Best of the Alps
In this one-hour special, join Rick Steves on an alpine adventure with scenic train rides, breathtaking lifts, majestic glaciers, and unforgettable hikes. We conquer the Dolomites in Italy and the Zugspitze in Austria and Germany. In Switzerland, we savor the beauty of the Matterhorn and Jungfrau peaks, and the idyllic region of Appenzell. And in France, starting off from Chamonix, we ride the lift up to the Aiguille du Midi and hike the iconic Tour du Mont Blanc trail.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves — and right now, I'm one of the highest people in Germany…and there's lots more Alpine thrills to come. Thanks for joining me as we explore the best of the Alps.
I love how in Europe, nature and culture mix it up. And here in the Alps, each region has a distinct flavor. In this special we'll celebrate both nature and culture all across the Alps.
In this "greatest hits" look at Europe's Alps, we'll travel through five different countries, each with its own unique alpine culture. Along the way, we'll see some of Europe's most iconic mountains, including the Matterhorn, and Mont Blanc — the continent's highest point. And we'll conquer many of these peaks — whether by foot, by train, or a multitude of lifts — enjoying plenty of thin-air thrills. We'll explore charming alpine towns filling romantic valleys and hike to cliff-hanging villages. And we'll savor hearty and rustic alpine cuisine — edible traditions particularly tasty at this altitude. And finally, we'll hike: from easy day trips to a guided classic long-distance tour.
The Alps stretch across Europe from [near] Vienna to the French Riviera, spanning many countries. And we'll scale peaks in five of them: Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland, and France.
We start with Germany, Austria, and Italy. Our first summit is in Bavaria, high atop the Zugspitze. From there we travel south into Tirol — that historic region that today is split between Austria and Italy. We visit Innsbruck and its high country before crossing [the] Brenner Pass into Italy. From Kastelruth, we explore the Dolomites.
Across the Alps, mountain resorts are investing in their infrastructure. And here in Bavaria, they've made it quick and easy to experience their mightiest peak.
The Zugspitze, at nearly 10,000 feet, is Germany's highest mountain. And this cable car zips us to the top in 10 minutes. The cable is about three miles long. It's supported by only one pylon. And it stretches nearly two miles to the summit with no support at all.
While there are many higher mountains in the Alps, the Zugspitze is unique. It stands alone, offering a view of hundreds of peaks in Germany, Austria, Italy, and even Switzerland. The mountain marks the border between Germany and Austria.
From here the Alps arc like a grand alpine symphony — from [near] Vienna way in the east all the way to the French Riviera, where these mountains finally plunge into the Mediterranean.
The Zugspitze summit attracts huge crowds. As on so many European mountaintops, you'll find restaurants, shops, and well-entertained tourists.
The Zugspitze is famed for a cold and ghostly wind that can really howl in the winter. This hikers' hut has been perched here for well over a century. And thanks to these beefy cables, it's never been blown off the top.
The summit — first climbed in 1820 — is marked by a golden cross, carried up here by hardy villagers back in 1851. Today, with the help of iron steps and cables, it's climbed — either from the distant valley floor or from the adjacent summit restaurant — by families, seniors, and even travel writers.
These days, escaping the tourist crowds takes initiative — and having a car can be helpful. We've crossed into Austria and are ready to explore. Detailed maps show tiny roads you might not realize exist. For a car-hiker's look at life high in the Alps, we're switch-backing up to a 5,000-foot-high perch.
From the end of the road, it's an easy 20-minute stroll to the Walderalm farm. It's actually a cluster of three family-run dairy farms, with 70 cows sharing their meadow amid staggering mountain views.
These families have eked out a living on these farms, with remarkably little change, for generations. Hans, while well into his 80s now, is still involved in the family farm. Today, it's so hot the cows are hanging out in the barn. But there's still work to be done.
And, with the chores finished, Hans enjoys whittling in his spare time. His favorite subject? Cows, of course.
The traditional alpine farmhouse was energy efficient, considering the technology of the day. The family lived here, on the middle floor. The cows got the ground floor — there's about 40 cows just down there; they'd catch the body heat of the cows, and that would help to heat the family. And the hayloft provided insulation — and the assurance there'd be enough food to get the cows through the winter. And on this farm, the system works to this day.
These days family farms struggle to survive. Here in Europe, many manage only with the help of government subsidies and by tapping into the tourist trade. A steady stream of hikers and bikers work hard to reach this idyllic spot. And Hans and his family are happy to serve a hearty lunch or a refreshing drink.
