The Alps Is France's Main Mountain Range

Grenoble - France : View from Bastille Fortress Mountain Top
Pierre Longnus / Getty Images

The Alps (les Alpes) are the most famous of Europe's mountain ranges and with good reason. Located to the east of France and on the Swiss and Italian borders, the range is dominated by majestic Mont Blanc, at 15,774 ft (4,808 meters) it's the highest in western Europe. And it never loses its layer of snow. It was discovered in the 19th century by rock climbers and today offers great sport for the beginner, particularly with the building of numbers of Via Ferratas (iron ladders bolted onto the rock) while challenging the experts as well.

In the Alps you'll come across some of the most dramatic mountain landscapes, towering ranges that you can see from the Mediterranean coast, giving a wonderful backdrop to towns like Nice and Antibes. In winter the Alps is a skiers' paradise; in summer the high pastures are full of hikers and ramblers, cyclists and people fishing in the cold lakes. 

The Main Towns

Grenoble, the ‘capital of the Alps’, is a lively city with a medieval quarter full of shops and restaurants. It also has good cultural offerings from a leading modern art museum to the Resistance Museum. The city began as a Roman fortified town but owes its first fame to the local uprising in 1788 which started the French Revolution. It is also the final stop of the Route Napoléon after the French Emperor arrived here in March 1815.  It has an international airport and serves the skiing resorts of Les  Deux-Alpes and L'Alpe d'Huez among others.

Check the Maison de la Montagne at 3 rue Raoul-Blanchard for suggestions for walks and information on refuges. It holds a notable jazz festival each March and a gay and lesbian film festival in April.

Annecy, just 50 km (31 miles) south of Lake Geneva and set on the glorious Lac d’Annecy, is one of the most beautiful resort towns in the French Alps.

It has historic monuments like the Château, housing a museum and observatory, an Old Town full of arcaded shops and the Palais de l’ile, a fortress between two bridges in the middle of the Canal du Thiou.

Chambéry stands at the entrance to the mountain passes into Italy, giving the town huge importance as a trading post in the 14th and 15th centuries. It was the capital of Savoy, ruled over by the dukes who once lived in its imposing château. It’s a handsome city, with good museums to visit and grand architecture to admire. To the north lies the spa resort of Aix-les-Bains, popular for its thermal baths. The Lac du Bourget, the country's biggest natural lake, is one of the best places in France for watersports.

Briançon, 100 km (62 miles) east of Grenoble, is the capital of the Ecrins area. It’s one of Europe’s highest towns (1350 meters or 4,429 ft above sea level), and notable for its splendid citadel and fortifications built by Vauban in the 17th century. For a huge variety of different sports, make for the Parc National des Ecrins and Vallouise around 20 km (12 miles) to the south west.

Winter Sports

The Alps have some of the largest connected ski areas. Les Trois Vallées takes in Courchevel, Méribel, La Tania, Brides-les-Bains, Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, Les Menuires, Val Thorens and Orelles, adding up to 338 slopes and 600 km of pistes.

Other areas include the Portes du Soleil (288 slopes, 650 km of slopes not entirely connected); Paradiski (239 slopes and 420 km of pistes), and Espace Killy (137 slopes, 300 km of slopes).

Highlights

Aiguille du MidiClimb aboard the téléphérique, one of the world’s highest cable-car ascents taking you 3000 meters above the Chamonix valley to give you an extraordinary view of Mont Blanc. It’s only for the adventurous; you feel at the top of the world. It’s expensive (55 euros return for adults) but worth it.

Walking through the national or regional parks in the area like Ecrins and Chartreuse is a landscape of limestone peaks, pine forest and pastureland.

Lake cruise on Lac d’Annecy, taking either one or two hours, or a 2- to 3-hour cruise including lunch or dinner. Short cruises around 14 euros; lunch and dinner cruises from around 55 euros.