Zermatt vs Cervinia: Which Is the Better Ski Resort?

October 19, 2015

It’s the most photogenic mountain in the world…

The resorts of Zermatt and Cervinia share the same ski area – the 20 lifts in Cervinia and 34 in Zermatt total up at 160km of Italian and 200km of Swiss turf.

But that’s not all they have in common. Both lie at the foot of that most iconic of mountains: the Matterhorn. If you’ve seen pictures, you’ll understand why skiing in full view of that geological wonder is yet another tick box on the diehard skier’s bucket list.

To tick it off, you’ve got a choice to make. Zermatt or Cervinia? Both have their pros and cons. So which should you choose when booking your snowy getaway this winter?

But first: The magic of the Matterhorn

Not everyone associates the Matterhorn with world-class skiing. Recently I asked my daughter what came to mind I showed her a photo of it. Her response wasn’t anything along the lines of ‘fab ski area and famous mountain restaurants…’

Nor had she even heard of Edward Whymper (more on him in a minute), who conquered it whilst four others fell tragically to their deaths in 1865.

‘Chocolate,’ she said, as if I was being very stupid indeed. And of course she was right – the spectacular view of the Matterhorn has been made famous by Toblerone, with Zermatt bringing some three million tourists per year on a pilgrimage to what is thought to be the most photographed mountain in the world.

So if that’s what it’s known for primarily, what is it about this region that makes it such an important part of mountain life folklore?

Mountaineer Extraordinaire, Edward Whymper

Regular readers of this blog will remember Edward Whymper from my adventures through the Vallee Blanche – one of the 5 Incredible Skiing Experiences I Will Share With My Children – where he conquered the north face of the Grand Jorasses.

But I only recently began to fully appreciate his achievements when I went to Zermatt to join the celebration for the 150th anniversary of Sir Edward Whymper’s conquest of the Matterhorn on 14th July 1865. Severe enough at the best of times, but all the more notable as he did so whilst racing the Italian expedition from Cervinia led by Antoine Carrel and Jean-Baptiste Bich, who he beat to the summit by 3 days.

Whymper was able to reach the summit by an ascent of the Hornli ridge in Switzerland (the view we see on the chocolate boxes) guided by the famed French mountaineer Michel Croz of Chamonix, Swiss father-and-son duo Peter Taugwalder Sr and Jnr, and accompanied by English gentlemen Charles Hudson, Lord Francis Douglas and Douglas Robert Hadow.

There is some controversy that clouds this expedition as upon descent, Hadow, Croz, Hudson and Douglas fell to their deaths on the Matterhorn glacier. Accusations that Whymper cut the rope during the catastrophic accident to save himself from being pulled down continued long after his death, for some 134 years before finally being laid to rest by historian Alan Lyall in 1997. All but Douglas (whose body was never found) are buried in the Zermatt churchyard.

The photo below shows the original rope – the most famous broken rope in history – used during the first ascent which sealed the fate of its participants.

How can anyone be holding a rope whilst four people are dangling on it and at the same time be able to reach into his pocket, get a knife and cut it? The combined weight of the four doomed climbers on the rock simply broke the rope. Needless to say, the quality of the primitive gear those days was not what you buy in Snow & Rock…

The photo above shows artefacts belonging to the four who died. In those days mountaineers had to rely on the rosary and bible as much as the safety rope.

So now you’ve begun to understand the legend that this mountain wields, let’s get back to the matter at hand…

You probably know about Zermatt

Most skiers have heard of Zermatt. It’s probably the most famous destination for ski holidays in Switzerland. You’ve heard tales of the fresh powder and extensive terrain, the picturesque chocolate-box village and luxurious selection of accommodation, not to mention the cracking après scene and nightlife.

But what if Zermatt’s decadence is slightly too much for you? Perhaps your heart sinks at the idea of trying to squeeze its superb mountain restaurants, evening cocktails and high-end chalets into your budget?

Of course you want to see the majestic mountain where Whymper climbed and maybe join the flocks of tourists with their smartphones as they gaze in awe at its beauty.

Here’s the secret: you needn’t spend thousands on a holiday to enjoy the Matterhorn experience…

Cervinia has plenty going for it

Ok, so it has to be admitted that the view of the Matterhorn from the Italian side is somewhat less iconic. An American member of a ski group I led there back in the 80’s – who clearly didn’t associate Cervinia with Zermatt – was nevertheless impressed when we got to Plateau Rosa and asked me what that ‘chunk of rock’ was called.

But basing yourself on the Italian side really does have its benefits. For one, buying a joint Cervinia/Zermatt pass costs £100 less if you buy it in Cervinia than it does in Zermatt – per Leslie Woit in the Telegraph – and you can pass freely between the two resorts.

On the Italian side, the slopes are mostly suitable for intermediate skiers, with a few tougher slopes to choose from. Being on the sunny side of Matterhorn makes it not only pleasurable rather than freezing cold, particularly in December and January, but also the added bonus of the glacier at 3480m and resort level at 2050m nearly always enables you to ski all the way down – whether it’s an early-season trip or the Easter holidays.

If you’re on the lookout for perfectly-groomed runs for a proper fast piste cruise, a Cervinia ski holiday is the choice for you. This is one place you can comfortably put on a pair of professional downhill skis over two metres in length for some hardcore thigh-burning sessions.

In fact the 8km Ventina (shown in the video above) is claimed to be the longest ski run in Europe, giving you an almighty 2359m of vertical all the way down to Valtournenche. So if fast-paced racing is your thing, you needn’t even bother crossing over to overcrowded Zermatt everyday (but it’s nice to know the option is there).

