This Swiss shepherds' village turned cosmopolitan mountain resort is home to one of the most recognizable peaks in the Alps: the famed Matterhorn. The towering three-sided spire of jagged rock, crooked at the top like a witch's cap, is such a singular and picturesque peak that all sorts of visitors—skiers and nonskiers, royalty and backpackers, serious alpinists and people who'd rather stock up on souvenirs than break a sweat—come from all corners of the globe to have a look.
Skiers, however, can get more than just a look. They can spend days in the company of the big rock while gliding down broad, treeless trails that seem to be on top of the world. They can coast from Europe's highest lift-served point (12,800 feet) across a groomed glacier with the Matterhorn rising up to greet them and Italy falling away at their feet. They can ride uphill on trains, trams and high-speed quads with the Matterhorn by their side, then head down from the heights—carving like World Cuppers racing a super G or charging through moguls alongside clusters of hundred-year-old alpine huts—all in a tête-à -tête with the scenic summit. Then they can have an epicurean lunch with the famed peak at the head of the table.
In fact, lunching in Zermatt is more than just a chance to refuel—it's a lifestyle. Spending two or even three leisurely, gourmet hours at one of its 38 on-mountain restaurants is as central to the Zermatt ski experience as the presence of the Matterhorn itself. Spoon into fish soup and sip sweet local whites on a deck chaise at chic Chez Vrony. Eat fine pastries amid the rustic shepherd's sheds of Zum See. Cut into the carpaccio at Findlerhof. In fact, skiing Zermatt is a spectacular experience without getting any more complicated than cruising the broad pistes and having a great lunch.
But mountaineering is closer to Zermatt's true spirit than is cuisine, and skiers can experience this by hiring a Swiss mountain guide for a customized experience. Options range from a few hours of lift-accessed intermediate gliding in the Matterhorn's meadows to helicopter glacier skiing. One epic adventure is a tour of the Schwarztor ("black gate), a deserted glacier with deep, dry powder and otherworldly seracs—gnarled thumbs of glacial ice. The tour ends with a glide through a narrow ice canyon and a clamber through an ice cave under the glacier's toe. From there it's a few short turns to the doorstep of Bergrestaurant Blatten, where skiers might find themselves jostling for elbow space with Britain's Prince William as they settle in for a gourmet feast. After all, it's Zermatt, where even a mind-blowing ski adventure ends with a great lunch.
PLANNING THE PERFECT TRIP TO ZERMATT
Zermatt is both an authentic Swiss mountain town and a four-season destination for an international clientele. The car-free village (parking is four miles away) is chock-a-block with hotels, bars, chocolatiers, cheese shops and, of course, the stübli-style restaurants where fondue bubbles on every table.
Intermediates and above will fare best here. Plan to ski one of the resort's four interconnected sections per day. Take the Gornergrat Railway for wide-open cruising with famous views. When the weather is clear, head up the Klein Matterhorn and ski to Cervinia, Italy. For experts wanting to go off-piste, a guide is an absolute must; ski school instructors can guide on-piste only. Opt for a mountain guide from the Alpin Center (alpincenter-zermatt.ch).
Hire Anjan Truffer from Alpin Center or Prato Borni's Richard Lehner (pratoborni.ch) for a heli drop on Monte Rosa and an epic ski day.
Mont Cervin Palace is the grande dame where royals stay (from $470, montcervinpalace.ch); The Omnia offers postmodern luxury with a view (from $320, the-omnia.com); Coeur des Alpes serves up slopeside views (from $225, couerdesalpes.ch). All prices are per room, double occupancy.
On Mountain: Findlerhof, for carpaccio and traditional rösti; Bergrestaurant Blatten, for excellent duck and sightings of royalty; Chez Vrony, for delicate fish soup on a sunny deck.
In town: Le Gitan, for stübli-style rotisserie; Giuseppe, for great Italian; Le Mazot, order the lamb - and reserve far in advance.
Papperla Pub; Elsie's; Postli; Hennu Stall
Hit the Klein Matterhorn and Trocknersteg early to avoid crowds.
Fly to Zurich and take the Glacier Express train to Zermatt. The town is car-free, so no rental is needed.