16 Top Tourist Attractions & Things to Do in the French Alps
For nature lovers, the French Alps is the ultimate destination in France. This area boasts some of the most magnificent natural scenery in Europe, with awe-inspiring mountains, crystal-clear lakes, rushing waterfalls, and pristine forests. The most famous sight is Mont Blanc, the highest mountain peak in the Alps. Most tourists focus their visit on outdoor activities: hiking, biking, and mountain climbing in summer; skiing and snowboarding in winter. In quaint mountain villages, ski resorts such as Chamonix, Val d'Isère, and Portes du Soleil have excellent facilities and offer a lively ambience, and regional charm.
Culture and leisure also draw many visitors. The French Alps corresponds with the historic region of old Savoy, the ancestral territory of the Italian royal house, as well as the Dauphiné region. In Chambéry, a top attraction is the impressive Château de Ducs de Savoie. Annecy has an ancient château that belonged to the Counts of Geneva, while Grenoble was the meeting place of the Estates of the Dauphiné. During the Belle Epoque, many spa towns flourished, such as Aix-les-Bains, Evian-les-Bain, and Saint-Gervais-les-Bains where thermal spas are still popular today.
See also: Where to Stay in the French Alps
Chamonix lies in the peaceful Chamonix Valley at the foot of Mont Blanc, the highest peak in the Alps. Reaching an impressive altitude of 4,807 meters, Mont Blanc is covered in a blanket of snow during all seasons of the year, even in summer. Surrounded by mountains, meadows, and rushing streams, Chamonix is a high-mountain town that draws tourists from around the world. Visitors come to experience the beauty of the alpine scenery and to participate in outdoor sports, including hiking, climbing, golf, mountaineering, mountain biking, and skiing.
Chamonix is the base of an internationally renowned ski resort. The resort area extends for 23 kilometers along the Vallée de Chamonix between Les Houches and Argentière. The hamlets of Les Houches, set among lush forests and alpine meadows, provide a charming escape for vacationers, especially families who appreciate the peaceful environment. A must-see site is Aiguille du Midi summit (at 3,842 meters high) with its spectacular views of Mont Blanc. The Aiguille du Midi is accessible by a cableway from the town of Chamonix. At the top of Le Brévent (2,525 meters), also accessible by cableway, visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of Mont Blanc, the Bernese Alps, and the mountains of the Dauphiné region.
The lovely alpine town of Annecy looks like the scene of a fairy tale. The old town lies by a tranquil lake surrounded by snowcapped mountains. Graceful white swans glide around the narrow canals of the Thiou River, which flows out of the lake and through the old town. During summer, potted flowers decorate the lakeside promenade, and many houses are adorned with colorful geraniums bursting from their balconies. The town's quaint medieval quarter is a delightful place to wander around. Picturesque water channels and cobblestone streets invite a leisurely stroll, while small foot bridges and arcaded streets add to the charm. Rue Sainte-Claire is an arcaded street with houses of the 16th-18th centuries. Annecy has two historic churches, the 15th-century Church of Saint-Maurice and the 16th-century Cathedral of Saint-Pierre. On an islet in the Thiou River is the 12th-century Palais de l'Isle (now a museum). The Château (also a museum) was built in the 14th and 15th centuries and was once the residence of the Counts of Geneva. Along the beautiful shores of the lake runs the Avenue d'Albigny, shaded by plane-trees, with a path for bikers and pedestrians.
3 Vercors Regional Natural Park
The Vercors is a range of forest-covered hills in the Dauphiné region between the Rhône Valley and the Route d'Hiver des Alpes. The mountains rise to 2,346 meters at the Grand Veymont and are broken up by deeply indented valleys and gorges. The natural park has numerous well-groomed paths and trails, allowing visitors to explore the Vercors on foot or on horseback. In winter, excellent facilities are available for a variety of sports. It is worth making a special trip around the Vercors to take in the unusual scenery of the region. Through the Combe Laval, there is a mountain road constructed in 1897, originally for the transport of timber from the Forêt de Lente to Saint-Jean-en-Royans. The finest stretch of the road begins at the wooded Col de la Machine on the way down to Saint-Jean, offering magnificent views of the countryside below. Beyond Villard-de-Lans, the road descends into the Bourne Valley, which narrows into the Gorges de la Bourne, and continues through tunnels and over bridges. Beyond the little town of Pont-en-Royans is the Vernaison Valley and the picturesque Vernaison gorges. It climbs, with many bends, to the grandiose Grands Goulets gorge.
