The Secrets to Seeing the Best of the Swiss Alps

The Matterhorn stands tall at almost 15,000 feet. Considered one of the most recognizable mountains in the world, its structure is frequently used as an emblem of Swiss towns such as Zermatt or Valais, and is considered a natural symbol of Switzerland. So where’s one of the best places to see the Matterhorn and the Alps up close? Consider visiting the quiet little town of Zermatt.

The Matterhorn stands tall at almost 15,000 feet. Considered one of the most recognizable mountains in the world, its structure is frequently used as an emblem of Swiss towns such as Zermatt or Valais and is considered a natural symbol of Switzerland. So, where's one of the best places to see the Matterhorn and the Alps up close? Consider visiting the quiet little town of Zermatt.

Getting To Zermatt

Pack your skis, boots, and goggles, because Zermatt has to be one of the most beautiful ski resorts I've ever visited. Most people start their journey in Zurich and take the SBB Trains from either Zurich Airport or Zurich Main. The easiest route is to take the Intercity (IC8) train to Brig, and then connect at with a Regio (R) train at Visp. Zermatt is situated in southeastern Switzerland, close to the Italy border. The journey takes about three and a half hours, but the views of wide, vast lakes and mountainous terrain along the way will make the ride feel much shorter.

Along the way, you'll stop at the Täsch station, where many skiers decked-out in gear will board. You'll also notice a giant parking garage at the station. This is because Zermatt runs entirely on electric-powered shuttle vehicles, and that standard vehicles are prohibited in the town. When I first arrived in Zermatt and took my first steps outside, I took deep breaths and could feel the clarity of the fresh mountain air.

Tip: If hotels in Zermatt are fully booked or out of your budget, consider booking a room in Täsch, and then commute into Zermatt by train. Rooms in Täsch tend to be cheaper.

Buy The Ski Pass... Even If You're Not a Skier

My main goal was to explore a new country, and to see the mountains. I prefer cooler, "blue-er" climates such as mountains and snow to warm, sandy beaches. Compared to the other skiers visiting, I felt underdressed or underprepared. But that's OK! I visited Zermatt for the sake of experiencing the Swiss Alps. Based on my ski experience on Indiana "slopes", I felt I needed some more practice before I even considered skiing on the alpine terrain.

Across the street from the Zermatt Railway Station is the Gornergrat Bahn office. You can buy ski passes here that last as long as your stay. Not only do you have the option to buy a pass just for Zermatt slopes, but by paying just a bit more (and bringing your passport while you ski), you can buy a pass that lets you ski into the Italian border on the slopes of Cervinia!

Being that my only ski gear was goggles (yes... I forgot my sunglasses), I explained my intention to the ticket agent. I wanted the cheapest possible ticket that let me soak in all of the sights. The ticket agent let me in on a little secret: buying the ski passes unlocks your ability to hop on and off any lift at any summit throughout the city. This was a far better value than just buying a single round-trip Gornergrat ticket, which only takes you up and down the mountain once. Spending 20CHF to ride 7 other gondolas or lifts was worth every penny ---err... franc.

Tip: There are many advertisements out there that suggest just buying a round-trip Gornergrat ticket to go up and down the summit. However, if you buy the ski-pass, you have an unlimited number of trips on this railway, and unlock the possibilities of riding all of the other lifts to experience the Alps!

Source: Zermatt.ch

Sunrise? Go to Gornergrat!

If you were to ask any tourist where the best spot to see the Matterhorn is around Zermatt, everyone would tell you to take the train up to Gornergrat. Comparing sunrise to sunset at the summit, it’s better to see the Matterhorn at sunrise; the sun illuminates the tip with a gold glow and provides for the best lighting and hues. It’s also the perfect way to start your day!

When I visited Zermatt, I was super lucky. Not only did the resort just reopen after closing for three days due to an avalanche situation, but I went at one of the best times as far as sunrise times were concerned. In January, sunrise was at 8:10am. The ticket agent told me to arrive at the station before 7am. So, I set a bunch of alarms to wake up at 5:45 in the morning, shower, bundle up, and head out. I arrived at the Gornergrat station at 6:55am, and to my dismay, the signs said

Nächste Abfahrten / next departures 08:00 

“Oh, great…” I thought to myself – I woke up early only to miss sunrise on the mountain after-all. Other people started showing up at the station too, and I’m thinking “Ok… I can’t be the only one who was told this.” At 7:00am sharp, the doors to the station automatically opened, and the small crowd of 10 filed in. Then I had figured it out. The ticket agent was right – the first train at 7:05am (which is not publicly mentioned anywhere) is mainly for vendors to prepare and send equipment to open up the mountain before they open up to the public at 8am. Having the ski pass though allowed me through the turnstile with the vendors, and I was on my way up the mountain, to hit the summit by 7:35am. Just in time to see the sunrise! And oh my… were the views amazing!