From up here, it's all downhill to Innsbruck. Filling the valley floor, it's one of the biggest cities within the Alps. Innsbruck was an important outpost of the Habsburg Empire. For five centuries, it was their capital of Tirol, with all the imperial trappings: a grand church, a stately palace, and an extravagant balcony fit for a king.
This much-admired Golden Roof was built for the Habsburg Emperor Maximilian in 1494. The roof, with over 2,000 gilded copper tiles, remains the town's centerpiece. Innsbruck's historic center is now a pedestrian zone. Looking past the crowds, it still feels like a once-grand provincial capital.
The city's folk museum is a medieval Tirolean home show. Humble as that rural farming community may have been, an artistic touch prevails. The plow seems to honor hard work. One-legged milking stools were finely carved. Cribs were decorated with religious themes to be sure God watched over the baby. Fantastical characters warded off evil and even served as human scarecrows. Merchants, carrying their wares on their backs, would hike from village to village. This one sold fine fabric.
Intricately whittled dioramas show off the region's tradition of fine woodcarving. While this could be any Tirolean village, upon closer look, it's Bethlehem, in the Alps. Bible stories like this nativity scene made most sense to locals when presented in a familiar hometown setting. Today, this manger scene gives you a glimpse of village life in Tirol a couple centuries ago.
Heading south, we cross Europe's cultural and geographical divide, driving from the Germanic world, over the Alps, into the Mediterranean world — Italy. The Brenner Pass has been the easiest way over the Alps since ancient Roman times. Two thousand years ago, Roman legions followed this route — the Via Claudia — as they marched north to conquer much of Europe.
Sections of the ancient road are still preserved. Deep grooves are reminders of countless wagon wheels that followed this very route.
Today, the Brenner Pass is easier than ever to cross, as drivers arc gracefully along one of the engineering wonders of Europe. From the top of the Europabrücke, or Europe's Bridge, it feels like just another freeway, but from the windy old road at the valley floor it looks like a mighty sculpture.
The freeway zips drivers from Innsbruck to the Italian border in about 30 minutes. How about pasta for lunch?
While the autobahn in Germany and Austria is toll-free [the Austrian autobahn does require a paid sticker], the Italian autostrada has plenty of toll booths.
But that's nothing new here. This crossing has long been a gauntlet of toll booths and forts. Empires from Roman times to World War II understood the strategic value of [the] Brenner Pass. This fortress, called "Franzensfeste," was built in the 1830s. It was one of the mightiest of its day. A huge investment by the Habsburg emperor in Vienna, it was designed to protect his empire from invasions from the south.
We're following a trade route dating back to the Middle Ages that connected the Germanic world with cities like Venice and Florence. Medieval traders were stopped and forced to pay a toll by the lords of castles like these, strategically situated in pairs on either side of this valley. But we zoom by toll-free. And before we know it, the roads get narrow and windy, and we're entering Italy's dramatic limestone rooftop.
The Dolomites, with their distinct and jagged peaks, offer some of the best alpine thrills in Europe.
And these mighty mountains seem to protect the traditional culture in the region's villages and bucolic farmsteads. Historically, Tirol was its own state. Today that region is divided: part in Austria, and part in Italy. The Italian part is called "South Tirol."
The region is a mix of the two cultures and officially bilingual. While the traditional economy is farming, today tourism is also big — skiing in winter, hiking in summer.
The Great Dolomites Road — beautifully engineered — leads to the 7,000-foot-high Sella Pass. It's great for a joy ride, and famously a big challenge for bikers. Making it to the summit is always a good excuse for a triumphant group photo.
These bold limestone pillars offer something for everybody. This is rock-climbing country — thrilling, even for spectators.
From the town of Ortisei [a.k.a. St. Ulrich or Urtijëi] we're catching the Seceda lift. All over this region, the lifts do the climbing fast and easy, depositing hikers sweat-free at thin-air trailheads. I love walking on a ridge. And with as many nationalities enjoying this scene as there are flowers in the fields, the blissful world up here is one of pristine nature and happy hikers.
These slopes are busy with skiers in the winter. When planning, be aware that in early spring and late fall — that's between seasons here in the Dolomites — many lifts, huts, and restaurants are shut down, and trails can be covered in snow. We're here in summer and everything's wide open. Everywhere I look feels like an alpine adventure awaiting my arrival.
