Valais – or Wallis as it’s known in German – is a Swiss canton in the southwest of the country. The name reflects the fact that the canton borders France, and it also shares a boundary with Italy.
The proximity of this canton to these neighbouring European countries is felt throughout, giving Valais a more Mediterranean feel than other parts of Switzerland.
Valais is home to the mighty Matterhorn mountain, Alpine winter sports resorts such as Zermatt and the rolling vineyards of the Rhône River Valley.
The Glacier Express scenic train route also commences (or ends) within the canton, so there’s plenty for visitors to see and do here.
This guide will take you through all you need to know about the canton of Valais in Switzerland – before you go.
Whether you’re more interested in Valais ski resorts, the famous black nosed Valais sheep or sampling fine Valais wine, this guide will help you to plan your perfect trip to the canton of Valais.
Read on to discover much more about this very special southwestern corner of Switzerland.
🇨🇭 The information in this article is also covered in episode 83 of our podcast, should you prefer to listen.
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What's in this Article
Where is Valais?
Valais is located in the southwest of Switzerland. The canton borders both France and Italy, as well as several Swiss cantons. The capital city of Valais canton is Sion, and it’s the third-largest canton in Switzerland.
Part of the Rhone Valley runs through Valais, and much of this is wine-making country. The canton is also famous for the Matterhorn, the Valais ski resort of Zermatt and forming part of the Glacier Express train route, one of Switzerland’s scenic railways.
Unique characteristics of Valais
It’s not only the Swiss Valais blacknose sheep that make this canton stand out. Wallis, to give it its German name, also has other unique features that add up to a very appealing holiday destination indeed.
Here’s a little more about what makes Wallis in Switzerland such a special place to visit.
In total, 48 mountain peaks over 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) high can be found in Switzerland. Of these, 45 are located in Valais canton. The most famous of all, of course, is the Matterhorn.
Due to this mountainous landscape, Valais skiing is among the big draws here. The best-known resort is Zermatt, a smart village in the shadow of the pyramid-shaped Matterhorn peak.
As well as the ski slopes, Zermatt’s attractions include hiking trails, and it’s also popular among climbers.
Zermatt also offers lovely boutique hotels, ice skating rinks, stylish shops and lively apres-ski bars. The town is widely viewed as one of the top ski resorts in the world.
The plethora of peaks dotted across Valais means you can find many other winter sports resorts here. Taking a trip on the Glacier Express train also offers the ideal way to see all the stunning mountain scenery.
Valais is a bilingual canton. While French is spoken in the central and western regions, a local Swiss-German dialect known as Walliserdeutsch is used in the east.
As an area, the canton of Valais has a rich agricultural heritage. The region is famous for producing certain foods and drinks in particular. These include dried meats and cheeses, as well as saffron which is grown in Mund.
Wine, fruit brandies and apricots are also produced within Valais.
Though you may not have sampled Swiss wines before, this is due to the fact that only around 1% of the country’s wine is exported. If you visit Valais, though, you’ll be spoiled for choice, as about a third of Swiss wine is made right here.
With 60 different grape varieties grown in the region, Valais is arguably the best place in Switzerland for wine tasting.
Equally enjoyable is viewing the rolling vineyards from the car or train window – or even wandering among the 5,000 hectares of vines.
Apricots have become something of a symbol of Valais. 80% of Switzerland’s apricots are grown in the Valais – particularly in the Rhone Valley – so you can expect to see tree-lined orchards during your visit. Between late June and mid-September, you may even witness the fruits being harvested.
With over 70 varieties of the fruit produced here, food and drinks featuring apricots are widely available in the shops and restaurants of Valais.
Tschäggättä takes place primarily in the Lötschental, and is a carnival lasting for a week or more. The celebrations typically occur during February, though they can be in late January or early March.
The tradition’s pagan roots means that the occasion is awash with myths and legends.
During carnival season in the Valais you can expect to see locals wearing carved wooden masks, while running around the local villages.
Carnival participants wear fur clothing or goat or sheep skins, as well as cow bells. They might also wear sacks instead of shoes to disguise their footprints in the snow.