Sure, Zermatt offers more challenging skiing with a wider variety (not to mention that crystal-clear view of the Matterhorn on a bluebird day), but there’s no reason you have to miss out on all that. All it takes is a simple trip across Plateau Rosa to enjoy Zermatt’s great off-piste potential, with heli-skiing also possible on the Monte Rosa and the Alphubeljoch with Alpin Center Zermatt.

Take your pick of restaurants

Whether you choose to dine in Zermatt or Cervinia totally depends of what sort of thing you are looking for and how many Francs you’ve got knocking about in your ski jacket.

As you’d expect, Zermatt is a lot more expensive in every aspect – be it a G&T, wine, lunch, dinner or accommodation. So if you don’t feel like bashing your credit card, you only have to ski into Italy to remind yourself how much cheaper it is for a spot of lunch.

Pay half the amount to drink proper Italian coffee like an Italian and the same for good bottle of wine. Both resorts are up there with the world’s greatest lunch destinations – not just for the delicious food, but also for the breathtaking views.

Top restaurants in Cervinia

In Cervinia, check out Chalet Etoile, a family run, cosy spot with wood-panelled and animal skin interior. It’s a popular choice though, so be sure to book. If you fancy tasting some local dishes whilst taking in panoramic views of the glacier, try Rifugio Guide del Cervino.

In the evening, the rustic charm of Zermatt and its stunning architecture is missing in the village, however the brilliant pedestrian zone (up there with the best in Europe) makes up for it. You will find it easy to navigate your way around the selection of cheap and high quality restaurants, such as Grivola (offers huge pizzas from a wood-fired oven), La Tana, and The Copa Pan – which probably wins as the most popular eaterie in the resort.

Top restaurants in Zermatt

In Zermatt, the layout is a little different from what you’d expect, as the mountain restaurants are located a little lower down in two settlements: the old village below Furi, and Sunnegga. Zum See, between Furi and Zermatt, is reached either on foot (about a 40 minute walk) from the town or by the Matterhorn Express gondola to Furi and then skiing down to it.

It’s an absolute treat with extremely atmospheric scenes in a sweet little wooden hut, with the best food in the resort in my opinion. Be sure to visit this place on a sunny day, as the terrace is perfect for a late lunch.

Alm Restaurant, at Furi, and Jägerstube in the hamlet of Z’mutt, Chez Vrony and Findlerhof (aka Franz ad Heidi’s), both in Findeln are all absolute musts as well.

Which has the better après scene?

Zermatt’s a clear winner in this category – the resort is almost up there with party destinations such as Verbier or St Anton. Elsie’s Bar is a post-skiing must with its bubbling ambience, and Edward’s Bar in the Hotel Monte Rosa is where Whymper’s party assembled before setting off to conquer the Matterhorn 150 yeas ago.

You won’t be able to miss Papperla Pub as its slightly tipsy customers spill out onto the streets – this is definitely the liveliest drinking location in town. Gee’s is another super spot for cocktails and live entertainment.

If you can, have at least one late-night beverage at Z’alt Hischi, a creaky wooden chalet on Zermatt’s most photographed street. Whether you’ve come for classy early evening champagne or cocktails, or late night dancing in ski-boots to Europop is more your scene, Zermatt’s buzzing scene will not disappoint.

Cervinia doesn’t quite compare, but still has drinking-holes such as the Apres Ski Bar at Hotel Principe delle Nevi with a more relaxed pool-side vibe and live music acts. At the Thistles Pub in The Dragon Hotel, you could be fooled into believing you’re back in London, and the Irish Pub in the Hotel Grivola has a great selection of beers. If it’s a clubbing experience you’re craving, the swanky Bianconiglio (+39 0166 62220) – the White Rabbit – is the only late-night venue in town and is often busy, hosting DJs, live bands and smart Italian regulars.

How should you get there?

Whichever resort you choose to base yourself in, know that the train is the only way to travel. Very few people know that it takes the same amount of time from Zurich to Zermatt as it does from Geneva, giving you more choice of Swiss International Air Lines flights.

The trains from Zurich are modern with buffet cars but the Geneva trains do not even offer a trolley service, so be organised at the airport and buy food in order to avoid starving the entire journey.

Cervinia is perfect for a short break – the short transfer to Milan or Turin makes it also great ski weekend destination. Zermatt is also ideal for a long, relaxing weekend (if you can bear the 3.5 hour train journey from Geneva).

So who’s the winner?

Because Switzerland is more expensive than its neighbours and with the recent labour laws resulting in most chalet operators fleeing, you may find it harder to book a chalet holiday in Zermatt. I know of one company who have decided to stick to their guns and stay in Switzerland, continuing to maintain high chalet standards in Zermatt.

And I can’t think of anyone who knows the chalet business better than Ed Mannix. Having been in charge of Ski West and Bladon Lines in the golden days of chalets in the 80s, he now operates three luxury chalets in Zermatt under the name of Matterhorn Chalets.

It’s a tricky decision as both have their pros and cons, and it totally depends on your individual needs and preferences. If you have a young family, then definitely pick Cervinia, if only for its easier and more accessible ski runs.

Slightly older kids and significantly bigger wallet? Then of course choose Zermatt every time. As a couple, I’d recommend trying both.

So maybe there isn’t one clear winner, but both put up a good fight so get out there and find out yourself!

Want to try Cervinia or Zermatt for yourself?

If you’re interested in experiencing Zermatt as your next Swiss holiday, or you want to try Cervinia for your next Italy ski holiday, we can make it happen for you. Get in touch today and we can start planning your tailor-made trip to either one of these ever-popular, world-class destinations.

I’d love to hear your feedback, too. Have you been to skiing in Zermatt or Cervinia? Do you agree with my assessment?

Amin Momen

Amin Momen