Matterhorn: The Complete Guide

His Majesty the Matterhorn
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Matterhorn

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Matterhorn

With its iconic pyramid shape, the Matterhorn is one of the most recognizable mountain peaks in the world. At 14,692 feet (4,478 meters) tall, it's the 12th-highest mountain in the Alps, and one of about 80 that are taller than 4,000 meters. The pointy mountain has four distinct sides, or faces, which make it clearly stand out from other neighboring peaks. Though the Matterhorn is most closely associated with Switzerland (just take a look at the Toblerone chocolate logo), the mountain is shared by both Switzerland and Italy—it straddles the border, though only the south face is actually within Italy.

Tourists visiting the Matterhorn typically do so from Switzerland, though it's possible to see the peak from Italy as well. Use this complete guide to the Matterhorn to plan your trip, choose your base for exploring, and find out what to do during all seasons on the Matterhorn.

How to Get to the Matterhorn from Switzerland

Zermatt, in the Swiss canton of Valais (Wallis), is the closest town to the Matterhorn and is widely considered the stepping-off point for exploring the mountain and surrounding area. Zermatt is a car-free village—only small electric buses run in the town. The closest parking lot is in Tasch, about 6 kilometers away, where residents and visitors alike have to leave their cars and take a 12-minute train ride to Zermatt. More frequently, travelers catch the train at Visp, which is a one-hour ride to Zermatt. The scenery along the way is stunning year-round, and the train ride is a highlight of a visit to Zermatt. Regional trains from Visp run every 40 minutes, or you can take the Glacier Express, an epic, panoramic train ride that connects St. Moritz to Zermatt and passes through some of the most spectacular scenery in the Alps. The entire journey takes about 8 hours, but you can also board the train at different stops along the way.

Once in Zermatt, you're still several miles from the Matterhorn but on a clear day, there are views of the peak from the town center. A system of incline railways, cable cars, and ski gondolas depart from Zermatt and take riders to high-elevation viewing platforms, several of which offer recreation areas with restaurants and bars, as well as trailheads for hikes further into the mountains or back down to Zermatt.

How to Get to the Matterhorn from Italy

On the Italian side of the Matterhorn (known as Monte Cervino in Italy), the closest town to the mountain is Breuil-Cervinia in the Aosta Valley. It's a winter and summer resort town developed specifically for Alpine tourism, and is reached by a single road, the SR46, which connects to the rest of the northern Aosta region. The system of ski lifts and gondolas above the town are known as Cervino Ski Paradise, and actually connects to the Matterhorn system on the Swiss side—so in the winter it's possible to ski between Italy and Switzerland and in the summer, it's possible to hike across the high-altitude border.

Should You See the Matterhorn from Italy or Switzerland?

Our take on the Swiss vs. Italian sides of the Matterhorn? There's more to see and do when you approach the Matterhorn from Zermatt, especially if you're not a skier or into hiking. Zermatt is a more historic village with traditional buildings, and because it's car-free, it has a charming Alpine feel. But Zermatt is more exclusive and expensive than Breuil-Cervinia and Switzerland, in general, is more expensive than Italy. So while travelers on a budget might save some money by seeing the Matterhorn from the south, for the classic Matterhorn views and Alpine experience, Zermatt is the better choice.

Things to Do

What you do when you visit the Matterhorn depends on your physical fitness and interests and what season you visit.

Winter

This is peak season all around the Matterhorn, when a ski "arena"—a network of slopes and ski lifts—is buzzing with skiers and snowboarders. The three main ski areas are Klein Matterhorn-Schwarzsee, Gornergrat-Stockhorn, and Sunnegga-Rothorn, the last of which is best-suited for beginners. There are also a limited number of hiking and snowshoeing trails that are maintained in the winter, as well as snow parks for tubing and sledding. Though there is year-round skiing on a handful of the highest slopes of the ski arena, the winter ski season runs from November to April, depending on temperatures and snowfall. Zermatt's apres-ski game is strong, with bars and restaurants both in town and on the mountainsides heading down from the pistes.

