This post is the second of a two-parter about our weekend in the Swiss Alps – the Glacier Express and What to do in Zermatt. If you want to read the first part about our epic journey to Zermatt on the Glacier Express, click here.
We visited Zermatt in January, at the height of the winter ski season. However, I don’t ski (although Tom can snowboard) and we only had one day to spend in Zermatt village. Therefore, although Zermatt winters are packed with ski enthusiasts, this post is geared towards those who are looking for things to do in Zermatt for non-skiers. We are here to show you that winter snow holidays for non-skiers don’t have to involve waiting at the bottom of the slopes for the aprés-ski to commence!
Why visit Zermatt?
To ski… or not to ski
Ok, let’s get it out of the way first. Despite being little more than a village, Zermatt ski resort is world-renowned. Certainly among the Swiss, there is little argument that it offers some of the best skiing in Switzerland.
With a ski area known as the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, it is the highest ski resort in Europe – the altitude of Zermatt is over 1600 meters above sea level. Because of this, the Zermatt ski season offers year-round access to the pistes. Zermatt ski area is split into four zones across two countries, as the Zermatt slopes are located very close to the Swiss-Italian border. There is no denying that it is a true haven for skiers and one of the predominant generators for Zermatt tourism.
However, what to do in Zermatt is not just all about skiing and snowboarding. There are a plethora of other activities including a variety of non-skiing winter sports, outdoor activities, shops, restaurants, bars, spas and museums that make Zermatt one of the best snow holidays for non-skiers around!
Although Zermatt summer skiing is possible, Zermatt in summer time is equally popular with hikers, climbers and cyclists wanting a central location from which to conquer the highest peaks of the Pennine Alps.
Wondering what to see in Zermatt? Well, the mighty Matterhorn of course! With the Matterhorn location right on the doorstep of Zermatt, the famous cragged rock “tooth” is one of the biggest draws to the village.
Visible from many of the hotels in Zermatt, the Matterhorn is the most well-known mountain in Switzerland and one of the most famous in the world. At a height of 4,478m (14,692ft), the Matterhorn is not the highest peak in Switzerland even compared to its most immediate neighbours. That honour goes to 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!). However, with it’s near-symmetrical peak, the Matterhorn is the beloved icon of the Swiss Alps.
Climbing the Matterhorn is not a challenge for the faint of heart. It requires a high level of fitness and previous mountaineering experience. Even then, it can only be done with a mountain guide and by prior arrangements. If you are intent on taking a Matterhorn hike, then check out the guidelines issued by the Matterhorn Zermatt Switzerland authorities before planning your trip.
An easier option would be to take the Matterhorn Cable Car to the Klein Matterhorn. However, this means that you would miss out on the views of the Matterhorn itself. Which brings us to the main article – what to do in Zermatt – even if you don’t ski?
What to do in Zermatt
Take the spectacular Gornergrat train
To reach the top of the spectacular Pennine Alps surrounding Zermatt, 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 mountain up to a height of 3089m ever since 1898. It is the highest open-air 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. The Gornergratbahn, and the 3100m viewing platform at the top of the Gornergrat mountain – is one of the major Zermatt tourist attractions all by itself.
At the Gornergrat summit
After alighting at the last stop, Gornergrat, we climbed a short way up to 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, previously mentioned as the highest mountain in Switzerland) 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 each, 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!
If, like us, your holiday in Zermatt is time-limited, then visiting the Gornergrat by train is our best recommendation of things to do in Zermatt.
Visit the super-cool Iglu village on the Gornergrat slopes
We took the train one stop down from Gornergrat 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 actually 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 we poked 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 one of the coolest places to visit in Zermatt, 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! But you can walk like we did – so it still counts as one of the non-skiing activities in Zermatt.
Hiking and climbing in Zermatt
If we have already put you off the idea of hiking up the Matterhorn, then there are plenty of other Zermatt hiking trails for the outdoor enthusiasts – over 400km in fact. If Zermatt snow conditions are heavy, then you may find that some of your Wanderwege (hiking trails) may be blocked by drifts. However, during the summer months Zermatt is a veritable haven for hikers, climbers and even mountain bikers soaking up the Alpine scenery.
Non-skiiing winter sports in Zermatt
Snow vacations without skiing can also involve other winter sports! Things to do in Zermatt in winter include ice-skating in Zermatt village itself. There are is an ice-skating rink in the centre that is open throughout winter. There are also no less than 16 ice rinks specifically dedicated to curling!
If you still want to be in the mountains, then snow-shoeing or ice climbing are also possible for the more adventurous.
Visit the Matterhorn Museum and the Mountaineers Cemetery in Zermatt
These are two of the top places to visit in Zermatt that don’t involve leaving the village itself or being outdoors. The Matterhorn Museum, or “Zermatlantis” as it is termed, has exhibitions showing the history and development of Zermatt from a rural Swiss village into the world-class resort it is today.
Hauntingly, it also shows the broken rope from the first ever ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865, where four of the seven mountaineers died. One of the four bodies is buried in the Mountaineers Cemetery, which is another of the things to see in Zermatt. The Cemetery has around 50 graves from mountaineers who died in the 19th and 20th centuries, in their attempts to scale the Matterhorn and other of the highest Alpine peaks in the surrounding area.
Spas in Zermatt
Many of the hotels in Zermatt village have wellness spas that are open to paying members of the public. The Swiss really know their spa stuff, and the spas of Zermatt feature indoor and outdoor pools and jacuzzis, saunas and steam rooms as well as hamams and massages.
Spa Hotel Hemizeus and Spa Hotel Bella Vista are two of the more reasonably priced for entry.
If the other Zermatt things to do on this list all seem a bit too strenuous, then maybe a relaxing day in one of the many spas in Zermatt could be just the thing for you.
While Zermatt town in small, it is packed with shops selling souveniers, watches, clothing chocolate and my personal favourite, local cheeses and cured meats. Zermatt shopping may not be the cheapest in the world at Swiss prices, but as you are here anyway, why not indulge?
Eating out in Zermatt
Despite being only a small town, Zermatt has more than 180 restaurants including After Seven, which has two Michelin stars and Ristorante Capri, which has one Michelin star. The below recommendations however are based on our own experiences eating at Zermatt restaurants.
Bubble – Best burgers in Zermatt
As it was already getting dark, we had 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.
During our trip to the Gornergrat mountain, we had made our way to 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.
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?
Say Cheese is located in the basement of the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, one of the top hotels in Zermatt. 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 or 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.
Aprés ski Bars and Nightlife
Zermatt attractions don’t stop when it gets dark. The town has a buzzing aprés-ski and nightlife scene. From the down-to-earth beers and belly laughs at Harrys Ski Bar to the more refined G&T sipping at the cultural centre of Zermatt, the Vernissage to live sports action at The Cable Car bar, Zermatt in the evening is anything but dull.
Where to stay in Zermatt
Although we had booked late online from a limited choice due to peak ski season, we were very pleasantly surprised by our choice of accommodation, Hotel Rex. 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.
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How to get to Zermatt
The nearest airport to Zermatt can be found at either Milan, Zurich or Geneva. Fast rail links are available the village from any of those cities, or you can also rent a car and drive.
Zermatt parking is to be found in the next village of Täsch, as 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 Täsch. There is a short train journey to take you rest of the way. Make sure you reserve your parking space in advance to avoid disappointment.
I can seriously recommend that you visit Zermatt if you are looking for one of the best snow holidays for non skiers and skiers alike. 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.
We hope this article has convinced you that Zermatt mountain life is not just about skiing!
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!
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