Where is Zermatt & What Can You Do There?
Nestled amid verdant meadows at the head of southern Switzerland’s breathtaking Valais canton, Zermatt is arguably the archetypal Alpine resort.
At an altitude of 1600m, the views commanded from almost any vantage point around this bustling yet pristine village-town have long been world famous. In fact, you’ve almost certainly already seen a stunning mountain vista snapped from the forested foothills above Zermatt, even if you’ve never been anywhere near the place.
How can we be so sure? Well, two words: The Matterhorn.
Reckoned to be the world’s most-photographed peak, the fin-shaped ‘mountain of the meadow’ (like Zermatt itself, the name Matterhorn references an old Germanic word for alpine grassland) is certainly among nature’s more iconic structures. Despite being easily the best known, it’s just one of nearly 50 summits along the snaking Vispa river valley that rise to a towering 4000m or higher.
Collectively, these impossibly dramatic ranges make Zermatt and its neighbouring communities some of the most sought-after ski holiday destinations on the planet. Of course, if hurtling downhill through crisp powder snow isn’t your thing, there’s plenty more to enjoy here: just ask the countless thousands of off-piste visitors who come to unwind and refresh in these picture-perfect Valais havens year round.
Where is Zermatt?
An easy answer to the question ‘where is Zermatt?’ might involve pointing to an especially scenic shot of the Matterhorn - perhaps reflected in the glassy lake waters of Riffelsee - and saying ‘there!’. As proud a boast as that is, though, it’s not especially helpful in terms of actually getting here.
For those in need of a more practical response:
Zermatt lies at the southern end of the Matter valley (or Mattertal) in southwestern Switzerland, roughly 23 miles (37 km) southeast from Sion. Tucked up against the border with Italy, this prime location puts it roughly equidistant from both Zurich and Geneva. Flying into either city hub is equally convenient for onward transfers to Zermatt, which will generally take 3-4 hours by road and/or rail.
Many arrivals from Zurich and Geneva prefer to come by train than by car, citing the added comfort and reduced journey time versus driving over twisting (and often seasonal) mountain roads. The famous Glacier Express rail routes are undeniably spectacular, and handy connecting trains run directly from both airports. They’ll bring you as far as nearby Visp, where you’ll transfer via a delightful narrow-gauge cog railway that rises almost 1km straight into Zermatt.
Those who do prefer to drive should note that Zermatt itself is an automobile-free zone, part of a drive to preserve the immaculate Alpine environment. In addition to the (mostly electric) civic services, the majority of vehicles you’ll encounter on the winding streets of its historic centre will be fleets of handy hotel shuttles and taxis.
Visitors approaching by car will instead need to make use of the ample secure parking in neighbouring Täsch. From there, it’s an easy 10-minute rail hop via the town’s Matterhorn Terminal, with daytime services running multiple times every hour. Private hire taxis are also an option, but be aware that they can’t always drop you as centrally in Zermatt as the train does.
Activities and experiences
So besides skiing, what is there to do in Zermatt? Well, plenty - that is, assuming you’re visiting this part of the world because you love striking scenery, pure mountain air, great food and drink, luxurious leisure time, fascinating history, and the powerful draw of the Alpine lifestyle.
Consciously appealing to a sportier, more family-orientated crowd than some of the region’s glitziest destinations (St. Moritz, Courchevel), Zermatt can still deliver an impressive taste of that classic Swiss resort chic if it’s what you’re looking for. You’ll certainly find opportunities here to dip into boutique designer storefronts and sample Michelin-starred cuisine, as well as to indulge in Switzerland’s famed spa culture at various luxury hotel facilities.
However, there’s also a genuinely homely, somewhat rustic character to parts of Zermatt, most apparent in the narrow medieval lanes that wind through the old village centre. A palpable sense of the community’s ancient agricultural roots lingers in the crooked angles of the oldest wooden chalets and corner stores, resulting in a cosy yet bustling, intimate yet cosmopolitan atmosphere that really adds to Zermatt’s unique charm.