One thing I love about Europe: I've been coming here all my life, and there's still places to discover.
The town of Kastelruth feels like an alpine village, rather than a ski resort. That's why I feature it in my Italy guidebook as the ideal home base for exploring the Dolomites.
The hyperactive bell tower seems to ring out the wisdom of honoring local traditions. Buildings are painted with murals celebrating the town's rich heritage. Clearly, fire has long been a concern. St. Florian, the patron of firefighters, is shown all over town putting out fires. The town cemetery is like a lovingly tended garden. Entire families share a common plot. Cobbled lanes lead past friendly shops to the welcoming town square. And for generations, the fountain, with its metal cup, has invited all for a refreshing drink. The fountain also watered horses back when coaching inns lined the square.
Here in the region of South Tirol, even though we're in Italy, locals speak German first and Italian second. That's because, for centuries, it was in the Austrian Habsburg realm, ruled from Vienna.
After World War I, South Tirol ended up as part of Italy. Mussolini did what he could to Italianize the region. He even gave each city a new Italian name. This town, Kastelruth, became "Castelrotto." But the region's Germanic heritage endures. You can see it in its prosperity and in its lively folk culture.
Amateur folk bands have fun keeping that heritage alive. The instruments are traditional, as are the costumes. The blue aprons come from a time when humble workers needed to protect their precious clothing. It's nice to think that these boys are both modern and traditional — and their traditions are clearly surviving into the next generation.
Kastelruth is the gateway to Europe's largest alpine meadow, the Alpe di Siusi [a.k.a. the Seiser Alm]. As automobiles are generally not allowed, visitors approach by cable car. Landing at Compatsch, the commercial hub of the meadow, hikers can hop a lift or a shuttle bus to the trailhead of their choice. The Alpe di Siusi [Seiser Alm] is a natural preserve at the foot of the mighty Sassolungo [Langkofel] and Sasso Piatto [Plattkofel] peaks.
The meadow is three miles wide by seven miles long and seems to float at 6,000 feet above sea level. It's dotted by farm huts and wildflowers, surrounded by dramatic Dolomite peaks, and crisscrossed by meadow trails — ideal for equestrians, flower lovers, and walkers. It's also just right for someone needing a lazy beer with a spectacular view.
And completing this storybook Dolomite setting, the spooky mount [outcropping] Schlern, home of mythical witches, looks boldly into the haze of the Italian peninsula.
As we continue our alpine adventure, we go from the dramatic Schlern to perhaps the most iconic peak of all the Alps: the Matterhorn, in Switzerland.
Switzerland is small — just half the size of Kentucky. Most of the country is rural and mountainous. We start in Zermatt at the Matterhorn, take the Glacier Express train ride, drop in on Appenzell, and finish in the Berner Oberland, riding lifts to the Jungfrau and the Schilthorn.
Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn, was essentially built for enjoying the Alps. It's hugely popular with skiers in the winter, and hikers in the summer. With its many lifts, it's a springboard for countless trails and unforgettable viewpoints.
The weather's great, and we're hopping a train to one of the most dramatic views in all the Alps. The Gornergrat cogwheel train has been wowing visitors since 1898. The trip comes with sweeping views — first of the town of Zermatt, then of the iconic peak that draws so many to this region: the Matterhorn.
The train climbs steeply into the high country. It takes us to over 10,000 feet, where we reach the end of the line. Across the tracks an old hotel solidly caps the Gornergrat ridge. Grand views stretch in every direction. Stunning Matterhorn views demand the attention of hikers. But there's more. Monte Rosa is actually higher than the Matterhorn. In fact, at 15,200 feet, it's the highest point in Switzerland. And a thousand-foot sheer drop below the platform stretches the mighty Gorner Glacier.
It seems many of my favorite hikes start partway down my favorite lifts or train rides. Hopping off this train about mid-way, I'm in for a sensational, yet easy hike. Getting to these exciting spots with so little work and so far from the crowds, I feel like I'm cheating — and I love it.
There's just something about the Matterhorn, the most recognizable mountain on the planet, that attracts people. It's a dangerous mountain to climb. Each year, while several thousand make it to the summit, about a dozen die trying. And with global warming, the permafrost that keeps it solid is thawing, making falling rocks a new hazard.
Surrounding Zermatt, as if to enjoy views of the Matterhorn from every angle, are dozens of lifts and hundreds of miles of trails. As is the case throughout the Alps, handy signposts make it clear where you are, what's the altitude, and how long it takes to hike to various points.
