Ten Things To Know: Zermatt-Matterhorn
Our 10T2K quick guide series is our way of delivering simple–yet important–advice and information on places we have been to only once or twice. The goal is to share 10 things we learned from our travels to these locations in order for you to make the most out of your own adventures should you visit one day.
I waited what felt like my entire life to see The Matterhorn. Twenty four years to be exact. The first time I went to Disneyland, I learned my favorite ride was a real place. Seeing the REAL Matterhorn mountain became a life goal when I was a little girl. So naturally, the first time I went to see it in person, I royally screwed everything up. And I mean to the absolute max. In fact, I learned that Zermatt is “car free” literally 3 days before we planned on driving to it–facepalm.
But let me start at the beginning.
For my birthday in June 2019, I wanted to go to Switzerland. It was time, dammit. I had waited long enough. Given it’s one of the more expensive countries in the world, I had a strategy to use hotel points across the country in an effort to not pay for lodging to offset the cost of the entire trip. I was quite successful, as we had rooms on points booked all across the little country for a week. We planned on taking both trains and cars to various locations around the country in that time, most notably to the Matterhorn, which straddles the Northern Italian boarder.
When I pulled up Google Maps to see when exactly we would be in closest proximity to Zermatt and The Matterhorn for a day trip, I realized the mountain wasn’t near anything. Just a handful of small mountain towns on small roads. In fact, it’s a hefty four drive from both Geneva and Zurich, which makes for a long day of adventuring. After sleeping on it, I suggested to Ben that we cancel a night in Geneva to book one in Zermatt. This way we would have a solid 24 hours to see and shoot as much as possible. Of course he obliged. First crisis averted.
About a month out from the trip, I found us one of the last rooms left in Zermatt and it just so happened to have one the best views in town of the mountain, which ran us around $235. I figured we would get up early, drive to Zermatt, park the car at the hotel, and walk up to the mountain. Silly little me had no idea what I was in for, as Switzerland is nothing like America (in nothing but good ways).
Ben and I were packing and gearing up to fly out, when we got an email from the Matterhorn Focus Hotel preparing us for our arrival to Switzerland 48 hours later. I was SO excited, I couldn’t open it to read it quick enough. I got about half way through it, when I saw the whole “Zermatt is only accessible by train” part. In a state of half panic, I cancelled our car rental and searched for Swiss train schedules. We booked seats on an early train to Zermatt. Second crisis narrowly averted.
We boarded an early train out of Geneva (after our luggage was missing for 30 hours) and were on our way to see The Matterhorn! Our four hour train ride weaved up ridges and dodged over mountain passes. We saw Swiss farms, animals, wildflowers, and towering peaks. As we drew closer to Zermatt, the peaks grew larger and the air changed. I knew we were getting close. We disembarked the train into the most adorable place I have ever been in my life.
But I quickly realized that we were underprepared for all that Zermatt had to offer. I failed to understand how complex it all is and just how many different ways there are to see the mountain. How would we choose? As we drove through town to the hotel, I just kept saying to Ben, “we should have stayed longer”, as it was setting in that 24 hours is nowhere near enough for Zermatt or The Matterhorn. Our e-taxi pulled up to the hotel.
When Matterhorn Focus said online that it had a view, it meant THE view. It is the last hotel in Zermatt, meaning you are right up on it and there is not much obstructing the view in between. I was SO happy that I almost forgot we had less than 24 hours at this point. Almost. We darted out the hotel door to make our way up the mountain on the Gornergratbahn, despite it being covered in clouds the first day we were there.
It wasn’t until half way up the mountain that I realized I had left my camera in the room. This resulted in LOTS of devastation crying until we got to the top, where there was then lots of happy crying when the mountain “peaked” out from behinds the clouds (see what I did there). On the way down the mountain, we decided we would summit it the following summer and return a few months later to stay longer and learn more about the mountain and Swiss mountaineering culture. Life is crazy!
We went back to Zermatt and did it right a few months later to celebrate one year of marriage. We had four slammed jam days filled with adventure in Zermatt, completing over 50 miles of hiking in that time. We fell even harder for The Matterhorn in that time, as we marveled at it from every angel. We even hiked up to basecamp to look at our climbing route and pay our respects to the mountain. We are now currently about four months out from making our summit attempt (unless COVID-19 has other plans for us).
Below you will find a list of ten things to know while planning a trip to Zermatt, Switzerland to lay your eyes on one of the most iconic mountains in the whole entire world.
1- Zermatt is Emission-Free, Meaning There Are No Cars
As you read in my story above, there are no cars allowed in Zermatt due to strict emission laws to keep the air clean and visibility high in the Alps. This one really catches a lot of people off guard, as most other famous mountains lay in National Parks that you can simply drive into to see what you want to see. The Matterhorn not so much. It’s truly tucked away with limited access. There is one way in and one way out… by electric train.
If you are seeing Switzerland by car, you do have the option to drive your car to Tasch, Switzerland. This is the last place where combustion vehicles are allowed, thus there is massive carpark there. You can leave your car in the carpark, and hop on one of the frequent electric shuttle trains between the two towns. The ride is about 15-20 minutes and a ticket is only $8.
