High in the Valais Alps the village of Zermatt lies beneath the incomparable and legendary Matterhorn. This infamous peak is an ever-present and invigorating sight. All around Zermatt are a host vantage points for photos, and places where you can learn about the people who have conquered the mountain, or died trying.
The Matterhorn is just one of 29 peaks higher than 4,000 metres in the Upper Valais region. And in this Alpine playground you can do things that you might not have dreamed possible, like walk through a glacier, go skiing in mid-summer and climb one of Europe’s highest mountains. This is all made feasible by record-breaking infrastructure, from aerial tramways to funiculars, all testifying to human ingenuity in this extreme environment.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Zermatt:
1. The Matterhorn
This famous jagged peak is etched in the world’s consciousness as clearly as Mount Fuji.
And OK, unless you’re an expert mountaineer we’re not suggesting you should attempt an ascent of the Matterhorn.
This treacherous peak wasn’t even conquered until 1865, and even then four of the seven climbers in the party lost their lives.
Just seeing the base camp, at Hörnli Hut, teetering precariously on the slopes will give you an idea of what those early alpinists were up against.
The iconic pyramid-shaped peak is a landmark to savour from a distance, and there are a lot of handy vantage points for this, which we’ll detail in the list.
2. Klein Matterhorn
The next peak along from the Matterhorn is the Klein Matterhorn (Little Matterhorn), and you could only call it little in relative terms! This peak towers to 3,883 metres and amazingly you can get up there on an aerial tramway.
It’s the highest location in Europe accessible by this form of transportation.
At the top you’ll reach the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise where there’s a tunnel leading you through to the Breithorn Plateau, a vast glacier on the south side of the peak.
Temperatures are perennially below zero up here, at Europe’s highest summer ski area, so don’t forget to dress the part.
Be sure to make descent into the Glacier Grotto, cut from the ice and decorated with frozen sculptures.
Now, if you want to tell your friends that you’ve climbed a 4,000-metre mountain you can scale the Breithorn.
What you don’t have to tell them is this peak is considered the easiest of all the 4,000-metre peaks to climb.
You’ll need a qualified mountain guide, but the adventure begins after ascending the Klein Matterhorn on the aerial tramway.
From there it’s a three-hour round trip to and from the highest point of the Breithorn.
While the trek is never too demanding, the slopes are glaciated, with all the difficulty that entails, and the air is of course much thinner at this elevation.
One of a few unforgettable excursions in Zermatt is the highest open-air rack railway in Europe.
The Gornergrat Bahn shuttles up to the observation platform at Gornergrat, just over 3,000 metres above sea level through a mountain wilderness where no fewer than 29 peaks rise above 4,000 metres.
It might be hard to believe but the railway was laid as long ago as 1896 when it became the world’s first fully electrified rack line.
The trip takes 33 minutes and the train courses over ravines and through stone pine and larch forest.
Finally you’ll arrive at the platform, in the centre of a small tourist development and where the scenery almost defies description.
The Matterhorn is hard to ignore, but you can also view the Dufourspitze, Switzerland highest mountain at 4,634 metres and the Gorner Glacier, the second-largest in the Alps.
In the shadow of the Matterhorn is the ultimate destination for a ski holiday.
Zermatt is a nexus point of a network of 54 funiculars, lifts and cable-cars and more than 360 kilometres of pistes.
As we’ve seen on the Breithorn plateau skiing is even available in the height of summer because of the glaciers and low temperatures at high altitude.
Lower slopes are blanketed with snow as early and late as November and April for an extended season.
People who want a more intrepid ski experience could hire a mountain guide who knows the terrain like the back of his or her hand and will take you off piste.
There are also dozens of restaurants high in unexpected perches, and a friendly Après Ski in the centre of Zernatt and at stations like Sunnegga.
Pick a clear day for another mountain journey you won’t soon forget.
In Zermatt you’ll board a funicular that climbs through the centre of the mountain to Sunnegga.
From there you can a gondola over Alpine pastures to Blauherd.
And lastly, from Blauherd you can hop on a state-of-the-art cable car, with space for 100 passengers in each cabin, for an epic ride to the top of Unterrothorn.
Once again, there’s a restaurant on the summit, and the views of the Matterhorn, glaciers and Monte Rosa massif are almost too good to be true on clear days.
But Unterrothorn is also a station for mountain activities.
In summer people embark on gruelling hikes from this point or use the slopes for paragliding.
And in winter the pistes start right next to the upper station.
7. Zermatt Village
With so many wonders in the vicinity you might forget to spend some time on Zermatt’s car-free lanes.
A lot of the village’s history relates to early tourism and alpinism, like the Monte Rosa Hotel, the oldest hotel in Zermatt, opened in 1855 where Edmund Whymper and the rest of his team stayed before their ascent.