Things to see and do in Valais
Natural and man-made attractions
An array of appealing man-made and natural attractions awaits in Valais. These include the iconic Matterhorn, the Great Aletsch Glacier, the Gornergratbahn, the Grande Dixence Dam and the world’s highest revolving restaurant.
The iconic Matterhorn mountain is among the planet’s best-known and most photographed mountains. It looms over much of the canton, including the skiing and summer hiking resort of Zermatt.
The best way to experience the majesty of the Matterhorn is to board the Gornergratbahn (there’s more information on this below).
For a longer trip, you can also take the Matterhorn Alpine Crossing, a network of cable cars connecting Zermatt with Breuil-Cervinia in Italy.
Great Aletsch Glacier
Great Aletsch Glacier is not only the biggest glacier in the Alps, it’s also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. At around 23 kilometres (or 14 miles) in length, it has the longest ice floor in Europe.
The glacier is easy to access, and is home to some rare flora and fauna.
To see the glacier, you can head to the Bettmerhorn, Eggishorn, Hohfluh or Moosfluh viewpoints. Or experience it by taking a hike of around four hours on the ice. You’ll need a local guide to do the latter.
As the name suggests, the Gornergratbahn transports passengers from Zermatt to the summit of the Gornergrat. The rack railway has been operating for around a century-and-a-quarter, and takes passengers to a ridge positioned at around 1,600 metres above sea level.
Trains run all year round, and the trip takes just over half an hour. It’s an iconic journey aboard the world’s first completely electrified cog railway. The Gornergrat ridge is the perfect place for a Matterhorn photo opportunity.
Highest revolving restaurant in the world at Saas Fee
Saas Fee in Valais is home to the highest revolving restaurant on planet Earth. As you might expect, there are superlative views to be had from The Allalin.
While you dine, the eatery revolves a full 360 degrees every hour, so you can see the mountainous landscape from every angle.
The Allalin is around 3,500 metres above sea level, and the menu here features both Valais and international specialities. German and Italian dishes are included among the options.
The ride to the restaurant is pretty impressive, too. You’ll travel aboard the world’s longest underground funicular, the Metro Alpin, from Saas-Fee to Mittelallalin.
Grande Dixence Dam
The Grande Dixence Dam in the Val d’Hérémence is the world’s highest gravity dam. Here you can learn about how it was built and why, as well as seeing the inside of the structure.
There’s even a 700-metre zipline to please any adrenaline junkies.
Must-visit towns and villages in Valais
Sion in Valais is the capital of the canton, and has been settled at least since the Stone Age. It’s a well-connected place, with Switzerland’s biggest bus station, an international airport and more than 30,000 residents.
In Sion you can visit multiple museums, see one of the world’s oldest organs at the castle church, and explore the characterful old town.
Brig is the cultural and historic centre of the German-speaking part of the Valais. Brig has a a car-free centre, and a somewhat Mediterranean air.
The main square calls to mind an Italian piazza, and is lined with cafes, shops and bars. Brig also offers a centrally located and beautiful castle, the Stockalper Palace.
It’s also popular as a place to stay while exploring the region. It makes a convenient hub, as all the main sights of the Valais lie relatively close to Brig.
On an international level, Zermatt is known as the place to ski in the Valais. There are plenty of things to see and do during all seasons in Zermatt, which is known for its lively apres-ski scene.
You can also take a trip to see the Matterhorn on the iconic Gornergrat from Zermatt.
Grimentz is officially recognised as one of the most beautiful villages in Switzerland. It’s a charming spot with a long history.
The village is also set among the Val d’Anniviers network of biking and hiking trails, and also offers the Moiry Glacier plus a 3,000 square metre ski zone.
Martigny can be found in the French-speaking part of the Valais. It’s known as the home of the Saint Bernard dog.
Fondation Pierre Gianadda is also situated in Martigny, and offers a range of temporary and permanent exhibitions covering all kinds of artistic and cultural interests.
The car-free mountain village of Bettmeralp is favoured by those travelling with kids as it has been designated a Family Destination by the Swiss Tourism Federation.
With around 300 days of sunshine per year on average, the destination appeals to everyone, not just families.
There are incredible views of the Aletsch Glacier from the Bettmerhorn view point and Lake Bettmersee is the perfect place to cool off on a summer’s day.
