This post is the second of a two-parter about our weekend in the Swiss Alps (Glacier Express and Zermatt). If you want to read the first part, click here.
We arrived in Zermatt late in the afternoon after our epic rail journey through the Alps. Zermatt is a car-free village, except for some electric-powered taxis and service vehicles. If you don’t travel there by train as we did, then you can drive as far as the neighbouring village of Täsch and take the train the rest of the way.
We walked the 1km, past bars packed with aprés-ski revellers, to our hotel and checked in. Although we had booked late online from a limited choice due to peak ski season, we were very pleasantly surprised. As well as having excellent amenities such as a pool, hot tub and sauna, the service was warm and friendly, and the rooms are spacious and very comfortable. And… we had an unencumbered view of the Matterhorn itself, right from our balcony. In case you are heading to Zermatt, check out Hotel Rex.
Best burgers in Zermatt
As it was already getting dark, we decided just to grab some food and get a good nights sleep so we could max out the following day with an early start and a birthday dinner. A short wander from the hotel took us to Bubble, a hip bar/restaurant that does amazingly fresh-tasting and juicy gourmet-style burgers. I ordered “The Original”, a classic beef burger with salad, aioli and house relish. Tom ordered “The Moroccan Veggie”, a falafel burger with cucumber, chutney and fresh mint yoghurt. When they arrived and we both ended up salivating over each others as well as our own burgers, we decided to share both of them.
The next day, as the sun rose and slowly turned the tip of the Matterhorn a blazing red (see header image for this post!), we wrapped up in our warmest clothes and headed out, prepared to spend a day in the snowy mountains.
Towering peaks of the Pennine Alps
Zermatt is a world-renowned ski resort, due to its high altitude offering near year-round access to four skiing areas. In the summer, it is equally popular with hikers and climbers wanting a central location from which to conquer the highest peaks of the Pennine Alps. Of these peaks, the Matterhorn may perhaps be the most well-known, but a height of 4,478m (14,692ft), leaves it overshadowed by Dufourspitze. At 4,634m/15,203ft, Dufourspitze is the highest peak in Switzerland and the second-highest in all of the Alps. (Only Mont Blanc is higher, in case you are wondering!).
We were headed up the Gornergrat – not a mighty peak by Alpine standards – but a ridge about 3km east and 3100m above sea level. We were not planning to ski, but to find the viewing platform at the top.
Climbing made easy with the Gornergratbahn
To reach the top, no climbing missions need be involved. We took the Gornergrat train, which stops just next to the railway station in Zermatt. This mountain railway has been ascending the Gornergrat up to a height of 3089m ever since 1898. It is the second highest railway in Europe. There are multiple stops on the way to the top however the entire journey only takes around 35 minutes. As you climb up above Zermatt towards the top, the views of the mountains become snowier, and ever more stunning.
At the summit
After alighting at the last stop, Gornergrat, we climbed a short way up to the building which houses some shops, a cafe and a hotel. From there, you can walk up another short path (in very thin air!) to the viewing platfrom. And from there, we stood and feasted our eyes on the some of the most spectacular 360-degree panoramas that Switzerland has to offer. On a clear day, more than 20 four thousand-meter peaks are visible from the summit of the Gornergrat. Among these are the Monte Rosa massif (one peak of which is Dufourspitze) and the majestic Matterhorn itself. We were lucky enough to visit on a beautiful clear and sunny day. Especially viewed in that kind of weather, it is simply breathtaking natural beauty.
Having taken photos from every possible angle (including the obligatory Matterhorn selfie, see above), we walked back down to the cafe. We ordered a Kaffee Gornergrat, a creamy coffee heavily laced with whisky and amaretto, and sat outside in the glorious sunshine to drink them. After that, we wandered around the small shops full of Matterhorn-themed souvenirs. We couldn’t resist buying some miniature chocolate Matterhorns!
We took the train one stop down to Rotenboden and walked down the slopes to the Iglu-dorf. This is a really neat little collection of igloos around a central bar/eating area. As well as eat and drink there, you can stay overnight in the igloos. They range from a basic room up to luxurious suites with hot tubs. You can even build your own igloo to sleep in, as one of the packages! We only stayed long enough to drink a beer in the blazing sunshine. Oh, and poke around inside one of the bigger igloos which houses an indoor bar (only open to hotel guests during the evenings).
The Iglu-dorf is a very cool place to visit, although it is really intended for the piste-dwellers. It is not close to the train stop but is located downhill, right on the piste. Suffice to say, you avoid a lot of walking through snow if you can get to and from it on a pair of skis!
From there, we made our way to Riffelberg. Although this is technically a downhill journey, we had to go back up to Rotenboden to find the walking path as there is no way to walk straight down from the Iglu-dorf. We had some fun jumping around in the deep snow next to the paths!
At Riffelberg, we stopped at the cantine-style restaurant there and shared a Walliserteller (literally, a Wallis plate). This consists of mixed local air-dried meats and hard mountain cheeses, served with pickles and dark bread. The air-drying of Alpine beef is a tradition of Valais that dates back to the 14th century. It was adopted in order to preserve the meat through the long and cold winters. Today, in order to call itself Valais meat, it must always be made from Swiss cattle and never smoked, only air dried. Simple, local food like this is always the best and tastiest when you are really hungry. There are delicatessans in Zermatt where you can buy pre-selected packs of meats for making a Walliserteller at home.
Say Cheese in Zermatt
To finish a long day in the wintery mountains, what better dish is there than a traditional Swiss cheese fondue? And where better to eat fondue than at a restaurant that serves nothing but cheese and is called – wait for it – Say Cheese?
Located in the basement of the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, Say Cheese is really not your traditional Swiss or Alpine chalet-style fondue place. It is very hip and modern, but without being at all over the top about it. We can assure you that all of the food is served on completely normal crockery and no compulsory beard/manbun policy was evident among the male serving staff. But the waiters are young and friendly, the decor is dark and low-key and there is a lovely informal ambience. The menu features only cheeses from the local region, served both traditionally in a variety of fondues and raclettes, but also with a twist in the form of different fresh salads and soups. We had the fondue with winter truffles and it was divine, the perfect gooey mix of creamy and sticky.
And so, after a beautiful day and even more wonderful weekend, we headed back to the hotel for our last night before taking the train back to Basel in the morning. Even for a non-skier, I can seriously recommend visiting Zermatt. As well as being visually stunning, it is one of the most friendly (and tourist-friendly) Swiss towns I have visited. At the same time, it is steeped in centuries-old traditions of surviving and even thriving in the harsh mountain conditions. Despite what the shopfronts may tell, it is definitely more than just a ski resort.
Do you have a mountain experience to share, or a favourite mountain place to visit? Share your stories and comments below, we would love to hear from you!