- The Skiing 78%
- Families 70%
- Value for Money 45%
- Restaurants 88%
- Nightlife 80%
Zermatt may be home to some awesome terrain, but we think you’ll enjoy it most if you want to mix skiing hard with eating out in the superb mountain restaurants and soaking up the view.
Ed Mannix, who runs Matterhorn Chalets with his wife Suzanne, first skied at the aged of six and quickly caught the bug that has haunted his life ever since. Mountains caused him to give up his career as a sound engineer and session bass guitarist in favour of the ski industry.
He ran a couple of big-name chalet companies before migrating to the French Alps. Later he set up a highly successful business as a fixer for tour operators and chalet owners, covering every ex-pat need from tax consultancy to chalet building. Ed moved to Zermatt two years ago and started his own highly personalised chalet business, and here’s why.
Table of Contents
- 1 Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
- 2 Guide to the Mountain
- 3 Where to Learn
- 4 Where to Stay
- 5 Where to Eat
- 6 Where to Party
Essential Advice for the Perfect Trip
I’ve always loved it here. Zermatt is like no other resort in the Alps, a skiing and climbing community huddled at the foot of the world’s most majestic mountain. For 150 years The Matterhorn has enchanted visitors from all over the world – I’m one of them, and these days I’m lucky enough to be greeted by its angular eminence each morning when I wake up.
Sophisticated chalets are run by individuals like me who’ve spent rather more than half a lifetime in the Alps, graduating from France to Switzerland in search of a real village with genuine ambience and a high altitude, snow-sure ski area that thrills.
Zermatt is quintessentially Swiss with sophisticated shops, a lively nightlife, and lots to do for non-skiers. The restaurants – on and off the mountain – are the best of any ski resort in Europe. Expensive? Yes, but your daily spend is tempered by Zermatt’s proximity to Italy. Lunch on the Italian side is of equal quality at a fraction of the price. I really can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else.
Zermatt’s place in history is inexorably linked with the Victorian climber, Edward Whymper, who conquered the Matterhorn in 1865. On the descent the rope broke, sending four of the seven climbers to their deaths down the north wall.
Zermatt and the Matterhorn have held a fascination for many people ever since – all of them have been gobsmacked by the Matterhorn, the charm of the quaint town where old barns stand beside modern hotels, and farmers still tend to their chickens and goats within 200m of the resort centre.
Many people choose to treat a holiday in Zermatt in a very relaxed fashion. They have a leisurely breakfast each morning, then ski for a couple of hours before stopping off for lunch at one of those exquisite restaurants, working their way through several courses, before wobbling down the final stretch of pistes at the end of the day. Finally, after a long bath, a massage and maybe a cocktail at the Vernissage or a glass of red at Elsie’s, they head out to a restaurant or back to their gorgeous hotel or chalet for dinner.
One downside – or perhaps the advantage – is the lack of easy access to the resort. If you’re driving out, you’ll have to leave your car in the village of Taesch lower down the mountain. Then you’ll have to take your luggage on to the train up to the resort. A bonus is the spectacular rail journey, when you leave normal life behind to start your Zermatt experience. Normal cars are banned from the resort, so everyone travels around on foot, in electric buses and taxis, or by horse and sleigh.
There’s something for everyone
This is also an ideal resort for non-skiers who are either happy to shop and spend their time in cafes and restaurants, or want to try some of the many activities on offer. These include ice-skating, sleigh rides, curling, and ice climbing. You can even stay the night in a real igloo up the mountain – complete with an outdoor hot tub.
There are jewellers and Swiss watch shops, boutiques and sports shops, but this is not the place to shop for haute couture. Zermatt is a real town with a year-round population, so you will find groceries, bakeries, and butchers shops alongside the souvenir and chocolate shops.
Guide to the Mountain
The Zermatt ski area is linked to that of Cervinia, just across the Italian border, and together they provide an impressive amount of piste mileage and some challenging off-piste. Problem is, the terrain is scattered across a vast area and is not always easy to find. So you need to be well-informed and well-organised to get the best out of it.
