Travel guide to the French Alps
The French Alps are possibly one of the most beautiful parts of France. It is therefore no surprise that the area is a magnet for people looking to escape here for a deep breath of the rejuvenating mountain air and to indulge in a sort of nature therapy, either slow or fast-paced. When visiting the Alps, you’ll be treated to some of Europe’s most breathtaking scenery, ranging from forest and mountains to lakes and waterfalls. In this travel guide to the French Alps you’ll discover all there is to know about where to go, when to go, how to get there and what to do.
Where are the French Alps Located?
The picturesque French Alps are situated in southeast France in the Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur and Rhône-Alpes regions. They border Italy and Switzerland, and many people land in Geneva before heading into France’s mountainous towns and villages. At the highest point of elevation, the French Alps are 4,808 metres tall, and they encompass 210,000 kilometres in total. In the northern part of the French Alps, there’s a lot of pastures and forest. As you go south, you’ll come across more arid land and a lot of lavender and thyme.
How to Get to the French Alps
Getting to the French Alps is relatively easy because they’re connected to the rest of France through highways and both regular and high-speed trains. If you’re flying in, you’ll want to land at the Grenoble-Isère Airport or the Geneva Airport in Switzerland. Lyon is also nearby if you’d rather access the French Alps that way.
Getting Around the Alps
The towns and villages in the French Alps are connected by regular and TGV trains, and the valleys are also connected by highways. However, renting a car is the best way to explore the many areas of the French Alps. Also keep in mind that if you have a ski-in/ski-out property, you’ll be able to hit the slopes at the crack of dawn, and you’ll just have to take a lift to head back up after your run.
When is the Best Time to Visit the French Alps?
The French Alps are a wonderful place to visit all year-round, with plenty of snowfall in the winter, wildflowers in the spring, tons of sunshine during the summer and colourful foliage during autumn. Here are some key things to bear in mind regarding the best times to visit the French Alps:
- Snow begins to melt in April, first in the lower altitudes and then moving upwards. The last snowfall is usually around April, though sometimes it will snow in May. This time of year, you’ll see flowers popping up, and the whitewater rapids are at their best.
- The best time for hiking and trekking is from June to September. Don’t try to go earlier as there can be a risk of avalanches.
- Summertime is sunny and warm, especially in the south, but there may be thunderstorms to contend with. The French Alps are most crowded in July and August, especially in the Mont Blanc area, which draws tourists.
- There’s less rain once autumn arrives, with warm days and cool nights. You can still go camping, but be sure to wrap up.
- Snowfall starts in November, and the best powder is available in January.
- For snowshoeing, December to March is the best time, though temperatures will be very cold, especially the higher you are.
What’s especially wonderful about living in the French Alps is that every season is pronounced. You certainly can’t miss the winter, but even the spring, summer and autumn are distinct and thoroughly enjoyable.
Where are the Most Popular Places to Visit in the French Alps?
The French Alps are home to Mont Blanc, also called La Dame Blanche, the highest peak in western Europe. Snow and ice cover it year-round, and only the most experienced alpine climbers summit it on their own. Otherwise, you can hire a mountain guide, or you can simply spend your time exploring the lower trails. There’s even more to the French Alps, though, with 15 massifs in total and numerous towns and villages to explore.
Annecy, a small city near Lake Geneva, has a medieval quarter with cobblestone streets, footbridges and water channels that swans swim along. The main street of Annecy is Rue Sainte-Claire, a lively area with 16th and 18th-century buildings that have become restaurants and shops. The triangular Palais de l’Isle, a 12th-century medieval castle and prison, is set in the Thiou Canal and is now an art and history museum. When the weather’s warm, potted plants line the promenade along the lake, and there’s also a bike and pedestrian path that runs along the royal Albigny Avenue. Other notable features of Annecy are the ancient chateau that once belonged to the Counts of Geneva and the animation museum with a collection focused on a century of animated films.
Set on the south side of Lake Geneva, Évian-les-Bains is a health resort and the perfect leisure destination. Much of the architecture here, including the casino, dates back to 1865, which is when Evian water was first developed, and the fortified city became a spa. During the summer, the thermal baths are open every day, and people come from all over to bathe in them, believing they have curative properties. You’ll want to visit Palais Lumière, a thermal spa that now has art expositions, and the Antoine Riboud Theatre, which was built in the late 1800s and hosts a comedy festival every summer. Also check out the summertime classical music festival and the Pré Curieux water gardens.
Right near Évian-les-Bains is Thonon-les-Bains, a petite, chic spa town with water that has a high mineral concentration. The charming town sits on a cliff and overlooks Lake Geneva. It’s also close to Excenevex, which has a beach with fine sand and shallow water that’s perfect for kids to play in. Partake in watersports here, too, like boating and fishing.
