.
So there you go, everything you need to know about visiting Chamonix in summer.
Or not quite, as there’s so much more I’d like to share about the incredible walks we did here, as well as what it’s like to spectate at Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc. I’ll be back soon with some more posts to fill in the gaps, and offer more wanderlust inspiration from this alpine valley.
Until then, enjoy!