Riederalp is also a car-free zone. It forms part of the Aletsch Arena, and lies near to the Aletsch Glacier. Hiking, golf, biking and winter sports are also big news here. This resort is another that is particularly popular with families.
A favourite family ski destination, Leukerbad is a popular place to stay in the Valais. There’s plenty of good quality accommodation in Leukerbad to choose from, as well as indoor sports venues.
Leukerbad is also famous for its hot springs, and this is the biggest thermal resort in the Alps.
Nendaz is where the Alphorn originated. You can see and even play this traditional Swiss instrument here, as Alphorn classes are available.
The area around Nendaz and Veysonnaz is also renowned for its bisses, which are agricultural water irrigation channels. Routes based along these bisses are popular with hikers.
Saillon is where you can find one of the best thermal spas in Switzerland. It’s also named as one of the most beautiful villages in Switzerland.
With a mild climate, Saillon is warm enough that fig and almond trees thrive here. If you want to spend time at a spa in Valais, head here or to Leukerbad.
Ski resorts in Valais
There’s more to Valais than the well-known ski resort of Zermatt, although it is one of the best.
Some of the world’s top ski destinations can be found in this Swiss canton, and there’s more than 2,000 kilometres of slopes to ski down. These are located within over 40 ski resorts.
The closest slopes to Geneva Airport can be found in the Four Valleys area. You can also discover six ‘family’ ski destinations in the canton, all of which have been given the Family Destination label by the Swiss Tourism Federation.
Another point to note about skiing in Valais is that there are slopes offering all grades of difficulty. You can choose between black, red and blue slopes, or even venture off onto a yellow track, which is a secure yet ungroomed skiing zone.
Here’s a little more about the top ski resorts in Valais.
With almost 40 peaks in the area, Zermatt is a world famous ski destination for a reason. You can expect sunshine here on about 300 days of the year. The resort also offers world-class dining and accommodation.
Despite its popularity, Zermatt still looks and feels in many ways like an archetypal Swiss mountain village.
Saas-Fee is where you’ll find the world’s highest revolving restaurant. There’s also 100 kilometres of groomed snow here, plus 22 ski lifts. Non-skiers can also sample the toboggan runs, one of which is 11 kilometres long.
Also not to be missed is the food at the panoramic restaurant, of course. And keep an eye out for the local marmot population!
Four Valleys (Verbier, Nendaz, Yeysonnaz, Thyon)
The Four Valleys area alone offers more than 400 kilometres of ski slopes. This is spread across some of France as well as Switzerland, and has over 6,000 metres of slopes.
On the Swiss side, there’s half a dozen lovely villages to discover, too. The Four Valleys area is also conveniently close to Geneva airport, making it the perfect pick for short breaks or when you don’t want to travel too far.
Region Dents du Midi
In the Region Dents du Midi you’ll find the largest ski area on the planet. Six hundred kilometres of piste are yours to enjoy in the region.
Here you can also sample fine local cuisine, and engage in a variety of other sporting, leisure and foodie pursuits.
Crans-Montana offers a 100,000 square metre snow park, plus lessons for all ages and ability levels. One of the attractions is the challenging Piste Nationale, which stretches for 12 kilometres.
If you’re looking for a destination where you can both ski and enjoy sumptuous spa facilities and treatments, Leukerbad could be the resort for you.
This thermal region offers skiing by day, and around 32 hot spring pools to unwind in after a hectic day on the slopes.
Animals from the Valais
The Valais is where you can see some truly unique creatures. As we mentioned earlier, the St Bernard dog hails from this region, as are the famous Valais sheep with black noses.
Other animals you may encounter during your visit include Marmots and Hérens cows.
The St Bernard dog breed originates from the St Bernard Pass, and was originally bred by monks. Now, a foundation has been created to retain this breeding within the region, although this has been relocated to Martigny down in the valley.
There is also a museum devoted to the St Bernard dogs, known informally as Barryland. Here you can see living dogs in addition to learning about their history.
Approximately twice a year, in spring and autumn, puppies are born. At that time the museum gets packed with families and the kids who want to see the adorable young pups.
