The choice of Winter Sports destinations in Switzerland is huge and varied. On this page I will help you navigate the options by giving you some broad pointers on where to go by region alongside various other criteria. My personal favourites are all listed at the bottom of the page and these have been selected based on my own preferences which are: an absence of queues, few surface lifts, a long season and a good range of runs. I could also add beautiful settings and good transport links, but that would apply to virtually every resort in Switzerland... and there are a lot to choose from, over 200 by my reckoning. I live in Switzerland so what you read here is all based on personal experience.
If you want to delve further into the more obscure Swiss resorts or have specific requirements, my resort finder allows you to select from a wider range of destinations by various characteristics of the resorts or by my rating of them. The section on Getting About also provides details on a wider range of resorts and let you know how long it takes to get to them by public transport and road from major regional hubs. If the quality of the lodging is as important as the resort, visit my Where to Stay page.
The main winter sports destinations in Switzerland are in the Swiss Alps, which I have arbitrarily divided up into five regions: The cantons of Graubünden, Vaud and Valais, the Bernese Oberland in canton Bern, and, collectively, those resorts located in various small cantons across Central and Eastern Switzerland, including Ticino.
Winter sports in Switzerland, however, are not confined to the Alpine region. The Jura has a number of small, low-lying resorts which are good for learners and early intermediate downhill skiers and snowboarders, but they suffer from short, unpredictable seasons and are invariably served by surface lifts more than chair lifts - and I am not a great fan of T-bars in particular. However the Jura is often good for tobogganing, winter walks, snowshoe walking and both classical and skating cross-country. From the top of the Jura, a mountain range created by the aftershock of the formation of the Alps, you can look across the Schweizer Mitteland or Lake Geneva to see the wonderful spectacle of the Alps themselves.
Another popular winter sport in Switzerland is ice skating, and many towns have a public ice rink and an ice hockey team. In addition, the larger towns also provide a number of other diversions, such as Christmas markets, concerts and professional football games - Basel has recently hosted, and beaten, Manchester United and Bayern Munich in the Champions League - and the usual shopping, dining and entertainment options. Accompanying the excellent transport infrastructure in Switzerland, this makes towns such as Basel, Zürich, Geneva, Luzern, Fribourg, Lugano, Lausanne, Interlaken, Bern, Chur and Sion feasible bases for a Winter holiday where downhill skiing and snowboarding may not be the only activities you wish to pursue. Basel, Zürich and Geneva all have large airports , whilst Bern, Lugano and Sion also have smaller international airports.
You may want to choose somewhere scenic for a vacation in Switzerland, but I'm not going to help you there. I can't think of any resort in Switzerland that I've been to which isn't scenic. Davos and St Moritz are a not as chocolate box pretty as smaller resorts, but the land of Le Corbusier has been gentle on the architectural harmony of the Alps.
Before exploring the main winter sports regions in Switzerland, it is worthwhile mentioning the winter sports areas in neighbouring countries. From Geneva, Chamonix/Mont Blanc and many other French ski areas are relatively easy to get to. From Zürich it is feasible to access the Austrian resorts of St Anton, Lech and Ischgl by car (the latter of which shares the Silvretta Arena with Samnaun in Switzerland). From Basel and Zürich it is also possible to ski or snowboard tiny Liechenstein at Malbun. Basel also makes a good base for the Black Forest resort of Feldberg, the largest German winter sports destination outside the Alps. The attractive Fribourg Region, in the shadow of the main Alpine range with a few small resorts, is also relatively easy to get to from Basel and Geneva.
The Bernese Oberland is the most convenient destination for people flying into Basel or Bern, and for daytrippers from these cities. It includes some of the most beautiful resorts in the world. Under the peaks of the Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau and Schilthorn, the stunning Jungfrau resorts include Wengen, Mürren and Grindelwald. Gstaad, together with the surrounding villages in beautiful Saanenland, and Adelboden-Lenk are also important Winter Sports resorts. On the whole the pistes of the Bernese Oberland do not get too crowded in peak season or at weekends and (apart from Mürren) make a good choice for beginners and intermediates. The snow record for the Bernese resorts is good, but Gstaad suffers most if Spring comes early.
Dotted above the Rhône valley, the Valais features some of the most iconic and snow-sure resorts in the world, notably Verbier, Zermatt and Saas-Fee. However the canton features a host of delightful gems that are little known outside Switzerland and offer queue-free lifts at almost any time in the season. Personal favourites are the Aletsch Arena and the villages of Val D'Anniviers (Saint Luc, Chandolin, Zinal and Grimentz). Small, but perfectly formed is enchanting Lauchernalp in the remote Lötschental valley and Belalp near the Aletsch Glacier. On the whole, you will get the most out of Valais if you are at least intermediate standard.