2- There Are Electric Taxis
While Zermatt is definitely a foot traffic town, there are times where you will want a taxi–arriving with luggage or if it’s pouring rain, for example. The entire town is sprinkled with electric box shaped carriages to carry people too and from. Just to be very clear, Zermatt is not a large town but rather a long one. It is laid out in such a way that it takes a long time to walk across it. While we walked most of the time we were there, we absolutely utilized the electric taxi services from the hotel at times. It’s not very expensive, but they only take cash or coin. So be sure to always have some CHF coin on you in case you need to hop in an e-taxi for whatever reason.
3- Be Ready For Some Serious FOMO
My FOMO has never been as bad as it is in Zermatt, as it’s quite literally impossible to see, do, or afford everything. It wasn’t until actually stepping foot in Zermatt that first time that I realized there are in fact one million ways to see the mountain. Trams, trains, and gondolas zoom up and around in literally every direction. Every station we walked by, I had to stop and try to figure out where the hell it went and if we should get on that one or the next one. I really didn’t want miss out. Well, as long as you choose a hike that’s appropriate for your fitness level, you won’t miss out on anything as there really isn’t a bad seat in the house once you are up in the mountains.
It wasn’t until the second trip that I learned about the Zermatt-Matterhorn app which greatly assists in helping you not only make decisions, but also gives you detailed timetables. There are an overwhelming amount of options for hikes, viewpoints, eating, activities, etc, but the app really helps narrow it down. The good news, is that you can’t really go wrong with anything when it comes to Zermatt and The Matterhorn. Every hike is wonderful, every view is spectacular, and every meal is delicious. The Swiss really know what they are doing when it comes to… well, everything.
4- It’s Not Cheap, But It’s Worth Every Penny
I knew Switzerland was expensive, as that’s why it took me so long to get there. But I wasn’t quite ready for it to be that pricey. If you have a full 3-7 days in Zermatt, be ready to pay for it. Not much is free there, you even need to pay for train and lift rides to get up to all the hikes. In fact, a round trip ticket on the Gornergratbahn is over $100 per person. As are some of the lifts.
While it can hurt coughing up literally all your money, I can honestly say that it is worth every penny, as Switzerland has a way of bringing out a small, fascinated child in everyone. You aren’t just paying for a ride up a mountain, you are paying for a true Swiss experience, as unique and impressive transportation is at the heart of Swiss culture. Swiss engineering is certainly one of the most fascinating things I have encountered in all of my travels.
5- The Weather & Visibility Are Unpredictable
Most people travel all the way to Zermatt, only to never see the tip of The Matterhorn. The first time we went in June, we didn’t see the tip once the entire first day, other than one brief window from the hotel. We were able to finally see it a little later in the morning the second day, but the window wasn’t long. We hardly saw the mountain that first time visiting. The second time in September 2019, we got very lucky. The mountain was out in full view pretty much the entire three days we were there.
The mountain is most likely to be visible and free of cloud coverage first thing in the morning.
6- It’s Popular & Can Get Crowded
I think a lot of people assume a very small mountain town that is difficult to get to out in the middle of nowhere wouldn’t be too crowded… wrong. In June, that whole place was slammed nuts to butts with absolutely hoards of tourists from all over the world. Most notably older ones, which isn’t a bad thing. Good for them! Just don’t let the crowds in town freak you out! Once you start making your way toward the mountain and up, all the people really thin out. Just be prepared for the reality of what you will be dealing with while in town, especially around the train station or at dinner time.
7- Get a Hotel With a View
Obviously all of our budgets look a little bit different and hotels with better views do tend to cost more. But I will say this: having that magical mountain be the first thing you see when you wake up and the last thing you see when you fall asleep just really does something to you. If you can afford to get all the way to Zermatt and stay there for a few days, you can probably afford to pay a little extra for a mountain view. There are not pristine views of the mountain from everywhere in Zermatt, which is part of what makes this a justifiable expense. Given the mountain’s weather being so tricky, having a clear view of it all times is the way to go. This way you can keep an eye on it from the hotel and be able to see it should it come out, opposed to missing every window because you can’t see it from where you are staying.
8- Get Up To Watch The Alpenglow
Again, this works best when you have a hotel with a great view (as show in photo below). Otherwise you have to get up even earlier and find a vantage point somewhere else in town. If you are super hardcore, you can even haul ass down to the Gornergratbahn station and hop on that first morning train (the time changes based on the season, be sure to research) to have to best seat in the house.
Seeing the tip of the horn light up at first sun is pretty special, as visibility isn’t exactly the norm with The Matterhorn.
9- Book Ahead to Save Time & Money
The first time we went to Zermatt, we booked nothing ahead of time and did not do enough research. We blindly got on a train without even really knowing where it was taking us. There was no time to do research there and stare at timetables, we were too limited on time and weather.
So the second time we went, we researched well ahead of time to ensure we got the most bang for our buck… and bang for our time too! We pre-purchased special passes that unlimited granted access on multiple lifts and trains for the price of one ticket the day of. Instead of having to pay $100 each per time we wanted to go up, we could go up and down as many times as we wanted on pretty much any ride in Zermatt. This really allowed us to see the mountain from every angle.
10- Go In June to See the Wildflowers
The wildflower situation in Switzerland was completely insane, as to be expected. We didn’t realize that by going in mid June, we were catching the bloom. The flowers were everywhere, making our time in Switzerland even more Swiss.
Thank you so much for reading! If you already have a trip booked to Switzerland, I hope this helps you plan. If you are currently “destination shopping” I hope this had persuaded you to add Zermatt to your list!