In fact, I strongly recommend hiring a guide, whatever your ability, so that he/she can show you how best to make use of Zermatt’s lift system. Much of Zermatt’s freeride terrain is rocky and needs lots of snow-cover to be skiable. In December some of the off-piste and yellow trails or Abfahrtsrouten – itineraries which are marked, and avalanche-controlled – can lack snow, but the snow builds up and doesn’t melt on these slopes until late in the season because they are mainly high and north-facing.
The easiest pistes are right on the top of the mountain, on the glacier. That means a long commute each morning, and the risk of zero visibility or the lifts being closed in bad weather. However, there are several good easy pistes lower down in Zermatt – and over in Cervinia you’ll find one that’s world class, the Ventina run. But they’re also scattered over a vast area, and getting between them can be a pain. So to get the best of the area you need to be well organised. If you do think ahead, then the rewards can be huge.
The glacier’s a great place to build confidence
Despite global warming, this is still a big glacier, sprawling between the Matterhorn and Klein Matterhorn. On a clear day, the views are quite simply stunning. The skiing is pretty much like you’ll find on all glaciers – wide, not very steep and ultimately a little dull. Still, it’s a great place to warm up at the start of the trip, staring open-mouthed at the view, and building your confidence.
The runs down off the glacier start off being wonderful, and then get sketchy beneath the Trockener Steg lift station. In particular, the black from Furgg to Furi is often icy and crowded and a harrowing experience for intermediates of uncertain confidence. If you are going to try it, do it at lunchtime, when the snow is likely to be at its softest, and the traffic is considerably reduced. You can then reward yourself with lunch at Blatten, Les Marmottes or Zum See.
Stupendous views from Stockhorn and Gornergrat
The red from Riffelberg down to Furi is one of the nicest cruisers on the slopes above Zermatt – as opposed to the ones across the border in Cervinia. Some people might find it a bit unnerving at the start, when it’s just a narrow strip of piste alongside the Gornergrat railway, but lower down beneath the Riffelalp it becomes a wide, evenly-pitched beauty, lined with trees. It’s a great place to go when the weather’s bad and visibility is low. Plus there’s an eight-seater gondola serving the run, so you can even ski laps to warm up.
Higher up on the Gornergrat the runs are gentle blue cruisers and the views of the Matterhorn are stupendous. You’ll pass a lot of people on the mountain, by the way, skiing at a snail’s pace because they can’t stop staring at the view.
Zermatt has a formidable reputation amongst some advanced skiers – especially when it comes to the much-vaunted freeriding and bump-skiing. The place to head for is the north face of the Stockhorn and Hohtalli. When good skiers and boarders tell you how much they love the Zermatt, it’s this area they’re usually thinking of. For example, it’s beneath the Stockhorn that you’ll find the famous Triftji bump run. There are also some highly-rated freeriding routes on either side of it – as well as on the slopes beneath the Hohtalli, down to Gant and Grunsee.
The Rothorn is a good place to start
The Sunnegga underground funicular is not the best way up to the Gornergrat – it is better to take the cog railway or head to Furi and take the Riffelberg Express. However, Sunnegga is a good place to go when the weather’s been cold and snowy – but if it’s been warm the lower slopes can be icy in the morning. The best way to get round the problem is to go right right to the top of the mountain and ski laps of red 26, 27 or 28, the White Hare – they run through a cold, high sunless valley and so are home to the best snow hereabouts.
In the Schwarzsee area, a new six-seat chair-lift replaces the previous Hörnli T-bar for the 2015-16 season. This makes it possible for skiers to experience the area on new, challenging pistes at the foot of the Matterhorn’s north face.
Itineraries for sampling the area’s freeriding potential
A number of routes are yellow runs or Abfahrtsrouten and are only open when there’s enough snow. You’ll also find these itineraries on the Rothorn and coming down from the Schwarzsee toward Furi. Trifti, Stockhorn and Mittleritz are all fabulous runs.
If you do luck into the right conditions, the yellow trails are a great way to sample the area’s steep pitches, without hiring a guide – although the powder will be skied out almost instantly. If it is, resist the temptation to venture away from the route-markers. There are crevasses to watch out for beneath the Stockhorn if you go to the skier’s right of the main bump run down.
The big Alpine descent for experts
This is one of the greats – provided that your budget can extend to a couple of days’ of heli-skiing. The reason expert skiers come to this resort is for the big Alpine descents, such as the one-day trip from the top of Monte Rosa, or the descent from the Alphubeljoch to Taesch or Saas Fee.
