In the middle of the 19th century, Italians who came over the Alps from Cervinia were amazed to find a modest village of sleepy alleys, sturdy cabins and wooden storage barns on the other side of "their" mountains. The citizens of Zermatt were equally surprised—and promptly closed their doors and shutters in fear.
Today, the welcome is far more cordial—and international. Zermatt's a world center for mountain biking, hiking, paragliding and year-round skiing. To support tourism, the town has 116 hotels and boarding houses with 6,800 beds (plus another 1,500 holiday apartments with 6,500 beds), 38 mountain restaurants, 10 aerial cableways, one underground railway, the highest cable car in Europe, and 80 certified mountain guides. Not bad for a town with only 5,600 residents.
Beyond its lofty recreation options, Zermatt is just plain scenic. The aquamarine Mattervispa River carries frigid glacial melt through town, gurgling over rocks pulled from the moraine. On all sides, massive mountains loom in full majesty. Indeed, 29 of Switzerland's 35 peaks higher than 4,000-meters (13,120-feet) are in the Zermatt region. Century-old huts stand on stone, mushroom-shaped stilts (they keep the rats out) and promise to outlast the most modern construction.
Hiking is easily the primary outdoor summer activity. Visitors follow maps and well-marked trails. Some join tours or hire guides. Popular outings include a three-hour expedition along a snowy ridge from the Klein Matterhorn to the Breithorn for CHF 135. A four-hour glacier excursion costs about CHF 110.
Zermatt seems far more laid-back than most mountain resorts. People of all ages are dressed for their activity of choice, not to make a fashion or net-worth statement. Since everyone walks in this auto-free town, there's more social interaction on the streets. Most everyone is relaxed and smiling as they stroll the town. Even the new Casino Zermatt, which opened in December, doesn't have a dress code.
From the base stations, an extensive network of 31 lifts carries visitors to a variety of peaks, lookouts and trailheads. The Klein Matterhorn and Rothorn base stations are served by lifts, while the Gornergrat features a funicular railway. Anyone who visited in the past and was confused by the multiple offers of Zermatt's several cable car companies will be pleased to learn that the four companies merged last year. There's one timetable, one rate chart, one website and, significantly, one company issuing tickets.
This cooperation helped create the new Peak Pass, which offers unlimited travel for stays from 3-21 days, a best bet for visitors who plan to log extended mountain time. A three-day pass, for example, is CHF 154 and a five-day pass CHF 200. Or choose any three days during a five-day visit for CHF 170. Children from 6-16 are half-price.
A highlight of any visit is the Klein Matterhorn, at 3,883 meters (12,736-feet) the highest peak served by the region's cable cars and the highest viewing platform in Europe. ("High Alpine Zone. Move Slowly," signs warn.) At the summit station, it's another three minutes on foot through a tunnel that emerges to bright sunshine and deep snow.
A short walk across the snow leads to another tunnel, this one carved into the glacier. Exhibits explain glaciers and geology en route to an almost magical grotto 15 meters (49 feet) below the surface with ice sculptures carved from giant blocks.
Then it's outside again to a view that almost overwhelms: mountains to the horizon, their peaks reaching into a rich, blue sky.
(Rates listed here are for summer, which is high season for most hotels. Also, unless otherwise stated, rates include both breakfast and dinner.)
Zermatt's Hotel Perren, just a short distance from the train station, consists of the original building constructed in the 1950s and renovated in 2000 and a newer building added in the 1970s. Thus, if you want the most up-to-date rooms and facilities, ask for the "old wing." Regardless of age, the hotel offers a pleasant mix of rustic and modern. The lofty lobby opens to a lounge with piano and fireplace, and a glass elevator brings guests to the upper floors.
Rooms seem to have been designed with American tastes in mind; they're large and cheerful with blond larch woodwork and substantial bathrooms, most with both bath and shower. The best room in the house is easily 402, a top-floor suite with balcony overlooking the parish church and the Matterhorn. French doors separate the bedroom from the spacious living room with work area and couch. A slight step down is Number 303, a deluxe room with nearly 31 square meters (334 square feet) of space, not including ample closets. The standard rooms, located in the new wing, are smaller but still comfortable.