Zermatt, straddling its tiny river, is a small town of 6,000 with a big tourist industry. It has more hotel beds than residents — and they're often completely full. Nearly everyone earns a living one way or another from tourists, who flock here for a peek at the peak.
About two million visitors a year arrive by train — cars are not allowed. Electric carts weave quietly through the pedestrians. The town is a collection of over a hundred modern, chalet-style hotels with a well-organized and groomed infrastructure for summer and winter sports.
And this crowd-pleasing herd of traditional Blackneck goats, which parades through the town every day, has had it with selfies and is headin' for the barn.
If you explore a bit, you can discover pockets of traditional charm. Two hundred years ago, Zermatt would have looked more like this — little more than a gathering of humble log cabins.
Zermatt works hard to keep its visitors entertained, and tradition-loving locals seem delighted to do just that.
From the town of Zermatt a mighty cable car takes us to the summit of a peak called the "Little Matterhorn." Prices are steep, as the community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their mountain lifts in recent years. These lifts are absolutely state of the art, and just experiencing them is worth the splurge.
At 12,700 feet, this is the highest cable-car station in Europe.
While the view of the Matterhorn from this angle is not the iconic postcard profile, the views from this observation deck are stunning. On a clear day, the Alps fill the horizon with all their glory.
The Zermatt train station is busy each morning as travelers invest a day of their vacation to take one of the most scenic train rides in the world: riding the rails across southern Switzerland on the Glacier Express. This journey, designed to maximize your sightseeing thrills, features a masterpiece of railway engineering. The Glacier Express train line crosses 290 bridges and viaducts and goes through 90 tunnels in eight hours, as it connects two of the leading alpine resorts: Zermatt and St. Moritz.
Over a quarter million Alp lovers ride this train each year. People kick back and just relax, enjoying big windows for bigger views. The scenery unfolds as the train carves its way through the Swiss landscape. In the glaciers high above are born some of Europe's great rivers, which flow from here to both the Atlantic and the Mediterranean.
Now we're trading away some of the staggering alpine peaks for an insight into the Swiss and their heritage. This is Appenzell — cowbell country and storybook friendly.
According to legend, the devil was flying over these hills with a sack filled with houses. A sharp peak tore a hole in the sack, and lots of chalets sprinkled over the countryside. To this day, the farms and hamlets remain widely scattered, and the canton of Appenzell remains one of Switzerland's most traditional.
The Swiss are famously independent, and historically, the big threat to their independence was the Habsburg Empire from Austria. In the Middle Ages, this region was fragmented into small "cantons," or states. In the 13th century, three of these cantons joined together to fight the Habsburgs. By 1291, they established their independence and Switzerland was born. This union eventually grew to include 26 cantons and the country we know today.
Switzerland is unique among its European neighbors. It's not in the EU and, rather than the euro, it uses its own currency. This stubborn pride — and the resulting survival of local traditions — is one thing that makes Switzerland such a rewarding place to visit.
You feel the strength of that tradition here in the town of Appenzell. Amazingly, it wasn't until 1990 that Appenzell women were given full voting rights. This has been the capital of the canton for 400 years, and many of the buildings date back to that time.
Switzerland's independence distinguished it from European high culture. Back then, it took royalty, or the Roman Catholic Church, to pay for big-time cultural achievements. So instead of lots of grand palaces and cathedrals, today travelers see Swiss culture on a small and personal scale.
Folk museums here give an intimate peek into Appenzell's humble rural culture, with rooms replicating everyday life, from where they raised their families, to where they worked.
In this 400-year-old building, the ceilings are low and the floors are creaky with centuries-old beams. Simple folk art shows the importance of cows, and the ritual of taking the herd up to the high meadows for the summer, and back down for the winter.
This room shows life as it was for the herder in the high Alps, who spent summers alone, milking cows and making cheese. These decorative cow bells awaited the festive day when the herd would descend from the high meadow.
It was a world of wood. The woodshop is where milk pails would be fashioned out of maple and fir: soaked in water to be made pliable, assembled watertight with no nails, and then artfully carved.
The woodworker's bedroom reflects the pride he had in his profession. He earned enough to afford some fine painted furniture. This wardrobe dates from 1817.
Whether traveling by train or by car, mountainous Switzerland has fine infrastructure, and you can get nearly anywhere in the country in just a few hours.