And the best way to top things off after taking in perhaps one of the best sunrise spots in the world? Brunch! Head to the Gornergrat Observatory (you can’t miss it – it has the bulbs at the top like many other observatories) and grab a bite to eat, all while taking in the mountain views in warmth as the skies transition from pink to blue.

I may have spoiled my brunch with a quick snack just beforehand…

aha-toblerone-0027

Trekking Into Glacier Paradise

With the Matterhorn out of the way, the next step on the agenda is the seeing the Alps. I took the Gornergrat railway back down to the base where the trip began. Back in Zermatt, the Gornergrat railway is along the north end of the town. A short kilometer walk (0.6 miles) takes you through the town of Zermatt, where modern shops and restaurants meet older buildings and a river. Watch your step as you navigate through the streets in the winter; the ice on small inclines can easily make you slip. Head toward the Zermatt ZBAG-lz Gondola Station for the next journey, taking your time to appreciate Zermatt along the way.

I rode took different routes to see as much as the Alps from inside high-altitude cable cars. All of the gondolas are extremely efficient at boarding people, and everything is automated. Each car can fit about 6 people, but even in a full car, you’ll still have a great opportunity to see the mountains outside.

I journeyed up and down the mountain in these gondolas:

  • Ride 1: Zermatt to Furi
  • Ride 2: Furi – Schwarzee – Furgg
  • Ride 3: Furgg – Trockner Stegg
  • Ride 4: Trockner Stegg – Matterhorn Glacier Paradise
  • Ride 5: Matterhorn Glacier Paradise – Trockner Stegg
  • Ride 6: Trockner Stegg – Furgg
  • Ride 7: Furgg – Schwarzee – Furi
  • Ride 8: Furi – Riffelberg
  • Ride 9: Riffelberg – Zermatt (via Gornergrat)

Furi – Schwarzee – Furgg

While you begin your ascent into the mountains, you have the option to stay in your car or the get out at the stops and hop back on.

Tockner Stegg

This station is considered a hub for many skiers. This is the connection point to lifts bound for Italy or for Matterhorn Glacier Paradise. At this station, you can take a break and grab some food and/or drinks. Once you’re ready, hop onto the cable car and head up to Matterhorn Glacier Paradise.

Matterhorn Glacier Paradise

Some outdoorsy people consider summiting a mountain to be a physical challenge, and they set a goal to make it to the top of a mountain. Several of my friends are training right now to summit Mt. Rainier, and I give all of my props to them. But what if you want to summit a mountain without much work…? Take the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise cable car! At 3,883 meters up (12,740 feet), this is the highest cable car in Europe.

Upon arriving at the station, I could feel that the air was much thinner. I thought it may have been sharing a cable car and breathing in the carbon dioxide from the crammed car, but then I realized how high it really was. Inside the station is a long tunnel that spurs into another hallway leading to an elevator. Taking the lift up one “floor” leads to the outside, where the true views of the Alps are so stunning, you feel dizzy and lightheaded. It’s not the altitude, it’s the views… ok it actually might be the altitude. In fact, you’re so high up, that your cell phone might actually think you’re in Italy! In my case, my network switched to TIM, and T-Mobile sent me a “Welcome to Italy!” text. 

Riffelberg

After spending an hour soaking up the sun and all of the air up there, I headed back down to Furi, but then diverged onto a different rail car bound for Riffelberg. I remembered seeing the Riffelberg station while riding the Gornergrat railway, and although taking this detour added about an hour to get back to the hotel, it gave me something new to see, and took me back to the Gornergrat station which was close to my hotel, sparing me from having to take that slick 1km walk again after a long day. When at Riffelberg, stop by the restaurant to warm up with a cup of hot chocolate. When you’re ready, you can use your ski pass to go to Gornergrat again and catch the sunset, or head back to Zermatt if you want to call it a day.

All Skied Out? Leaving So Soon?

Spending two to three days is the perfect amount of time to see the cute village surrounded by the mountains with the views of the Matterhorn and the Alps. Your ski pass hopefully has taken you up and down the steep hills and has given you the opportunity to see all of the beauty that is Switzerland.

Before you leave, you can return your ski pass to get a 5 CHF deposit back, or you can keep it as a “cheap” souvenir – that’s up to you. But the experiences skiing along the slopes with Matterhorn in sight, or pictures you’ve taken while breathing in the mountain air are certainly priceless.

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