Spring

Springtime around the Matterhorn might seem a lot like winter, with ski slopes open and snowfall possible at any time. But sunnier, longer days take hold, and there are more trails open for hiking and mountain biking. This is a good time for non-skiers to visit Zermatt, as crowds are less dense after March and hotel rooms are easier to find. Consider a trip to the Matterhorn Museum in Zermatt to learn about the history of mountaineering in the area. Remember that you'll still need to bring plenty of warm layers, especially for any mountain excursions.

Summer

The summer season around the Matterhorn is brief and brilliant, with pleasant temperatures at lower elevations, sunny days, and big opportunities for hiking, biking, and other outdoor activities. The same gondolas and lifts that transport winter skiers also operate in the summer, to take hikers and sightseers up to excellent trailheads and Matterhorn viewing points. A ride on the Gornergrat scenic cog railway is great this time of year, especially when combined with a hike to the Riffelsee, a high-altitude lake with unparalleled views of the Matterhorn and one of our favorite lakes in Switzerland. Daytime temperatures might reach into the low 70s in July and August, but can still drop to the 40s at night, so pack accordingly.

Fall

As shoulder season in the Alps, autumn is a fine time to visit if you want to avoid crowds or don't want a full program of skiing, since most pistes and many cableways close for a few weeks in the fall. Hiking trails remain open, as do most in-town attractions and the Matterhorn's scenic railways. Consider a visit to the Gorner Gorge, a beautiful river cavern within walking distance of Zermatt, or ride to the top of the Sunnegga funicular and walk back down into Zermatt, stopping for lunch at one of the cozy mountain huts in Findeln (try the traditional Swiss rösti at Findlerhof).

The Best Time to Visit the Matterhorn

Winter and summer are the most popular times to visit the Matterhorn for two reasons—the weather and outdoor activities. But they're also the most crowded and expensive periods to visit. If you want to ski, yet still save some money and have a little more elbow room on the pistes, springtime is the best time to visit. For non-snow sports and sightseeing without the crowds, early fall is the best time to visit.

Where to Stay Around the Matterhorn

Zermatt, and Breuil-Cervinia in Italy, are quite simply filled with hotels, B&Bs, vacation rentals, and simple guesthouses. Around Zermatt, there are several storied 5-star hotels, including the Grand Hotel Zermatterhof, right in the center of town, or the Riffelalp Resort, reached via the Gornergat railway. Hotel Bellerive is a friendly 3-star option in the town center.

In Breuil-Cervinia, Saint Hubertus Resort is an upscale 4-star with great Matterhorn views, while 3-star Hotel Marmore is a dependable choice right in the town center.

Tips For Your Visit

  • You don't have to be an active traveler to plan a trip. Many tourists visit the Matterhorn simply to look at it, and never set foot on a ski piste or hiking trail. That said, if you can get on a cable car, ski gondola, or scenic railway and ride to higher elevation, you'll have better views of the famous mountain and surrounding peaks.
  • Dress for any weather. Temperatures and conditions in the mountains can change on a dime, and a sudden storm can blow in. Even in the summer, it's wise to carry an extra layer or two of protection and in colder months, wear waterproof, insulating layers. On sunny days, sunscreen, lip balm, and sunglasses are must, especially in the winter. If you plan to do any walking or hiking, we recommend bringing along a set of hiking poles—they'll help you keep your footing on steep, uneven, or slippery terrain.
  • Don't count on Matterhorn views. It would be a big disappointment to go to the Matterhorn and not actually see the iconic peak. But it does happen—rainy days or high cloud cover can obscure the peak, though you'll often have better luck by taking mountain transportation to a Matterhorn viewing site, where you might catch some heavenly views of Europe's most famous mountain.
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Matterhorn: The Complete Guide