The Valais is exactly that: a long, narrow, L-shaped valley which was cut by glaciers between two alpine mountain ranges. The main cities in the region are along the river Rhone which cuts through the bottom of the valley, between its source at the Rhone glacier in the east and its temporary destination of Lake Geneva in the west. The main tourist resorts and many small villages are in the side valleys to the north or the south.
Valais offers an amazing diversity of landscapes. Within a few kilometres there are the highest glaciers and mountains of the Alps and almost subtropical places where even almond and pomegranate trees grow.
Some of the best spring skiing in the world is available in the Valais, at prices which although high beat the equivalent offerings in Colorado.
- Upper Valais -- Swiss-German speaking, eastern part of Valais
- Lower Valais -- French speaking, western part of Valais
- Sion - The political centre and capital of the Valais
- Anzère - The sunniest spot in Switzerland lying at 1500m above the Rhone Valley, ski resorts, bars, hostel.
- Brig - The centre of Swiss-German speaking Valais, Stockalper castle
- Fiesch - a beautiful village in the upper Valais, at the foot of the Eggishorn.
- La Fouly
- Martigny - old Roman town at the bend in the valley with museums and great views
- Monthey - a town located near skiable pistes (Champery, Morgins), but not so far from the Geneva lake( 45 minutes from Lausanne, 1 hour and a half from Geneva).
- Saas-Fee - possibly the best place in the world to snowboard
- Saint-Maurice - a small town down in the valley.
- Verbier - first class ski destination with lots of English and Australian visitors throughout the ski season
- Visp - the second major Swiss-German speaking town, important centre of industry
- Zermatt - the Matterhorn, skiing, glaciers, views
- The St. Bernard Pass - a pass to Italy, origin of the Bernhardine rescue dogs
- Les 4 Vallées - A single lift ticket covers this huge ski area in French speaking Valais
- Simplon - a high mountain village and a pass through the mountains to Italy
- Turtmann - a nice little village with traditional houses with several theme walking trails.
The language divide between French and German speaking Switzerland runs through the Valais. German is spoken in the upper (eastern) part of the Rhone valley. French is spoken in the lower (western) part down to Lake Geneva. The city of Sierre (German: Siders) makes up the border between the two regions and is one of the few cities in Switzerland to be officially bilingual. English is widely spoken and understood in towns and touristy areas, but by no means universal.
The dialect spoken in the German speaking part of the Valais is classified as Highest Alemannic and is vastly different from standard German. It is different also from the other variants of Swiss German to the point where it can be hard for even Swiss people to understand the locals. The language is highly localised and it is generally possible to identify someone's home village or valley by their dialect. The most rustic (and interesting) variations are usually found in the side valleys such as Lötschental, the Goms, the Mattertal or the Saastal. Most locals will prefer to speak to outsiders in High German, which is universally understood and spoken (albeit with a heavy accent).
People in the lower part of Valais speak standard French with sometimes a heavy local accent. There is however a dialect still spoken in some areas in the central areas of the Valais. Called Arpitan or simply Patois, this language seems to be slowly disappearing and as a traveller you are unlikely to ever encounter it. Virtually all its speakers also speak French and will usually use French when talking to outsiders.
The nearest international airport is either Geneva for the western part of Valais or Zurich for the eastern part. Direct trains depart from both airports for Brig. It is also possible to fly into Milano Malpensa Airport instead. The journey is not much longer; however, there are fewer connections available and there are no direct trains from the airport. There is a small airport in Sion, but it is served by very few seasonal routes.
The train from Geneva airport runs twice an hour along the main Rhone valley through most of the canton, stopping at stations including Saint-Maurice (1:40hr, not all trains stop), Martigny (1:51hr), Sion (2:05hr), Leuk (2:21 hr, not all trains stop), Visp (2:32 hr) and finally Brig (2:41hr). The train from Zurich Airport runs hourly and stops at Visp (2:22hr) and Brig (2:33hr) passing through the 34-km-long Lötschberg base tunnel. For a more scenic journey, the route through the old Lötschberg tunnel still runs. It requires a change of train in Bern, Thun or Spiez and takes around an hour longer to reach Brig. It offers a nice view on the Rhone valley as it slowly descends the side of the mountain. This train is popular among hikers, as it has a supplementary stop at Goppenstein, giving access to the Lötschental, as well as a couple stops on demand along the way to Brig passing through a popular hiking area.
