Summer in the Swiss mountains

Amy Hopkins

written by
Amy Hopkins

updated 31.10.2023

Change is afoot in the famous Swiss ski town of Verbier. Rough Guides editor, Amy Hopkins, travels to the mountains to find out: Is Verbier’s summer the new winter?

In truth, I felt intimidated by Verbier. It brought to mind tabloid pictures of beaming royals gliding down ski slopes. I’d heard people reminisce about spending 'seasons' there as ski instructors, or holidaying in chalets borrowed from family friends. Verbier sounded like an enchanting, but exclusive holiday club for lifelong skiers - which I am not.

Yet, a recent shift has put the town on the map for those of us who can’t tell a black run from a green. Once synonymous only with well-dressed skiers, Verbier is being redefind as a summer destination. Not least because off-season hotels are a fraction of the price.

“In ten years time, Verbier’s summer season will have overtaken winter”, says Warren Smith, a Brit who made the town his home 22 years ago. It’s a surprising prediction from a man who runs a renowned ski school, but Warren can see the writing on the wall.

Rising global temperatures have subjected Verbier to snowless winters in recent years, and engulfed southern Europe in fierce, frightening heatwaves. (In mid-July, temperatures in Sicily and Sardinia exceeded 45°C, while it was 20°C cooler in the Swiss Alps). It’s no wonder travellers are looking to Verbier as an appealing summer alternative.

Gondolas glide over Verbier’s wooden chalets © Verbier Tourisme

Summer in the mountains doesn’t have to mean reaching for hiking poles or squeezing into cycling shorts. A thrillingly different kind of alpine experience can be found in the town’s burgeoning arts and cultural scene.

At the heart of this is the internationally renowned Verbier Festival, celebrating its 30th year this summer. Classical music fans are treated to over one hundred concerts, ranging from epic to intimate, as well as dozens of rehearsals and even children’s workshops. This year’s programme featured the finest emerging talents, as well as names – Plácido Domingo, Nicola Benedetti – that excite even a classical music novice like me.

I bagged one of the hottest tickets in town, a performance by Nottingham-born cellist, Sheku Kanneh-Mason. The 26-year-old shot to fame when he played to an audience of two billion at Harry and Meghan’s wedding.

I joined a more modest crowd for Kanneh-Mason’s intimate after-hours show; a blend of classical, pop and improv. It was late and I was exhausted, but I was entranced by the young cellist’s intensely expressive face and of course, by his technical wizardry.

Even if you don’t know your Brahms from your Elgar, Verbier is worth visiting during the festival. The town reverberates with an infectious feeling of creativity and camaraderie. Instruments, instead of skis, are carried on backs and music is carried on the air.

One morning, I took a violin-accompanied yoga class. On another occassion, I dined al fresco at La Nonna Italian restaurant and my bruschetta was complimented by a soprano melody that floated from the window of a nearby rehearsal room.

Violinist Nicola Benedetti performs at the Verbier Festival © Verbier Tourisme

The Verbier Festival comes and goes every summer, but a permanent hub for people with a passion for the visual arts has recently opened in the heart of the town. The first of its kind in the region, Verbier's Creative Space provides a workspace for professional artists, as well as art courses that are open to tourists. It also hosts exhibitions, film screenings and a shop where local artists sell their work.

I’ve visited similar places in the UK, but this model is different. Founder and Verbier-based artist Kiki Thompson explained: “Artists don’t pay for a space here. Instead we pay the artists. We take the risk.”

I joined a small group on an alpine drawing expedition. Kiki led us along the 3km flat hiking trail, Bisse du Levron, until we settled on a stone wall with our pads and pencils. The gently trickling water in the nearby irrigation channel provided a soothing soundtrack as Kiki encouraged us to sketch the view. She showed us how to use shading to achieve perspective between the dainty, lilac wildflowers in the grass at our feet and the dark dramatic peaks in the distance.

Alpine art: Kiki's drawing class in the moutains © Phil Hopkins

Alpine sketching wasn't high on the list of things I'd felt like doing that morning. A drink at Verbier’s No.8 Bar the previous evening had escalated into a 2am karaoke session with a group of American backpackers. However, it turned out that sharp mountain air, some good-natured teasing among friends and a little creativity is as good a hangover remedy as you’re likely to find.

