Living in Malaysia, we only have one weather — hot and humid all year long. So during my family winter trip to Europe, the one thing I had to see was snow. Thick white snow to jump into and play with; make snow angels, build snowmen, throw snowballs. I was given the decision to choose a winter wonderland for my first experience of snow, and I chose one that I was 100% sure would be covered in that wonderful white carpet.
Zermatt, Switzerland. A pretty village tucked deep in the Swiss Alps and home to the mesmerizing Mount Matterhorn. Most visitors overlook this hidden gem for bigger, grander cities like Geneva and Zurich; but Zermatt has its fair share of luxurious hotels, world-class spas, international cuisine and beautiful scenery. The perfect place for a getaway.
Zermatt is a car-free village, so the best way to get there is by train. Upon arriving at Geneva airport, we took the 4-hour Swiss railway through beautiful Swiss sceneries with snow-capped mountains in the background. The train stops at Visp and there’s a transfer of trains for the next league to Zermatt.
Looking out through the left hand side of the carriage, I loved how the landscape of green slowly turned to white as we journeyed higher and deeper into the Alps. Zermatt is at 1608m above sea level.
Arriving in Zermatt
After travelling for almost 7 hours, including our flight from the UK; it was dark by the time we arrived in Zermatt. Most hotels send electric vehicles to transport guests to their hotels, so there were a couple waiting outside the train station.
However, our hotel was only 5 minutes away from the train station, so we opted for an enjoyable stroll through the snow covered pavement. My first encounter with snow!
It is said that accommodations in Zermatt are one of the most expensive in Switzerland; and considering that Switzerland is one of the more expensive European countries to travel to… skimping on our hotel stay was not a choice. We stayed at the Hotel Garni Testa Grigia, a 3-star hotel with basic amenities that cost us about CHF250-300 (US$300-350) a night for a double standard room. I loved that the hotel was right in the middle of town and the activities… and just a short walk from anywhere we wanted to go.
The best feature of the hotel though, has got to be its 5-star views (though I’m sure most hotels in Zermatt offer beautiful views too). I woke up the next morning to the most gorgeous panorama outside my balcony. I was mesmerized.
Food and Restaurants
Though expensive, there are no shortage of restaurants to choose from in Zermatt. With choices of traditional and international cuisine, there’s a meal to suit everyone’s palate.
The one thing you have to try here is the traditional Swiss dish, cheese fondue. A hot pot of melted cheese is served on a portable stove, and cubes of bread or meat are dipped into it. This dish is perfect to keep warm on a cold winter’s day. I had my cheese fondue at Restaurant Stadel, a cozy and quaint restaurant just down the street from our hotel. Lovely atmosphere and a good selection of wine and Swiss fare. We also ordered the rosti and risotto.
Another restaurant we visited was The Pipe, an Afro-Indian fusion restaurant with pretty decent curry dishes. With menu choices like springbok and venison in Malay curry; Massaman curry and Kurma… it reminded me of home.
Matterhorn Glacier Paradise
There are a couple of peaks around Zermatt that provide beautiful views of the Matterhorn. We chose the ‘Matterhorn Glacier Paradise’ because it was the peak nearest to the village and the Matterhorn; and has the highest cable car station in the world!
The Glacier Paradise’s lower cable car station is about a 20-minute leisurely walk from Zermatt’s main street. The journey to the top costs CHF90 (US$105) for adults and CHF45 (US$50) for children (50% off with a Swiss Pass). We took the cable car ride to the halfway point at Trockener Steg (2939m) and transfered to the larger aerial tramway, cramped together with skiers who were preparing to head down the mountain. That’s one thing I can’t do YET. Ski.
From the top, the sweeping views of the mountain range was more breathtaking than I could have ever imagined. I couldn’t stop looking and admiring the sea of white foam that goes on and on and on… and the Matterhorn, emblem of the Swiss Alps and one of the deadliest peaks in the world. Here are some things to do at the mountain-top station:-
The Outdoor Observation Deck
The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise is actually atop the Klein Matterhorn, which is the second highest peak of the Zermatt-Cervinia ski area. That is why it has got the best view of the Matterhorn, and the observation deck here showcases it in all its 4,478m glory. It also gives you stunning views of the French, Swiss and Italian alps way in the distance.
Brave the freezing cold and the piercing wind for a 360 degrees view you will never forget. Admire the Matterhorn, this is the closest you’ll get to the mountain without trying to climb it!
The Glacier Paradise Caferia
The cafeteria deserves a mention because the hot drinks served here were my lifesavers! It was freezing cold atop the mountain at -10 degrees, so I couldn’t stay out for very long and had to come in several times to warm up. So remember to wrap yourself up!
