“Nature is built on a stupendous plan in that region,” Mark Twain once wrote of the valley leading into Zermatt. “There is nothing tame, or cheap, or trivial — it is all magnificent.”
Much of today’s Zermatt would still be familiar to Twain. The high, stony pyramid of the Matterhorn — “lonely, conspicuous, and superb,” as he described it — still dominates the local skyline. The area’s dozens of jagged peaks continue to lure legions of summit-hungry mountaineers, much as they did when Twain visited in 1878, and the old village center remains car free.
These days, of course, you can add a few more attractions to the list: world-class skiing, luxury shopping, buzzing dining and après-ski scenes, and formidable feats of engineering that allow even the uninitiated to ascend into the frozen Alpine wilderness. Ski lovers will be happy to know that you can hit the slopes year-round in Zermatt. While the main ski area closes this year on April 19, up to 13 miles of pistes high on the Theodul Glacier remain open even in summer.
Nothing comes cheap here, of course; even by Swiss standards, Zermatt is expensive. But if you’re looking to splurge on a European ski weekend, it’s hard to think of a more glorious place.
1) 2 p.m. Mountain high
Swiss civil engineers must be an intrepid lot: This is a thought that might occur to you while riding the Gornergrat Railway, which has been chugging tourists high into the Swiss mountains since the summer of 1898. A short walk from the top station brings you to an outdoor viewing area where you can take in a view that includes 29 peaks that top out at more than 4,000 meters (13,123 feet), including the scalpel edge of the Weisshorn and the bulging dome of Monte Rosa, both of which surpass the Matterhorn in height, if not in fame. Free telescopes display the names of the summits. A round-trip ticket costs 80 Swiss francs, about $82.
2) 5 p.m. Village wander
Before dinner, spend a couple of hours exploring the picturesque, car-free village of Zermatt. Stock up on Swiss luxuries (or just gape at the price tags) on the main drag, Bahnhofstrasse. Here you can pick up chocolate truffles at the Läderach chocolate shop, ski gear from the Swiss brand Mammut, or a wristwatch from Swatch or TAG Heuer. Or just head straight to the Matterhorn Museum, an underground exhibition space where you can learn about the history of Zermatt and the development of mountaineering in the area (entry, 10 Swiss francs). You can even see the frayed rope involved in the infamous accident that occurred during the first ascent of the Matterhorn in July 1865; four of the seven men who made it to the top died on the way down.
3) 7 p.m. A taste of Italy
Raise a glass to Switzerland’s neighbors to the south at Le Chalet da Giuseppe, where there’s a good chance that Giuseppe Battagliese himself will welcome you with a warm handshake and a booming greeting in Italian. Enjoy beautifully prepared Italian dishes — Parma ham with buffalo mozzarella, homemade ravioli filled with spinach and ricotta, lamb osso buco served with a four-cheese risotto — as Giuseppe works his way around the dining room. A two-course dinner for two is about 120 Swiss francs, including wine. Reservations essential.
4) 9 p.m. Nightcap
With rich wood paneling, plush cushions and antique prints lining the walls, Elsie’s Wine and Champagne Bar exudes Old World elegance — perfect for a final drink of the night. Try an Irish coffee, a steaming mug of glühwein (mulled wine), or a hot chocolate spiked with kirsch, the locally beloved cherry liqueur. Drinks, including a range of local wines available by the glass, start from about 6 Swiss francs.
5) 8 a.m. Swiss breakfast
Start the morning with a filling breakfast at Fuchs, a family-owned bakery and cafe with three locations in town. At the central spot on Bahnhofstrasse, head upstairs and find a table in the snug seating area overlooking the street below. Tuck into an assortment of pastries and rolls served with butter and jam, or order a bowl of muesli topped with whipped cream (breakfast for two, about 30 Swiss francs). If you’re eager to hit the slopes — several of the lifts open before 9 a.m. — grab a coffee and pastry to go from the counter downstairs. For 2.60 Swiss francs, you can get either a classic Berliner jam doughnut or a decadent, raisin-studded Schnecke, a spiral pastry that will keep you going until lunch.
6) 9 a.m. Ski day
Heave your skis on your shoulder and clomp your way over to the Sunnegga lift, where an underground train will transport you through the side of the mountain and up to the ski slopes. The area around the hamlet of Findeln is excellent for beginners, while more experienced skiers will enjoy the intermediate slopes and off-piste areas coming down from the Rothorn station. Enjoy the Matterhorn views as you cruise the pistes, and watch out for chamois — horned, goat-like animals that you might see clambering on the rocks. The cost rises during peak season, but adult day passes generally start from 79 Swiss francs if you’re content to enjoy the more than 120 miles of ski runs around Zermatt. Add another 10 to 20 Swiss francs if you want to pull a James Bond and ski over the border to Italy.