Chamonix is the unofficial ski capital of the French Alps and a gateway to Mont Blanc since it’s set at the foot of the mountain. This is the best place in the French Alps to head out on a remote snowshoeing excursion, too. You can also access the Aiguille du Midi, one of the Mont Blanc massif mountains, via a cable car ride over the forest, or take a ride in the Mont Blanc gondola, which goes over crevasses and icefalls. Other activities offered here are alpine mountaineering and extreme skiing. Set amongst meadows, mountains and streams, Chamonix continues to offer adventure activities even during the summertime, like canyoning and whitewater rafting. If you want to spend an extended period of time in nature, go on an overnight hike and stay in a mountain hut.
Megève is one of the top resorts in the French Alps for winter sports, like downhill skiing, cross-country skiing and snowboarding. An authentic medieval village with roots in the 14th century, Megève has a traditional town square with a historic church and cobblestone streets. The village is surprisingly modern, though, with high-end boutiques and restaurants. While the elevation here is low, the ski domain remains large, and there’s a lot of terrain fit for skiing. The climate is milder here compared to the higher resorts, and it’s an especially popular area for summer activities.
Val d’Isère is another of the French Alps’ preferred skiing areas, with 300 kilometres of slopes for skiing and snowboarding, over 80 ski lifts, and cableways that travel high above the terrain. The ski area is enormous, with both on and off-piste runs, more than you could squeeze into a season. There’s also a snow park with exciting jumps and obstacles, plus a much-needed rest zone. When you’re finished with your workout, head to the village, which has a big après-ski scene with laid-back eateries as well as Michelin-starred restaurants. Val d’Isère is so much fun that you could stay entertained without ever strapping on snow boots.
Courchevel and Méribel
Courchevel is made up of three villages: 1550, 1650 and 1850. While 1550 is the oldest of the three, 1850 is by far the most sought-after if you’re looking for a luxury apartment or chalet. Courchevel has some of the wealthiest and most famous residents in all of the French Alps, particularly in 1850. There’s also excellent shopping, with lots of flagship stores that sell clothing, jewelry and sports gear. There’s phenomenal skiing here too, of course.
Méribel has a perfect balance of everything you could want: winter sports, gourmet restaurants, vibrant nightlife and family-friendly appeal. Beginner and intermediate skiers will appreciate Méribel for its easy runs and terrain parks for children and teenagers. There are more advanced options, too, like off-piste skiing and nighttime skiing routes. When you’re off the mountain, there’s a market twice a week where you can pick up ingredients for dinner at home. If you prefer a more social evening, the bars and nightclubs that are part of the après-ski scene are open extra late.
While not technically in the French Alps, Geneva, Switzerland, is the only true city in the Alps, and it’s where a lot of people fly into before heading to France. It’s a wonderful area to wander around, with fantastic restaurants and top-rated hotels to spend an evening or two. The lake is jaw-droppingly beautiful, and nearby Lausanne is known for its nightlife. There are great hiking and mountain biking opportunities on Mont Salève, or you can go paragliding or cross-country skiing in the area. You may also want to visit the Museum of Natural History, go shopping in the old town or visit the botanical gardens. Practically wherever you go, you’ll have stunning views of the mountains, river and lake. For example, Parc La Grange overlooks the lake and has a manicured garden, pools and pergolas.
Things to Do in the French Alps
For an interesting excursion, visit the Grotte de Glace ice cave, which you can access by taking the train from Chamonix to Montenvers. You’ll then take a cable car to the Mer de Glace. Every year the cave changes a bit due to the glacial shifts.
Once the snow has melted, you don’t have to leave the French Alps to find plenty of things to do. Summertime activities include canyoning, climbing, cycling, golf, hang-gliding, hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, paragliding and tennis. You’ll have ample opportunities to get on the water, too, for boating, fishing or rafting.
While the area certainly caters to skiers and snowboarders, you can enjoy your time in the French Alps without even setting foot on a mountain. The local towns and villages have loads of eateries, ranging from vibrant and bustling bars to Michelin-starred restaurants. Courchevel has the most Michelin-starred restaurants in the French Alps, including Le 1947 and La Chabichou. Cheese is a specialty in this part of France, so be prepared to eat even more cheese than you’re used to.
Aside from skiing and dining, you can unwind at one of the area’s indoor spas or head into town for an afternoon of shopping. Around the holidays, there are a lot of Christmas markets to visit, and Courchevel and Megève have especially wonderful ones. You can also get phenomenal views without any of the risk thanks to rides on the lifts or in the cable cars or gondolas.
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