The hotel is owned and operated by the Perren and Bregy-Biner families, who have lived in Zermatt for generations. Members of the families know all the best trails (ski, bike or hiking) and are usually on hand to share tips-or to discuss their best runs of the day.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 125, doubles CHF 230-299
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 15/20
With 24 rooms spread across four floors, this quiet and cordial three-star hotel is delightfully cheerful and welcoming. The staff quickly learns names and any special interests and needs and is quick to help or offer suggestions. The hotel is quite convenient, just five minutes from the train station and tourist office, and 15 minutes from the lift to the Klein Matterhorn.
Most rooms in the five-story hotel have balconies. Number 302 is simple but spacious, more than comfortable, with a bath/shower combination and a large balcony looking to the Matterhorn. It's also farthest from the Gornergrat Railway tracks, which can get noisy during early-morning runs.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 100, doubles CHF 180
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 16/20
Grand Hotel Zermatterhof
The Grand Hotel Zermatterhof proudly declares its five-star presence with decorative letters stretched across the building's exterior. Maybe guests being chauffeured to the hotel by the hotel's horse-drawn carriage need a reminder where they're headed. But any doubts they're about to experience a very grand hotel are removed when they approach the elegant, wood-carved, marble-inlaid reception desk.
Although the Zermatterhof has its origins in 1879, it undertook extensive remodeling in 1987. Of its 84 rooms, 26 are suites and nearly 60 offer a view to the Matterhorn. Along with other amenities, the hotel offers a wellness area with swimming pool, sauna, steam room and fitness center.
In the standard room category, Number 519 is especially spacious and bright, thanks in part to a skylight and to larch wood floors and furniture. The view is to the Riffelalp and other peaks east of the Matterhorn. Room 410 looks to the Matterhorn and has an especially large bathroom (with shower-bath) and walk-in wardrobe, as well as a convenient desk/work area.
Among deluxe rooms, Number 406 is on a corner with a large balcony and views north into the valley and west over old wooden huts to the Matterhorn. Number 403 is typical of the more recently renovated rooms, with blue and cream wall fabrics framed by larch, an embossed ceiling, and built-in Bose speakers, even in the bathroom.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 345-440, doubles CHF 610-680, suites CHF 950-1480. Transfer from train station: CHF 12 per person with luggage.
Rating: Quality 18/20 Value 16/20
The Alex is quite likely Zermatt's most eclectic hospitality establishment. It's much more like an all-inclusive resort—with bar, nightclub, dancing, outdoor restaurants, grassy terraces, tennis courts, saunas, and large swimming pool with grotto. Cancun meets Switzerland.
Some might find elements of the Alex a bit brash. For example, a billboard on the front of the hotel pulses messages Times Square-style to passersby. Amid carved angels, stained glass and statues, ceiling paintings are more reminiscent of Keith Haring than a village artist, and sometimes go a little over the top.
If any Zermatt hotel has the prototypical après ski atmosphere, it's definitely the Alex. Some travelers may find this too frenetic and commercial for their tastes, but the hotel's guests seemed to like it all just fine. They also seem to like the sumptuous—if often somewhat kitschy—guest rooms (67 in all). Mention the word romance when you're making your reservation (if that's indeed what you want), and the Alex staff will choose the perfect room, including fireplace, four-poster bed, two-person Jacuzzi and chilled champagne.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 170-230, doubles CHF 320-440
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 14/20
Zermatt's Mountain Hotels
Those who desire more of a mountain lodge experience—with most or all the comforts—will find three choices, including a five-star resort, along the Gornergrat Railway, which climbs 696 meters (2,283 feet) over 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) from Zermatt to the Gornergrat summit. At the very least, it's a great day-trip and if your Zermatt stay is more than a couple of nights, one of them should be in a mountain hotel.
During the 20-minute ride and 591-meter (1,938-foot) elevation gain on the Gornergrat railway from Zermatt to the Riffelalp Resort, the four-car train passes through a tunnel the length of a football field. At the Riffelalp station—an oversized booth, really—a one-carriage electric train, the highest tramway in Europe, carries guests another five minutes along a mountain ridge to the five-star Riffelalp Resort.
The hotel is perfect for guests who want to mix indoor luxury with exploration of the great outdoors. Zermatt's extensive network of mountain hiking trails starts at the front door. After a rigorous hike, a multi-course dinner awaits, and the sauna and pool are just seconds away.