During summer, you can also take a hike at the St Bernard Pass with the dogs. As folklore suggests, the hardy dogs were originally bred for rescuing people who had become lost or injured in the snow.
The local blacknose sheep are a breed from the Valais. A great place to see them is at Gornergrat above Zermatt.
At Gornergrat the animals are fitted with GPS trackers so it’s possible to track them – and ‘Meet the Sheep’ – using your smartphone. This is a popular activity, particularly among families.
The Hérens cow – or Eringer cow in German – is a black breed of fighting cow. Their natural instinct means the females fight one another, in a quest to find out who will be the Queen of the herd for the year.
You can also encounter marmots, especially in Saas-Fee. Kids will love feeding the marmot population here. Normally a shy species, the lure of carrots or peanuts is enough to tempt them out of hiding.
Valais culinary specialties and drinks
If you’re spending time in Valais, then you must sample some of the local specialities during your visit. Those to look out for include local wines, raclette, Bacchus fondue and cholera.
Wine is something you must sample while in Valais, as this is the biggest wine growing region in Switzerland.
Some grapes, such as Petite Arvine, only grow in this region, so only when you visit the canton can you taste the wines made from these rare varieties.
You can book a wine tasting experience in Les Celliers de Sion. This contemporary facility is all about wine tourism, and experiences typically last for an hour and a half. These tend to comprise a short introduction, a movie, and a wine tasting accompanied by a Valais platter.
If you do have sufficient time, it’s recommended that you visit the vineyard itself to try the wine. This way you can also see the bisses, or irrigation channels, that Nendaz in particular is famous for.
Fondue Bacchus is a food speciality of the Valais. The name refers to meat cooked in some sort of broth – or even in red wine. It’s often served alongside a wine tasting, too.
Raclette is another well-known Valais food product. There’s a special way of preparing this grilled cheese dish in the region. Half a wheel of cheese is oven-baked until it melts a little bit, then it’s scraped onto bread or vegetables.
Ideally, experience a wine tasting with the addition of raclette as the wine and cheese pairing really is perfect. It’s possible to book a hiking tour in Nendaz which ends with the fireside preparation – and eating – of raclette.
Another option is to purchase a raclette kit at the tourist board in places like Saas-Fee or the Region Dent du Midi. You can then follow the instructions before preparing your own raclette.
The Valais platter comprises cured and dried meats. Each is labelled and certified, and the platter is of course complemented by a chunk of unmelted raclette cheese.
Don’t be put off by the name! In Switzerland, Cholera is a pie combining potatoes and vegetables with raclette cheese. If you like, you can even learn to prepare this yourself when visiting the Aletsch region.
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Travelling around Valais by public transport
If you don’t want to drive while in Valais, then you may well be wondering whether or not it’s easy to get around the canton by public transport.
As with all parts of Switzerland, the public transport system is comfortable, reliable and also sustainable.
In Valais, you can travel by train, or board the famous yellow postal buses pretty much anywhere within the canton. Even villages offer regular connections by train or postal bus.
One of the easiest ways is to buy a Swiss Travel Pass in advance, to use after arriving in Switzerland. The Swiss Travel Pass includes travel by train and postal bus, plus boats and it even includes admission to over 500 museums.
The Swiss Travel Pass also provides discounts on mountain railways and cable cars. For example, a 50% discount applies for tickets for the Gornergrat railway.
If you would prefer to have all the travel and accommodation bookings made on your behalf, a rail package is the ideal solution. Not only does it take the hassle out of planing your trip, our readers can benefit from a 5% discount on the scenic rail packages from Switzerland Travel Centre, too.
How to get to Valais
Geneva to Brig, Valais
The drive from Geneva to Brig in Valais takes around two-and-a-quarter hours, and covers a distance of about 210 kilometres (or 130 miles). The train trip takes about two hours by day, or two hours and 45 minutes at night.
Zurich to Brig, Valais
Taking the train is also the fastest way to travel between Zurich and Brig. This takes around two hours and 10 minutes, or about two hours and 20 minutes via Bern. The drive between the two takes about two-and-a-half hours, and covers about 190 kilometres (or 115 miles).