Actually, several of these runs aren’t especially difficult, and guides ask for only limited off-piste experience. Not every descent requires a heli-lift. Several glaciers such as the Schwarztor can be reached by walking – between 15 minutes and 1.5 hours from the top of the lifts. There are also a number of hard-core ski-touring routes.
Heli-skiing can be cheaper over the border in Cervinia with one of the mountain-guiding outfits based in Italy. The UIAGM qualification is just as good over there as it is in Switzerland, so I’d suggest shopping around before you commit to a trip. However, it’s still easier to use a Zermatt guide who will arrange an Italian chopper for you – finding your own way to the Italian heliport is tricky.
Where to Learn
First there was the Swiss Ski and Snowboard School in Zermatt and that was it. No competition from anyone else and the instructors never had to retire, whatever their age. Then one day, 15 years ago, Stoked broke the ice, and after that all changed. It employed younger and more go-ahead instructors and more schools like this soon followed.
One of them was British-owned Summit Ski & Snowboard School, which opened 10 years ago. Today, a total of 10 ski schools operate in the resort, including European Snowsport, Prato Borni Ski & Snowboardschule, Matterhorn Diamonds Privat Skischool, Adventure, Alpine Swiss School, My Ski School and Alpin Center Zermatt for ski-touring and heli-skiing.
Childcare facilities have improved over the years
The resort’s childcare facilities and ski schools do get very busy, so it’s important to book them well in advance. Summit Ski & Board School offers lessons for six year olds and above, as well as special courses for teenagers. Stoked runs a kindergarten at Schwarzsee which cares for children from two-and-a-half years old. Snowli Snow Club, run by Swiss Ski and Snowboard School, is a dedicated ski slope for four- to six-year-olds up at Riffelberg. A special kid’s train takes children up from the centre of Zermatt in the morning, and returns them to their parents in the afternoon.
Wolli’s park is for beginners at Sunnegga and has its own, smaller, lift pass. Kinderparadies is a two-storey building 200m from the railway station. It’s open seven days a week and inside are separate areas for different ages and interests. Upstairs is for toddlers and very small children from three months. Downstairs is a dolls play area, a building blocks area, and another with cars, trucks, garages and a tool bench. There’s also an outdoor playground with a small ski slope where children from three years can learn.
Where to Stay
There’s a rapidly-improving choice of luxury hotels and chalets in Zermatt – so try to save your trip for a winter when you can afford one of them. You’ll need to factor in one of the great pleasures of being in Zermatt: eating out. A good choice would be to go for an apartment, B&B, or a flexible hotel or chalet – and plan just one big lunch or dinner a day, in a range of different restaurants. Otherwise you might explode.
The good old favourites
The eminent hotels here are Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, a favourite of both Audrey Hepburn and Walt Disney, which is still glamorous. This would be our choice over the flashier Mont Cervin Palace, although that too is over a century old. Many of its suites come with a Jacuzzi and an open fireplace, while the separate Residence has some good suites with kitchens and saunas. In splendid isolation up the mountain at Gornergrat is Riffelalp Resort 2222 (the numbers are its altitude) with a spa and a nice sun terrace.
The offbeat hotels
Hotel Alex is a bizarre Alpine-Byzantine fusion, with eclectically decorated rooms, a swimming-pool and spa. None of the 30 rooms in The Omnia have numbers, and the hotel is set deep into the rocky side of the mountain. There’s a gorgeous indoor-outdoor swimming-pool too, lots of floor-to-ceiling windows, wooden floors, modern fireplaces and funky bathrooms. One of the highlights is relaxing in the Cavern – a glass and steel space inside a man-made cave that floats on water.
The Alpine Residence of Hotel Mirabeau has the kind of super-cool rooms you’d expect to find in Manhattan, not Zermatt. Just make sure you stay in the residence and not in the main hotel, whose rooms are older. By the way, the wine bar here – Josef’s Wine Lounge – runs the Vernissage a close second as the most sophisticated place in town for a drink. The only drawback is that the Mirabeau is at the wrong end of town for the main lifts up to the Klein Matterhorn. If you’re going to do this thing in style you need to budget for lots of electric taxis (or plan to ski on the Rothorn a lot instead).
