A ski trip to the Alps is high up on many bucket lists, and a popular place to tick off the adventure is in Zermatt, Switzerland. Located along the Italian border and just a couple hours from France, Zermatt is a beautiful little town tucked into a valley surrounded by dense, green forests and soaring mountain peaks.
A crystal clear stream winds through the serene townsite, steepled churches and shops line the car-free streets, and everywhere you look there seems to be someone with a pair of skis or a snowboard thrown over their shoulder, making their way to the famous Matterhorn Ski Paradise.
6,000 people call Zermatt home, a number that swells in the winter when some 20,000 guests arrive to hit the slopes and see the iconic Matterhorn. While it may not be as glitzy as star-studded St. Moritz, Zermatt feels cozy thanks to the traditional alpine chalets, cafes with seats draped in plush blankets, and the smell of wood-burning fireplaces in the air. While many tourists visit as part of a week-long package, it’s possible to enjoy Zermatt as a ski weekend. Here’s how to plan the perfect alpine getaway.
Start your Saturday with a hearty breakfast at Hotel Perren Superior which has a fantastic buffet, to fuel up for a fun day on the ski hill.
If you didn’t bring gear, rent some from one of the many sports shops around town. Bayard Sport has a beautiful showroom with racks of top of the line equipment, as well as apparel if you forgot to bring things like gloves or a hat. Be sure to reserve online ahead of time to score a 10 per cent discount.
READ MORE: What to pack for a ski trip
Bayard Sport happens to be located right by the Gornergrat Bahn, which is where you’re heading next. Not only will Europe’s highest open-air cog railway get you onto the mountain, it might also be the most scenic train ride you’ll ever take.
The Gornergrat Bahn climbs 3,089 metres in 33 minutes, affording fantastic views of Zermatt spread out below, thick forests, steep cliffsides and of course, the famous Matterhorn peak. Don’t worry about trying to snap photos, as you’ll get better shots on the hill, and the reflection off the glass windows means your pics won’t turn out anyway.
There are a few stops along the way for hikers or those staying on mountainside lodges, but you’ll want to go all the way to the top where you’re greeted with this epic view:
The sunny lookout point is just a quick hike up a snow-covered pathway around the 3100 Kulmhotel, which has bragging rights as Europe’s highest altitude hotel. Rooms boast unobstructed, breathtaking views of the surrounding Alps because, well, they’re on top of a mountain! However, you don’t have to be a guest to access the Gornergrat viewing platform, which looks out to a panorama of snow-covered peaks, icy glaciers and the Matterhorn. You’ll also see the Gornergletscher, which is the Alps’ second-largest glacier.
After you snap some selfies and manage to tear yourself away from the mesmerizing scene, it’s time to strap on those skis. Bright blue skies, pristine, sparkling snow and an abundance of runs stretch out before you, practically daring you to fly straight down the hill so as to not waste another moment of the glorious day.
To maximize how much of the resort you can explore, start off by tackling the Riffelberg and Riffelalp sections. Their slopes are wide open and long with very few hazards like rocks or trees to get in the way, meaning you can head down at full speed and it still seems to take forever to get back down to the lift. Better yet, you’ll have a perfect view of the Matterhorn the whole time.
Spend a couple of hours there, then make your way back in the direction of Zermatt to the Rothorn and Sunnegga areas. This is where you’ll find the locals, who love how close it is to town meaning they don’t waste any of their snow-day sitting in a gondola. This part of the resort is also popular with hikers year-round, because of its scenic trails.
By now you’ve surely worked up an appetite, so ski over to Adler Hitta (Eagle Hut), which is perched 2,200 metres high on the Findeln Alp. The gorgeous lunch spot is so luxe that you’d expect to find it somewhere like Miami Beach or Las Vegas—other than the fact that everyone is wearing snowpants instead of swimsuits. Plush loungers are spread out invitingly on multi-level platforms, fuzzy blankets are draped over chairs, and champagne chillers are scattered around just begging to be filled with a bottle of Moet.
Try to grab a spot that looks straight at the Matterhorn (most of them do), then order a crisp glass of white wine to pair with your spring chicken. Adler Hitta roasts them on a wood fire, and the resulting taste is out of this world, especially when paired with a side of traditional rosti.
Depending on how long you enjoy your leisurely lunch, there will likely only be time for a couple more runs before you have to head back to Zermatt. Fortunately the slopes on this part of the mountain aren’t quite as spread out, so you’ll be able to get at least a few in before hopping on the gondola for a lift into town.
Stash your ski equipment in one of Bayard’s high-tech lockers which send out puffs of hot air designed to dry your gear overnight, then get ready for the ultimate Swiss pastime: après ski! A great spot to go is called Snowboat, a cozy yet lively bar with a wood-burning fireplace which is also home to the Zermatt Yacht Club restaurant. Oh, and just so happens to be in an old ship. Snowboat is packed, 90s hits blare over the sound system and the beer is flowing—what more can you ask for? Throw back a couple, then grab dinner somewhere in town before tucking into bed, resting up ahead of day two.