The first Riffelalp Grand Hotel was built in 1884 and served guests until a massive fire in 1961. In 1988 the hotel was rebuilt and reopened. Additional construction was finished in 2000 to create today's resort.
Public spaces—grand and luxurious—feature lofty wooden ceilings, carved wood trim, marble surfaces, and granite floors scattered with colorful rugs. A popular spot is in front of the large fireplace with a view to the Matterhorn. The design employs many elements found in chalets but on a grander scale.
Guest rooms have plenty of wood in furniture, walls and ceilings. Many beds have hearts carved in their headboards. Room 108 is especially spacious with a large balcony that presents a view to the Matterhorn. Room 109 is a junior suite with bath and shower in one room, toilet in another. Ultra-comfortable beds with plush down comforters can lead to massive cocooning, especially since guest rooms also feature CD players, televisions and Bose speakers.
Recognizing that some guests may wish to pursue indoor activities rather than explore, the hotel offers a variety of amenities including a two-lane bowling alley, free Internet access, a small cinema, billiards and a "vinothek" for wine tastings, plus restaurants, a grotto-like pool and various wellness facilities.
Daily Rates: Singles 265-345 CHF, double 490-630 CHF; jr. suites 800 CHF
Rating: Quality 18/20, Value 16/20
From the Riffelalp station, it's another 15 minutes and 373 meters (1,223 feet) of elevation through the tree line to the Hotel-Restaurant Riffelberg. Passengers who leave the train at Riffelalp can watch it continue its climb across moss-covered rock and grassy ridges. The Matterhorn dwarfs it like a toy.
The four-story hotel lies across a pasture lorded over by goats. Much of the structure dates from the middle of the 19th century, when priests made the trip from Zermatt on mules. The most recent renovation was in 1987. Markus and Marianne Meier have managed the hotel for three years, and the young couple's pride in their mountain home and the 29 rooms under their care is evident.
As a three-star hotel, the Riffelberg has the requisite amenities such as direct dial phones and private bathrooms. Guestrooms are plain, basic and somewhat worn, but nonetheless clean and comfortable. Under the same ownership as the Zermatter Hof, much of the hotel's furniture consists of high-quality hand-me-downs. For a two-window view of the Matterhorn, as well as to the Klein Matterhorn and to sheep pastures, Room 3 is the best choice.
The best view is perhaps from the dining area with a breathtaking panorama of the Matterhorn, the Gorner glacier and other peaks topping 4,000 meters. There's also a small granite-topped bar and a sauna area with Jacuzzi.
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 135, doubles CHF 240
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 14/20
Hotel Kulm Gornergrat
At an elevation of 3,100 meters, the Gornergrat is the last stop on the Gornergratbahn. On one side, a row of riffled glaciers flows imperceptibly through a wall of 4,000-meter mountains creating a debris field of ground boulders. Glacial melt pours from swirls of unworldly blue ice. On the other side of the mountain lies Italy, though it might as well be Mars. There seems to be no world beyond the Gornergrat, especially as the clouds move in.
Iron letters spell out "H-O-T-E-L 1-9-0-7" on the meter-thick walls of the Hotel Kulm Gornergrat, Europe's highest two-star hotel. It stands on the summit like a fortress, and as a monument to solitude as the last train screeches down the tracks into the consuming clouds. On a promontory below the hotel, steinbocks clamber in the scree—either defying death or offering living proof of Darwin's theories.
Two miles up, with clouds filling in, the hotel feels like an island in the sky. After the last train departs, there's no way down and nearly nine hours until the next one. Agatha Christie would have found easy inspiration.
Rooms are utilitarian: four plaster walls, plain furnishings, and a sink. Showers and bathrooms are shared.
West-facing rooms look out to the Matterhorn, while east-facers view awesome sunrises (weather permitting, of course).
Daily Rates: Singles CHF 127-138, doubles CHF 206-216 (slightly higher for Matterhorn view)
Rating: Quality 11/20 Value 11/2
The Restaurant Whymper-Stube, named for the Englishman who was in the first group to summit the Matterhorn—is a small downstairs restaurant with plenty of rustic charm and intimacy. There is a bar with six stools and a few tables. The dark wood decor gives the sense of a deep-woods cabin. This is a favorite stop for home-bound mountain guides.