The old capital of the Dauphiné region, Grenoble lies in a basin of the Isère Valley surrounded by mountains rising to 3,000 meters. Grenoble is dominated in the north by Fort Rabot and the Fort de la Bastille, both on foothills of the Mont Rachais range. One of the most interesting historic buildings in Grenoble, the Palais de Justice (Law Courts), built between the 15th and 16th centuries, has a beautiful Early Renaissance facade. This palace was originally the meeting place of the Estates of the Dauphiné. Another noteworthy historic building, the 16th-century Chambre de la Cour des Comptes features fine carved paneling. Grenoble also boasts beautiful parks and gardens. On the far side of the Isère River, built on a rocky crag below the Fort de la Bastille, are the Jardin des Dauphins and the Parc Guy-Pape, both with views of Fort Rabot. The Musée des Beaux-Arts, in the Place de Verdun in Grenoble, is one of the most important museums in France. The old masters are well represented including Veronese, Tintoretto, Brueghel, Rubens, Velásquez, and Goya, as well as many Impressionist and contemporary artists such as Bonnard, Vuillard, Renoir, Monet, Sisley, Matisse, Miró, Modigliani, and Picasso.
Aix-les-Bains is a picturesque resort town in the mountains by Lake Bourget. The internationally renowned spa town has many parks and a peaceful atmosphere as would be expected in a health retreat. In a beautiful location at the foot of Mont Revard, the town is famous for its natural springs that were used for curative purposes in Roman times. The ruins of Roman baths, the Arch of Campanus and the Temple of Diana, are open to the public. Aix-les-Bains still welcomes visitors to bathe in its waters and indulge in leisure time. The town has modern spa establishments, including Marina d' Adelphia, Thermes Nationaux, and Marlioz thermal baths. Each establishment offers different treatments such as spas, saunas, steam rooms, and massages. The Thermes Nationaux dates back to 1864, during the Belle Epoque era. Another impressive building is the 16th-century Château of the Marquis d'Aix (now the Town Hall), which has a Renaissance staircase built of stone from Roman structures. Art lovers will appreciate the Musée du Docteur-Faure, housed in a majestic villa, with an excellent collection of Impressionist painting, Rodin sculptures, and faience ceramics.
6 Val d'Isère
Val d'Isère has long been a favorite skiing area because it offers numerous ski lifts and cableways over an extensive terrain. The ski area, L'Espace Killy, is named for favorite son Jean-Claude Killy, an Olympic gold medal winner and one of the most famous skiers of all time. This is one of the most expansive ski areas in the world, an area so vast and with so many options, both on and off-piste, that it is possible to try a different run every time. The area offers 158 ski runs and a special ski area for children and beginners. The village of Val d'Isère boasts a lively après-ski ambience and an impressive list of restaurants. During summertime, Val d'Isère attracts many visitors with its peaceful mountain scenery and outdoor activities such as hiking, horseback riding, mountain biking, and climbing. It's also a wonderful area for leisurely nature walks to see wildflowers and bird life.
Nestled in the green mountain pastures of the French Alps, the town of Evian-les-Bains is surrounded by gorgeous scenery on the south side of Lake Geneva with its crystal-clear blue waters. In this pristine setting, Evian-les-Bains is a popular spa resort and leisure destination known for its culture and entertainment options. Evian-les-Bains has a rich history that dates back to the medieval era. The Notre Dame de l'Assomption Church was built in the 13th century under the rule of Peter II Count of Savoy. During the Belle Epoque, the town flourished as a spa resort. Visitors still come to Evian-les-Bains to bath in the curative waters of the thermal baths. An excellent example of spa architecture, the Palais Lumière was a thermal spa built in the early 20th century and now hosts art expositions throughout the year. The Antoine Riboud Theater was built between 1883-1885 by a student of Charles Garnier. Every summer, the 300-seat theater hosts a theater festival focused on lighthearted comedies. Evian-les-Bain also hosts an annual summertime music festival. For a relaxing walk, tourists can stroll along the lakeside promenade and through the beautiful Pré Curieux water gardens.
8 Cirque du Fer-à-Cheval
The Cirque du Fer-à-Cheval is a spectacular limestone mountain that was carved out by glaciers into a circular shape. This unspoiled nature reserve has wonderful trails for scenic walks and hiking. In this idyllic alpine setting, visitors are enchanted by the peaceful environment of snowcapped mountain peaks, refreshing pine trees, and abundant waterfalls. Nestled in this wilderness area, the picturesque village of Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval is listed as one of France's "Plus Beaux Villages" (Most Beautiful Villages). The village is actually a collection of 24 small hamlets surrounded by the nature reserve and graced by the "Cascade du Rouget" waterfall. Sixt-Fer-à-Cheval is distinguished by its traditional alpine architecture of high-pitched roofs and steepled churches. Highlights of the town include an ancient abbey founded by Ponce de Faucigny in the 12th century as well as an adjoining 13th-century parish church; both the abbey and church are open to the public for visits. Nearby is a ski resort as well as access to many hiking trails and other outdoor activities such as mountain biking and fishing.
