Despite its fame—which stems from the iconic Matterhorn and its excellent ski facilities—Zermatt is a resort with its feet on the ground. It protects its regional quirks along with the wildlife and tumbledown mazots, which crowd between glass-and-concrete chalets like old tenements between skyscrapers. Streets twist past weathered-wood walls, flower boxes, and haphazard stone roofs until they break into open country that inevitably slopes uphill. Despite the throngs of tourists, you're never far from the wild roar of a silty river or vertiginous mountain path.
In the mid-19th century Zermatt was virtually unheard of; the few visitors who came to town stayed at the vicarage. The vicar and a chaplain named Joseph Seiler persuaded Seiler's younger brother Alexander to start an inn. Opened in 1854 and named the Hotel Monte Rosa, it's still one of five Seiler hotels in Zermatt. In 1891 the cog railway between Visp and Zermatt took its first summer run and began disgorging tourists with profitable regularity—though it didn't plow through in wintertime until 1927. Today the town remains a car-free resort (though electric carts run by the hotels clog the streets). If you're traveling primarily by car, park it in the multistory terminal connected to the station in Täsch, where you catch the train into Zermatt.