Kiki is something of a pioneer in the town’s art scene. She also co-founded Verbier 3-D Foundation. The not-for-profit organisation provides residencies for artists to produce art inspired by the mountains. Their work is given a home in the Sculpture Park, a 3km trail at an altitude of 2,300km, between La Chaux and Ruinettes.

The collection of 20 or so sculptures includes one I recognised from Channel 4’s George Clark’s Amazing Spaces. The minuscule stone hut – Antoine, by Bureau A – is concealed inside a rock projection. Free to enter and use, the hut is designed to accommodate only one person. It contains the basics: bed, table, stool, window. “Verbier’s cheapest place to stay!” declared Kiki. The Sculpture Park is free to visit any time. The art pieces will remain in their alpine gallery until time or climate gets the better of them.

3D art in Verbier's Sculpture Park: 'Samsara' by Kiki Thompson © Amy Hopkins

Across the valley from Vebier is Burson, an Alpine village so typical that it’s used in scientific studies into mountain life. My visit, however, became anything but typical, when I was invited into one of Burson’s quaint houses and invited to lie down in a coffin.

From inside the padded box, I squinted up at the sliver of blue sky just visible through a hole in the ceiling. I was experiencing Kissing the Sun, an interactive art piece that features in the region’s annual PALP arts festival. This year, the festival’s theme is death. “Post-pandemic, we wanted to explore our relationship with mortality,” said festival guide, Loise, as we toured the exhibition.

Under Loise’s tutelage, I penned my own death notice, curated my funeral playlist, and gazed upon a collection of plants that hold lethal secrets (including hemlock, which was eerily familiar from yesterday’s botanical art class).

PALP’s exhibits are housed across the region, often in unexpected places such as Roman amphitheatres, remote mountain passes, vineyards and in private homes like those in Burson. “The idea is to fill all of Valais with life”, explained Loise, as he helped me out of my coffin.

The creative spirit that inspired the region’s exhibitions and festivals can be found on Verbier’s street corners, too. Outside a bar on the town’s main street, I spotted two clothing rails hung with bright vintage garms and printed retro t-shirts. The MagPie Clothing stall is right up my street (within seconds I was pawing a purple mohair cardigan) but it felt at odds with Verbier’s reputation for smart, well-heeled clientele.

According to the stall’s proprietor, Amy Hatten, “Verbier has changed.” Amy came here eight years ago, from her hometown of Slough in the UK. “There was nowhere to buy second-hand clothes in Verbier back then,” she told me, as she graciously accepted my payment for the cardigan in a confusing combination of Euro, Swiss Francs and pounds. “But there’s a real market for vintage here these days.”

Verbier summer: find creativity in a beautiful alpine setting

Feeling creative? Find inspiration in Verbier's dramatic summer landscapes © Verbier Tourisme

It was the snow that originally drew Amy to Verbier, when she came to work as a chalet girl in Richard Branson’s lodge. “But I actually haven’t skied for a couple of years,” she reflected, adjusting her oversized pink-rimmed glasses. Now, she prefers Verbier in the summer – and she’s not alone.

The warmer months have long played second fiddle to Verbier’s famous winters, but alpine summers are gaining momentum with every passing year. Summer travellers are turning to Verbier as a refuge from the heat of southern Europe and a place to enjoy off-season hotel deals. What's more, summer brings a fresh burst of creativity, and with it, a new artsy crowd. Switzerland’s legendry alpine town is no longer the reserve of swanky skiers – and certainly nothing to be intimated by.

  • Experimental Chalet is a four-star traditional Swiss-chalet style hotel, with retro-style interiors, balconies and a spa. A three-night stay starts at £240 pp, based on two people sharing. Breakfast included.
  • Return direct flights from London Heathrow to Geneva cost from £102 with Swiss.
  • A first-class, return train ticket from Geneva Airport to Verbier costs from £69
  • The Verbier Infinite Playground Pass (VIP PASS) is issued to all guests staying for a minimum of one night in the Verbier, Val de Bagnes or La Tzoumaz regions. Visitors get free pedestrian passes on gondolas and free local bus travel. The pass includes more than 40 activities for free, including swimming in an outdoor pool.

Find out more about Verbier.

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Published 15 August 2023

Amy Hopkins

written by
Amy Hopkins

updated 31.10.2023

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