Road trip across Valais
Along the Rhône valley in 13 steps
The main valley of Valais is a world apart: a land of its own within Switzerland, full of contrasts. Shaped by the River Rhône and framed by the vineyards on the sunny slopes, Valais boasts an exceptionally rich cultural and natural heritage. Here we recommend a few sights for which it is worth planning a stop or a detour along your journey through Valais.
1) Valais by the lake
Valais extends as far as the southern shores of Lake Geneva. Two charming excursion destinations by the lake are the village of St-Gingolph, bordering Haute-Savoie and home to the “Museum of Traditions and Boats of Lake Geneva”, and the small port of Le Bouveret.
Family tip: Two popular leisure parks are located in Le Bouveret: the “Swiss Vapeur Parc”, with miniature trains that visitors can ride, and the “AquaParc” adventure water park.
2) Ancient St-Maurice
St-Maurice was once the Celtic settlement of Acauno, later a Roman customs post and then a place of pilgrimage along the “Via Francigena”, which links Rome and Canterbury. An abbey was founded here in AD 515 and has remained inhabited ever since, without interruption. The abbey treasury and the archaeological excavation site here are among the most significant in the history of the church. You can explore further aspects of St-Maurice’s exceptionally rich history at the town’s castle, in the “fairy grotto” and at the underground military fortress.St-Maurice
3) Martigny: town of art and history
Celtic tribes, the ancient Romans and Napoleon’s troops all left their mark on Martigny, strategically located where the Rhône turns abruptly to the right on its journey to Lake Geneva. Visitors can admire the restored amphitheatre alongside remains of Roman baths, temples and residential areas. Martigny was also home to Switzerland’s first bishop; several sacred and secular buildings in the older neighbourhoods of La Bâtiaz and Vieux-Bourg bear witness to this rich history. Nearby, the Fondation Pierre Gianadda is internationally renowned for its exhibitions of work by world-famous artists.
Family tip: Learn all about the iconic local dog breed at the adjacent Fondation Barry, named after the most famous St Bernard of all time.
4) The forger Farinet and the thermal spa
Today, Saillon is known above all for its thermal springs and spacious spa. In the 19th century, the village was renowned as a refuge of the counterfeiter Joseph-Samuel Farinet, dubbed the “Robin Hood of the Alps”. The “Museum of Counterfeit Money”, founded in his honour in the medieval fortified heart of the village, houses an impressive collection of genuine and forged Swiss currency. The world’s smallest vineyard lies close by: the “Vigne à Farinet” consists of just three vine stocks yet is world-famous.
5) City of two castles
Sion makes a lively and stylish capital of Valais. Bistros and cafes line the historical alleys of the Old Town, while top-class restaurants confirm Sion’s status as a gourmet capital full of charm – which you can literally taste at the colourful Friday market. Two castles – Tourbillon and Valère – tower over the Old Town, recalling a rich history and providing impressive landmarks. The range of cultural attractions is as varied as the choice of excursion destinations around the city. Europe’s largest navigable subterranean lake, for example, lies under the neighbouring village of St-Léonard.Sion
6) The dramatic Grande Dixence dam
To reach the Grande Dixence, the world’s tallest gravity dam, you leave the Rhône by Sion to head up a side valley, the Val d’Hérens. The record-breaking structure weighs no less than 15 million tons – more than the Great Pyramid of Giza. You can visit the Grande Dixence from mid-June to late September; guided tours of the interior take place daily. It is also well worth exploring the information pavilion and heading up to the crest of the dam, which you can access on foot or by cable car.
7) Sierre wine region
Framed by vineyards, Sierre is the heart of one of Switzerland’s largest wine regions. Learn all about Valais winemaking traditions, the different grape varieties and the work of the winemakers at the Wine Museum of Valais. The museum’s two exhibition spaces in Sierre and Salgesch are linked by a six-kilometre theme trail through the vineyards. At the Château de Villa in Sierre, enthusiasts can choose from 650 of the finest Valais wines as well as top-quality Raclette du Valais AOP cheese.Activities in Sierre
8) Pfyn-Finges Nature Park
The Pfyn-Finges Nature Park extends from Sierre to Gampel on the valley floor and from the terraced vineyards around Salgesch to the summit of the Bishorn at an altitude of 4,153 metres. The park includes the nature reserve of the Pfyn-Finges forest, the largest continuous pine forest in central Europe, and boasts exceptional biodiversity.
Family tip: explore the Nature Park by bike or on a themed walk led by an expert guide.
9) The pristine Lötschental
The wild and beautiful Lötschental is the most northerly side valley of Valais, located between the Bernese and Valais Alps. This is heaven for hikers, nature lovers and anyone who enjoys a total escape. The valley’s former seclusion enabled the survival of ancient traditions and customs – such as that of the “Tschäggättä”, fantastical figures that prowl through the alleys during Carnival time.Lötschental
10) Gateway to the Simplon
The town of Brig lies on the Simplon route linking Valais with Italy, which was developed into an important trading route across the Alps in the 17th century by the local entrepreneur Kaspar von Stockalper. His extravagant home is now Brig’s most famous landmark, the Stockalper Palace, which houses an exhibition on the history of the Simplon Pass and also boasts a magnificent garden. Visitors to Brig note a distinctly Mediterranean flavour – from the lively Old Town to the Mund saffron AOP, cultivated on the slopes above.
11) Great Aletsch Glacier
With a length of 23 kilometres, the Great Aletsch Glacier is the mightiest river of ice in the Alps: everyone should see it at least once in a lifetime. Family tip: Before heading up to one of the Viewpoints in the Aletsch Arena that overlook the glacier, we recommend a visit to the “World Nature Forum” in Naters. This modern museum is the official visitor centre for the World Heritage Site of “Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch” and provides the best possible introduction. The interactive exhibition invites you to experience the region with all your senses and discover its diversity, beauty and the challenges that it faces.
12) Binntal Landscape Park
The Binntal has long been known for its wealth of minerals, which attracted smugglers, prospectors and eventually tourists. The park’s pristine natural landscapes extend from the mountain summits to the edges of the villages: famous for their authentic charm, they have won awards for their outstanding state of conservation.Binn
13) The Goms and the iconic Alpine passes
The sunny Goms – as the uppermost stretch of the Rhône valley is known – and its authentic villages are real oases of tranquillity. The ancient settlements lie dotted along the course of the Rhône, which springs from the Rhône Glacier in the Gotthard massif. Iconic mountain passes link the Goms with neighbouring regions including Uri (Furka Pass), the Bernese Oberland (Grimsel Pass) and Ticino (Nufenen Pass). The roads are especially popular with cycling enthusiasts and motorcyclists – and delight drivers, too.
Family tip: Board a steam train at Oberwald for a ride along the scenic Furka summit line.