Do you know the most photographed mountain in the world? Do you remember a background mountain from Ricola commercials? If not, how about the picture from the wraps of Swiss chocolate? The name of the mountain is the Matterhorn. It proudly stands in a resort town of Zermatt in Swiss Alps. The whole area is a major tourist attraction, famous for excellent skiing in winter and hiking in summer. Despite its popularity, Zermatt may require more than average preparation to visit, if only for the fact that it is a car free zone. Learn how to visit Zermatt Switzerland and how to enjoy its attractions.
How to Visit Zermatt Switzerland – Home of the Matterhorn
My visit to Zermatt was one of a kind. I was traveling with my sister, for the first time ever just the two us! She lives in Poland, I live in the USA, so opportunities like that are not often. Last time we spent so much time together was when we were girls sharing a bedroom in our hometown Gdynia in Poland. Spending an uninterrupted time together 50 years later turned out to be a real treat. Despite living apart, we developed the same appreciation for traveling and life in general. Both cancer survivors, we tend to look at the bright side of things and enjoy them deeper. (Learn more about: Living and Traveling with Cancer). We took a 3 week long tour through Europe starting in Amsterdam, then Switzerland, Italy, Slovenia, Austria, and finally Poland. The deal was simple, she drove her car and I was a navigator and a tour guide. In this post, I am sharing what we learned during our 4 day visit in Zermatt.
How to get to Zermatt Switzerland
How to get to Zermatt by car
On a day of our arrival to Zermatt, we had 80 miles to cover in The Swiss Alps. Everything was going smoothly, then suddenly there was a toll. We paid it thinking it was a paid road, but when we passed the booth, there was no more road, just cars standing in line. We were told to get into the line too, so we did. Then in a minute or two we started moving! Turned out we were the last car to embark Lötschberg Car Train, that we didn’t know existed. I sticked my head out to take video, but quickly returned to my seat as we were approaching a tunnel! A very narrow one, nine miles long and completely dark. We could not stop laughing during that journey.
The most important thing to know about Zermatt, that it is car free! You must park in Täsch, from where there is a shuttle train or taxi into Zermatt. Trains leave every 20 minutes and take 12 minutes. If you park in the adjacent Matterhorn Terminal, you can wheel the luggage carts onto the train. You can also park your car with one of the taxi transfer companies, who will then transfer you to Zermatt. We took a train. In Zermatt we decided to take an electric taxi to our hotel. It was expensive, but worth it if you have a lot of luggage.
How to get to Zermatt by train
The Swiss Rail network is world famous for its efficiency and is a convenient way to travel within Switzerland. Trains are clean, fast, reliable and frequent. Rail connections run to Zermatt from all major gateways, including directly from Geneva and Zürich airports. From either direction, one change of trains at Brig or Visp is required. From Visp, you change onto the Matterhorn-Gotthard Railway and travel to Zermatt along the scenic Matter Valley.
When to visit Zermatt Switzerland
Zermatt is famous as a ski resort. Peak winter season is from December until Easter and it is the most expensive time to visit. For hiking and climbing, the best time is between the end of June and the beginning of October. If you visit at any other time of year, you would love it too. We took our trip in April and really enjoyed it. People were still skiing, but the springs flowers were already showing in the lower hiking trails. Hotels and restaurant were open and even outdoor dining was available. Lodging at that time of year is much more affordable.
Where to stay in Zermatt Switzerland
Surprisingly there are a few affordable hotels in Zermatt, but the majority of them are expensive, especially in ski season. I used my Hotel.com free nights to pay for a two room apartment called Apparthotel Casa Vanessa. We loved its location, a short walk to the main street and grocery store. This off center location gave us a feel of the mountains. We enjoyed a nice balcony and an easy access to hiking trails. With high quality finishes, the hotel delivered on what we were looking for: the Swiss chalet charm, but without compromising on modern conveniences. It seems that the whole town is built without shortcuts. The architecture and details are exactly what you should expect from a top notch ski resort.
