It is located at the northern base of the Matterhorn in the German-speaking and predominantly Roman Catholic section of the canton. It is 62 km southeast of Gstaad, and only about 10 km from the border with Italy.
Zermatt has a permanent population of around 5,500 people, although the actual population varies considerably through the seasons as tourists come and go. The village is situated at the end of a north-facing valley, at an altitude of 1,620m (5,315ft). The valley is a dead end; although the border with Italy is close, it cannot be crossed by road, as it traverses a glacier at an altitude of over 3,000m.
Zermatt is famed as a ski resort and as a tourist destination. Until the mid-19th century, it was predominantly an agricultural community — its name, as well as that of the Matterhorn itself, derives from the alpine meadows, or matten, in the valley. In the German language, the town is "Zur Matte", or "in the meadow."
The town was "discovered" mid-century by British mountaineers, most notably Edward Whymper, whose conquest of the Matterhorn made the village famous worldwide.
Traditionally, May heralds the beginning of the construction season, and this contributes towards May being possibly the worst time to visit, as, during this month only, large trucks are permitted to trundle through the town, turning all of the roads into rivers of mud.
There are several distinct "suburbs" within Zermatt, and the largest of these organise summer street parties, where the local shops, restaurants and bars contribute towards large communal events. Notable parties include the Steinmatte (held in late August), and the Winkelmatten (held in September). Winkelmatten itself was once a separate small hamlet, but as Zermatt has grown it has become incorporated within the greater conurbation. This areas is rather hopefully marketed as the "Beverley Hills" of Zermatt, and a number of large (for Zermatt) residences have sprung up here recently.
Zermatt is a starting point for many hikes into the surrounding mountains, including the Haute Route that ultimately leads to Chamonix in France. A complex of cable cars and chair lifts carry skiers in the winter and hikers in the summer; the highest of them leads to the Klein Matterhorn at 3,883m, a small outcropping on the ridge between Breithorn and Matterhorn that offers spectacular views in all directions. It is possible to cross into Italy via the Cervinia cable car station. A spectacular rack railway line (the Gornergratbahn, the highest open-air railway in Europe) runs up to the summit of the Gornergrat at 3,089m (10,134 ft). Zermatt is also the western terminus for the Glacier Express rail service connecting to St. Moritz and the MGB (Matterhorn-Gotthard-Bahn).
To prevent air pollution which could disfigure the town's lovely view of the Matterhorn, the entire town is a combustion-engine car-free zone. Electric vehicles are allowed for local commerces. The Cantonal police can issue a permit which allows residents to drive and park at the northern outskirts. Some emergency vehicles (fire trucks, ambulances, etc.) are also allowed to use combustion engines.
Most visitors reach Zermatt by cog railway train or taxi from the nearby town of Täsch. Trains also depart for Zermatt from farther down the valley at Visp and Brig, which are on the main Swiss rail network.
There are various passenger vehicles operating within Zermatt, from tiny electric shuttles provided by hotels to carry visitors from the main train station (or the taxi transfer point just outside town) to the hotel properties, to "electro" taxis operated by four major Zermatt families, and "electro" buses, which serve two routes: one between the major hotel areas and the stations of the various ski-lifts, and the other following a similar route but also serving the more rural "suburb" of Winkelmatten. Horse-drawn carriages can also be found; some are operated by hotels and others are available for hire. The town also has a heliport (ICAO: LSEZ) and a local helicopter operator, Air Zermatt, which also provides alpine rescue services.
In 2007, a project group was formed to evaluate different options for further development of the local transportation network (as the "electro" buses do not have enough capacity). The results of this study are published in the December 2007 edition of Zermatt Inside. The six different options explored are a coaster, a funicular, a metro, moving sidewalks, a gondola or more "electro" buses.
From Blauherd there is a gondola down to Gant, and from here there is a large connecting cablecar up to Hohtälli. This cable car and the newer 4-seat chairlift Sunnegga-Findeln-Breitboden provide connections between Sunnegga and Gornergrat. With few steeper slopes, this mountain is often used to train younger skiers.
The Gornergrat is served by a railway of the same name (Gornergratbahn) and, whilst picturesque, the journey is a slow, nowadays 29 minute, ride up to the Gornergrat peak (3,089m), via Riffelalp, Rotenboden and Riffelberg, (with limited stops at Findelbach and Landtunnel just above the town). At the summit, the hotel and restaurant have been completely refurbished and also accommodate a shopping center.
One final cable car heads up from Hohtälli to the Rote Nase (3,247m). This final lift serves a unique freeride area but can be unreliable as this mountainside requires high snow cover to be skiable. The lifts in this area generally open for the season in late February or early March, depending upon the amount of accumulated snowfall. For the 2007 season, the Rote Nase opened on the 6 March, while the now also retired Hohtälli to Stockhorn lift opened on 8 March. In 2008 an new T-bar tow re-opened access to the Stockhorn.
The old Hohtälli to Gornergrat cablecar is now permanently closed, with no replacement lift planned. A new slope leading back from Hohtälli to Kellensee just under the Gornergrat replaced this lift to maintain the link from the Rothorn to Gornergrat.
Near the southern end of the Zermatt village, the Matterhorn Express gondola speeds passengers up to the interchange station at Furi. From here there is access to the Schwarzsee via a gondola to the right, a cable car that leads on to the Trockener Steg mid station (and then on to the Klein Matterhorn), and a brand new gondola, opened on the 18 December 2006, links Furi to Riffelberg on the Gornergrat mountain. This lift addresses one of the most persistent criticisms of Zermatt: that it is very difficult to ski the two sides of the valley without a tiresome trek through the village between the Gornergratbahn and the Matterhorn Express at opposite ends of the town.
Testa Grigia at the top of the Theodulpass serves as a connection to the Italian ski-resorts of Cervinia and Valtournenche. From the Swiss side it is only reachable by skilift, but from the Italian side by a chairlift and by a cablecar. There are customs offices here as well as a small alpine museum.
Zermatt is marketed as an all year skiing resort, with summer skiing limited to the Theodulgletscher behind the Klein Matterhorn. Whilst strictly true, during the off season in May and June there will only tend to be one or two runs open, and the main glacier area does not open until July.
In operation since 25 October 2003, the Furggsattel six-seater chairlift has twelve (of eighteen) masts that stand directly on the glacial ice of the Theodulgletscher - a first for Switzerland. It is one of very few lifts worldwide with bottom- and top-station in different countries: resp. Switzerland and Italy.
As well as several changes to the slopes, and the placement of new snowmaking installations.