Updated post: 07/06/19 | June 2019
For many people, Zermatt means one thing … the Matterhorn. But although the town’s narrative is entwined with that of the Matterhorn, there are more things to do in Zermatt than gaze wistfully at the mountain.
The appeal of the town itself and the relative ease with which you can explore its surroundings makes Zermatt a fantastic destination at any time of year. Although it is renowned as a world-class ski resort, there is plenty to occupy the non-skier. And the après-ski scene is open to all!
Towering over the town at a height of 4478 metres, the Matterhorn is the 12th highest peak in Western Europe. If ever there was a mountain to be swooned over, and photographed from every angle in every possible light, this is it. Piercing the sky above Zermatt like a harpoon tip, the Matterhorn has a hypnotic beauty.
The race between Italians and British to be the first to plant their flag on its summit ended in 1865 when the British climber Edward Whymper reached it on his eighth attempt. However, his achievement would not have received the same publicity had not four of his climbing team of seven plummeted to their deaths on the descent. The ensuing controversy attracted visitors from far and wide, including Thomas Hardy who wrote To The Matterhorn, a sonnet about Whymper, in 1897.
But there is more to Zermatt than the Matterhorn. Despite its long history of mass tourism, it has managed to retain the character of an alpine town, complete with unspoilt buildings. Its compact centre is car-free, which makes exploring its streets a pleasure. But beware; the small electric cars that ferry visitors and their luggage between the train station and hotels can creep up behind you like silent assassins!
Ultimately, it is Zermatt’s setting that is king. Nestled in the deepest valley in Switzerland, it is surrounded by some of the country’s highest peaks. But these are not just summits to gaze upon in wonder from afar. Thanks to a first-rate infrastructure, from aerial walkways to mountain railways and cable cars, you can get close and personal to these peaks.
To help you make the most of your time in this seductively gorgeous town, here are the best things to do in Zermatt
1. Ride the Gornergrat Railway
Whilst you can savour the view of the Matterhorn’s pyramid-shaped peak from Zermatt, seeing it close up is an unforgettable experience. The best way to do this is to take a ride on the Gornergrat Railway or Gornergrat Bahn
The Gornergrat Railway opened in 1898 and was Switzerland’s first electric rack and pinion line. It ascends a vertical distance of 1,484 metres over the 5.9-mile distance from Zermatt to the observation platform at Gornergrat, at an elevation of just over 3,000 metres. Along the way, it passes through five tunnels, trundles over five bridges and five viaducts, and cuts through pine and larch forests. The journey time from Zermatt to Gornegrat takes 33 minutes.
Leaving Zermatt, sit on the right-hand side of the carriage for Matterhorn views. Ride the train to its terminus at Gornergrat, where there is a small tourist centre with shops and a restaurant. Take a break on the terrace of the restaurant, soaking up the panoramic view of the Matterhorn and the adjacent peaks and glacier fields. Watch as the clouds move across the mountain’s spear-like peak, hiding it from view temporarily, and then moving on, revealing it once again.
Refreshed, take a walk around the viewing platform, stopping to admire the Monte Rosa and Gorner glaciers and the Dufourspitze, Switzerland’s highest mountain (4,634 metres).
For the best view of the Matterhorn, take the train one stop to Rotonboden, and walk for five minutes to reach Riffelsee. The sight of the near-symmetrical peak of the Matterhorn reflected in the mirror-like water of Riffelsee is enough to make a grown man, or woman, weep with joy.
From here, follow the hiking trail to the next stop, Riffelberg. Catch the next train to Riffelalp and then hike back to Zermatt, following the signposted path. Stop for a coffee or something a little stronger, at Chami-Hitta restaurant with its sweeping views and attentive service with a smile. From here it’s about an hour ’s walk back to Zermatt along woodland paths scattered with pine cones, accompanied by the soundtrack of gurgling mountain streams and distant cowbells.
Top tips for riding the Gornegrat Railway
- The Gornegrat Railway station in Zermatt is located opposite the town’s main railway station.
- Ticket prices are seasonal. In 2019, a return ticket in peak season costs 119 CHF (119 USD). Reductions are available with a Swiss Travel Pass.
- Timetables are also seasonal but count on at least one train an hour. Trains are more frequent in autumn and winter.
- Make sure that you pick up the useful information sheet at the station, which includes a map, walking suggestions and photo stops.
2. Explore Zermatt on two feet
If ever a town was made for strolling around, it is Zermatt. The 16th Century timber buildings lining its streets are home to cafes, restaurants, gift shops, high-end boutiques and retailers selling outdoor gear. Don’t miss the Monte Rosa Hotel, the oldest hotel in Zermatt, which opened in 1855. This is where Edmund Whymper and his party stayed before their ascent.
Top tip for walking around Zermatt
- The Zermatt Tourism office has a self-guided walking tour on its website.
3. Visit St. Mauritius Church
On your walking tour don’t miss St. Mauritius church, Zermatt’s beating spiritual heart. Although there have been more modest places of worship on this site from the 13th Century, the current church was consecrated in 1916.
When you enter the church crane your neck heavenwards to examine the ceiling of the nave. This is adorned with a painting of Noah’s Ark by the Florentine painter Paolo Parente. The painting formed part of extensive church renovations carried out in 1980 to mark the 700th anniversary of the parish.
Thanks to its excellent acoustics, St. Mauritius church also hosts the Zermatt Festival, which takes place each September. Listening to classical music from the great composers such as Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi at the foot of the Matterhorn must be a magical experience.