Some of my family members had slight altitude sickness; at more than 3,000m above sea level, the air on top the Klein Matterhorn is much thinner. They stayed indoors in the cafeteria and kept warm with cups of hot coffee.
The Glacier Palace
The Glacier Palace is said to be the highest ice palace in Europe, with an ice tunnel carved out 15 metres below the surface of the glacier. The long tunnel is pretty impressive, and the palace is decorated with a few ice sculptures, as well as a huge ice slide. Go down the slide, it’s fun!
However, other than the ice slide and the tunnel, there is nothing much to see in the Glacier Palace; you won’t miss anything much by skipping it and saving the CHF8 (US$10) entrance fee (unless it’s included in the cable car pass).
More things to see and do at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise:- the Cinema Lounge, a photo exhibition, a souvenir shop, lodge accommodations, meeting rooms and for the skiers, direct access to the ski pistes. We spent most of our day on the mountain.
With only 2 full days in Zermatt, we wanted to see as much as we could. So we spent the last day exploring the beautiful village; getting to know its history, peeking into the stores, enjoying the scenery and playing with snow like children. Take a walk in the old town:-
This is the main street of Zermatt. We were lucky that our hotel is located on this stretch; so we were close to lots of restaurants, bars, souvenir shops and luxury shopping opportunities. It is said to be the busiest street in Zermatt, but it really isn’t that busy. The village is absolutely laid back.
You’ll learn everything you need to know about the Matterhorn and Zermatt here. The main exhibit tells the story of Edward Whymper, who lead the first group of mountaineers ascending the Matterhorn and why half of them didn’t make it back. The museum also showcases the history of Zermatt and life in the village, with reconstructed huts and buildings.
The museum is located on Kirchplatz, in between the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof and the Zermat Church along Bahnofstrasse.
The Parish Church of St Mauritius is one of the major landmarks in Zermatt. It was built in 1913, on the site of an older church, with extensive renovations to enlarge and restore it over the years. The church is popular for weddings, and visitors are allowed to enter to admire the beautiful artworks on the ceilings. The graveyard behind the church is the final resting place of mountaineers who lost their lives while trying to climb the mountains around Zermatt.
The clock in the tower chimes every hour, and while we were passing the church it went off– the vibrations setting lose a slab of snow on top of the roof and it came tumbling down… hitting an old lady walking beneath. We managed to get her out of the way before another two slabs of snow came falling down.
Visit the Hotels
There are hundreds of hotels in Zermatt, some more luxurious than others. The famous ones are the 5-star Grand Hotel Zermatterhof and Mont Cervin Palace; as well as Monte Rosa, Zermatt’s first hotel. Admire the hotels, visit the bars and relax in their world-class spas.
Get Lost in the Village
The view from every corner of Zermatt is simply gorgeous. Walk along the many lanes in the village, and allow the paths to lead your way. You’ll chance upon pretty chalets and old wooden houses; all beautifully set against the backdrop of towering mountains and snow covered trees.
Seeing snow for the first time, everything caught my attention; the melting snow on the fences, sharp icicles hanging from the edge of the roofs, fields of snow so thick you’ll wonder what it covers. Zermatt felt magical to me.
The Ride Back
We took the afternoon train from Zermatt back to Geneva; and from the window on the right side of the carriage, we savored our final views of the beautiful snow covered valleys, meadows, ravines and small villages dotting the Alps. We even managed to catch the sun set over the white-tipped mountains. Every passing scenery was as breathtaking as the other.
I didn’t want to go, I wish I had more time in Zermatt.
More Things to do in Zermatt
We missed out a couple of essential and fun things to do in Zermatt due to time constraints. Here are some other winter activities not to be missed when visiting the town:-
The Gornergrat Railway
This is one of Zermatt’s most popular attractions; a cog railway (Europe’s highest open-air railway) from the town centre to Gornergrat (2883m). Opened in 1898, the 40-minute journey up takes you through the heart of the Swiss mountain range, passing beautiful landscapes along the way. The views from Gornergrat is breathtaking– it offers more than twenty 4,000 metre peaks; including the magnificent Matterhorn and Europe’s second highest peak, the Monte Rosa.
View from the Top
Experience and witness first hand the vastness of the Swiss mountain range and its many peaks– by going on a helicopter ride. It is expensive; but the 20, 30 or 40 minute flight will take you gliding above the mountains, offering spectacular views from the top. Paragliding is an option too.
Zermatt is considered one of the best places to ski, offering pistes for all levels from beginners to advance. It has three main interconnected ski areas – Rothorn (3103m), Gornergrat (3,400m) and the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (3,820m); and a ski run distance of about 21km with a 2,200 metres descent from the top of Klein Matterhorn to central Zermatt. Because of its height, skiing is possible year-round.