Hotel Matthiol is light, airy and modern. It is a bit of a walk from the centre but receives rave reviews. It has recently been refurbished with half of the new rooms equipped with a private spa. The hotel bar offers snacks throughout the day, regional produce is offered in the steak restaurant, and fondue is served in four gondolas in the hotel garden.
Hotel Julen gets the thumbs up from us because it’s cute, clean, well run and well-positioned, just over the river from the church in the middle of town. It’s also close to the Papperla Pub, and its nightclub, the Schneewittli, which could be a problem – although none of its reviews say anything about the noise.
Cervo Mountain Boutique Resort combines comfort with hunting cabin charm; it has a spa and an in-house fine dining restaurant with 14 Gault Millau points.
You might almost miss the Monte Rosa hotel, so unobtrusive is its modest wooden entrance door in the Bahnhofstrasse. But this is without a doubt the most atmospheric and historic hotel in the resort (it opened in 1853) – as the base from which Victorian mountaineer, Edward Whymper, set off to conquer the Matterhorn. Winston Churchill stayed here too. Edwards Bar on the ground floor also serves the best Aperol Spritz in town.
Cool bed and breakfasts
I’d particularly recommend the Mountain Paradise Hotel. This unassuming but well-run three-star establishment is only a couple of minutes’ walk from the Matterhorn Express gondola and the comfortable south-facing rooms have a great Matterhorn view. Good value and happy to take bookings for short stays outside of the Christmas period – this is a great base for a weekend break.
On the other hand, Coeur des Alps is arguably the best B&B in the Alps: well run, with a spa, and boasting cutting-edge modern design by local artist Heinz Julen. The double-height, loft-style Sky Apartment is one of the finest rooms in town – and can be had for the same price as one of the small standard rooms in the Zermatterhof (although at the Zermatterhof, dinner for two is included in the price). Book a year in advance to be sure of getting it, though. One caveat – the small doubles really are small. We’d suggest getting at least a large double.
The Zurbriggen Aparthotel is a collection of super-cool, spacious double rooms and larger apartments filled with natural light and enjoying views up to the Matterhorn. We think they’re absolutely gorgeous, and we’re pretty sure you will too. The property is owned by Pirmin Zurbriggen, one of the greatest skiers of the 1980s, which gives it extra allure. It’s also close to the Klein Matterhorn lifts and breakfast is delivered to your room in the morning.
Still on the theme of apart-hotels, the brand new four-star Panorama Ski Lodge in Winkelmatten offers a selection of spacious one and two-bedroom serviced apartments, all with great views. There is also an in-house wellness area with sauna and steam room, as well as a bar area, and whilst the Matterhorn Express gondola is a ten-minute walk away, the reliable local bus stops nearby.
Heinz Julen opened the Backstage Hotel a few years ago, which is very much in keeping with his other properties such as the Vernissage, with oodles of glass and natural materials. The hotel has six cube lofts and other rooms are seven doubles and six deluxe doubles with free-standing bathtubs, raised beds on platforms, and exquisite mountain views. There’s also an in-house cinema (where you can also have dinner), a sports shop, art gallery, bar, and a themed indoor and outdoor ‘wellness world – that brings together body, mind, art, music and nature’.
Fabulous chalets – from traditional to cutting-edge
Anyone in the market for luxury should check into one of our recommended hotels or the Zermatt Lodge. The latter takes up the whole top floor of a newly-built chalet close to the Sunnegga lift station. There are five lovely bedrooms with beamed ceilings, aged wooden floors and stylish yet cosy furniture, and the focal point of the vast living room is a suspended wood-burning fireplace.
One of my own properties, Chalet Ulysse, is a stand-alone building that is five minutes’ walk from the Matterhorn Express gondola. For much of the season, it is usually possible to ski back to within 200m of the front door. It sleeps up to 12 people and is particularly suitable for families. For younger kids, the Winkelmatten play park is immediately opposite, whilst the second sitting room on the ground floor creates a good TV room away from the main living room upstairs. Included in the fully catered holiday is a qualified mountain guide or ski instructor for five days.