Megève is one of France's leading winter sports resorts, offering opportunities for downhill skiing, cross-country skiing, and snowboarding. The quaint medieval village of Megève dates back to the 14th century and offers an authentic alpine experience. As a typical mountain village, Megève has narrow cobblestone streets, a main town square, and a historic parish church. The atmosphere is charming and vibrant, and the village is also well developed enough to handle the influx of seasonal visitors to the ski resort, with many modern hotels, exclusive boutiques, and upscale restaurants. Although the skiing at Megève is limited because of its low elevation, the extensive ski domain incorporates areas in the nearby towns of Combloux, Saint-Gervais Mont Blanc, Saint Nicolas de Véroce, and Les Contamines Montjoie, with the skiable terrain encompassing eight mountain peaks. Another advantage of this location is the milder climate than other higher elevated alpine resorts. Megève is also popular in summer for outdoor activities.
On the banks of the fast-flowing Leysse River, in a fertile basin surrounded by hills and mountains, picturesque Chambéry has a rich history tied to the Dukes of Savoy. The town was the capital of the independent state of Savoy from the 13th to the 16th centuries and is dominated by the old castle of the Dukes of Savoy. The Chateau de Ducs de Savoie is one of the most ancient and most interesting sights in France. The fortified castle was founded in the 11th century and designed as a walled village. At the end of the castle's north wing is the early 15th-century Sainte-Chapelle created in exquisite Gothic style with fine stained glass windows. Other noteworthy features are the Tour Trésorerie (Treasury Tower), the state apartments, and the Portail Saint-Dominique, a doorway in Flamboyant style. Chambéry has a medieval cathedral, the historic Notre-Dame Church and several lovely parks. The Musée des Beaux-Arts, housed in a former grain barn, features an impressive collection of masterpieces by Uccello, Titian, Guérin, and Watteau. The town's finest old mansions are found along Rue Croix-d'Or.
11 Route du Galibier
The Col du Galibier, in the northern Dauphiné district, reaches a height of 2,556 meters and ranks with the Col de l'Iseran (200 meters higher) as one of the highest mountain passes in France. There are magnificent views on both the ascent and the descent from the summit. The scenic drive is best planned during the summer as it may be impassable from October until the end of May because of snow. Another option is to take the chair-lift (mountain climbers can also climb to this point) to a height of 2,704 meters. From here, there is a spectacular panoramic view that is one of the most impressive in the French Alps. At the south entrance to the tunnel on this route stands a monument to Henri Desgranges, who initiated the Tour de France cycle race in 1903.
12 Albertville and Surrounding Ski Resorts
The bustling high-mountain town of Albertville lies at the junction of the Arly and Isère Rivers near several major ski resorts. The town was founded by King Charles-Albert of Savoy in the 19th century and was laid out with a modern city plan. Albertville is a good base to explore some of the best ski areas of the Alps and a worthwhile destination to simply enjoy the alpine scenery. Take the Col de la Tamié cableway to soak up the breathtaking mountain views. Conflans, the oldest part of Albertville, lies on a hilltop spur above the town. This historic quarter is a relic of the past with its Gothic town gates, medieval walls, historic houses, and Baroque church.
Several top ski destinations lie less than an hour away from Albertville. About 41 kilometers from Albertville is La Clusaz ski resort, a popular winter sports destination. La Clusaz ski area encompasses five interlinked mountain peaks with 84 ski slopes covering 130 kilometers of groomed trails. There are also opportunities for ice skating and sledding. The charming historic village of La Clusaz, with its narrow winding streets and splendid views, is a wonderful place to stay. Another nearby option for skiers ( 60 kilometers from Albertville) is La Plagne, France's biggest single ski resort. La Plagne is appreciated for its dependable snow coverage as well as its extensive accommodations in several different purpose-built villages.
Those looking for endless ski runs should head to Les 3 Vallées ski area (Les Trois Vallées), 50 kilometers from Albertville. With 600 kilometers of ski runs on interconnected slopes and 180 ski lifts, Les 3 Vallées is the largest ski area in the world. Les 3 Vallées comprises several different resort areas: Courchevel including five villages; La Tania with ski-in/ski-out hotels; the charming alpine village of Méribel; affordable skiing at Brides-les-Bains; the family-oriented ski area of Les Menuires; the traditional ski resort of Saint Martin de Belleville with its quaint chalets; the resort of Val Thorens with hotels right next to the slopes and skiing for all abilities; and Orelle, a small village nestled in the Maurienne Valley.
