It is perhaps the world’s most beautiful ski resort – car-free, and with mountain restaurants and designer boutiques to match the perfection of the Matterhorn. Welcome to Zermatt, Switzerland
Swish as well as Swiss, Zermatt is perhaps the world’s most beautiful ski destination. It is also a gastronomic tour de force, being surrounded by 40 top-notch mountain restaurants, many of them set inside simple huts. Zermatt's iconic trademark is the Matterhorn, stretching 3,993m skyward – and soon to exceed 4,000m if the inventive Swiss have their way. They are planning to build a 120m-high glass pyramid on top of the mountain, filled with restaurants, shops and a hotel.
Many skiers are drawn by the year-round possibilities of the Theodul Glacier, below the Matterhorn. Others come for the world-class snow park, considered by many to be Europe's finest. Known as the Gravity Park, it is situated in the Klein Matterhorn area (see The Skiing, below) and there is also a new terrain park and half-pipe close to Riffelberg. Add to the heady mix an abundance of steeps and deeps, some great off-piste skiing and mile upon mile of winding, tree-lined runs, and you can see why Zermatt is the resort par excellence for free-stylers.
Zermatt is a jet-set ski mecca without cars. Horse-drawn sleighs and carriages and tiny electric taxis are the only transport allowed, and this magical kingdom can be reached only by train – a 15-minute trip from the Hornby-sized station at Täsch. The main street, Bahnhofstrasse, has a plethora of exclusive watch shops, designer boutiques, charming little pâtisseries and kiosks selling hot glüwein. Their alcoholic bouquet, plus the wonderful whiff of crêpes, fills the mountain air.
In terms of ski facilities, there have been dramatic and welcome changes to Zermatt's lift system in recent years. These include the revolutionary Furggsattel six-seater chair lift, replacing the dreadful drag lift from Trockener Steg over to the Italian side. It provides easy access to sunny cruises in Cervinia and makes available lots of high, snow-sure terrain throughout the year. The supporting pylons for this lift are designed to "float", as it is built on Zermatt's glacier – a constantly moving flow of ice. There is now also an eight-seater Matterhorn Express gondola from the Klein Matterhorn station across Furi up to Schwarzsee. Visitors to this winter wonderland once cringed at the time it took just to get up there, but they had no option but to be crammed like sardines into the jumbo cable cars. Zermatt's lifts also run from 8am, so early birds can avoid the rush-hour and make the most of their expensive lift passes.
Zermatt's high-altitude location means dependable snow and great skiing late in the season and year-round (on the glacier). There are three linked areas – Klein Matterhorn, Sunnega and Gornergrat, each of which would be sufficient to sustain a major resort in its own right. This makes Zermatt the ultimate ski destination in terms of the variety, quality and quantity of its slopes.
This is Zermatt's main ski area, accessed from one end of town by the Matterhorn Express. Klein Matterhorn is intermediate bliss, with a huge choice of cruises and winding reds plus the exhilarating seven-mile Ventina run down to Cervinia in Italy, on the sunny side of the Matterhorn. At more than 3,800m, this area offers the highest skiing in Europe. In one bite, serious skiers can enjoy a long, steep and tiring descent of 10 miles, punctuated by a long, flat section at Theodulhorn that demands attacking at maximum speed to prevent a long, arduous Nordic push before the slopes begin to steepen once more (snowboarders beware). In addition, Klein Matterhorn has a wealth of winding red and blue options to explore. (See The Skiing, below, for a more detailed guide to specific runs and routes.)
This and the Blauherd sector offer a vast array of blue intermediate cruises. From Gant, the jumbo cable car provides a link over to the Hohtalli and Gornergrat areas. From Rothorn, at a dizzy 3,100m, there are lots of fast reds including the Kumme – a stimulating four-mile charge down to Tuftern. When the snow is good, one of my top picks is the blast down the sunny Paradies as it drops down to my favourite mountain restaurants in the little hamlet of Findeln.