Milan to Brig, Valais
You can cover the distance between Milan in Italy and Brig in Valais, Switzerland in around two hours and 20 minutes by car. The shortest journey time by train is just under two hours. The distance between Milan and Brig and Zurich and Brig is practically identical.
Arriving by Glacier Express
Brig is one of the stops of the Glacier Express route between St. Moritz and Zermatt. Whilst you can’t book just the section from Brig to Zermatt, you can travel from Brig to Chur, Samedan or St. Moritz on the Glacier Express if you don’t have time for the entire journey.
Valais itinerary for a first time visitor
If you’ve never visited the Valais before, then this is the itinerary suggested by a local expert.
You could consider arriving in Valais by hiking, rather than by driving or taking the train. The three hour route from the Bernese Overland via the Gemmi Pass to Leukerbad is ideal.
Take a break at the Gemmi Pass for local rosti with a wonderful view. After arriving in Leukerbad, you can unwind in the natural hot spring pools.
After spending time in Leukerbad, head to Brig to use as a base for exploring the region. An essential on your itinerary is to take the Gornergratbahn for the best views of the Matterhorn.
Next, maybe move on to Saas-Fee to take a glacier hike with an experienced mountain guide. Don’t forget to feed the marmots on your way back!
On a subsequent day, you could also head up to the Great Aletsch Glacier UNESCO World Heritage site, where a number of different hikes are available.
After exploring the German part of Valais, head to the French-speaking area. Here you can discover the local culture, food and wine. Take a walk by the bisses in Nendaz, try playing the Alphorn, and of course see the St Bernard dogs.
Ending your trip by Lake Geneva in the Region Dents du Midi is suggested. Here you can sample beers as well as wine, at the local breweries.
In Morgins, for example, a local brewery offers the seven different beers of the Dent du Midi, named after the peaks of the mountain range.
Though it’s actually in the canton of Vaud, you could also add musical Montreux and the Lake Geneva region onto the end of your itinerary.
Top tips for visiting Valais
If you want to visit Valais, here are some tips for making the most of your time in this lovely region.
Visit during autumn
The first tip is to visit Valais during autumn – or fall – rather than summer or winter. September and October are ideal, as the local cable cars run until at least the end of October. After harvest, the gastronomy is also at its best during this time of the year.
The autumn climate is also perfect, with temperatures of around 20°C (or 68°F).
Plan some outdoor activities
Spending lots of time outdoors can be a real highlight of any visit to Valais. Here you can hike along 800 kilometres of trails, or hop onto a road or mountain bike. Valais really is one of the world’s finest natural playgrounds.
Experience the local food and wine
Don’t miss out on trying the local food and wine while visiting the region. Many wines aren’t available outside Switzerland – or even the canton. You can also sample locally brewed beers.
Must-tries in terms of food include raclette, cholera pie, Fondue Bacchus, and the Valais platter of cured and dried meats with cheese.
See the natural wonders
Another thing not to miss out on is seeing the natural wonders of this stunning region. Take a walk on the Aletsch Glacier, and scale some peaks that are 4,000 metres high.
You can also visit a vineyard or an apricot orchard. And of course you must experience the Matterhorn at close quarters too.
Listen to our podcast episode about visiting Valais by clicking the arrow below
What is Valais Switzerland known for?
Valais in southwestern Switzerland is known for the Matterhorn, the Gornergratbahn mountain railway and the Great Aletsch Glacier. You can also find the ski resort of Zermatt here, and the region is renowned for wine and apricot production.
Animals including black nosed Valais sheep and the St Bernard dog breed also originated in the canton. Valais also offers some good spa and hot springs resorts, particularly in Leukerbad and Saillon.
Is Valais French or German?
Both French and German are spoken in Valais. French is the language of the southwestern section of the canton, while German is widely used in the northeast of Valais.
Final Thoughts about Visiting Valais
As you can see, there are so many appealing things to see and do in the Swiss canton of Valais.
This attractive southwestern corner of the country is blessed with around 300 days of sunshine per year, and is also abundant in both natural and man-made attractions.
Whether you prefer to get active, indulge in fine wine and gastronomy, encounter the local fauna, relax at a spa resort or of course take to the ski slopes, a visit to Switzerland’s third largest canton surely belongs on anyone’s bucket list.