The Berner Oberland is a particularly scenic region. Its Lauterbrunnen Valley, which stretches south from the city of Interlaken, is a wonderful springboard for some of my favorite Swiss Alp experiences.
Lauterbrunnen Valley, with its vertical sides and flat bottom, is U-shaped — a textbook example of a glacier-shaped valley. While the main town, also called Lauterbrunnen, sits on the valley floor, neighboring towns hang on cliffs high above.
Lauterbrunnen means "loud waters" — an apt name. Waterfalls plummet from cliffs all along the valley. Staubbach Falls — one of the highest in Switzerland — drops nearly a thousand feet. The valley — with its riverside trails, traditional farmhouses, and chorus of surrounding peaks cheering you on — is a magnet for nature lovers.
Towering high above are the icy Jungfrau, Mönch, and Eiger peaks — named for the legend of the young maiden (Jungfrau) being protected by the monk, or Mönch, from the mean ogre, or Eiger. And perched on a saddle between two of those mountains is the Jungfraujoch station — and that's where we're going…by train.
From the valley floor, a cogwheel train takes tourists and mountaineers alike on this ear-popping journey.
As we gradually climb, the views continually unfold. Eventually, we arrive at Kleine Scheidegg, a rail junction at the base of the peaks. For well over a century, this has been the jumping-off point for rock climbers attempting to scale the foreboding north face of the Eiger.
Kleine Scheidegg has souvenir shops, hearty food for hikers, and rustic 19th-century hotels — a reminder that tourism is nothing new here.
With the craze for social media these days and with millions of people from countries with emerging economies now able to afford that dream trip to Europe, famous destinations like this can be really crowded. Do what you can to minimize the crowds. Arrive early, arrive late — it really helps.
Continuing our journey to Europe's highest train station, the ingenuity of Swiss engineers is apparent as we climb the railway they built back in 1912. Amazingly, our train tunnels through the Eiger on our climb all the way to the Jungfraujoch.
Think about it: The Swiss drilled this tunnel through solid rock — it's four miles long. This train is smooth. And they did it a hundred years ago. Why? To show off their engineering skills and to celebrate nature.
Halfway up, the train stops at panorama windows. While expert rock climbers can exit here into an unforgiving world of ice and air, sightseers get their thrills by simply marveling at the icy views.
Continuing up the tunnel, from here the train's cogwheels earn their keep. You emerge at 11,000 feet — the Jungfraujoch. Spectacular views of majestic peaks stretch as far as you can see. Cradled among these giants, you understand the timeless allure of the Swiss Alps.
The Jungfraujoch [station] is like a small resort perched on a mountain ridge. From the highest viewing point, you can see the Aletsch Glacier, which stretches about 10 miles to the south. While shrinking with the warming global climate, it's still the longest glacier in the Alps. The air is thin — people are in giddy moods.
The station is a maze of shops, restaurants, and amusements. A tunnel is actually carved through the glacier to a cavern of ice sculptures — an especially big hit for visitors from lands where ice is a rarity. Outside, on the glacier, people enjoy the scene. From here, many venture even higher as a snowy trail leads to more mountain thrills.
But, for me, I'll call this good…and savor the sense of accomplishment I get when climbing to 11,370 feet before lunch.
The Berner Oberland has something for everybody.
Part of the fun — and much of the expense — of enjoying the Alps is riding the various lifts. Funiculars let hikers gain altitude quickly and easily. This lift actually lets visitors ride on the rooftop — a great way to more fully appreciate the staggering beauty of the region.
And once again, it's fun to leave the crowds by getting off at an intermediary station and taking a hike. There's a special camaraderie with people who actually get out and hike — and within moments, you're sharing the experience with fellow hikers and enjoying the Alps in a way so many miss.
Towns like Mürren were developed to accommodate nature-loving tourists. They cater to your every need. You can stroll through traffic-free centers, and towns are springboards for a popular option: the electric bike. While service roads in the high country may be closed to regular traffic, e-bikes are more than welcome — and they make you look fitter than you actually are.
Remote towns may be beyond the reach of your car, but all are accessible by various lifts. One of my favorites is the idyllic village of Gimmelwald.
The village — established in the Middle Ages, precariously on the edge of a cliff — was one of the poorest places in Switzerland. Gimmelwald works together like a big family — in fact, most of the hundred or so residents here share one of two last names: "Von Allmen" or "Feuz."