Sunday fun day! The second day of your Zermatt ski weekend will have you exploring the opposite side of the hill and even crossing into Italy—no passport required. After breakfast and grabbing your equipment, hop on the gondola towards Furi as you mentally prepare yourself for the second leg up to the Matterhorn glacier paradise. Spoiler alert: hope you’re not scared of heights.
You’ll get to a large platform likely packed with people waiting for the cable car, which is the highest in all of Europe as it traverses a steep 3883 metres. When it arrives, you’ll be amazed at how many people pack into it, creating a game of sardines where the reward for playing is an epic, unforgettable view. Together, you’ll soar thousands of feet over icy glaciers, snow covered slopes and come face-to-face with sheer rock faces just as the cable car crests over a mountain peak, safely depositing you at the Matterhorn glacier paradise.
If you thought the Gornergrat viewpoint was amazing, then you’ll love this spot. Follow the platform into the adjoining building, which is home to the likes of a lounge showing short films about the area, a restaurant and a lodge, then continue outside to the viewing platform. Those with a fear of heights will be tested again as they make their way up the metal steps, but it’s worth it for the breathtaking panoramic view at the top.
Spread out before you is Italy on the left and Switzerland to the right, and on a clear day you might also see France’s Mont Blanc. Also note how different the Matterhorn looks from this vantage point. The sight of the magical winter wonderland makes it easy to see why the ski area on the Theodul Glacier is open 365 days per year.
Head back down, strap on your gear, and after a quick, steep run you’ll find yourself on the border of Switzerland and Italy. How awesome is that?! Even better, the view of the Italian side is simply majestic. You’re literally above the clouds, which form a cover of cotton ball puffs over the craggy, pointed peaks.
Skiing down into the Italian side is a much different experience than the Swiss part, as the terrain is narrower and steeper than the rest of the mountain. It’s also not as busy, meaning you might find yourself all alone flying past rocky cliffsides and lakes (yes, really!), with the only sound being the swooshing of your skis gliding through the snow. There are lots of slopes to explore here, all serviced by quick T-Bars.
Come lunch time you have a few options: ski all the way down to the base in Cervinia, Italy, head back up to the glacier paradise, or make your way to the border at Plateau Rosa Testa Grigia where there is an incredible Italian restaurant (hint: go with option number three!).
The lunch spot serves up favourites like steaming hot bowls of bolognese and fresh paninis in a cafeteria style setting, and guests can grab a table inside the wood-panelled restaurant or head out to the sunny patio to soak in the view. Best of all, the restaurant charges Italian prices meaning you can enjoy a plate of pasta with a glass of wine for less than 15 euros.
The rest of your afternoon can be spent making your way back across the mountain range towards Zermatt, bringing an end to your ski day. But don’t worry, the fun isn’t over yet! Since this is the last night of your getaway, make it count with a walk through town to check out sites like the church, the old part of the village known as the Hinterdorf with its rustic timber buildings, and the shops along the main strip.
Cap off the weekend by grabbing dinner at Cafe du Pont Zermatt which is well-priced by Swiss standards and famous for its fondue (reservations recommended), before ending the night at the Unique Hotel Post. With a sleek interior, four restaurants and five bars including Pink which has live music, it’s the perfect place to end to end a ski weekend in Zermatt.
When to go: February and March are considered the best times to visit Zermatt, as the days are longer, the weather is warmer, and the snow conditions are still good. Music lovers will want to time their trip for the annual Zermatt Unplugged acoustic festival, which has hosted artists including Melissa Etheridge, James Blunt and Lauryn Hill. If visiting in December, be aware that many runs, hotels and restaurants might not be open for the season yet.
Insider tip: There are usually less people on the hill on Saturdays, as many tourists visiting Zermatt on a week-long vacation check in or out of hotels that day.
How to get there: Zermatt is car-free, which means you can either take a special shuttle or hop on the train in the town of Tasch, which is about five kilometres away. There are lots of parking stalls in and around the train station if you arrive by vehicle, and it’s only a 12 minute ride to Zermatt.
Lift tickets: Passes for the Matterhorn Ski Paradise can be purchased at the resort or ahead of time online. There are a few different options, including the Ski Pass International which allows you to ski in both the Swiss and Italian sides of the resort. Lift tickets include free rides on any of the electric buses in Zermatt.
YOU MIGHT ALSO ENJOY:
How to visit Zermatt, Switzerland on a budget
Exploring lovely Lucerne, Switzerland after a rough start
Just how expensive is Switzerland?
A fashionista’s guide to what to pack for winter in Europe
SHARE THE PINSPIRATION!
Globe Guide explored Zermatt in partnership with Switzerland Tourism and the Hotel Perren Superior. As always, hosts have no editorial influence on articles.