St Moritz may have the glamour, Verbier may have the cool, Wengen may have the pistes, but Zermatt beats them all – Zermatt has the Matterhorn. No other natural or human structure in the whole country is so immediately recognizable; indeed, in most people's minds the Matterhorn stands for Switzerland.
Emerging from Zermatt station is an experience in itself: this one little village – which has managed, much to its credit, to cling onto its old brown chalets and atmospheric twisting alleys – welcomes everybody, regardless of financial status, and the station square is where all worlds collide. Backpackers and hikers rub shoulders with high-society glitterati amid a fluster of tour groups, electric taxis and horse-drawn carriages. Everyone has come to see the mountain. Zermatt has no off-season – it's busy year-round – yet the crowds never seem to matter. You may have to shoulder your way down the main street, but the terrain all around is expansive enough that with a little effort you could vanish into the wilderness, leaving everyone else behind.
The small area around Zermatt features 36 mountains over 4000m, a statistic as enticing to summer hikers as to winter skiers. The skiing boom of the 1960s saw the hamlet double in size, but today it's still acceptably small and low-key, rooted to the valley floor in a natural bowl open to the south. The Gornergrat railway lifts you up to a spectacular vantage point overlooking the Monte Rosa massif, with its summit the Dufourspitze (4634m) – the highest point in Switzerland. The skiing is superb, but in many ways the hiking is better, with some of the most scenic mountain walks in the whole country within easy reach of the village.