My first ever trip to continental Europe was a hiking vacation to Zermatt more than three decades ago. In the interim, I’ve been back to Switzerland many times, skiing and hiking all over the Alps, visiting the major cities, writing about food, hotels, watches and nature, but I never made it back to Zermatt until last month. I didn’t realize how much I had been missing, and I’d go again tomorrow. It’s just a very special, wonderful place.
Zermatt is arguably the most famous mountain town in the world, mainly because it sits in the shadow of the world’s most recognizable mountain, the Matterhorn, so iconic it has been borrowed for everything from a theme park ride and scale replica at Disneyland to chocolate bar wrappers to the opening logo of movies by Paramount Pictures. Zermatt itself was the inspiration for the original part of America’s most popular ski resort, Vail, and has spawned countless faux alpine chalet architectural examples worldwide.
The town is the very essence of adjectives such as quintessential, iconic and fairytale. But it was also way ahead of its time in terms of sustainable tourism, all the rage now – even when I visited in the Eighties, cars had been banned in the town limits, and today it is strictly electric vehicles, pedestrians and horse drawn carriages. Europe has always been ahead of the U.S. in terms of environmental awareness, but Zermatt was ahead of its neighbors.
The big attraction here is stunning mountain scenery, and everywhere you look there are snowcapped (usually) alpine peaks, but most of all the Matterhorn. Like seeing lions on safari, it never gets old, and when you are hiking or on a train or in a cable car, it disappears from view behind a ridge or clouds only to remerge to fresh “oohs and ahhs.” It also has three distinct sides in terms of viewing, the angle from Italy being the least interesting, while the “Toblerone view” is the most famous, the one depicted on the famous brand of Swiss chocolate, which in turn is formed into triangles as an homage.
The mountain itself is a challenging technical climb, not for mere hikers, and ironically the entire tourism industry in these parts was born from a tragic fatal accident during the first successful ascent. A team with several British climbers finally achieved the oft attempted summit only to lose several members on the way down, including Lord Francis Douglas. This led Queen Victoria to issue a climbing ban, saying she would never again permit English royal blood to be wasted on the mountain. Like a book ban or forbidden fruit, this backfired and immensely raised curiosity and popularity and sent the English to Zermatt in droves, followed by other international travelers. They’ve been coming ever since – it is the most visited destination in Switzerland after the big airport gateway cities of Zurich and Geneva, which is amazing given that you can only get here with a change of trains.
Just how beloved is Zermatt by travelers? The town claims that 70% of its guests are repeat visitors (like me!) and has a unique award ceremony every Thursday where they give pins to guests who have spent holidays here for 20, 30 or 50 years in their lifetimes. They’ve given out tens of thousands of these.
Famous visitors include Winston Churchill, who tackled Monte Rosa instead of the Matterhorn, claiming he did so because it is even higher, but it is also easier and local legend insists his choice was driven by the much lower guiding fee. Teddy Roosevelt came here on his honeymoon and summited the Matterhorn while visiting. In this case local legend contends that he was sick of hearing Brits brag about the challenge and difficulty and wanted to show that a hardy Yankee could do it as a spur of the moment vacation activity.
The original three hotels, including the very first, the Monte Rosa, along with the Mont Cervin and Zermatterhof, all still open today, were built for visiting climbers. Lots of people come to ascend the Matterhorn every year, but that is for experienced alpinists, and far more visitors visit to hike or mountain bike and simply see the many top attractions which make the charming town of Zermatt an awesome summer destination. It is also one of Europe’s most popular winter ski destinations, and whatever time of year you come, you will be greeted with charm, friendliness, great food and a wide selection of wonderful hotels at various price points, all giving access to beautiful scenery and a variety of outdoor activities.
Zoning is strict here, and the small town still includes protected original settler buildings that are hundreds of years old, like strolling through a living museum. Almost every structure fits the chalet style of architecture, and the pedestrianized main street is wonderful for daytime or evening strolls, shopping and lined with lots of dining options, all with a great view of the Matterhorn. But one thing that stands out is that Zermatt is famously laid back among the great ski resorts of the Swiss Alps, especially compared to tony Gstaad and St. Moritz, with a district lack of fur coats and a complete absence of night clubs and champagne spraying. There are no discos or pretty much any nightlife. This is attributed in part to the ban on cars, which means almost everyone comes in on the train, and that prevents anyone from arriving in a Lamborghini or Bentley or making a showier entrance than anyone else. The town’s character also comes from its alpinist roots, and because it is sportier, with high-end ski shops instead of fashion boutiques, it attracts a crowd more interested in doing things and seeing things than being seen, though you can still buy a Rolex or Patek Phillippe on the main drag.
