Zermatt is the most iconic village in Switzerland because of the Matterhorn, the Toblerone-shaped peak that features in every story about it and a few that aren't. Those same stories and Instagram posts show a postcard-perfect village with every shot dominated by that amazing view. More on that later.
Zermatt is a car-free resort that's only accessible by train from the transit village of Tasch. Many visitors choose to take the train from the valley at Visp or even from the airports in Geneva or Zurich. The trains really are that good. The village of Tasch has been taken over by parking and an industry has appeared to provide you with a parking spot and a taxi or train ride to the resort. The short train journey from Tasch is slow and not scenic by Swiss standards. The cost is a not insignificant 16.00 Swiss Francs and you still have to pay to park at Tasch. You might think this is a win for the climate but there is a road that leads to Zermatt that lorries, locals and the aforementioned taxis use. In the next valley, Saas-Fee is also car-free but you park within walking distance of the village. It feels like a con because it is.
The wallet-emptying continues at some pace when you arrive. A return trip to the Matterhorn glacier (not near the Matterhorn) by cable car is an eye-watering 115.00 Swiss Francs. In comparison, Chamonix's Aiguille du Midi cable car at the same time of year is nearly half the price and a much more interesting trip. The Gornergrat railway is another must-do at 126.00 Swiss Francs. Then there are the other lifts all offering amazing views of the Matterhorn.
Zermatt's main street leads out from the station and runs the full length of the village. The street is choc-full of upmarket watch brands like Omega, Hublot, Patek Phillipe and Zenith with beautiful boutiques. Amongst these Swiss jewels are outdoor clothing shops, restaurants, and shops selling all the tourist memorabilia you could imagine. A small part of Zermatt still has a few old barns from the days when it was the farming village of Zur Matte - the meadows, but this is surrounded by hotels and construction. Endless construction.
Zermatt is Switzerland's Disneyland - a microcosm of everything in Switzerland in one place. It has the rides and the t-shirts and the tourists by the train load. Of course, millions of people love Disneyland and if you have one day to see Switzerland, Zermatt will give you both barrels. What is missing from Zermatt is any authenticity. In the churchyard, thankfully empty even on an August day, lay the graves of some of the first ascenders of the Matterhorn, Chamonix guide Michel Croz and the tragic Tagwaulder family. The museum has the rope that broke leading them to their doom.
Zermatt's ski area is linked with Breuil-Cervinia in Italy and includes the highest pistes in the Alps. The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise is well above the tree-line but does offer some summer skiing opportunities, although it closed in 2022 thanks to the hot summer. An occurrence that is more likely every year. The Sunnegga cable car takes you to Rothorn via a couple of stops and offers views across the valley to the Matterhorn. From Sunnegga you can hike back down via the lake at Grünsee if you want to take that Instagram photo of the lake and the Matterhorn - it's around 3 hours back to Zermatt. Arrive in the morning when the lake is more likely to be mirror still. The Schwarzsee cable car is another starting point for the higher hikes on the other side of the valley from Sunnegga.
The Gornergrat railway is an electric rack line that takes you to an altitude of 3,089 metres - making it the second highest railway in Europe just behind that other classic Swiss train journey to the Jungfrau. The line opened in 1898 and was the first electric rack railway to be built in Switzerland. The train stops on the way up to Riffelalp, a small hamlet that is home to the Riffelalp Resort, which has the distinction of being Europe's highest luxury hotel. Built-in 1884 as a summer-only enclave it's one of the few hotels in the world that is unreachable by car and often booked a year in advance. If you have seen the TV adaptation of John le Carré's The Night Manager you will be familiar with it as Jonathan Pine's first encounter with Dicky. If you haven't seen it you should.
After a short pause at Riffelalp, the train continues on its very scenic way to the summit. Views of the Matterhorn are fabulous all the way. At the top, you alight from the train and are immediately confronted with the Gorner glacier. The glacier descends from the Monte Rosa massif and is the second largest in the Alps after the Aletsch. The Gorner is hanging in there thanks to its high altitude but is still retreating, just at a slower pace than the lower glaciers. The Monte Rosa massif is home to six peaks over 4,500 metres high including the Dufourspitze, the highest peak in Switzerland and the second highest in the Alps.
So let's talk about those photos of the Matterhorn. The reality is the Matterhorn doesn't dominate the skyline. If you are lucky you can see a clear view of it in the morning but as with most 4,000-metre peaks, it attracts clouds and often disappears as the day goes on. The photographs of it looming over the village or dominating the skyline are shot on telephoto or zoom lenses - giving the effect of the mountain being closer to the village. If you shoot it on your iPhone it looks like a blurry grey peak in the distance. From some of the viewpoints high up on a clear morning, there are great views of it - mostly in winter, spring or autumn. In high summer it can look a bit grey, lost in a landscape of grey but bring a zoom lens and a filter and boom, Instagram success beckons.