Zermatt is one of the few ski resorts in the world to offer a scenic mountain railway ascent. The Gornergrat/Riffelberg/Riffelalp/Stockhorn area is accessed by the ancient Gornergrat rack railway. Some older trains can take as long as 45 minutes to wind their way up, offering passengers optimum views from this, the most photogenic side of the Matterhorn. Once you are up to the new six-seater Gifthittli chair lift that links to Riffelberg, there are some easy fast blue cruises that are best enjoyed in the afternoons when they bask in the sun.
ZERMATT AT A GLANCE
Cable cars 13
Chair lifts 18
Funiculars Two (one underground)
Surface lifts 31
Cog railway 1
Uplift capacity per hour 75,700
Snow cannons 129
Resort altitude 1,620m
Slopes 1,620m - 3820m
Number of runs 195
Blues 39, Reds 113. Blacks 43
Longest run 13km
Total piste length 313km
Pros and cons
Snow-sure, with a long season
Car-free (no fumes)
Quality and quantity of ski terrain
Best mountain restaurants in the world
Lively and varied après-ski
Great snow park
Lots of off-piste
Not for beginners
Lifts in the village are spread out
The Ventina (red) is a lovely, relaxed eight-mile descent down to Cervinia from Klein Matterhorn. Alternatively, take the gondola from Furgg to Schwarzsee for the Weisse Perle, a long, delightful and pretty red run. Following the railway line back down in the sun, Gornergrat is a relaxed, rolling blue runs with the odd red section to add a bit of spice; it also offers a route over to the Klein Matterhorn area via Furi.
Zermatt is not recommended for total beginners. Of course there are lots of gentle blues – and ski schools operate on Trockner Steg, Sunnega and Blauherd to teach the uninitiated. There are also plenty of easy blues over at Gornergrat. However, to take advantage of the combined linked areas, it's best to be a fairly confident intermediate.
There are too many options to list here. Suffice it to say that any of the linked areas will provide lots of blue cruises, plus narrow and wide steep reds – many of which will engage more advanced skiers and boarders with a variety of tree-lined descents and off-piste opportunities galore.
Enjoy as much powder as you can manage. There are some great, challenging powder bowls from Stockhorn (the expert's choice) – though, due to crevices and avalanche risk, this is territory where you require a qualified guide. Alternatively, head for Hohtalli via the jumbo cable car from Gant. There are some knee-bashing steep black moguls to be attacked, though access (unfortunately) is via drag lifts.
If dialling from the UK, prefix all numbers below with 00 41 and subtract the first zero.
Zermatt truly is the mountain restaurant capital of the world, with 40 superb examples from which to choose. Many are located in little mountain huts just waiting to be discovered. They're not cheap, but they are well worth the effort of getting there.
Best in Findeln
Chez Vrony (027 967 25 52, www.chezvrony.ch) Location: Findeln (R3). This rustic gem is, in my opinion, the best mountain restaurant in Zermatt. Set in a cosy, atmospheric cabin on three floors, it serves the finest, traditional food with a modern twist. Great sun terrace; excellent glüwein for a quick piste-stop. To get there, ski down from the top of the Sunnega Express (easy run 6) and branch off to the left just above the church. Alternatively (and snow permitting), go from Blauherd via the sunny Paradies run (10).
Paradies (027 967 34 51) Location: Findeln (R9). Cosy and rustic, this place has fantastic views and very tasty food. To get there, see directions to Chez Vrony (above); Paradies is situated just before you join piste 6.
Findlerhof – aka Franz and Heidi's (027 967 25 88, www.findlerhof.ch) Location: Findeln. Modern, eclectic cooking from salmon carpaccio to perfect pasta. Roof terrace and sun terrace with terrific panoramic views of the Matterhorn.
Best on Furi
Zum See Restaurant (027 967 20 45) Location: a small hamlet (below Furgg), just off the red from Furi. One of the best anywhere, so book ahead. To get there, take the Blatten piste (50) from Furi, or take Stafelalp (52) and Weisse Perle (51) (see Fun runs, above) from Schwarzsee to Furi. Zum See is on the left, before you arrive at the lifts at the bottom.