In summer, the big attraction is hiking, and it is one of the world’s greatest spots for that, as you can stay in town at anything from a mom-and-pop budget property to a great luxury spot and do gorgeous day hikes of widely varied lengths and challenge for all abilities, either starting right from town on foot, or by jumping on a cable car or funicular. Either way, you do your hike and come back with no commute or bus rides, returning to the warm embrace of Zermatt and its charming main street afterwards. For all the same reasons, mountain biking has also become quite popular here, with local rentals and guide services available. There is also skiing available on the glacier in summer, one of a handful of such spots in the world, and while for most travelers this is a novelty to do and check off their list, it draws top pro skiers and national teams form around the world for training.
For everyone else, it’s the scenery and the many ways to see it that draws them, with rides on gondolas, funiculars and mountain cog railways, the most famous of which, the cog wheel Gornergrat Bahn, goes right from Zermatt’s main street to the Gornergrat observation center, with multiple restaurant options, scenic vistas, walking paths, and even a full-service hotel, 3100 Kulmhotel, the highest in Europe, with its own domed astronomical observatory. The Gornegrat offers the quintessential Toblerone view across to the Matterhorn, and as such, has recently become a selfie and Instagram hotspot. Built in 1898, the Gornergrat Bahn was the world’s first fully electrified cog railway, and has been a huge hit ever since. It is the single most popular tourist attraction in Zermatt, and one of the most popular in all of Switzerland, a true must-experience. It runs 365 days a year, ascending around 4,500 vertical feet in 33 minutes, traveling 6.5 miles and crossing many dramatic mountain bridges and tunnels, with constant panoramic views, including Switzerland’s highest peak, Monte Rosa, the Matterhorn and the second largest glacier in the Alps, the Gorner. For the hardy it is possible to reach the Gornergrat station by foot, but many opt to compromise, taking the train up and walking down, or part of the way down, as there are scenic lakes, great views and ample stations on the route to choose from when it is time to give your legs a rest.
The other extremely popular main street train is the fast and efficient one stop funicular, Switzerland’s first entirely underground train route, which bores straight up through a mountain and emerges 3 minutes later at Sunnega, another top tourist attraction. At the top there is a restaurant with vast terrace, a popular paragliding spot, a children’s play park, and the nexus of many hiking trails including the gateway to Zermatt’s single most famous hike, the Five Lakes trail. In winter, the funicular is a key gateway for skiers and snowboarders from town hotels to the many slopes and lifts above.
Another popular scenic ride is the cable car to the Klein Matterhorn, the highest station in Europe, which thanks to new high-tech system opened in 2018, runs from Zermatt all year round. This is now being extended with a connecting cable car that will allow travelers to go form Zermatt to Italy’s Cervinia ski resort in one hour without ever setting foot outside. Called the “Alpine Crossing,” it is expected to open in the first half of 2023.
The major non-mountainous attraction is Zermatt’s unique museum, built below a jewel-like glass pyramid on the main street, which has a recreation of an old village below ground, and lots of interesting exhibits on the history of local mountaineering and how the town evolved. It is well worth a visit, which takes less than an hour.
Adding greatly to the local hiking appeal is the fact that the slopes above Zermatt are filled with numerous charming mountain hut restaurants, dispensing delicious and hearty local alpine fare such as fondue, raclette, sausage, schnitzel and rosti – along with beer and wine – in improbable remote settings. It’s something you basically never see while hiking in this country, prolific enough where you never have to pack a picnic lunch if you don t want to, and it’s worth taking advantage, because this is a great part of the cultural difference and charm of the region. There is just something very satisfying about hiking for a few hours in big mountains and then coming upon a chalet and eating a warm cheesy meal with a cold draught beer on the deck in the sunshine overlooking a perfect vista. Also, it’s worth noting that Switzerland makes great wines, but since it is almost all consumed domestically and little is exported, you never hear about it, but in these parts standout local reds and whites are plentiful and worth trying.
The Matterhorn sits on the Italian border, not far from Zermatt, so not surprisingly there are some excellent Italian restaurants here in addition to classic Swiss alpine fare (and a great summer-only gelato place in the main church square).
For lodging, the Mont Cervin and Schweizerhof are my top luxury lodging picks, and both are part of the excellent Michel Reybier Hospitality Group, which also runs the extremely luxurious La Reserve properties in Paris, Zurich, Geneva and St. Tropez. I’ve previously been to the Geneva one, and it is excellent.
The Zermatt properties are more laid back than their urban peers, but the Mont Cervin is the most formal in town, with uniformed Italian bar staff and the high ceilings and marble of a grand hotel. I like the more contemporary Schweizerhof mainly because it has the best array of dining options, as well as a great location and very extensive spa, sauna, steam, and pool complex with state-of-the-art fitness center, all key accessories for an active, outdoorsy vacation. It’s fancy without being stuffy, and the main restaurant, the Schweizerhof Kitchen, is a unique standout. It has a huge open kitchen built around a giant custom Argentinean asado-style wood fired grill, and is broken into the sections, the bar area, where you can feel like you are eating in a lounge, the more formal main dining room, and the clubby area near the DJ stand, with some couches and low tables and Vegas flair. All have the same menu, but they let you enjoy very different vibes. The menu is diverse and features a heavy emphasis on local ingredients, while running the gamut from very casual, like excellent fish and chips made with Swiss lake perch and using local craft beer in the batter to delicious Neapolitan wood-fired pizzas to fancier main courses, with an emphasis on grilled proteins, so you could eat here two or three times without any fear of repetition. The Schweizerhof also houses the subterranean Cheese Factory, its take on the classic Swiss stube, the kind of homey cellar you go to for melted cheese specialties such as raclette and fondue. But while it feels local and rustic, the cuisine is first rate, and these are the best examples of the delicious alpine classics you will find in Zermatt. Again, I would happily at here more than once in a single stay, unusual for a hotel eatery.
