For many visitors, Valais is the only part of Switzerland they ever see—and for good reason. After all, 40 of the 52 13,000-foot peaks in the Alps can be found here—including the famed Matterhorn—making it a skiing, snowboarding, and hiking paradise. With more than 300 sunny days a year, it’s also the country’s premiere wine region, home to more than 22,000 winegrowers and 700 winemakers. Add to the mix a handful of medieval castles, ancient mountain passes, natural thermal springs, and a network of bike trails, and you’ve got the best of Switzerland packed into 5,180 square km (2,000 square miles).
More than 500 km (310 miles) of mountains and glaciers span the Bietschhorn, Aletsch, and Jungfrau summits. In 2001, UNESCO named this area a World Heritage Site, joining such other natural wonders as the Galapagos Islands, Yellowstone National Park, and the Serengeti Desert. Today, Valais remains a region where Italian-, French-, and German-speaking cultures converge and the predominant language changes from valley to valley. Nearly everyone speaks English and is exceptionally welcoming to travelers from all over the world.
The Matterhorn is the region’s most iconic site, and many newcomers feel unsatisfied if they don’t get a glimpse of Switzerland's most photographed peak. Though it’s definitely an image to behold, the Matterhorn is just one of many otherworldly gems, along with Monte Rosa, Weisshorn, and Dame Blanche (Mont Blanc). The best viewpoint for the Matterhorn is from the lovely resort town Zermatt.
To best experience Valais, don’t try to explore every valley that ribs out from the Rhône; better to choose one region and spend a few days hiking, driving, or skiing. Enter from Lac Léman and visit the Gianadda museum in Martigny. Spend the night and next day exploring the citadel and Old Town of Sion. Be sure to get up high in the mountains to magnificent resorts like Saas-Fee, Verbier, Zermatt, Leukerbad, and Crans-Montana.
The broad upper valley of the mighty Rhône is a region still wild, remote, and slightly unruly. Its raccards (typical Valaisan barns balanced on stone disks) still dot the slopes where meadow-grazing cows live at vertiginous angles. For the prettiest scenery, opt for the slow switchback crawl over the mountain passes rather than the more efficient tunnels. And as always, trains are preferable over cars, offering consistently better views and a more stress-free way to travel.