Mountain-lovers rejoice because you’ll get more than your fill in Zermatt. This car-free town is located in the Valais Canton at an altitude of 1,600 meters. Towering over Zermatt is the most recognizable Alpine peak, the Matterhorn, which rises up to 4,478 meters. It is also located at the center of an enormous skiing region that encompasses 54 mountain railways and 360 kilometers of pistes. Visitors flock to Zermatt for outdoor adventures, luxury retreats, and world-class restaurants. You’ll never run out of things to do in this small town, so here’s a list to start you off on the right track.
At 3,883 meters, the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise is the highest cable car station in all of Europe. With views of the highest of mountains in Italy, France, and Switzerland, this ski region is open all year round with the most fantastic views. This is a jump-off point for many mountaineers and hikers to scale the surrounding peaks. On a clear day, the views can reach all the way to the Mediterranean. From here you can also gaze up at Mont Blanc in France, the Gran Paradiso in Italy, and Breithorn in Switzerland.
National ski teams will be seen training in this region during the summer. You can either try your skills alongside your favorite athletes or catch them for an autograph. Aside from direct access to the ski pistes, there are a lot of other recreational activities for the rest of the family. There’s the observation lounge, a cinema, restaurant, and even meeting rooms for sky-high business agenda.
Visitors walk through the history of Zermatt, coming from its discovery in the 19th century. It also tells the tragic story of the first ascent of the Matterhorn wherein a broken rope cost the lives of four out of seven climbers. This subterranean attraction has interactive exhibits that show original houses, other finds from the first ascent, and a multimedia room. While technically not on the Matterhorn mountain itself, a visit to this museum is a good first step to appreciating the grandeur of the Matterhorn and of Zermatt.
The mystical and majestic Matterhorn fascinates locals and guests alike. Each year, thousands of climbers reach the summit, most of whom taking the Hornli Ridge from the Hornlihutte. The ridge is the “easiest” route to the summit, but it still involves 1,220 meters of ascent from the hut. The climb is not technically demanding and requires basic short-roping and crampon skills. The rest of the way is more of a long scrambling over rocks, paths, and hills with a few sections of easy climbing. There are fixed ropes placed on the more difficult sections.
If you are like me and can only dream of scaling the Matterhorn, you might be satisfied just making it to the Hornlihutte, a feat for most people anyway! The easiest way there is from the Schwarzsee, otherwise, if you are a bit fitter, you can walk from Zermatt itself.
Taking a walk around the charming town of Zermatt can take anywhere from an hour to half a day. It’s an interesting mix of tradition that is influenced by modern tourism. The old village houses 30 ancient buildings that still hold the style of the original Walser residents. This living piece of history goes back as far as 500 years and gives hints of how the mountain farmers of the town lived. In contrast, there are over 100 hotels and chalets, both modern and traditional, that give cozy and memorable accommodations to visitors. The first hotel in Zermatt, the Monte Rosa, is the most popular and in-demand hotel in the town.
Zermatt’s main street, also known as the Bahnhofstrasse, is lined with shops, bakeries, and restaurants. Within the town is St. Mauritius and the Kirchbrücke bridge; two of the many viewpoints in the village to appreciate the glory of the Matterhorn looming over the town.
Sunnegga is a family-friendly attraction at 2,288 meters above sea level. It starts with a 4-and-a-half-minute funicular ride from Zermatt that goes through a rock tunnel towards Sunnegga. The summer season brings views of the Leisee Lake where visitors can also swim. There are playgrounds and barbecue areas that visitors can use. There’s also a themed trail that features the Marmot, a local rodent that lives in burrows high in the Alps.
During the winter, beginners can test their skiing skills as Wolli’s park. More advanced skiers and snowboarders can take their pick from the many pistes they can access from Sunnegga.
One of the most popular attractions in Zermatt is the railway trip to Gornergrat. The 33-minute ride takes you into the heart of the Alps through 9.33 kilometers of track and 1,469 meters of ascent. It is also the world’s first fully-electric railway. The ride itself reveals very dramatic views of rivers, tunnels, forests, and ravines that prepare you from the breathtaking sights you will see when you arrive. When you reach the observation platform at 3,089 meters, you take in the view of the Matterhorn, the Monte Rosa, and the Gornergletsher Glacier.
There are several things you can do here like relax at the self-service restaurant, go shopping for souvenirs, or make it a starting point for hikes and ski excursions.
The Rothorn signals the start of many exciting hikes in the summer and challenging pistes in the winter. At 3,103 meters, it showcases the highest peaks of the Valais Alps. The cable car ride to and from the summit of Rothorn is its main attraction. You can book extra-early morning rides to catch the sunrise and take moonlit rides down from the summit. When you arrive at Rothorn, you can either hang out and take endless photos of the best alpine views, or be more outdoorsy and go skiing, paragliding, or trekking.
The melting ice and snow from the Gorner Glacier have created a dramatic chasm called Gorner Gorge. The gorge is created by the swirling and churning of the Gornervispe each spring. A mere 15 minutes of leisure walking from the village of Zermatt brings you to wooden walkways that descend into a completely different world. At the gorge, you will be surrounded by waterfalls with greenish rock naturally carved into unique and mythical shapes. A visit to the gorge is also possible in winter, but you will need a mountain guide to ensure that you descend safely.
This for the physically fit and agile with lasting endurance and some serious commitment. The Tour de Monte Rosa is a 9-day trek that circuits around the Monte Rosa, a huge ice-covered mountain massif in the Alps. At 4,634 meters, it is the second highest mountain in the Alps and western Europe. There are 8 stages to this trip, including briefly crossing Italian territory on the 5th stage from Alagna to Macugnana Staffia. This tour also includes a trek to the famous Theodul Pass, used as a route to Italy as far back as the fourth century.
The tour is definitely demanding and challenging, but mountaineers reap the rewards of unique views of not just the Monte Rosa but also the Matterhorn, Dom (4596 meters) and Alpine villages, scenery, and wildlife. This tour is also for the outdoorsy type who aren’t keen on sharing the pistes with hundreds of other tourists. The trek is peaceful, and the views are memorable.
A shorter but no less challenging alternative is a hike up to the Monte Rosa Hut above Zermatt. Not only is it a decent walk that you should not take lightly, it also crosses a glacier.
So, if you do not have the right equipment or knowledge (crampons, ice axe etc) please hire a guide. Many a tourist has been caught unaware in the Swiss Alps, either unprepared or under-equipped. And what may seem like a walk in the park can quickly turn dangerous.
However, for those willing to make the effort, not only are the views spectacular, but the hut itself is one of the most stunning and modern in Switzerland. I have not made it up there yet, but a friend of mine did it a few years ago and raved about it.
There are definitely many options in Switzerland if you’re after some serious adventure in the Alps, but Zermatt’s location makes it the perfect mountaineering destination. The hikes, treks, and climbs from Zermatt seem to be endless. For the less outdoorsy, there are still more than enough to do within and around the village. A closer look at the beginnings of the village of Zermatt alone is enough to take you to a different kind of adventure through history. So whether you’re with family, friends, or alone, take a trip to Zermatt and breath in the fresh air at the heart of the Alps.
Roger is a little obsessed with travel. He has been to over 40 countries, broken 3 suitcases and owned over 10 backpacks in 12 months. What he doesn't know about travel, ain't worth knowing!