What to do in Zermatt Switzerland:
Skiing – #1 activity in Zermatt
Matterhorn ski paradise is the highest winter sports area in the Alps. Apart from guaranteed snow conditions, the region is one of the best developed and extensive ski resorts anywhere in the world. It sits at the foot of the Matterhorn and on the flanks of the heavily glaciated Monte Rosa.
Three main ski areas offer wide open slopes for beginners while the more advanced skiers enjoy the challenge of the internationally known Tiefbach, Aeroleid or Momatt. You can ski over the Theodulpass to Cervinia, Italy for lunch. The Klein Matterhorn cable car, ascending to 12,533 feet—the highest cable car station in the Alps—has opened up new glacier ski runs which provides Zermatt with year round skiing.
Climbing the Matterhorn
Zermatt is a mecca for mountain climbers. At 4,478 meters (14,692 feet), the Matterhorn is only Western Europe’s 12th-highest peak, but it is taller than Mt. Whitney, the highest summit in the Lower 48 of the U.S. It is one of the world’s most famous and iconic mountains to climb, despite being neither the highest, nor the most difficult. Because of its popularity, it is also one of the deadliest mountains in the world. About 3000 climbers summit the Matterhorn per year. In the summer, up to 150 climbers can attempt an ascent each day. Learn more about climbing the Matterhorn here.
Seeing Matterhorn without climbing it
You will be happy to know that the Matterhorn can easily be seen from many points in Zermatt. If the peak is not visible, wait! Even on a cloudy day you have chance to get a glimpse of it. For the best view take Europe’s highest cogwheel railway, Gornergratbahn. Sit on the right hand side of the train, face uphill, to photograph the mountain.
This Europe’s highest open air cog railway brings passengers directly from Zermatt station to the summit of the Gornergrat, all year round. The ride takes 33 minutes. The line leads over bridges, tunnels, across forests of larch and Swiss stone pine, and past rocky ravines and mountain lakes. The Gornergrat is a starting point for many hikes, as it lies surrounded by 29 peaks rising above 4,000 m (13,123 ft) in the Alps and several glaciers, including the Gorner Glacier – the second longest glacier in the Alps.
At the summit station on the Gornergrat, visitors find Europe’s highest altitude hotel: the 3100 m Kulmhotel Gornergrat. Facilities include a restaurant, astronomical observatory and an attractive shop. With its wonderful terrace, it is a perfect place to soak up the sun, have a beer and enjoy the classic view of the Matterhorn.
Hiking in Zermatt
Hiking is a top summer activity in Zermatt. Before hitting a trail, start with a visit to a tourist office to see which paths are open. Unless you visit in the peak of summer, some trails may be closed due to snow. When we visited in April, the majority of trails were still closed, but we were able to hike beautiful lower trails accessible right from Zermatt. I can only imagine how rewarding it could be to hike higher in the mountains. Here is a list of top hikes Matterhorn and Zermatt.
There is a single main street in Zermatt called Bahnhofstrasse and it is the great place to shop. This is where you can find the standard Swiss souvenirs such as watches, Swiss army knives, music boxes, and cuckoo clocks. There is also a wide range of designer fashion stores and jewelry boutiques. For chocoholics, Zermatt is a paradise. We did mostly window shopping, but managed to buy deeply discounted last year’s summer hats. The reasons for our modest excitement? Zermatt is very expensive. Still, walking it shops is a pleasant experience.
Dining in Zermatt
We decided not to save on dining. If you do not look at your bill, dining in Zermatt is a delight. Its cuisine is a mix of Swiss, German and Italian dishes and everything is delicious. Fondue is a must if this is your first visit to Switzerland. What we loved the most was an afternoon coffee and desserts, plus of course Swiss beer and Italian limoncello.
Outdoor dining at its best – Swiss delight, fondue!
Nightlife in Zermatt
Not much was going on between the peak seasons when we visited, but it looks that in season things change. Per Zermatt Tourism: “Regular visitors to Zermatt know all about the village’s legendary nightlife and unforgettable nights on the town. Evening comes and, after sports and a spa visit, the village is waiting. The more than 100 restaurants, 60 bars and countless nightclubs are the places where our international guests gather. And one thing is certain: If someone has not danced on the top of the barrel in the Broken, she has not really been to Zermatt.”