The canton of Graubünden (or Grisons) has both the Rhine and the En (or Inn) rivers flow through it. It is best known as the birthplace of Alpine winter holidays and home to some of the longest established and most distinguished resorts. Famous destinations include the significant towns of St Moritz and Davos, but there are many lesser known villages that deserve more international recognition and a host of small, beautiful valleys with a good range of family-oriented facilities. Flims and Laax in particular are outstanding, especially for snowboarders, and Lenzerheide is a wonderful but often overlooked destination. Celerina and Silvaplana/Surlej are excellent (and cheaper) alternatives to St Moritz to enjoy the Upper Engadine, whilst Scuol is a small but outstanding medium-sized resort in the Lower Engadine.
The Alps in French-speaking Vaud are convenient for day trips from around Lake Geneva. I particularly like Les Diablerets, which shares one set of pistes with Villars, has its own local pistes and also has access to Glacier3000. Leysin is popular with boarders. There are also some small resorts in the Jura in Canton Vaud which represent the closest places to ski or snowboard from Geneva.
From Obertoggenburg in the North, to Italian-speaking Airolo in the South, Central and Eastern Switzerland includes a number of excellent small and medium-sized resorts. Convenient for Zürich, some of these can get busy at weekends - although long queues are rare. My favourites include Andermatt, Hoch Ybrig, Pizol and Sörenberg. Although this part of Switzerland lacks the famous names of Valais, Graubünden and the Bernese Oberland, there are some good destinations for families and beginners, and plenty to keep experienced riders happy.
Swiss Rail run the Snow'n'Rail scheme which provides substantial discounts on lift passes together with an associated ticket for rail and bus transport (see the Getting Around section). Passes can generally be purchased which cover only the lifts associated with one resort, part of a larger area, a whole winter sports area or multiple resorts and winter sports areas. The main multi-resort area passes are Central Switzerland Snow Pass, Swiss Knife Snow Pass (which covers some small resorts in or around canton Schwyz), Alpes Vaudoises Free Pass and the Valais Ski Card. Many resorts will also allow children to use the lifts for free, provide discounts for residents, seniors and younger people, and may even include lift passes as part of the price of your accomodation. Season tickets clearly provide the best value, and one of the best is the Topcard, which covers Davos Klosters, Flims Laax Falera and Lenzerheide for a season.
All year round there is somewhere to ski or snowboard in Switzerland. It has the highest resorts in the Alps and some mountains that get good big dumps right through the winter. Zermatt and Saas-Fee have the longest seasons, but many of the resorts with glaciers are open from December, or earlier, through late April. However in January and February some of these resorts can be quite bleak, and the lower South-facing resorts like Crans-Montana and Leukerbad come into their own. As a general rule though, resorts with top stations above 2500m will have good snow from Christmas until late March, and if the resort is at 1000m or higher the chances are at least one resort run will be kept open throughout this period. Without regular snowfall, South-facing resorts at the same altitude will tend to have shorter seasons than ones with North-facing slopes. Most of the significant resorts in Graubünden, the Bernese Oberland, Uri and those South of the Rhone valley in Valais have largely North-facing slopes.
Switzerland is one of the best places in the world to find lift-served off-piste with most resorts having relatively safe off-piste areas, sometimes as designated freeride areas, sometimes marked as unprepared trails (yellow routes on piste maps) and often between and alongside pistes. Be aware that these areas are not usually patrolled and can be prone to avalanches if they are roped off, steep or bounded by areas with severe gradients uphill of where you are riding.
Belalp and Zinal are two of my favourite resorts for sheltered freeride areas. Of course, if there is not fresh snow many of these off-piste slopes get tracked out quickly, and it is tempting to be more adventurous. Resorts like Verbier, Davos, Engelberg and Andermatt have some excellent off-piste that is relatively accessible, where you can lay fresh tracks even when there is no new snow - although these slopes should only be attempted with someone who knows the area and with appropriate safety gear. In my experience most Swiss resorts have some fabulous off-piste of varying difficulty if you invest in using a guide to help you find them - often the ski schools will do ski guiding, but you usually have plenty of choice of professional guides throughout Switzerland. One of the reasons for this is the popularity of back-country skiing in Switzerland.
Back-country skiing takes you away from the pistes across some of the most beautiful Alpine scenery. People usually try and begin a day back-country by using resort lifts then walking away from the resorts to find unprepared snow outside the boundaries of the ski resort. A lot of the best of back-country skiing and snowboarding happens in the late season, and is generally high, so Valais and Graubünden are particularly popular. The level of difficulty varies, although as a minimum you should feel confident off-piste. There is some excellent back-country ski and snowboarding you can do without skins or snowshoes (e.g. the Vallée Blanche in Chamonix), but the best of it usually requires you to walk some distance uphill and some requires ski mountaineering skills. It is possible to stay high for several days, for example following one or other variation of the "Haute Route" between Chamonix (or Verbier) and Zermatt, staying overnight in the 153 all-year ski huts dotted around the Swiss Alps. Incidentally the ski huts are not always staffed even if they are open. Those on the Haute Route are fully staffed from around the third week of March until the mid-May, the high season for this route, obviating the need to take food and wine with you.