Expanding our view a little, the landscapes fringing the outskirts of the town are almost unrivalled in their sheer drama and beauty: Zermatt is flanked on all sides by a breathtaking natural assembly of craggy peaks, crystal lakes, lush conifer forests and sweeping nursery slopes. Unsurprisingly, this aspect alone brings in a year-round fanbase of climbers, hikers and cyclists of all abilities, from all corners of the globe - if you’re a fan of outdoor pursuits in general, Zermatt really does offer an embarrassment of riches.
While the Matterhorn itself may dominate visitor photo albums, it’s safe to say that most amateur ramblers won’t be getting much beyond the foothills. Unconquered until 1865, it remains a particularly challenging ascent even for expert climbers, and is best viewed from a suitable distance by the vast majority of us.
Happily, thanks to an abundance of cable cars, lifts and mountain railways, there are many more accessible peaks and plateaus surrounding Zermatt - and many are perfectly easy to stroll around at a leisurely pace in basic snow gear. Of particular note is a spectacular new (2018) gondola lift that spirits daytrippers up to Europe’s highest cable car station, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise near the 3,883m summit of Klein Matterhorn.
An equally memorable option is the narrow-gauge electric rack railway up the side of the Gornergrat. Since the late 1890s, this remarkable construction has been busily ratcheting thousands of visitors a day up to the 3000m natural viewing deck at the very centre of this majestic snow-capped panorama. Alternatively, take the funicular from Zermatt up to the sunny open pastures at Sunnegga - from there you’ll soak in some jaw-dropping Matterhorn views, alongside a rich abundance of local wildlife (ibex, chamois, gem-like alpine flora) flourishing in their spotless natural habitat.
Walking and biking
At lower altitudes, there are dozens of beautiful forest and lake walks to be enjoyed around Zermatt. Explore the downhill woodland trail to the sapphire glacial waters of Gorner Gorge, take a chairlift over to the quaint slopeside farming hamlet of Findeln, or check out the striking rock formations around Schwarzsee (‘Black Lake’) and its attendant chapel, Mary of the Snows.
Hikes here can range from the very gentle to the ruggedly challenging. Examples of the former might include the meadow and forest track linking Zermatt to the nearby hamlet of Furi, famed for its ice-age ‘glacier garden’. There’s also an easy stroll over to the fascinating Ricola herb gardens, where acolytes of natural treatments can learn all about the ancient organic recipes used in the famous Swiss medicinal sweets.
Meanwhile, those with more of a taste for adventure can tackle the 494m-long Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge. It’s a memorable ten-minute foot crossing that gradually carries intrepid walkers out (safely!) over the majestic Grabengufer ravine, some 85m below.
Travel and day trips
The Glacier Express is one of the region’s key attractions for visitors with a real sense of wanderlust.
A sensational feat of Alpine engineering that snakes through some of the most incredible mountainscapes found anywhere in the world, it’s a luxury once-in-a-lifetime rail experience that doesn’t come cheap, but will surely stay with you forever. Relaxing in pampered comfort beside panoramic seat-to-ceiling windows, you’ll glide around the vibrant slopes and gorges of the Upper Rhone valley and Mattertal, making pit stops at various picturesque towns and villages along its unique 8-hour, four-section route between Zermatt and St. Moritz.
If you’re looking for a less extravagant way to investigate some nearby locations for an afternoon or two, regular stopping trains also cover various local hops to the likes of Brig, Interlaken and Lucerne. That is, of course, assuming you can find the time in between rocketing down Zermatt’s thrilling pistes, wandering its bijou village backstreets, exploring those sun-dappled meadows, or sipping wine in a steaming jacuzzi as the sun sinks behind the Alps.
However you choose to spend your time in and around Zermatt, you’ll find there’s something about it that just stays with you. Like that famous Matterhorn silhouette, looming iconic and immutable over all it surveys, there’s both a peace and a power about the place. It’s a true Valais gem that you can only fully experience first hand - and we highly recommend that you do.