With Geneva, Sion and Zurich just a couple of hours flying time from the UK Switzerland has never been more accessible for a long weekend, but holding position in the deep south, straddling the Italian border, Zermatt is probably the most isolated "honeypot" in the Alps. Even with the wonders of the Swiss railway system you're looking at 3 to 4 hours from Geneva and Zurich; and with Zermatt itself being car-free the train is the logical choice.
You can split the journey from Zurich to Zermatt into two distinct parts, the first part from the airport to Visp aboard immaculate double-decker inter-city trains and the second part on the famous Matterhorn Gottard Bahn into the mountains. The narrow-guage, cog railway, ride from Visp climbs 1000 metres up the deepest valley in Switzerland and in typical Swiss style the train windows can be lowered to almost half height to allow photographers to get an unimpeded view. Between Tasch, where the train fills with car drivers who've reached the end of the road, and Zermatt you get your first glimpse of the Matterhorn.
Arriving in Zermatt is unique. Whilst the likes of Riederalp and Bettmeralp are well known as car-free resorts Zermatt is on a different scale. The noise, or lack of it, and clean air hit you instantly. With no cars the town runs on electric vehicles; electric buses, electric taxis, even electric police cars.
Zermatt town and getting around:
The majority of the hotels in Zermatt operate a shuttle service from the railway station for arrivals and drop offs but in between your choices are eBus, eTaxi, bike or foot. An eTaxi will set you back £20 to £25 but with mostly free buses connecting to the main ski-lift stations and a compact town centre most places can be reached in a 20 minute walk. Be aware, though, that if you're outside the flat town centre the roads can can sharp and steep!
The town is centred around the twin railway stations of the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn and the Gornergrat Bahn and at first glance looks like the archetypal Swiss tourist resort - a mix of souvenir shops, restaurants and watch shops lining the main street, but with an increasing English influence the more you explore. From the 1300s until the mid-19th Century Zermatt was nothing more than another small collection of rudimentary rustic shacks in at the south end of the Matter Valley, not even worthy of a name on a map until the late 15th century. In the 1860s, however, all that changed when the Matterhorn attracted the attention of British society, and particularly of one Edward Whymper. The events of 1865 and the first successful summit of the Matterhorn, where 4 of the 7 climbers died, have gone down in history as one of the most iconic moments of the “Golden Age of Alpinism”. It also launched Zermatt onto the world stage as a tourist destination. 150 years later the Matterhorn is intrinsic to Zermatt, which transforms from a village to a town every winter with the influx of visitors filling an estimated 35,000 beds, and Zermatt celebrates its iconic mountain everywhere. The era is remembered in the Matterhorn Museum and the Mountaineers' Cemetery where memorials stand to some of the iconic names of mountaineering history and the "Grave of the Unknown Climber".
Memorials to Michel Croz and Peter Taugwalder (father and son) who died on the descent from the summit of the Matterhorn following Whymper's famous first ascent
By the time you've reached the Mountaineer's Cemetery you've also reached one of the best viewpoints in town for photographing the Matterhorn with an almost unimpeded view from the bridge over the Vispa.
The Matterhorn Museum sits half way between the Monte Rosa hotel and the Mountaineer’s Cemetery and is instantly recognisable. How long it taes you to go round is almost entirely up to you, depending on the quantity of films and narrations you wish to take in. If you’re expecting to see artefacts related to the mountain and Zermatt you won’t be disappointed, with everything from old to modern climbing boots and from the fateful rope that broke, causing the death of the four climbers, in 1865 to full scale houses. Videos explain the events of the day and its historical impact, and of course there’s the opportunity for some retail therapy with a reminder or two of Zermatt.
Outside the museum a right turn along Barnhofstrasse will take you to the railway station and Zermatt’s centre. Look down as you walk and you’ll see plaques to the seven 1865 mountaineers embedded in the road. Turn right at Hinterdorfstrasse and you can walk down to the Vispa along the same streets, between the same houses, as those mountaineers from a different age would have walked. Here Zermatt seems a million miles away from a tourist hotspot, if you exclude or avoid the flow of guides with tourist groups explaining how men and beasts would share these wooden houses and how the stone discs were there to protect against mice.
When it comes to eating and drinking - well you're on the border with Italy so if you want a break from the traditional raclette, fondue and rosti (though I'm not sure why you would) you can't beat fresh, hand-made, pasta and pizzas. If your tastes are more eclectic you'll find Japanese, Mexican, Korean, French, Thai....you get the idea. Zermatt really does welcome the world. It won't be cheap but it will be good!
What to do:
In winter the population of Zermatt explodes from around 6,000 to 30,000 but between the end of the summer holidays and the start of the main ski season (Zermatt actually has year-round skiing) you can benefit from lower prices and almost non-existant queues. While there's skiing at the high-level Matterhorn Glacier Paradise all year round, Zermatt has been heavily investing in mountain biking as an alternative for summer and autumn months. The lifts and gondolas that ferry skiers to Kleine Matterhorn, Gornergrat and Rothorn in winter allow mountain bikers and hikers access to high trails and spectacular downhills.
Taking the cable-car from the Schwarzsee base station you can easily fit a pair of bikes and riders in each car and enjoy a 250m descent into Zermatt. With alternatives to the steepr parts, wide expanses and easy escapes the descent back to the base station is the ideal way to familiarise yourself with features like brakes, gears, and drop-seats. While, in common with many singletracks in Zermatt, the route has been designed to allow fast water run-off to evoid excessive erosion it's by no means sanitised and falling off is a very real proposition!
