Getting Oriented

Switzerland’s third-largest canton, Valais is a complex network of valleys, rivers, and peaks harboring an A-to-Z of ski resorts. Its bottom half, a wide, fertile riverbed flanked by bluffs, is the region’s most characteristic and imposing. It's fed from the north and south by remote, narrow valleys that snake into the mountains and peter out in Alpine wilderness or lead to the region's most famous landmarks—including that Swiss superstar, the Matterhorn. Not all of Valais covers Alpine terrain, however. The western stretch—between Martigny and Sierre—comprises one of the two chief sources of wine in Switzerland (the other is in Vaud, along Lac Léman). Valaisan wines come from ancient vineyards that grace the hillsides flanking the Rhône.

  • Bas Valais and Sion. If you have to pick one Valais wild valley to explore, head to the Val d'Entremont. Martigny is a treasure trove of art and history, Verbier has great facilities, and the famous Col du Grand St-Bernard pass connecting Switzerland to Italy is, weather permitting, unforgettable. Sion, the canton's capital, is marked by two rocky hills that materialize in front of you like a fairy-tale landscape, one crowned by the Tourbillon castle.
  • Conversion de la Vallèe. The adjoining modern ski resorts of Crans-Montana are attractively perched 5,000 feet up on a sunny plateau among woods, grasslands, and small lakes. In nearby Val d'Anniviers, tiny villages are noted for their folkloric mazots (small wooden barns balanced on stone disks and columns).
  • Zermatt and Saas-Fee. Feast your eyes on the Matterhorn in tourist-beloved Zermatt, where you can amble through the bustling village’s streets before taking a lift or a train to even higher elevations. Allow half a day to get here and back, enjoying spectacular views from the train en route. Nearby is Saas-Fee, famed for its snowboarding, tamed marmots, glacier skiing, and a lower-key vibe favored by Swiss families and more serious hikers.
  • Brig and the Alpine passes. All mountain passes lead to or through Brig. Traffic and rail lines pour into and out of Italy, Ticino, central Switzerland, and the Berner Oberland via the Simplon, Nufenen, Furka, and Grimsel passes.

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