Finally, the outdoor beach bar at the Schweizerhof is a very unique offering in town, a large lawn area and plaza behind the hotel, shielded from main street, done up with tropical beach shack flair, where you can sit outside and drink rum cocktails and feel a little bit like the South Pacific in the Alps. In winter, a visiting chef transforms the breakfast space into La Muna, an Asian-Peruvian fusion fine dining spot that is the hottest dinner ticket in Zermatt, reservations an absolute must. You could stay at the Schweizerhof for five nights and never eat dinner property and never be disappointed.
The Reybier group also operates the town’s original hotel, the Monte Rosa, which is its most causal property, but has a cadre of regular repeat visitors drawn to its timeless charm. It still features the belle epoque decorative style it had when it opened in 1839, and holds a more classic English style bar, Edward’s, named for Edward Whymper, the first to climb the Matterhorn, along with a brasserie. It sits directly across the street from the lavish Mont Cervin which has several high-end restaurants, including a formal Grill, French eatery and a 1-Michelin Star Italian only in ski season.
One other eatery of note in town is the Restaurant Julen, whose owner raises his own heritage breed black nosed sheep, and features this lamb along with many other meticulously sourced local ingredients and producer-specific cheeses on a broad menu of regional Swiss dishes. It is causal and laid back but will appeal to the serious foodie, and has a long Swiss wine list.
I loves the Schweizerhof, but looking for a quality stay at a lower price point, I contacted Rick Reichsfeld, owner of Alpine Adventures, a top ski travel operator in this country that books a lot of Europe trips, and he recommended the hidden gem 4-star Hotel Albana Real. I stayed there for two nights, and you would never know from the outside that it houses a huge below ground wellness and spa facility, with vast marble clad indoor swimming pool complex plus sauna, steam room, jacuzzi, solarium and very well-equipped gym with the kinds of things most hotels lack, such as kettlebells, ropes and resistance bands.
It also has a warm, welcoming lobby bar and three distinct restaurants, an Italian spot focusing on homemade pasta, a Thai eatery and a Japanese restaurant with teppanyaki tables, both of the latter cuisines hard to come by elsewhere in Zermatt. It is located at the upper end of town, better for skiing in winter, closer to the Sunnega funicular station. Interestingly, since so many pro skiers come to Zermatt, most of the national teams pick hotels based on their proximity to slopes and fitness facilities rather than luxury, and spots like the Albana Real fit this model well. This is especially notable because the sport’s governing body, the FIS, just added the first ever cross-border World Cup Ski Race in history, which will take place in late October and early November of this year, beginning in Zermatt with the finish line in Italy’s Cervinia. It’s a big deal and ski racing fans should definitely put it on their calendars.
Switzerland was the first county in the world to formalize an objective hotel ratings system and both the Albana Real and Schweizerhof earn 4-Stars, though they have very different feels. Both have big spas and multiple restaurants, but the Albana Real is homey with less in the way of front desk staff, concierge services and such, while the Schweizerhof is very design forward and sleek. The Mont Cervin is 5-Star. They all offer free transfers in electric cars to and from the train station, as does just about every hotel in Zermatt, though the Schweizerhof is so close you need not bother, even with luggage.
If you are here to hike, as my wife and I were, or to ski, you can easily spend 5-7 days and make it a full vacation. If you are not, Zermatt is still a must on any leisure tour of Switzerland, with 2-3 nights to see all the top attractions. It is not hard to get to, given that Switzerland’s rail system is world famous for its efficiency, and the entire country is the size of West Virginia. Zurich is the easier gateway airport, though you can certainly come via Geneva, and you can board your train right in the airport within about 7 minutes after exiting customs, it’s that easy. There are hourly departures, and the trip from Zurich airport takes just over 3 hours with one change in Visp, where you board a famous mountain scenic railway for the enchanting final 45-minute stretch up into Alps. For this reason it is worth splurging for a first class seat, as this last leg features glass domed observation cars with jaw dropping views.
Interestingly Zermatt is as busy (nearly 100%) in summer as ski season, but the dynamic is different as ski season brings more big spenders, requires longer stays, commands higher room rates and sees more seasonal restaurant openings. I’ve skied most of the other top resorts in Switzerland and look forward checking it out when the snow flies, but having now been twice in summer to hike, I can say with confidence that it is a pretty spectacular place, and one that is hard to imagine not liking. The region also has an excellent tourism bureau with a very user-friendly website and offices in town.