With a couple of descents from Furi under your belt try heading further up the mountain to Schwarzsee, a classic spot in its own rights. It's a good 700+ metres higher than Furi and a 960m descent to Zermatt. Shwarzsee is the starting point for the classic route up the Matterhorn via the Hornli Hut and in winter gives open access to the pistes, but it's also being developed for mountain biking. Where once downhillers shared hikers trails the infrastructure is now being put in place specifically for mountain bikers. Channels are installed to remove water and corners are cambered to avoid erosion on the descent while on some of the higher-end trails trees are padded to reduce the chance of serious injury.
The singletrack descent from Schwarzsee is newbie Nirvana, enough to keep your mind focused from the minute you leave the cable car station to arrival in Zermatt. The trail flows more than the descent from Furi but with the flow comes an increase in technical moves. Drops are a little steeper, bumps a little bumpier. It's enough to hold your attention totally, enough to push you and leave you feeling like you've done something by the time you reach the restaurant part way down.
The start of the Hobbit Trail from Schwarzsee
With a degree of familiarity of balancing on two wheels you could move on to the classic descent from Blauherd to Sunnegga base station. Starting at 2571m the Blauherd to Sunnegga trail isn't far short of the descent from Schwarzee, but it's entirely different in nature. Sticking almost exlusively to well made gravel covered tracks the route winds it's way from the bare rock of the mountainside serenly through the trees to emerge in Zermatt back by the Sunnegga station. The trail is also signposted throughout for Kickbike use, an oversized push-scooter with brakes that's very popular at Swiss alpine resorts. For around £15 you can pick up a scooter and helmet at the Blauherd station and leave it at Sunnegga; the descent taking around 35 minutes non-stop or taken more leisurely utilising the frequent benches for breaks. As is customary on descents there's the mandatory restaurant to break your journey should you wish.
For a break from the bike the Forest Fun park combines cargo nets, zip lines, tree climbs and parcours for anyone from the age of 4 and can be reached easily from Zermatt by following the road alongside the far sie of the River Vista for about 30 minutes.
Beyond Blauherd the Rothorn station at 3,103m is the most popular take-off point for a tandem paraglide with Air Taxi Zermatt. In summer the lack of skiers means a comfortable and queue-free ascent and the plateau greets you with perfect conditions. From the Rothorn station you get totally uninterrupted views of the Matterhorn and Weisshorn and in summer it's the departure point for hiking trails both to the nearby Oberrothorn (3,415m) and down into Zermatt. Great trails they may be but nothing compares to a paragliding descent.
Above the dvelopments at ground level you get the most perfect view of the matterhorn from the best angle; from the Italian side it's more two-dimensional wheras from this side you get the classic 3D image used as the image on everything from Toblerone to souvenir hats.
Zermatt is also home to one of the most spectacular railway journeys in a country known for its spectacular railways. The 33 minute ascent to the 3.089m Gornergrat was the world's first fully electric cog railway and gives hikers, bikers, skiers and tourists access to one of the finest viewpoints in the Alps. From Gornegrat station follow the short, but steep, path up to the hotel and observatory then onto the viewing platform at 3100m for uninterupted views of 29 mountains over 4000m.
From Monte Rosa to Kleine Matterhorn
An alternative to Gornergrat is a short train journey from Zermatt back down the valley to Randa for a walk on the Europaweg from Grächen to Zermatt, taking in the stunning Charles Kuonen suspension bridge across the valley
Photo: Zermatt Tourism
or an afternoon at 3,883m on the year-round ski slopes of Matterhorn Glacier Paradise.
Photo: Zermatt Tourism
The trip up to Kleine Matterhorn and the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. From Zermatt it takes 3 cable cars to reach Glacier Paradise, first from the town up to Furi, then on to Trockener Steg before a final gondola to Kleine Matterhorn. The views back down into Zermatt are stunning on a good day, but between the constant announcements over the PA and the scratched windows don’t expect photos or video to do them justice.
The final leg of the journey is very much dependent on wind speeds on the upper mountain and if you haven’t felt it already the altitude will soon make its presence known. At close to 4000m breathing becomes a lit more laboured than even Gornergrat. From Zermatt to Glacier Paradise takes around 45 minutes and deposits you at the highest point accessible by cable car in Europe. Here you’re close to the Swiss/Italian border and many toursits are surprised to see a different side of the Matterhorn. From the village the view is up the Hornli Ridge, but from Kleine Matterhorn, a small summit between Breithorn and the Matterhorn, you’re looking straight at the south face.
Once at the summit you have access to 21km of skiing piste in good weather along with an observation platform onto the Theodul Glacier. Along with the obligatory restaurant and shop there’s also the Paradise itself, where a tunnel leads you inside the glacier where artists have sculpted figures from clear ice. Take your time walking through as the altitude will definitely make exercise more difficult unless you’ve already acclimatised – and wrap up, you’re inside a glacier!.
Zermatt is going to give you unique moments. The Matterhorn is probably the most iconic image of a mountain in the world and the experience of a car-free environment is enlightening. If you're looking for adventure the world's longest pedestrian suspension bridge via a 4-5 hour round trip, paragliding from the Rothorn, sking on the highest pistes in the Alps and enough mountain biking trails to keep you riding for a week can be found. You've got culture and cuisine, history and a society that recognises what its assets are are protects them. Above all, though, you've got scenery and views that will live with you for ever.