New or this season, we also feature the adjoining chalets Binna and Banja for eight and six people. These were built in 2014 and set a good standard. Being close to Chalet Ulysses, they share its view of the Matterhorn and convenient location. Each chalet has its own wellness area along with, arguably, Zermatt’s longest private swimming-pool from where you can see the Matterhorn whilst swimming lengths.
Don’t just look at Zermatt’s old barns. Stay in one. Haus Gmatchi is a sweet conversion of one of Zermatt’s 18th-century blackened barns, tucked away down a quiet side street. During its life, the three-bedroomed chalet has been a meat smoking house, a hayloft, and an artist’s studio.
Heinz Julen’s Backstage Luxus Chalet and Luxury Loft are both five-star properties. They are available catered or self-catered and are operated by the team from the Backstage boutique hotel. Both chalets have private cinemas and even a hot tub on a lift that goes up through the roof.
How to cut costs in a pricey resort
Refurbished a few years ago, Zermatt Youth Hostel is regarded as one of the best youth hostels in the country – there are even views of the Matterhorn from the bedrooms. Most of the rooms are for four people, and some have private showers, but there are twin rooms and dorms too.
Where to Eat
There are half a dozen mountain restaurants in Zermatt – and a few more over in Cervinia – which manage that near-impossible trick of being cute, efficient, characterful and seemingly off-the-cuff – all at the same time. It’s as if all this good food and good cheer had come together by accident for one day only, and you just happen to have lucked into the miraculous moment.
There’s none of that stuffiness you find in top French and American mountain restaurants either: conditions are often too hugger-mugger to allow anyone to stand on ceremony.
The world capital of mountain restaurants
Bear in mind that to get a table in any of them you should book ahead – on the morning of your visit will do in quiet weeks, but we suggest a full week in advance in high season.
One other thing – don’t expect them to be at the top of the mountain, as they are in other resorts. Zermatt’s mountain restaurant scene is further down the slopes, in two settlements: the old village below Furi, and Sunnegga. These, by the way, are where the people of Zermatt used to live in the summer months.
The current site of the town was regarded as too sunless and avalanche-prone in the old days for permanent settlement, and the grazing down there was too good to waste on housing. So everyone lived higher up, on sunnier ledges above the valley floor. Lots of the old ramshackle, log-built houses remain, and these are what have been turned into restaurants.
The Furi and Findeln eateries
Zum See, between Furi and Zermatt, is on everyone’s hit list and is reached either on foot from the town (about 40 minutes) or by the Matterhorn Express gondola to Furi and then skiing down to it. The creaky little wooden hut contains a wonderfully atmospheric restaurant with some of the best food in the resort. The terrace is gorgeous on fine days and lunch goes on to about 4pm.
I like Blatten, owned by the Taugwalder family, a short ski further down. The duck here is good, the lamb even better. Best of all is the crayfish truffle risotto. It has a good terrace where they provide blankets to keep you warm.
Back up in Furi, I particularly recommend the Gitz-Gaedi restaurant at the Hotel Silvana, as well as Simi and the restaurant Alm where they serve fresh trout. I also like Les Marmottes, again in Furi. It’s owned by Roby Perren and Katja Fux, and Roby is a keen hunter, so game is done very well here – the venison with red cabbage and chestnuts is excellent.
Chez Vrony, up in the hamlet of Findeln, is another fabulous eatery. It is has particularly delectable pasta with prawns and wild mushrooms. In the same hamlet is the excellent Findlerhof with lovely views from its terraces and a conservatory for bad weather days. Rosti and sweet omelettes are the specialities at Stafelalp. Fluhalp has live music, the best views and yet more great food.
At Blauherd you’ll find the hip Blue Lounge, with a large terrace and magnificent views of the Matterhorn. It has daily live music and DJs. Inside there is leather seating and a log fire. The Riffelberg Hotel restaurant has a lovely sun terrace. Specials include three types of Rosti, steaks, various vegetarian dishes, and a black-and-white Toblerone mousse.
Just below Riffelalp Resort on Gornergrat is Alphitta is a rustic wood-panelled mountain hut with live music and lots of atmosphere. This is now run by Dave Murphy and his partner Tanja Siemerink, both previously of the hotel and restaurant at Schwarzsee. Dave is a talented musician and front a popular band that plays on the terrace at lunchtime, as well as at various evening venues around the resort.