Schwarzsee (027 967 22 63) Location: the Schwarzsee Hotel, at the foot of the Klein Matterhorn (M8). With its huge terrace and awesome Matterhorn view, this place has impeccable waiter service (or self-service) and a tempting menu of tasty, homely cooking. To get there, take the Matterhorn Express from the KM base station right up to Schwarzsee.
Simi's (027 967 26 95) Location: near the Furi lift station. Simi's speciality is the rosti – and it serves delicious desserts. Highly recommended. To get there, take red 42 (Schweigmatten) or the Matterhorn Express gondola from Zermatt up to Furi.
Best for glüwein
Tuftern (027 967 54 95) Location: Rothorn mountain (R13). This is a great short-stop choice – and it pours the best-tasting glüwein anywhere. To get there, take the Tuftern run (9); the restaurant is situated on the left, where the piste joins the Tuftern-Kumme run (15). Alternatively, follow the route from the top of the Blauherd bubble-ski run (92) until it joins Tuftern (9).
Igloo (no telephone number). Location: Gornergrat. This place really is an igloo! Everything is made from snow – except, fortunately, the delicious hot red and white glüwein. To get there, take the Riffelhorn run (37) from Grifthittli, looking out for the sign for igloo on the right, after the tunnel beneath the raillway. Alternatively, take the Gornergrat run (36).
Le Mazot (027 966 06 06, www.lemazotzermatt.ch/restaurant_e.htm), Hofmattstrasse 23. Situated near the river, Le Mazot is renowned for its lamb and chicken grilled on an open fire, its bold cooking style – and its bold prices. Book ahead.
Elsie's Bar (027 967 24 31, www.elsiebar.ch), Kirchplatz 16. A Zermatt institution in a lovely setting near the church, Elsie's is usually bursting with people sampling the Champagne and caviar. However, what it really excels at is the steak.
Nelly's Grotta (027 967 05 66, www.nellys-grotta.ch), Brantschenhaus 18. This is a really popular restaurant and bar, British-owned and serving an adventurous, exotic mix of gourmet snacks. These range from Japanese-style sashimi to Thai fishcakes and Dutch-style beef tartar – all priced well below €20.
Chez Heini (027 967 16 30, www.dandaniell.ch), Biner Urs Wiesti 45. Zermatt's famous singing chef, Dan Daniell, runs live feeds from Chez Heini at 10.30pm each night and broadcasts his live performances on his website. He performs pretty well in the kitchen too, with a fine-dining menu specialising in succulent lamb dishes.
When it comes to party time, it's different strokes for different folks in Zermatt. There is a grown-up, sophisticated scene offering a mix of elegant and stylish places to wine, dine and be entertained; these appeal to the well-to-do who parade through the village in furs and actually buy the extravagantly priced watches in the window displays. Then there is the "ski-bum" scene, with a wide choice of informal pubs and bars with a vibe ranging from laid-back to lively.
Hennu Stalle (027 966 35 10, www.hennustall.ch). Situated on the lower part of Furi, this cosy chalet-style mountain hut is also accessible on foot from the village (Schwarzsee-Klein Matterhorn ski area). It has a packed-party atmosphere, live music, a large bar and terrace, plus glüwein, beer and shots a plenty.
Papperla Pub (027 967 39 20, www.papperlapub.ch), Steinmattenstrasse 34. Again, just above the village but accessible on foot. DJs entertain the packed house at this popular post-ski stop-off, serving good Tex-Mex food as the beer and shots flow.
Hotel Post (027 967 19 31, www.hotelpost.ch), Bahnhofstrasse 41. A "one-stop shop" of bars and clubs, the Post has long been a Zermatt institution. Now in new hands, it remains popular for its teeming Brown Cow snack bar and pub, The Pink (live music), the Broken Bar (disco) and the decent house being spun in the Village. For a chill-out, head for the Papa Caesar's cocktail lounge.
Grampy's Pub (027 967 77 88), Bahnhofstrasse – across from the Hotel Post. This is a pub and disco favoured by Zermatt's army of off-duty hotel workers, waiters, bartenders and ski instructors – so you know you are not going to be fleeced.