13 Portes du Soleil Ski Areas
The Portes du Soleil ski area includes 12 different ski resorts. The resorts on the French side include Abondance, Chatel, Montriond, Morzine-Avoriaz, Saint-Jean d'Aulps, Avoriaz, La Chapelle d'Abondance, and Les Gets. Many of the resorts attract visitors outside of the ski season. One of the most popular year round resorts is Morzine-Avoriaz, which lies at the meeting point of six valleys. The area offers excellent trails for mountain biking and hiking in summer, and the beautiful scenery includes the nearby Lac de Montriond and Ardent Falls. During winter, the village's snug chalets and charming lodges provide guests with the perfect winter holiday. La Chapelle d'Abondance is a favorite of nature lovers because of the wide open spaces for walking; during winter there are many trails available for snowboarding, skiing, and telemark skiing. Avoriaz is a traffic-free resort that is popular with families. Montriond enjoys a wonderful setting by Lake Montriond, ideal for summertime nature walks and water sports; the skiing is also excellent with eight kilometers of ski runs in winter.
14 Route Napoléon
The Route Napoléon is a scenic itinerary for a driving tour through the French Alps. The four lakes of Laffrey are the main features on the barren plateau of Matésine. Here, on March 7, 1815, Napoleon won against a battalion, which had been sent to prevent him from advancing any further. The Route Napoléon runs between Gap and Grenoble and an interesting stop is the little township of Corps as well as a side trip to the pilgrimage Church of Notre-Dame de la Salette, perched at an altitude of 1,170 meters amid stunning alpine scenery. The church was built after the Virgin reputedly appeared to two children in 1851, and every summer, it attracts many pilgrims.
In the foothills of the Alps, the town of Saint-Gervais has been renowned since the Belle Epoque period as one of the best spas in the Savoy region. The town offers an escape to nature where visitors may enjoy the beauty of the mountain scenery. It's a wonderful place to indulge in spa treatments. Vacationers can take a dip in the warm thermal baths, relax with a massage, or enjoy the sauna. Saint-Gervais-les-Bains is a good base to continue exploring the French Alps with an ascent to Mont Blanc. It's possible to reach the summit by foot or by cableway. Saint-Gervais is also a popular winter sports destination as it's connected by a network of cableways to the skiing areas of Megève and Chamonix.
On a terrace above Lake Geneva and boasting magnificent views, Thonon-les-Bains is a popular spa destination both in summer and winter. The Place du Château occupies the site of a stronghold of the Dukes of Savoy, which was destroyed in 1589. The 17th-century Château de Sonnaz houses a museum devoted to the folk art and traditions of the Chablais district that surrounds Thonon. A few kilometers west are the pleasant lakeside resorts of Excenevex, with a beautiful natural beach, and Yvoire, an old town with 14th-century walls and numerous medieval houses.
Where to Stay in the French Alps for Sightseeing
Skiers visiting the French Alps in the winter will want to be based in a ski resort such as Chamonix or one of the resorts near Albertville or in the Portes du Soleil ski area. In the summer, spa resorts like Evian-les-Bains and Thonon-les-Bains are popular. For a town with fairytale appeal, Annecy is a great choice, while Grenoble offers big-city attractions and makes a convenient base for day trips to different areas. Here are some highly-rated and mostly pet-friendly hotels in convenient locations:
- Luxury Hotels: Overlooking the lake in a park-like setting in Evian-les-Bains, Hotel Ermitage - Evian Resort has a lovely outdoor pool, as well as a spa, popular restaurant, and free parking. Families appreciate the kid's program. In a location true to its name, the boutique Grand Hotel Grenoble Centre, with stylish, contemporary rooms, sits within walking distance of fabulous restaurants and shops. Skiers love Hotel Macchi in Vallée d'Abondance, in the Portes du Soleil ski area. This delightful chalet-style lodge is right in the heart of the village and offers friendly service, free parking, an indoor heated pool, and a spa with Ayurvedic treatments. In Chamonix, the elegant Hotel Mont-Blanc is right in the center of town.
- Mid-Range Hotels: In a quiet area of Thonon-les-Bains, less than 15-minutes' walk to the town and lake, the family-run L'Arc en Ciel features an outdoor pool, bright and colorful rooms, and large suites with kitchens that are great for families. Parking is free. Only steps from the chairlifts and a short walk to the quaint ski resort village of of La Clusaz, the Hotel Beauregard has a cozy ski lodge feel, a heated indoor pool, and supervised kids' play area. Rooms come with balconies, and guests score free parking. In a fantastic location in the heart of Annecy, Allobroges Park Hotel has clean, modern rooms and secure underground parking for an extra fee.
- Budget Hotels: For budget-minded skiers, Savoy Hotel, in the quiet village of Brides-les-Bains in the Les Trois Vallées ski area, is a great choice with its clean, simple rooms and comfy beds, while the Zenitude Hotel-Residences Les Terrasses du Lac, with a sauna and outdoor pool, sits on a hill with views of the lake in Evian-les-Bains. Its bright apartments with kitchenettes are perfect for families and extended stays. Near Annecy's charming old town, the Alexandra Hotel offers warm hospitality and clean, cozy rooms.