I usually ski, but I do snowboard and often ski with friends who snowboard, and the main differences I guess in terrain are that surface lifts and flat spots, where you need to unclip and walk, seem to be the biggest turn-offs. The presence of good parks and lift-served off-piste are probably the biggest turn-ons. The resorts I mentioned above regarding off-piste are all good for boarders, and to that list I would add Flims Laax Falera, Saas-Fee, Samnaun/Ishgl, Zermatt and Adelboden. For day trips out of Basel I reckon the slopes around Gstaad are very under-rated, with almost no surface lifts and no flat spots - particularly the runs accessible out of Zweisimmen. From Zurich Braunwald is a small but convenient destination for boarders and not usually as busy as some of the better known destinations. In fact, all round, Switzerland probably caters for boarders better than anywhere else in the world, and woke up to the snowboard revolution whilst other countries sniffed at the thought of sharing their mountains with the newcomers.
Of the parks that also include half-pipes, Flims Laax Falera is the resort of choice for Swiss boarders and freestylers, but Saas-Fee has the highest half-pipes in Europe, open long after most have turned to mush. The First area at Grindelwald has a useful park and a good half-pipe if conditions allow. The park at Adelboden is highly regarded even if the apres ski is more muted. Amongst the clutch of mountains around Davos the Jakobshorn is the mountain where the main park and half-pipes are to be found. Leysin also has a park and a half-pipe, and has established a reputation as the best place for boarders and freestyle in Romandie. Even smaller resorts in Switzerland usually have a park, although many of these tend to be served by surface lifts. The park with the most enormous series of jumps I know of is Hoch-Ybrig, the park with the most rails would probably be Melchsee-Frutt - both of these parks are served by chair-lifts.
Although Switzerland has a host more winter sports activities and more rustic Alpine charm than anywhere else, the nightlife rarely matches that of the best Austrian resorts and a big session out can easily slim your wallet very quickly. However, if you want to party hard Verbier and Zermatt, the latter rated as having the best après ski in the world at the 2012 World Snow Awards, should press all the right buttons. Flims/Laax, Davos, Saas-Fee, Villars, Grindelwald, and Engelberg can also get very lively. Depending on your taste, you can usually find, in most resorts, a scenic terrace for a reflective glass of Fendant or Dole on your last run down, or a busy bar with beer, schnapps and loud music. A lot of the après later on is based in hotels, with non-residents welcome.
In the resort finder you can open up a table of resorts where you can see which have been designated by the Swiss Tourist Board as family-friendly and which have thermal spas. At other resorts there are hotels which cater well for families or have their own spas, which you can see from the table in Where to Stay. On the whole, however, Swizerland caters well for families, beginners and people who don't want to do downhill sports. The winter tourist industry was established in Switzerland long before other countries and is more varied than just downhill sports with extensive cross-country facilities, toboggan runs, winter walks and ice-skating facilities, as well as numerous other diversions such as sightseeing, shopping and fine dining. The fact that most resorts are traditional mountain communities means there is always a host of things to do and see. The geology, flora and fauna and history of many of the mountain valleys is fascinating.
For beginners, virtually every resort has adequate facilities, but my overall recommendation would be to avoid Zermatt, Engelberg, Verbier (although Nendaz in the Four Valleys is family-friendly and has a good nursery area), Murren and Andermatt. That is not to say you cannot learn at these resorts, but the expense does not justify the relatively limited facilities for beginners compared to other resorts. Even in small resorts ski instructors generally speak English, or you will be assigned one who does. If your resort is not on the package tour circuit you may find yourself in a class with other people who do not speak English though. I recall my kids in a ski class where the instructor was speaking Swiss German, High German, French, Italian and English to cater for all the people in the group!
I've tried them, but admit that downhill is my preference. However, travelling around on trains and buses and meeting people in resorts, I've learnt a lot about where to go to pursue other winter sports. I have listed on my resort finder a rating of resorts for other winter sports, based largely on extent and reputation, and on each resort page there is a summary of the length of the trails available based on information from the resorts themselves, and any tips I have gleaned. I am always keen to hear recommendations on good family-friendly winter walks too.
Switzerland is a perfect getaway for short breaks. There are many snowsure resorts and the efficient transport systems ensure the door-to-door journey is hassle free, at least once you arrive in Switzerland! There are airports in Berne and Sion, plus private airports near Gstaad and St Moritz, but the chances are you that if you fly, you will fly into Basel, Zurich or Geneva. Follow the links to see transfer times - the Geneva page also covers Lausanne.
Saas-Fee has summer skiing, although the slopes do close for a few weeks. Zermatt, however, is open all season long and for the summer season (from May until November) there is approximately 20km piste, a snowpark and 7 lifts. Ski and snowboard lessons are also available. The runs as far down as Furgg are often open in May and November giving at least another 7km of piste. Unfortunately the lift passes for summer skiing are almost the same price as the winter passes, but the lifts do start earlier, as early as 7am - which is good, as even at 3000m the snow gets heavy in the afternoon and is at its best early.