7) 1 p.m. Alpine lunch
Ski up to the entrance of the popular Chez Vrony, a restaurant in Findeln that epitomizes farmhouse chic. This is the place to get your fill of classic Swiss Alpine fare: fondue, raclette, rösti and air-dried beef made from the meat of cows that graze Findeln’s pastures in the summer. If the sun is shining, ask for a table on the sprawling porch; there are plenty of blankets if you want to wrap up. Or warm up inside the cozy farmhouse, all wood and stone and stylish mountain décor. Lunch for two, 40 to 100 Swiss francs. Reservations essential.
8) 5 p.m. Après-ski with a view
Like all good ski towns, Zermatt has a party scene to match the heady pleasures of its slopes. It all starts at the bottom of your last run of the day — just pop off your skis and follow the crowd to the sprawling deck of CERVO, a boutique hotel that offers two levels of booze-fueled revelry with splendid views of the Matterhorn and the valley below. Order a glass of prosecco (9 Swiss francs) or a coffee spiked with Jack Daniels, honey and cream (10 Swiss francs), then enjoy the music and people-watching as the sun starts to dip. An elevator across the street can drop you back to the village below.
9) 8 p.m. Dinner on the river
Keep up the après-ski vibe at Snowboat, a sociable, yacht-shaped bar and restaurant on the banks of the Matter Vispa River, which runs through the middle of Zermatt. There’s a club downstairs, but you can both eat and drink on the main level, where the friendly staff serves burgers, salads and signature cocktails to a mixed crowd of locals and visitors. Try the Walliser burger — named for Zermatt’s canton — which is topped with bacon, caramelized onions and raclette cheese. A two-course dinner and drinks for two is about 100 Swiss francs.
10) 10 p.m. In the club
Follow the crowds to the cluster of night life spots along Bahnhofstrasse. Start with a cocktail among the creepy witch dolls at Hexenbar, then move next door to Brown Cow, a pub with a sports-bar vibe that hosts live music on Saturday nights. Those with energy to burn can cross the street to the stylish Cuckoo Club, where the D.J. downstairs keeps the party going from 11 p.m. straight through to the not-so-wee hours of the next morning.
11) 10 a.m. Untimely ends
Hundreds of people have died on the Matterhorn since the fatal accident during the first ascent in 1865. Some of those souls, as well as mountaineers killed on other mountains nearby, are buried in the small and well-tended Mountaineers’ Cemetery next to Zermatt’s central church. The gravestones offer a poignant glimpse of the youth and passion of many of those whose lives have been lost. “His love of the mountains determined his fate,” reads the inscription on the gravestone of a departed 27-year-old. Another, marking the resting place of a 17-year-old born in New York, reads simply: “I chose to climb.”
12) 11 a.m. Paradise on ice
Close out the weekend by getting your own taste of the high mountains, no ice ax required. Just walk or take the bus to the Trockener Steg lift, where you can buy a ticket to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, a mountain station — complete with a restaurant and gift shop — that’s built into the summit of the Klein Matterhorn at the rather breathless altitude of more than 12,700 feet. The fun begins in the gondola, where you can enjoy evolving perspectives of the Matterhorn and, on the final stretch, a bird’s-eye view of the glacier below. At the top, a short elevator ride takes you down into the glacier itself, where you can admire ice sculptures carved into the walls of a man-made frozen tunnel. Another elevator whisks you up to an outdoor viewing platform — the highest in Europe — where you can take in 360 degrees of icy Alpine panorama. Round-trip tickets on the gondola cost 87 Swiss francs; add another 10 francs if you want to upgrade to the “crystal ride,” with its Swarovski crystals and transparent floor. Either way, don’t forget your hat and gloves.
For a splurge, book a room at the Backstage Hotel, a design-lover’s dream that also hosts a small cinema and a two-Michelin-starred restaurant. Doubles on weekends late in ski season start at 469 Swiss francs, including entry to the spa.
The Hotel Matterhornblick, near the church, offers friendly service and comfortable accommodation for a more affordable 220 Swiss francs for a double, including breakfast and spa access. (During busy weeks, the price rises to 260 Swiss francs, and a minimum stay of three or four nights may be imposed.)
Through Airbnb, you can find a wide range of apartment rentals in the village center, but try to reserve early: The handful of cheaper places (some as low as 100 Swiss francs a night) are often booked well in advance.
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