The menu isn't extensive—mostly a variety of fondues and cheese and meat platters, with a couple standard dishes like pork cutlet and cordon bleu. A speciality is the Fondue Plausch, a cheese fondue with dried meat, cherries, pears, tomatoes, mushrooms, and onions. The cost is CHF 30 per person, with a minimum of 3 people. The Whymper platter, for CHF 24, consists of dried meat, cold ham, bacon, sausage, cheese and nuts. You can also order two appetizers and no entrée: for example, a platter of dried meat served on a wooden board with the traditional pearl onions, pickles and tomato; and a platter of raclette, cheese melted and served on a plate with boiled new potatoes, pickles and pearl onions. Delicious fresh bread comes on the side.
Contact: Restaurant Whymper-Stube, CH-3920 Zermatt, tel +41/027/967 2296.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 15/20
Restaurant zum See
The Restaurant zum See is in a 600-year-old former farmhouse in a mountain hamlet about 145 meters (475 feet) above Zermatt. It's a traditional village with about 20 chalets, sheds, cabins and barns. Woods and mountains close in on all sides. On pleasant days, guests sit on the sunny stone patio facing ancient sheds and barns. Inside, guests enjoy the warmth of the open kitchen and seasoned dark wood.
Like many rewards, getting to lunch (the only meal served) at the Restaurant zum See requires effort. As owner Max Mennig says, "We're really well situated—only 40 minutes on foot." Or take the lift from Zermatt to Furi and walk down a well-worn (and easy) mountain trail for 15 minutes. After lunch, it's another 20 minutes—quite pleasant—downhill to town.
Max and wife Greti take full advantage of local produce, cheeses and meats (dried or fresh). Most vegetables—beets, lettuce and herbs, for example—come from their garden and breads, pastas and desserts are made on the premises.
The Restaurant zum See excels at traditional cuisine with a creative, international bent. Lamb fillet provençale, calf's kidney in a mustard cream sauce, and filets of rabbit in a morel cream sauce are examples. There is also more conventional fare, such as dried meat, local cheeses and Rösti—those delicious fried potatoes. Nearby Italy is fully represented with a variety of pasta dishes. Desserts are heavenly like a rhubarb torte—sweet, sour and custardy—piled high with house-made cinnamon ice cream.
Most entrées fall between CHF 17-29, with an average price of about CHF 24. (On the way back to town, don't miss the Ricola Herb Garden with the 13 different herbs used in Ricola's products.)
Contact: Restaurant zum See CH-3920 Zermatt, tel +41/027/967 2045, fax 967 2873
Rating: Quality 17/20 Value 17/20
Restaurant Le Chalet "Da Giuseppe"
Mention to any Zermatt resident—and to many visitors—that you had a fantastic Italian meal, and they just assume it was at Giuseppe's. Indeed, the superb food and warmth of welcome he and his cozy restaurant bring to the dining experience, have brought Giuseppe Battaglieri a loyal following. The music of Italy—first opera, then ballads—creates an authentic Italian ambiance, as do the Italian-speaking regulars discussing the day's news at the bar.
Service is exceptional. Your server greets you, hangs up your coat and within seconds of arriving you're treated to a small flute of sparkling wine followed by a dish piled high with excellent bruschetta. After another perfect appetizer, the server asks, "Shall I bring your entrée, or would you like a break?" Then, after a delightful platter of ravioli, you hear something entirely unfamiliar: "Would you like more?" An affirmative nod and you're quickly served another small portion—an experience repeated at dessert.
The menu features such dishes as mussels in spicy red sauce, ravioli stuffed with wild mushrooms and spices, fried calamari, stuffed artichokes, rabbit with polenta, mushrooms sautéed with garlic and parsley, lamb cutlet and, of course, pasta. Then desserts like panna cotta. Can't make up your mind? Order the "surprise" four-course dinner for CHF 60. Entrées range from CHF 20-42 with most pastas about CHF 26 and meat dishes around CHF 36. It's all very inventive and pleasant.
Contact: Restaurant Le Chalet "Da Giuseppe," CH-3920 Zermatt, tel. +41/027/967 1380
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 18/20