My friend Olle, long the village schoolteacher, enjoys showing me around. This is the oldest house, from 1658. And the woodwork is generally unpainted, just bleached in the sun; originally hay up top and cows below. For generations, families have lovingly tended their vegetable gardens. They still are relied on to put food on the table — and this one comes with an artistic side.
Retaining their traditional ways, farmers here make ends meet only with help from Swiss government subsidies. They supplement that by working the ski lifts in the winter. Modern tourism has contributed to the local economy as well. Pension Gimmelwald's terraced restaurant is filled with happy hikers at dinnertime — enthused by the memories they earned with today's hike.
I've been coming to Gimmelwald all my life and it never gets old. With the world changing as fast as it is, I find it refreshing to know that there are places like this that still embrace their traditions.
Dairy is the traditional industry here. Collecting grass to get their cows through the winter on these steep slopes is labor intensive.
Each family fills silos with enough to feed a dozen or so cows.
But we're here in summer, and the cows are in the high alp, enjoying a diet of fresh grass and flowers. From their milk, some of the most prized cheese in the world is still made in the traditional way.
We're joining a small tour group organized by the village tourist office. Of the countless visitors in this valley, these travelers took the initiative to enjoy this intimate peek at local culture in action. Once the milk is heated to just the right temperature, the cheese maker, using his teeth as well as his hands, masterfully scoops about 10 kilos of curds from the bottom of the cauldron. He then plops the sopping cheesecloth into a circular mold. It's quickly pressed to remove as much of the liquid, or "whey," as possible. As the moisture is removed and the aging process begins, a wheel of wet curds becomes a wheel of alp cheese, frequently brushed with brine and stored flat on shelves in a shed like this one for up to two years.
In the high country, I also enjoy a chance to hear traditional music — and up here, along with yodeling, that means the long, legato tones of the alphorn.
The alphorn has a range of nearly three octaves. But with no valves, it's limited to the same notes as a bugle. Used throughout the Alps, this horn has played a role in this culture for 500 years: to call cows from pasture to the barn for milking, as a way for herdsmen in the high meadows to communicate with people in the valley below, and even as a call to prayer through remote valleys.
Oh! — and we've got time for one more Swiss summit. High above this meadow, a peak called the "Schilthorn" emerges from the clouds. And, in good Swiss fashion, a modern cable car — the Schilthornbahn — zips visitors effortlessly to its summit.
In the Alps, while the valleys may be blanketed in clouds, the peaks can be brilliantly sunny. Get an early start: The peaks are often clear in the morning and then cloud up.
The 10,000-foot summit of the Schilthorn awaits skiers, hikers, and sightseers — both winter and summer. This station, which capitalizes on its role in a James Bond film, awaits with a revolving restaurant — perfect for spies nursing their 007 martinis.
Meanwhile on the panorama terrace, families pick out the peaks while others thrill at 360 degrees of alpine splendor.
For me, the majesty of the mountains is easiest to appreciate on my own private perch. As always, try to make a point to get away from the crowds — to be alone to savor an unforgettable moment.
Continuing with our high-altitude explorations, we move on to France to celebrate the summit of Europe — Mont Blanc.
France, the biggest country in western Europe, has glorious Alps in the east. We start in Chamonix, in the shadow of Mont Blanc. We ride the lift up to the Aiguille du Midi and then cross over the border to Italy. Then we hike the Tour du Mont Blanc — a trail that circles that iconic mountain.
Driving into France's Alps, a scenic valley leads toward Mont Blanc, the tallest peak in Europe. The alpine resort of Chamonix, nestled in the valley, is filled with enthusiasm for the surrounding mountains. Tourists and avid climbers alike mix it up in the streets.
Statues celebrate famous mountaineers with their sights set on Mont Blanc. These men were the first to climb it, back in 1786. After that triumphant summit, mountain climbing became fashionable. Chamonix boomed, and to this day it serves the dreams of serious climbers and day hikers alike.
For advice on finding just the right hike, the helpful tourist office can get you oriented. The staff knows the weather patterns and can match your abilities with the most interesting hikes in the area.
We're heading for a station 12,600 feet high, just across from the summit of Mont Blanc. From there, we hop on a gondola and soar high over the glacier to the border of Italy.
The well-organized lift handles huge crowds in peak season. We're here on a sunny Sunday in August, and it's packed. Within minutes, the powerful cable car sweeps us up 10,000 vertical feet from Chamonix to a pinnacle called the Aiguille du Midi.