Swiss railways (SBB-CFF) in the main valley. Buses span out from the many train stations in the valley and go to almost every inch of the region. The main interchange station for the region is Brig, where trains from the north (Basel, Berne, Zurich) meet trains from the west(Geneva, Lausanne, Sion) and Italy (Milan).
The train from Brig to Zermatt is run by a private company and is expensive. The journey is stunning, and is the only way to get to the centre of Zermatt, as the village is car-free.
Lower part of Valais
- At Martigny, visit the Gianadda museum (): sculptures and paintings, history of the city (especially when the region was part of the Roman empire)
- Near Martigny (Vernayaz): the Pissevache cascade and the Gorges du Trient
- If you happen to be in Valais during Carnival, don't miss the carnivals of Sion and Monthey
- Easily accessible in the summer, the Great St. Bernard Hospice is a monastery situated on top of the St Bernard Pass. It is possible to eat with the monks and even stay the night. The monastery is open in the winter, but only accessible by helicopter or skis.
- Heli-skiing is available in the winter, and you don't have to be an advanced skier to experience back-country terrain via helicopter. Most heli-ski companies are based in Anzere.
Middle part of Valais
- At Sion, the basilica of Valère on top of a hill with the oldest organ in Europe. On the opposite hill, the ruins of the Castle of Tourbillon, very nice view on the city and the valley.
- Fondue - Melted Swiss cheese in a pot, dipped with pieces of bread on a fork. There are some variants, which however are more of a novelty :
- tomatoes mixed with cheese
- chocolate instead of cheese
- using vegetables (carrots) instead of bread
- Raclette - Another fancy of melted cheese, with potatoes and gherkins
- Croûte au fromage / Käseschnitte - A slice of bread dipped into Fendant wine, then baked with a lot of cheese on top. Usually garnished with gherkins and pearl onions.
- Assiette valaisanne - A cold platter usually including local sour dough rye bread, dried meat, raw preserved ham, local cheeses and local sausages.
- Cholera - Pastry made of potatoes, apples, onions and cheese
- Brisolée - Hot chestnuts with butter, bread, thin slices of dry-cured and smoked meat
- Apricots - The region is known for its apricots. During the season (around July), local apricots are sold in both supermarkets and along major roads. Make sure that you are buying those labelled with 'Wallis' or 'Valais', as vendors will try to sell cheaper imported apricots. Outside the season apricots can be found in alcoholic form, called Apricotine.
A great diversity of world-class wines. The landscape in the main valley is covered by vineyards.
- Avalanches are a real danger in winter and spring. Marked slopes in ski resorts are usually safe. When skiing outside of those or when going on alpine tours, the official avalanche bulletin should be consulted. (This is usually also available at the local tourist office and cable car.) If you don't have any experience in off-slope skiing or mountaineering, you should hire a mountain guide. Note that if you have to be saved after putting yourself in a dangerous situation, you will have to foot the bill for the helicopter rescue yourself. This is billed by the flight minute and easily amounts to several thousand francs.
- You might encounter warning signs, not to enter the bed of a river. They are usually placed along rivers below hydroelectric power plants and should be taken seriously. The rivers usually have very little flowing water (due to most of it being held back by the dam), but can swell to fill much of the space between their banks within a very short time when water is released. Water release can happen independently of time of the day or weather conditions. This leads to accidents every now and then, which usually end fatally due to the very strong current.
In the Valais Region
- Visit the main mountain resorts Zermatt, Saas-Fee and Champery.
- Brig and Sion for shopping
- Get a rail pass and see the area from a train or bus
- Domodossola for cheap everything compared to Swiss prices. Direct train every 2 hours from Brig station. NOTE: Domodossola is in Italy so a passport is required. Also don't go too mad shopping as there are border patrols on the way back and they can search you and make you pay tax.
- Berne — Nice day out
- Lausanne — As above