4. Visit the Mountaineers’ Cemetery
A visit the Mountaineers’ Cemetery, in the garden adjacent to St Mauritius Church, is a sobering reflection on the human cost of climbing the Matterhorn.
The Matterhorn is one of the deadliest mountains in the world. Despite being neither the highest nor the most difficult mountain to climb, over 500 people have died in their attempts to conquer it. Around 3,000 people attempt to summit the Matterhorn each year. Although the fatality rate has fallen to an average of five people per year, climbers continue to perish on its slopes. Avalanches and the sudden changes in weather, to which the mountain is vulnerable, are usually to blame.
Numerous headstones in the Mountaineers’ Cemetery tell of the untimely death of some of the climbers who have died on the Matterhorn. These include Michael Croz, Charles Hudson and Douglas Robert Haddow, three of the four climbers from Edward Whymper’s party who perished in 1865. The body of the fourth victim, Lord Francis Douglas, was never found.
Take time to read the headstones, some of which are embellished with climbing gear, to find out more about the climbers, including their age and where they met their fate.
5. Visit the Matterhorn Museum (Zermatlantis)
If your curiosity about the Matterhorn remains to be whetted, pay a visit to the Zermatlantis. This state of the art museum effectively uses artefacts, reconstructions and multimedia to provide insight into climbing the mountain and the development of Zermatt.
Unsurprisingly, Whymper’s successful ascent gets some attention and the grim star exhibit is the rope that snapped, plunging four of his party to their deaths.
Top tips for visiting Zermatlantis
- The Matterhorn Museum is on Kirchplatz in the centre of Zermatt.
- Opening hours are relatively restricted and change seasonally. Check the website for further information.
- Entrance fee is 10 CHF (10 USD). Free with Swiss Travel Pass.
6. Treat yourself to a spa
Zermatt is awash with opportunities to pamper yourself. Even modest hotels will have at least a hot tub and sauna. After a day’s walking or skiing, what could be better than soaking in a Jacuzzi whilst gazing at the Matterhorn? Only doing this with a glass of wine in hand I guess!
Upscale hotels offer massages, facials and more extensive facilities which are available to non-residents for a small charge. These include Spa Hotel Europe, Spa Hotel Hemizeus and Spa Hotel Astoria.
Top tips for using spas in Zermatt
- Nudity is common practice in Swiss saunas. Check out this great review on the etiquette.
- Some hotels may require reservations so it’s best to check ahead.
7. Experience the ultimate comfort food
One of the joys of travel is to sample local food and wine. In this respect, Zermatt will not disappoint. Here are my must-try foods, which will have your arteries crying out for mercy.
- Fondue – as Swiss as the Alps. Lumps of bread dipped into rich, gooey cheese must be the ultimate comfort food. Basically a heart attack on a plate but so delicious.
- Raclette – a famous culinary speciality of this region and another cheese-based dish. This time, it’s melted hard cow-cheese on a plate, served with boiled potatoes and pickles. It is an acquired taste but worth trying if you are in this area.
- Rosti – essentially a giant, deep-fried potato cake.
I had great experiences at these two restaurants in the centre of Zermatt. Both offer good value meals.
- Restaurant Du Pont – a family-run eatery with a homely atmosphere and great service.
- Restaurant Stadel – a deservedly popular choice, I spent a very enjoyable evening seated at the bar, feasting on raclette washed down with local wine.
These are the things that I did when I was in Zermatt, which I hope will help you plan your time there. But here are some suggestions for other activities if you have a bit more time.
More things to do in Zermatt
The Sunnegga Express
To appreciate the symmetry of the Matterhorn, take the underground funicular from Vispastrasse in Zermatt to Sunnegga-Rothorn valley station. The journey takes less than five minutes. This would be top of my list of things to do in Zermatt on a return visit.
Charles Kuonen Suspension Bridge
This suspension bridge above the Grabengufer looks spectacular from the images that I have seen. However, as I am not great with heights, I gave this a miss.
Open from July until November, at 494 metres this is the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world. It is accessible from Randa train station. A suggested 4-hour hike is here.
Matterhorn glacier paradise
Let a lift whisk you to the highest station in Europe (3,883m) on the Klein Matterhorn for panoramic views of the south face of the Matterhorn and the Italian, French and Swiss Alps. On a clear day, you can see as far as the Mediterranean Sea.
The cost of a ticket is 82.50 CHF (82.50 USD). The journey to the summit involves three cable cars. The first gondola station is a 20-minute walk from Zermatt’s railway station. Follow the signs. Take the cable car to Furi and then change. This will bring you to Trockener Steg where you will need to change again. The whole journey takes around 45 minutes.
The ticket for the Matterhorn glacier paradise also gains you admission to the Glacier Palace. Located 15 metres below the surface of the glacier, this is a winter wonderland of illuminated ice sculptures accessed via a walkway carved into the ice. Wrap up warm!
How to visit Zermatt
- Getting to Zermatt – I travelled to Zermatt on the Glacier Express train from St Moritz. This formed part of a 16-day Interrail trip through Switzerland and France.
- If you are flying into Switzerland, Zermatt is accessible within three hours from both Zurich and Geneva. Alternatively, catch the train from Milan.
- Getting around Zermatt – As Zermatt is so compact, I found that everywhere was walkable. However, if needed, electric taxis are available or there are bikes for hire.
- Where to stay in Zermatt – I stayed at the friendly and characterful Hotel Ambiance Superior, a 10-minute walk from the train station and five minutes from the town centre.