From the top of the lift, a tunnel leads into the rock, where we make our final ascent — by elevator — to a commanding perch. Before us spread the Alps. You can almost reach out and pat the head of Mont Blanc. At nearly 16,000 feet, Mont Blanc is the top of Europe. Up here, the air is thin. People are awestruck by the grandeur of these mountains. And, back on the floor of the valley, nearly two miles below, is where we started: Chamonix.
The Aiguille du Midi station is a maze of tunnels and stairs leading to various thin-air amusements and stunning viewpoints.
This is one of the highest lifts in Europe. Everything's breathtaking. At 12,000 feet, even the stairs are breathtaking.
For an easy thrill, don't miss the glass box. You can stand in midair with no risk…but plenty of fear.
This ice tunnel — like a gateway to oblivion — is from where skiers and climbers depart. From here, tourists get to see why Chamonix attracts climbers from all over the world.
For your own private glacial dream world, hop on to the petite gondola and head south to Helbronner Point, which marks the border of Italy.
Dangling silently for 30 minutes, we glide over the glacier. From here, it's clear why the glacier is called the Mer de Glace — "sea of ice." And below us, safely navigating deadly crevasses, small groups with mountain guides enjoy the challenge of their choice.
We're surrounded by a majestic world of jagged rock needles — called aiguilles in French. The Giant's Tooth, not climbed until 1882, was one of the last to be conquered.
The cable stretches three miles with no solid pylon for support. It's as if we're floating. And here comes Italy.
Helbronner Point is the French/Italian border station. From this 11,000-foot-high station, the lift descends into Italy's remote Valley of Aosta. Hikers from both countries enjoy the sun and the views. Among countless peaks, you can pick out the perky Matterhorn in the distance. And you can look down on the classic hundred-mile trail that circles Mont Blanc — part of which we'll be hiking later. But today, we're heading back to Chamonix.
Chamonix hosted the first Winter Olympics in 1924 — and it still feels like an international festival. Whether it's après-ski or après-hike, the streets of Chamonix are always lively. And with all this strolling ambience, one of my favorite valley walks is simply through the town.
Chamonix was one of the original alpine resorts. Until about the year 1800, people didn't climb, or hike, or even paint mountains much. Mountains were a pain. Then, in the 19th century, the Romantic movement had people all across Europe communing with nature.
Eventually, engineers constructed a state-of-the-art array of trains and lifts to get the influx of nature-hungry city folk high into the mountains with ease. One of the first, this two-car cogwheel train — inaugurated in 1909 — transported turn-of-the-century visitors to the edge of the Mer de Glace glacier. And it's thrilling visitors to this day.
This train was built over the objection of a couple hundred mule owners who figured it would put 'em out of business. I'd say they were probably right.
The Mer de Glace is France's largest glacier — four miles long. In the 1600s, the glacier extended much farther downhill — actually threatening to block off the valley. But now, it's going in the opposite direction: receding — dramatically.
When we travel, we see and experience vivid examples of climate change. For me, this shrinking glacier is one of the most poignant. When I first came here, back in the '80s, the Mer de Glace was hundreds of feet higher than it is today.
From up above, on the observation deck, it's hard to imagine that just a few decades ago the glacier was so much higher, nearly filling this narrow valley. A cable car descends, taking visitors closer to the glacier. From there, the hike down to the receding "sea of ice" gets longer each year. Disturbing markers show where the glacier was just a short time ago. A touristy tunnel is carved deep into the ice. Hiking into it, you find yourself in a cool, dripping world of translucent blue. And, on an ice carving meant to call attention to climate change, tourists pose obliviously.
I'm meeting up with Cassandra Overby, author of Explore Europe on Foot and an expert on Europe's long-distance hikes. We'll join her for a couple days as she hikes the classic Tour du Mont Blanc.
Before any serious hike in this region, it's smart to drop by the mountain guides center in Chamonix to review plans and be sure you know all the latest. You can get an individual consultation to tailor your hike to your time frame and ability.
Europe has many iconic long-distance hikes, and one of the most popular is the Tour du Mont Blanc. While the Mont Blanc massif offers some of Europe's most demanding mountaineering, this accommodating trail is flexible — enjoyed by hikers with a wide range of abilities. It's like a huge park — part in France, part in Italy, part in Switzerland — and it's busy June through September.