The “Old Village” is like an open-air museum, made up of some 30 typical “Walser” houses.
And in July and August kids will love seeing the herd of shaggy Valais Blackneck goats passing through the village at 09:00 and 17:00.
8. Zermatlantis Matterhorn Museum
The Matterhorn arouses wonder and trepidation in equal measure, and Zermatt’s museum should answer any questions you have about the mountain.
The museum is arranged like a traditional Alpine village, with galleries contained in 14 authentic buildings that were dismantled and rebuilt in this underground space.
Each of these handles a different aspect of the nature and history of the notorious peak.
In the “Mountain Guide’s House” special attention is paid to the ascent by Edward Whymper and his party in 1865. The grim showpiece here is the “broken rope” that snapped, sending four climbers to their deaths.
9. Mountaineers’ Cemetery
An unfortunate fact about the Matterhorn is that it is one of the deadliest peaks in the world, claiming the lives of an estimated 500 alpinists since it was first conquered in 1865. Around 3,000 people attempt to climb the peak each year, and even now there are regular fatalities.
Nowadays this is usually down to avalanches and the sudden changes in weather for which the mountain is infamous.
Many of the people who have died on the mountain are buried in the cemetery in the churchyard, including three of the four climbers who perished in 1865. You can take your time to read the gravestones, which have details about the climbers, including their age and where they perished.
Some of the stones also adorned with their mountaineering gear like ropes and ice axes.
10. Gorner Gorge
About 15 minutes on foot from Zermatt is a fabulous landform that descends rather than rises.
Since the last ice age the glacial river, Gornervispe has sliced through the ancient and green-tinged serpentine rock to create a ravine that continues to deepen.
In the 1880s the gorge was made navigable on foot, and wooden footbridges grant wonderful perspectives of the tortured rock and the crystalline waters below.
There’s a strange natural phenomenon at around 15:00-16:00 on days in September, when the unique light gives the water a mesmerising turquoise glow.
it takes just 4.5 minutes to reach the upper station on the Zermatt-Sunnegga funicular.
Sunnegga is a sun drenched natural balcony, and another of that long list of places where you’ll be stopped in your tracks by a panorama of the Matterhorn.
But there’s more to Sunnegga than the vistas: There’s a glimpse of the Alps’ wildlife on in the Marmots’ Playground, a trail leading you past burrows where you’ll catch sight of these creatures if you’re patient.
Another summer activity is swimming in Leisee, which is ringed by meadows and has pristine, reflective waters.
Winter at Sunnegga means snow-shoeing, snowboarding and skiing in the “Sunnegga Paradise”, as well as access to the pistes on the Gornergrat.
12. Village of Findeln
At Sunnegga you can climb onto a four-seater chairlift to a little cluster of farmhouses that make up the village of Findeln.
It might be hard to wrap your head around, but until as recently as 1954 rye and barley were grown on these slopes, at a height of 2,100 metres.
Findeln wasn’t occupied year-round, but was rather a Maiensäss, and at the start of the summer villagers would embark on a punishing cattle drive to this spot.
And during the season they would cultivate grain, make cheese or send the milk back down the valley to be sold.
The old barns and farmhouses are still standing, as is the chapel that dates from the 17th century.
“Black Lake” in English, this body of water has a dark surface as it reflects the brooding rock around it.
The lake is served by a gondola, which takes only 12 minutes from Zermatt and has been shuttling between these points since 1954. At the Schwarzsee you’ll have the best vantage point for the Hörnligrat ridge on the Matterhorn, which is written into mountaineering lore.
If you’ve got the right equipment and training you can strike out on foot for that distant point from here.
And right on the water is the little chapel of Mary of the Snows, where mountaineers still come to give thanks after their descent from the Matterhorn.
14. Forest Fun Park
There’s adrenaline and physical exertion in a much safer environment at this tree-top adventure park just along the valley from the village.
Children will have the time of their lives scrambling over obstacles between platforms far above the ground, on the longest kids’ adventure course in Switzerland.
They’ll be wearing a harness and helmet, and the highest safety standards.
Adults can get involved as well, testing their strength, daring and sense of balance on five routes, climbing nets, crossing all manner of bridges, suspended by ropes and zooming down zip-lines.
Mountaineering in thin air, hiking on glaciers in extreme temperatures or days hurtling down ski trails test even the fittest bodies to the limits.
So you’ll be justified if you feel you need some pampering.
Fortunately, nearly all the hotels around Zermatt have top-notch spa and wellness facilities.
And most of these are open to non-residents, either by advanced reservation or in the case of dozens Spa Hotel Perren, Spa Hotel Hemizeus, Spa Hotel Europe, Spa Hotel Bella Vista and many more, you can just show up.
All will have saunas, steam baths, heated pools, jacuzzis (many outdoors) and long menus of treatments for lasting relaxation.