66km (41 miles) SE of Sierre; 48km (30 miles) SW of Brig; 242km (151 miles) E of Geneva
Zermatt, 1,594m (5,228 ft.) above sea level, is a small village at the base of the Matterhorn. It made its debut as a hiking and hill-climbing resort more than 150 years ago when it was discovered by English tourists. World attention was turned on the Matterhorn in the 1860s, when Edward Whymper, the English explorer and mountaineer, made a series of attempts to ascend it. Approaching the Matterhorn from the Italian side, he tried six times to climb it and failed. Then, on July 14, 1865, after changing his strategy and approaching the mountain from the Swiss side (using Zermatt as his departure point), he succeeded, and -- accompanied by two of his guides -- became the first person to reach the summit of the Matterhorn. During the process, however, four climbers in his team had fallen to their deaths.
Three days later, an Italian guide, Jean-Antoine Carrel, spurred on by the acclaim of Whymper's feat, successfully made the climb from the Italian side. Since then, the Matterhorn (known as Mont Cervin to the French-speaking Swiss) still lures mountain climbers, although only a few of them attempt to reach its summit. Two of the most memorable hikes are the climb up to the Mettelhorn (3,300m/10,824 ft.) and the hike up to the Matterhorn Hut, a few thousand feet below the wind-blasted cliffs that surround the summit.
Zermatt is a world-renowned resort with many luxurious accommodations and dozens of fashionable boutiques. You can walk from one end of the town to the other in about 15 minutes, which is handy because no cars are allowed on the local streets. The town does, however, have one of the best networks of alpine cable cars, gondolas, and cog railways in Switzerland -- 36 of them operating in the winter and 21 in the summer. In the peak season, it's mobbed with hundreds of tourists.
Because more snow falls on Zermatt than on many other winter resorts in Europe, high-altitude skiing -- especially at the Théodul Pass -- continues throughout the spring and early summer. As for winter skiing, skiers can choose between wide, gentle slopes and difficult runs only for world-class champion skiers. Zermatt's ski school (tel. 027/966-24-66) offers certified instruction and mountain guides.
From Zermatt, you can take one of the grandest and most scenic train rides in Europe. The Glacier Express (www.glacierexpress.ch) might be the slowest express train in the world, taking 7 1/2 hours to pass through southeastern Switzerland, but it's the most panoramic. A stunning feat of mountain engineering, the train begins its daily run in Zermatt, heading for the resort of St. Moritz in the Engadine. Along the way, it crosses 291 bridges and goes through 91 tunnels. Windows on the train are designed to take in these stunning mountain panoramas. There's also a dining car on board. Make advance reservations by calling Rail Europe at tel. 800/622-86-00, or see their website at www.raileurope.com.