Other favourite mountain eateries are over in Cervinia – the Swedish-run Chalet Etoile (+39 0166 940220) and Bontadini (+39 335 250312) with delicious Aosta Valley specialities.
…and one of the top ski resorts in the Alps for dining out
In town, top of the impressive list is The Omnia. “The ambience is very cool and personal,” said a reporter. “There is also a table in a sort of turret out the side of the building, giving you full views to town below you, it was a very romantic place to have dinner.
“The food was fantastic. It is something genuinely different from the usual Zermatt restaurants, even the fancy ones. All our food was stunning. Perfectly cooked, interesting flavours well matched. The portion size is not huge but it is plenty and, to be honest, really nice not to be given a half a cow!”
Le Mazot specialises in lamb cooked on an open grill. Le Gitan has its own ‘gypsy kebabs’ and succulent giant prawns. The rustic Schaeferstube in Hotel Julen, has lamb from its own flock. Rua Thai in Hotel Albana Real, has authentic Thai cuisine. Fuji of Zermatt is also in the Albana Real (“genuine Japanese, fun and entertaining”). Le Corbeau d’Or in Hotel Mirabeau, is said to have “excellent food and wine”. The Heimberg in the Monte Rosa has been replaced with Eat 1818 Drink.
Where to Party
The nightlife is almost up there with the likes of Verbier or St Anton and, surprisingly for a resort of this stature, apres-ski is less expensive than the equivalent in the major French resorts. There are several key staging posts during the course of a night out in Zermatt:
Where to go before sunset
Apres-ski on the Sunnegga side starts with a drink at the Champagne Bar (+41 79 690 02 52) on the final run into town, followed by going to the Snowboat Cafe, designed by local artist Heinz Julen, which looks like a boat. It is a cafe-bar with live music and featuring a tasting menu from around the world.
Hennu Stall, the piste-side bar and restaurant, on the way down from the village of Furi into Zermatt, is the liveliest venue. As soon as the temperatures rise and the sun comes out, there are live bands on the terrace.
If you want to carry on dancing, head for the Papperla Pub, the most lively apres-ski venue in town, with crowds spilling onto the street. It’s hard to get a table in the rather cramped Elsie’s Bar with its wonderful ambience and equally good Champagne and oysters, but it shouldn’t be missed. Time Out Sports Bar & Grill has a 10-metre-long bar and brings together live TV sport, games and food until 2am.
From grown-up drinks to funk bands
Don’t miss out on artist Heinz Julen’s Vernissage – part bar, part art gallery, part cinema projectionist’s room. The decor is extraordinary and includes a vast chandelier made from old violins and bead necklaces, and door handles made from silver teapots. Josef’s Wine Lounge in Hotel Mirabeau is another place to go for a grown-up drink. It’s worth a visit to The Cavern in The Omnia hotel – it’s a glass and steel space inside a man-made cave that floats on water.
Grampi’s has been taken over by the genial Gee, a Dutchman who runs Snowboat Cafe, and is now an elegant lounge bar, surprisingly called Gee’s with the exclusive Cuckoo Club nightclub downstairs.
If you’re feeling wilder, then it’s up to the Post Hotel complex which contains five bars and clubs – the Brown Cow Pub which is a classic apres-ski pub; Papa Caesar’s Lounge Bar for cocktails; The Pink with live jazz, soul and funk bands; Broken Bar Disco where you can dance on a giant beer barrel; and finally Loft Club Lounge which is a popular party location.
Then it’s back to the popular Papperla Pub across the river, which is a handy location because one of Zermatt’s key nightclubs, the Scheewittli, is in the basement. International bands play at the Papperla from 10pm daily.
More sedate is the lounge and cocktail bar in Hotel Alex, popular with the over-35s and often with live music. It has open fireplaces, and alcoves with different themes – the Scottish Corner has a large selection of whiskies, and there’s a bar serving wines from around the world.
The annual Zermatt Unplugged music festival takes place towards the end of season in mid-April. Past acts have included Bryan Ferry, Seal, James Blunt, Jamie Cullum, Lionel Ritchie, and Alanis Morissette.