Zermatt has a number of top-class hotels. While not the best place to go if you are on a strict budget, it offers plenty of choice for a luxury break.
Grand Zermatterhof Hotel 5* Bahnhofstrasse 55. An exquisite hotel, right in the centre of the village action. The "Hof" has every conceivable comfort and two superb restaurants.
Mont Cervin Palace 5* Bahnhofstrasse 31. Situated in the heart of Zermatt, this flagship of the Seiler luxury hotel group has impeccable standards of service and wonderful food.
Seiler Hotel Schweizerhof 4* Bahnhofstrasse 5. This stylish and comfortable hotel has a great location, right on the main street of the picturesque village. Check out its new Asian restaurant, Lanna Thai.
Seiler Hotel Monte Rosa 4* Bahnhofstrasse 80. The Monte Rosa was the hotel of choice for intrepid Matterhorn conquerer Edward Whymple and his contemporaries, more than 100 years ago. It remains a luxurious and nostalgic choice to this day.
Hotel Alex 4* Bodmenstrasse 12. Just two minutes' walk from the Gornergrat station and village centre, the Alex has good food and a nice pool.
Hotel Walliserhof 4* Bahnhofstrasse 30. Elegant and cosy, this place has a stylish yet rustic feel, a spa area and a sauna – but no pool. Excellent food.
Hotel Alpen Resort 4* Spissstrasse 52. This Best Western hotel is a regular choice with many mainstream travel agents. It has spacious rooms, and the food, breakfast and dinner is exemplary. Indoor pool. Situated a five-minute walk from the centre, at the Gorgergrat station side of town, the hotel provides a complementary taxi service to the lifts.
Hotel Butterfly 3*S Bodmenstrasse 21. A "superior three- star" Best Western hotel, with a whirlpool spa, a fitness room and a lovely restaurant serving fine five-course dinners. Again, situated at the Gornegrat station side of the village.
Hotel Christiania 4* Wiestistrasse 7. Convenient for the Sunnega lift station, many of the Christiania's rooms have balconies and Matterhorn views. Rooms are quiet and spacious, but basic. Large indoor pool. As elsewhere in Zermatt, the food is excellent.
Hotel Post 4* Bahnhofstrasse 41. Home to a compendium of five bars and clubs (see The Après-ski, above), the Post is the funkiest hotel in Zermatt – stylishly refurbished into a super-chic boutique hotel in 2007. It has no gourmet restaurant, but a host of informal, great-value eateries serving Tex-Mex, pasta and pizza, and steak and chips. This stand-out hotel deserves serious consideration.
Fly to either Geneva (220km away, 3.5 hours by car) or Zürich (250km, four hours) with BMI baby (www.bmibaby.com), Easyjet (www.easyjet.com), British Airways (www.britishairways.com) or Flybe (www.flybe.com). Trains run every hour to Zermatt from both airports, with a journey time of four and five hours respectively. See http://fahrplan.sbb.ch/bin/query.exe/en for train timetables.
By car and train
Swiss roads and motorways are well-sign-posted and uncongested. Motorists can drive as far as Täsch, park, then take the cog railway or an electric taxi to Zermatt – a further 7km up the mountain. Make sure hotel staff know your arrival time, as they will pick you up in either a horse- drawn sleigh or an electric taxi from the station in Zermatt. Free phone services are supplied on each platform.
It is essential to reserve your parking well in advance: telephone +41 (0)27 967 15 50 (parking costs 5-10 Swiss francs per day). There is some free parking available in Visp, where train passengers from Geneva or Zürich transfer to the BVZ (the Brig-Visp-Zermatt cog railway), which is probably the best option. From there, proceed by train – a journey time of about 80 minutes.
For car hire, try Alamo (0870 400 4562, www.alamo.co.uk); Avis (0844 581 0147, www.avis.co.uk); Budget (0844 581 2231, www.budget.com); Easycar (08710 500 444, www.easyCar.com); and SIXT (0844 248 6620, www.sixt.com).