French or Swiss Alps

Just starting to plan our second trip to Europe - will be going in May, 2014. On our first trip we didn't see the French or Swiss Alps - but plan to include it this time. My question is - if we had to chose one area, which would you chose? The French or Swiss Alps. I'm looking at either Chamonix, France or the Berner Oberland area in Switzerland. I'm thinking we don't want to spend time in both. We only have two weeks and will spend the remainder of our trip in South France, ending in Paris. Thanks for your help.

Posted by Anita
Long Beach, California, USA
1813 posts

Since you are going to the south of France also, then Chamonix would be easier. It really is spectacular and well worth a visit - we've been there a few times and would go back again. You can easily spend several days here seeing the mountains and enjoying the town. The closest part of the Berner Oberland is about 2 1/2 hours northeast of Chamonix by car. You can drive over the pass to Martigny, Switzerland (about 50-60 minutes)and then take the highway northeast through the beautiful vineyards of Valais. Lotschberg is where you put the car onto a train (Super fun! 22 francs) and it s you off right in Kandersteg, part of the Berner Oberland that is a UNESCO world heritage site. From there you can take the gondola up to the top and see this spectacular place! If you don't want to drive that far then you can be in Verbier, Switzerland in about 1 1/2 hours from Chamonix. You would drive over the pass to Martigny, and then turn southeast. Not as spectacular as the Berner Oberland but you can still experience some of the Swiss Alps. Verbier is a very expensive ski town (think Aspen or Telluride) but it has beautiful mountains surrounding it and if you ride the main gondola up, the view is spectacular if you are lucky enough to be there on a clear day. If you go northwest from Martigny, you can be at Lake Geneva in about 30 minutes (from Martigny), which has stunning mountains on it's south side - although those mountains are actually in France. If you drive the highway on the north side of the lake the view is gorgeous. Another reachable place from Chamonix would be Les Diablerets or Gstaad, another group of amazing peaks. Would take you about 2 1/2 hours or so from Chamonix.
Have a great trip!

Posted by Susan
Marin County/San Francisco
4035 posts

Hi Sue, I posted this exact same question on the Helpline many years ago.. :).. We could only go to either one on that trip and it was a really tough choice. I chose Chamonix that first time, and we enjoyed it. The next trip, we went to the Berner Oberland and stayed in Murren and it blew my mind. Loved it way more than Chamonix (and I'm a Francophile). We've been back to both since those original two trips and we still love the BO better. Chamonix is a ski resort town. It feels a bit clausterphobic to me.. whereas the BO is larger, with many more towns spread apart, and much more expansive (in a good way). Both trips to the BO we stayed in Murren which we LOVED. It's a mostly car-free town, 5000' elev, and the views from wherever you are in town are mind blowing. You are surrounded and enveloped by the Alps. It's hard to describe it in words. The hiking/walking in the BO was much more fun for us, with meadows full of wild flowers, cows with cow bells, a stream, the waterfall, groomed walking paths, lifts to take you up if you want. You can start right from Murren, whereas in Chamonix we had to take a bus to get to a lift to take us up. I have to say though, we like going to the top of Mt. Blanc in Chamonix much, much more than the Jungfraujoch in the BO. Both places have plusses and minuses.. both are wonderful.. we just prefer the BO, and Murren especially. And personally, I think it's worth the extra time it will take to get to the BO. But then, we took trains and enjoy that as much as anything else. Taking trains is all part of the fun for us

Posted by Tom
Lewiston, NY
11073 posts

The problem is... you're going too early to experience the Alps in all of their finery. You can't really do much hiking until June, at the earliest, and May is often cloudy and rainy. That being said, the French Alps are far more convenient to the overall flow of your trip. You're not visiting at an ideal time, so don't go too far out of your way.

Posted by Sue
183 posts

Thanks everyone for your help. Looks like we'll be extending our trip - we have friends joining us, but not for the France part of our trip. They all really want to go to Switzerland - Berner Oberland area. It will probably be closer to the end of May when we arrive there. Susan - you mentioned you stayed in Murren......what hotel did you stay at? Thanks for your help

Posted by Nigel
East Midlands, England
13903 posts

I've been in the Berner Oberland in mid to late May. It depends on the year. Usually it is after the manure spreaders have done their work in most places so not too whiffy, certainly not as much as a few weeks earlier. In Muerren, Denise's apartment may suit two couples, if she's open, or her B&B, or for an actual hotel we liked the Jungfrau with a balcony and a fabulous view. I'd expect them to be open. You may have lovely wildflower meadows or mud, depending on what the winter was like and how long it hangs about. We've usually been quite lucky, and have often found that the farmers around Gimmelwald are getting their first hay in with the amazing little vehicles that can practically go straight up cliffs. I hope it works out for you.

Posted by Ken
Vernon, Canada
24201 posts

Sue, As you've now decided to stay in the Berner Oberland, I'd suggest choosing your home base location depending on what you plan to do and see in that area. While Mürren is beautiful, travelling to other locations in that area will add both time and money in terms of transportation. If you're planning to tour both sides of the valley, Lauterbrunnen makes a better location, as it's central to both sides. It has some good hotels and restaurants. It's also an easy trip to Interlaken, should you want to have a look at that or take a relaxing cruise on lakes Thun or Brienz. One caveat - Switzerland is expensive so be sure to budget for that! Happy travels!

Posted by JS
Bay Area
2365 posts

I have been to both areas and enjoyed each alot. Chamonix is vg for about 4 nights assumming you will hike or takes gondolas around and to Italy side.
Realize in May it still maybe marginally weather in both areas. Berner Oberland area is perfect for more days and to include your transport to S. France. Yes it can be more costly but their area 2 family-type hostels that are very clean and have communal kitchens w/ pvt rooms. This will keep costs down if necessary. The villages are very charming and picturesque and the hiking is much easier on both sides of the Berner O valley . I would say there is more to do and see in B. Oberland area. Think Swiss village mountain style. Either will be successful if the weather holds for you.

Posted by Jana
Jersey City
19 posts

Now I want to go to Chamonix. I'll be in Lyon, France on October 22nd and will be headed out to Strasbourg by car. I wanted to go to Chamonix and experience Mt. Blanc. We are concerned about the weather this time of year. After the gondola, we though we would head over to Martigny and then north to Strasbourg. What would this drive be like? We need to be in Strasbourg on October 24th. Any insights to this plan is appreciated.

Posted by Bill
Pittsburgh, PA, United States
33 posts

I'm planning on being in Chamonix a couple of days earlier than you, and Accuweather is predicting highs around 60F at that time, a little rain from here to there. Don't expect any blizzards.