On my two previous trips to Switzerland's tiny-but-touristy Zermatt, I failed to catch a glimpse of the glorious Matterhorn mountain that draws so many to the burg at its base for a peek at the peak.
My third try was the charm, and now I have a confession: I'm in love with the Matterhorn. Now I get why this mountain town of 5,800 people is so popular.
There's just something about the Matterhorn, the most recognizable mountain on the planet. Just seeing the Matterhorn is one of the great experiences in Switzerland. And hiking with that iconic summit as a background is even better.
Zermatt, which sits at 5,000 feet in the shadow of the 14,690-foot Matterhorn, is nestled at the dead-end of a long valley in Switzerland's remote southwest. While it's barely two hours from Bern and Interlaken by train, or about three from Zürich or Lausanne, it's not quite on the way to anywhere. Especially considering its inconvenient location, many travelers find it overrated. If you make the trek and find only cloudy weather, you may end up with a T-shirt that reads, "I went all the way to Zermatt and didn't even see the Matterhorn."
But in sunny weather, riding the high-mountain lifts, poking through lost-in-time farm hamlets, and ambling along on scenic hikes -- all with that iconic triangular mountain nodding its white head in the background -- make the trip worthwhile. And the town itself does have pockets of traditional charm, with streets lined with chalet after chalet and overflowing flower boxes.
Stepping out of the train station, you'll notice there are no gas-engine vehicles -- only electric buses and taxis that slalom between the pedestrians like four-wheeled Vespas. (Drivers must park down in the valley and ride the train into town.) Strolling up the town's main street, Bahnhofstrasse, is a joy: Even bikes are forbidden on the main drag; the street is reserved for people and, in summer, a twice-daily parade of goats. Sure, the town hosts plenty of fabulously wealthy visitors, but locals like to say that the "traffic-free" nature of the town is a great equalizer. Zermatt strives to be a high-class mountain resort ... but for active guests.
Once upon a time, Zermatt was a humble village of farmers, but with the first ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865 and the arrival of trains in 1891, Zermatt found itself on the Grand Tour of Europe. Over time, its residents learned it was easier to milk the tourists than the goats, and mountain tourism became the focus. Aside from the stone quarries that you'll pass on the way into town, tourism is Zermatt's only industry.
This little town is capable of entertaining about two million guests each year, hosting more than a hundred modern chalet-style hotels and a well-organized and groomed infrastructure for summer and winter sports. From town, countless lifts head to all sorts of hikes, ski slopes, and incredible views. But really it all comes back to the star of the show: the Matterhorn.
High summer into early fall is the best time to come to Zermatt (I finally saw the Matterhorn during an August trip). Visiting in spring is generally a bad idea -- most trails, lifts, and restaurants are closed -- but on the plus side, there are no crowds. Early fall also works, as most lifts and trails remain open until the snow returns. (In winter, skiers take over the town, and prices jump even higher than in summer.) Zermatt has earned its reputation for untrustworthy weather -- the valley can get completely socked in at any time of year. While two good-weather days are enough to experience the highlights, add at least one buffer day to your itinerary as insurance against rain.
The Zermatt region has three high-mountain summit stations linked by lifts and hikes: Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (closest to the Matterhorn), Gornergrat (a historic cogwheel train that goes to 10,000 feet), and Rothorn (farthest up the valley from the Matterhorn). While prices are steep, the community has invested hundreds of millions of dollars in their mountain lifts in recent years. They're absolutely state of the art and experiencing them is unforgettable.
Gornergrat is my pick if you can fit in only one high-mountain excursion, simply because it's a best-of-all-worlds experience: sweeping views from the top station, and my favorite hike in the region between the Rotenboden and Riffelberg train stops. Whichever excursions you opt for, pay close attention to the weather -- the lifts aren't cheap, and none of them is worth the cost if the Matterhorn is shrouded by clouds.
That said, don't wait for perfectly clear skies to head into the hills -- even in bright, sunny weather, the Matterhorn loves playing peek-a-boo behind the clouds. If it's at least sunny-ish, get up the mountainside. Like me, you may find love at first sight of the Matterhorn.
IF YOU VISIT...
SLEEPING: Hotel Jägerhof has 49 homey rooms and 7 apartments with lots of rustic charm, just a 10-minute walk from the center (moderate, www.jaegerhofzermatt.ch). Hotel Bahnhof is a respectable no-frills option with tidy alpine-style rooms across the street from the train station (budget, www.hotelbahnhofzermatt.com).
EATING: Whymper-Stube specializes in raclette and meat-and-cheese fondue in a cozy space with friendly staff (splurge, Bahnhofstrasse 80, www.whymper-stube.ch). Stadel is a small restaurant that dishes up homemade Swiss specialties with a smile (moderate, Bahnhofstrasse 45, www.stadel-zermatt.ch).
GETTING AROUND: Cars are not allowed: Drivers park in a pay lot and take a shuttle train into town. You'll do a lot of walking, but handy buses make several stops.
TOURIST INFORMATION: www.zermatt.ch.