Growing up in Germany, my family spent Christmas, February and Easter school vacations skiing in Austria and Switzerland. We hit all of the hot spots: Davos, St. Moritz, Saas Fe, Kitzbühel, etc. However, once we discovered Zermatt at Christmas time, we never went anywhere else for the two week Christmas break. It is a true fairy tale winter wonderland.
At over 5300′ in elevation, the picture perfect and car-free village of Zermatt is in the canton of Valais, Switzerland in a valley below the famous Matterhorn. In fact, it lies at the foot of four of Switzerland’s highest peaks. There’s even a glacier that’s provides year-round skiing. With tons of restaurants, shops, bars, ice skating, tobogganing, hiking, etc. there’s plenty to do for both skiers and non-skiers.
How to Get to Zermatt
Getting to Zermatt is an experience in itself. Being car free, the only way to arrive is via a cog railway from Täsch. Zurich and Geneva are the closest international airports to Zermatt. Train service is available from both and takes about 3.5 hours from Zurich or 4 from Geneva, with a train change in Visp. Just picture a magical ride through majestic snow capped Swiss Alps, towns and valleys. Täsch also has parking garages for those driving, but they fill up fast during the holidays. Once in Täsch, it’s just a quick 12 minute cog railway ride up the mountain to Zermatt.
Dashing through the snow on a one horse open sleigh, well maybe two horses 🙂 As there are no cars in Zermatt, there are several options for getting around. Walking is my favorite option, shopping along the way of course. There is an electric bus, which comes in handy at the end of a long ski day (especially with those darn boots on). Taxis are also electric and available all over town.
However, the best and most romantic way is by horse drawn sleigh or carriage. As a kid, my family usually did this on Christmas ‘Eve. We were all tucked into an open sleigh with warm blankets and sang Christmas carols along the way. Priceless.
Just imagine skiing with the above view! Zermatt is Switzerland’s highest ski resort and boasts over 360 kilometers of runs ranging from beginner to expert. Adventurous types will love the opportunity to helicopter ski. There are 9 ski schools and many ski rental shops, so don’t bother lugging all of that equipment through airports and train stations, been there-done that and it’s not fun.
The Gornegrat, Europe’s highest open air cog railway, takes 33 minutes to the summit with amazing views and tons of lifts and runs for all levels. Hop on at the Gornegrat Station in the village and ride it to the top. There are several panoramic spots for pictures, you can even have your picture taken with a Saint Bernard!
Be sure to visit the famous Iglu-Dorf (Igoo Village) at the summit. With advance planning, you can even stay in one of the igloos overnight! Visit the bar and the restaurant and be sure to have some famous Swiss cheese fondue!
Perhaps the most amazing ski experience in Zermatt is skiing over into Italy. By taking a series of gondolas, lifts, etc. you reach the summit at Matterhorn Glacier Paradise (12,339 feet!) and ski over into Cervinia, Italy. Be sure to bring your passport and have it stamped!
Zermatt has plenty to offer non-skiers. Everyone should spend at least one day off of the slopes to enjoy other entertainment, even just sitting in a cozy chalet or café drinking hot chocolate with a view is fabulous.. There are several sledding and tobogganing hills, and rentals are available. Go for a dog sled ride, the views are amazing. Take a horse drawn sleigh ride around the village.
Downtown Zermatt has several options as well with an ice skating rink, several movie theaters and so much more. There are also many spas, so treat yourself to a spa day because you deserve to be pampered. Stop into one of the many cheese or chocolate shops and have a few samples…hey, when in Switzerland, right?
Après Ski and Dining
There are so many options for an Après Ski cocktail. However, one of my favorites is the ice bar at the Mont Cervin Palace hotel (obviously…hello, the bar says it all!). Not only is the Mont Cervin an amazingly gorgeous 5-Star hotel, but in the winter they have this fabulous ice bar. It is THE spot in town. The above mentioned Igoo Village also has a great Après Ski, in an igloo!
Dining on the slopes is a great experience in Zermatt. Forget about the hot dogs and burgers in the States. Stop at a mountain chalet for a delicious warm meal at lunch. My favorite is the Bergrestaurant Alm on the way down to town from the Gornegrat. They have fresh trout from a stocked stream, as well as many Swiss specialties like potato Rösti, Zürich geschnetzeltes and so much more, I’m hungry now..
For dinner, be sure to try Swiss fondue or Raclette at Pinte Restaurant. Or, for amazing mountain and village views treat yourself to Chez Vrony.
If you’re renting an apartment or chalet, there are many options to make cooking easier. Stop by a butcher shop and pick up some prepared Schnitzel or other yummy delicacies. There are many grocery stores and gourmet shops to choose from as well.
Bahnhofstraße is Zermatt’s main street, lined with boutiques, sport shops, restaurants, bars and cafés. You’ll also find shops on side streets along the way. Zermatt has everything you need and more. Don’t bother doing any Christmas shopping ahead of time, believe me you’ll find something for everyone on your list here.
Spending a white Christmas in Zermatt is the best place imaginable. I have the most incredible memories of it as a child, and as an adult. It is a wonderful place for families and kids of all ages. Kids can visit Santa, go to one of the snow playgrounds, go sledding and learn to ski.
If you’re staying in one of the catered chalets, all of the cooking and decorating will be done for you! If not, buy small tree and decorate it with bows and popcorn strings.
Europeans celebrate Christmas on Christmas ‘Eve. They eat a fabulous meal, share gifts and then head off to church for Midnight Mass, if they are religious. After all, Jesus is the reason for the season, right? There’s also an English church, if you don’t speak Swiss or German.
The churches are all decorated and lit up, and choirs sing carols. One of my favorite memories is Midnight Mass. My family would take a horse drawn sleigh ride after dinner and gifts to attend candle light Midnight Mass at the local Catholic Church.
I hope you get the chance to visit Zermatt, especially at Christmas. Yes, it’s expensive, but so worth it! Of course, prices are a bit better in January and February so there’s no excuse not to go!
Merry Christmas everyone, and many happy travels in the New Year!