Cassandra: Tour du Mont Blanc circumnavigates Europe's highest peak. So, you go around it in about 10 days, each day about 10 miles for a total of 100. Each day you see a different valley, a different glacier, a different view of the great mountain.
The Tour du Mont Blanc is partly in wooded farmland and partly above the tree line in the company of glaciers. The appealing thing about it for American hikers is the delightful mix of nature, history, and culture. The people you meet on the trails come from many lands and your days are filled with cheery greetings. We're in France for this section, so it's "bonjour!"
Hikers here have plenty of options. You can hike as little or as much of the route as you like. But you must reserve your beds well in advance. One thing I really appreciate: You can hire a transfer service to take your luggage to the next hut. That frees me up to hike with just the essentials in a small day bag.
And with Cassandra's help, I've chosen a route I'm comfortable with.
A typical day on the trail is about 10 miles and around six hours of walking, and the route is never dull. This bridge actually dates back to Roman times, and for much longer than that, its river has been carving this gorge.
Cassandra: So, one of the really interesting parts about this route is that it used to be an old Roman road. And there was a Celtic settlement just down the way, so in addition to Romans and Celts, these paths were also used by shepherds taking their stock to different fields.
Mountain huts — called refuges — are placed, conveniently, a day's hike apart. Our first night is at Nant Borrant, a mountain lodge dating back to the 1800s.
Huts are basic — like hostels for adults. Hikers share co-ed dorms and follow the mountain hut etiquette: Bring your own sleep sack, no boots inside, and so on. Personal chores are done upon arrival; then it's time to relax. While very simple, up here the little things feel luxurious. A refreshing beer after a day on the trail hits the spot.
Dinner is rustic. There's no menu — hikers enjoy whatever's served. And here, way up in the French Alps, I'm happy to consider this "high cuisine." Soup with mountain cheese, tasty sausage with potato au gratin, and, to complement it all, a hearty red wine from Savoy — that's the region we're in. The culture of the Tour du Mont Blanc is one of respect for nature, a joie de vivre, and an international camaraderie.
In the huts, it's early to bed and early to rise. After a quick breakfast, we're on to the next leg of our route.
Since each day you try to cover about 10 miles, it's important to eat and stay hydrated as you go. Fortunately, the Tour du Mont Blanc's enjoyable combination of wilderness and commerce means the trail is well-developed for the needs of hikers along the way. And small shops are ideal for assembling a rustic picnic.
A day's hike is punctuated by encounters with the mountain culture, like a dairy farm making cheese pretty much the way they have for generations. The farmer's focused on his work and proud of his product. He treats us to a sample, and we buy a nice slice for the trail. Clearly, cheese is the energy bar of the Tour du Mont Blanc.
Tonight we're sleeping in a bigger refuge. This one's a bit more remote, high above the tree line, but with the same hearty food, simple dormitories, and great company.
The next morning, the convenience of the baggage-transfer service is obvious, as bags are taken to a variety of destinations depending on each hiker's plan. As we head out on what'll be my last day on the trail, I realize that after so many decades, I'm enjoying a brand-new European experience — an experience I wouldn't have found without a great guide like Cassandra.
Rick: Cass, what are the most important things people should know when they're hiking like this?
Cassandra: You know, there are only really three big things that you need to think about. The first one is: Be prepared for time in the outdoors. So, at a minimum, you need good shoes, some great layers, a solid backpack, and a good map. Number two is: Be really proactive about your comfort when you're on trail. So, eat before you're hungry, drink before you're thirsty, and the moment that anything feels uncomfortable — if it's your backpack, or your shoes — just stop and take care of it before you go on.
Rick: And finally…
Cassandra: Don't be intimidated by all of the gear, or the athletic nature of walking. You don't need to be a hiker. You don't need to be a super athlete to enjoy this kind of travel.
Rick: Just look at my gear and look at what shape I'm in — and I'm having a blast.
Cassandra: Right. It's not about exercise; this kind of thing is best when you slow down. So, there's a hut around every corner — stop and take a coffee. Or in the afternoon, have a victory beer if you had a big climb. When you find a stream, soak your feet. That's really how you enjoy this.
Rick: It's like you're on vacation.
Cassandra: It should be fun.
Cassandra's hiking the rest of the route. But my luggage is back in Chamonix — and I will be too, in time for dinner.
I hope you've enjoyed our look at the best of the Alps, where nature is wild yet still so accessible. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on travelin'.