Upon arrival at mountain, the first thing I noticed is how large and expansive Zermatt is. It's possible to ski 4 days and still not see all the slopes! On day one, we walked with our skis through a lengthy cave, then took a 10-minute tram (going right up the mountain inside rock), connected to a gondola ride, and then finally took another tram to get to the mountain top. Whew. It's a good 45-minute trek (with your skis) but well worth it. Once on top of the world, one can traverse to a wide array of mid-mountain lifts.
I recommend skiing a couple of days on the Swiss side of Zermatt and then a couple over on the Italian side (also known as Cervinia).
On the Swiss side, one can do the tram/gondola mix or there is a 40-minute train going up the mountain – yes, up the mountain! The train, which chugs along and stops at a few plateaus, is the easiest way to get to the summit. I've never accessed ski slopes before by train, but it makes sense and the Swiss designed it perfectly.
One of Zermatt's unique offerings is being able to ski from Switzerland to Italy. It takes an hour or more to get to Valtournenche in Italy. When crossing the border, one can detect small but noticeable differences in the mountain stations (e.g. espresso stops soon appear). Be sure to buy an international ski pass so that you can ski in both the Swiss and Italian mountain areas.
Tip: Don't eat lunch too late and lose track of time over in Cervinia. If you miss the last chairlift, you will be sleeping over in Italy (driving back to Zermatt would take over 3 hours!). It takes time to find your way back and build in time for mistakes in direction.
At first, I thought the surroundings odd for their total lack of trees on the mountain. In North America, the slopes typically boast great forests, and trees dot the ski slopes. In Zermatt, there aren't trees up high but the sheer scale of the snow-covered mountain terrain is very impressive. It was unlike anything I had seen before. Also, being farther north, it remained light until about 5pm. The sunset mountain run downhill – which takes an hour from top to bottom! – is unique and gorgeous.
The runs in Zermatt, in general, are long. Lift lines were not crowded, and I found it possible to get more skiing in here than in most U.S. resorts. The mountain is just BIG and so it allows for nice, long, expansive skiing, with the added thrill of crossing from one country to another. However, be aware that mountain runs are not well marked! Carefully check the signs (which are small and few)!
In town and on the slopes, you will see skiers from all over the world. The main languages heard will be German, French, Italian, and English. If you studied German and find that you can't understand anyone here, don't fret. Swiss German is pretty different from standard German, and to make matters more difficult, the German spoken in the Zermatt region is one that many other Swiss can't even decipher.
A fun fact about Switzerland: To avoid disputes among the different groups of Swiss citizens, the official name for the country is in Latin – Confoederatio Helvetica (the reason Switzerland uses the abbreviation “CH”).
Tip: Drink a lot of water upon arrival in Zermatt (and every day). It's easy to get dehydrated. The flight over to Switzerland and the altitude change make for at least 2 or 3 days of adjustment. Bring eye drops too. You will want them by day two to combat dry eyes.
For general trip-planning information, see our Switzerland Travel Guide.