Switzerland is a nice, compact little nation. It’s barely 140 by 220 miles, and you could easily drive across it in a day. From many parts of the country, you could even go to a neighboring one (Austria, France, Germany, or Italy) for lunch, and be back in time for dinner.
And yet, Switzerland boasts a total of well over 3000 miles of railways. And not just any railroad. The Swiss railways literally go through mountains, and across perilous chasms. The railway lines of the world’s most neutral country are astonishing feats of engineering, sections of which need to be seen to be believed. A train journey in the heart of Switzerland means countless tunnels—each emerging into scenery more spectacular than the one before—and upon the bridge. bridge. bridge over deep valleys. Not to mention the hairpin bends and a few impressively steep inclines thrown in for good measure!
The Swiss use their trains to get around, and there are rail links and daily services connecting all the major cities. But such is the lie of the land that even if you just want to get from A to B, your journey will take you along parts of the great scenic routes through Switzerland’s picture-postcard Alpine landscapes. Train travel is, in fact, one of the very best ways to discover Switzerland. From the comfort of your seat in a panoramic tourist train, you’ll be able to take in the changing scenery through enormous windows. And most tourist destinations are accessible by rail, which remains the safest, most hassle-free and most efficient way to get around, even when the mountain weather gets a bit temperamental!
And if sustainability and carbon footprint are a concern, know that on average a car would require six times more energy, and emit almost 30 times more CO2 than a train, for any given journey.
Quality is often reflected in the cost of a service, and riding in the comfort and luxury that Swiss trains offer can add up. For tourist trains, advanced booking can help secure great Super Saver deals. Regular scheduled services cost less and require no prior booking. A rail pass can be a good idea too. But Swiss trains are always worth the investment, because there’s literally nowhere else on earth to get quite such an unforgettable experience of rail travel. Let’s look at some of Switzerland’s greatest railway treasures.
The Bernina Express
In 218 BC, Hannibal crossed the Swiss Alps into Italy, with an army and his elephants. Nowadays, you can do it aboard the Bernina Express. The train runs from the medieval city of Chur in eastern Switzerland, to Turin in northern Italy, along a one-meter gauge single track. Along the way, it passes no less than 55 tunnels and 196 bridges, and includes inclines with a 7% gradient, all in the space of a 4-hour trip. The high point – both physically and metaphorically – is the Bernina Pass. At 7400 feet above sea level, in winter the pass is like a snowy wonderland, and in summer, it is high enough to afford glimpses of glaciers.
The Bernina Express railway was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. This is a great rail journey if you want to experience an integral crossing of the Alps. Reservations are mandatory, and advance booking is strongly advised.
The Glacier Express may be the most well-known panoramic train in the Alps. The ride gives travelers a full 8 hours of varied mountain landscapes in all directions, so the journey is a bit like being in an enormous 360 degree movie theater. Though the route doesn’t rise quite as high as the Bernina line, it requires 291 bridges and 91 tunnels to connect Saint Moritz and Zermatt, a distance of some 180 miles. The Glacier Express is fondly referred to as the world’s slowest express train in the world, as it takes its time through the heart of Switzerland, offering travelers views of the indomitable Matterhorn, and the sparkling Rhône valley below.
Widely considered the most picturesque long train ride in Switzerland, the Glacier Express is a must-do experience. Reservations are mandatory for this itinerary, and advance booking is highly recommended.
Golden Pass Line
A landscape photographer’s dream, the 6 hours and 119 miles of the Golden Pass line, serviced by three trains, for its three sections, winds alongside eight lakes and across three mountain passes. This is one of the most varied itineraries in Switzerland. From the town of Lucerne in the center of the country, the line ends on the shores of Lake Geneva. The final pass, near Saanen Moser, is the highest point of the journey at 4200 feet, and the descent to Lake Geneva is steep enough that the last twenty minutes require a cogwheel track and carefully engineered bends.
Changing trains on the Golden Pass Line means it is easy to split the journey into parts, and explore a little of Switzerland along the way. No reservation is necessary to travel this line, however, it is advisable to book for the last section, between Zweisimmen and Montreux, as it is the most popular.
Gotthard Panorama Express
Another line leaving from Lucerne, this is a historic railway that heads due South to the town of Lugano, by the lake of the same name. And it is a train journey with a twist – the first half of the five-and-a-half-hour trip happens by boat! You’ll also travel from the fir-tree lined shores around Lucerne Lake, to those dotted with palm trees in Lugano, near the Italian border!
The steamboat cruise is a leisurely two and three-quarter hours, with broad, vista views from a relatively low altitude of 1300 feet. From Flüelen boat harbor, you’ll have another two and a half hours on board a train to enjoy the changing landscape – except for twenty minutes in the Gotthard Basistunnel—at a staggering 35 miles, it is the world’s longest tunnel, and literally cuts straight through the Alps. The open landscape all around on the other side carries you through areas reminiscent of the old movie “Heidi”, to the warm and wine-growing parts of the South.
Reservations are required for this trip and cost a small fee.
Mount Pilatus and the Gornergrat Cogwheel Railway
The Swiss know all about manufacturing perfect cogwheels – from the tiny ones in precision engineered watches, to those on the carriages that climb Mount Pilatus, on the “steepest cogwheel railway in the world”. The 30-minute ride can be a little nerve-racking – the track climbs one vertical mile in the space of less than three horizontal ones, with gradients of up to 48%, on the flank of the mountain! The railway operates from May to September, the perfect season for clear views from the summit, at almost 7000 feet. Visitors can gaze down on Lake Alpnach, where the railway begins, and further out over Lucerne and for miles beyond.
In terms of spectacle for your eyes, Gornergrat is the premium version of the cog railway experience. From the village of Zermatt, at 5300 feet above sea level, the railway climbs in a smooth 33 minutes to almost 10,000. From the summit of Gornergrat, you’ll see peaks and glaciers for miles around, not to mention the view of the iconic Matterhorn. On top of that, if you take a stroll around the summit, you’ll have the friendly company of Zermatt black-nosed sheep – and no rail journey is complete without mingling with the locals, right?
The Voralpen Express is an ordinary Swiss train – but ‘ordinary’ by Swiss standards still means relaxed comfort! It runs between Saint Gallen, near the border with Austria, and Lucerne. Since it’s not a tourist train, you’ll journey more with locals and less among foreign travelers, and also see another side of Switzerland. The Voralpen route reveals pastoral Switzerland, with its quaint rural villages, rolling hills, and orchards.
This is a great trip to take you gently, and at your own pace, to Lucerne, from where you can connect to a scenic train. As an ordinary scheduled service train, no reservation is required, and you can get off at will.
Grand Train Tour of Switzerland
Phileas Fogg went around the world in 80 days. If the train rides above have whet your appetite, and you want to dream bigger, you could go right around Switzerland in 8! Several variations on Europe’s most spectacular and scenic train tour are on offer, but whichever one you choose, you’ll get to ride all of Switzerland’s panoramic trains and travel some 800 miles. The tour visits the most popular tourist destinations in the country, passes through all four language regions, and the best bit is, you can hop on and off the train wherever you want, and as often as you want! This means you can include other excursions on your circuit!
The tour operates all year round, and takes travelers to 11 large lakes, and by 5 UNESCO world heritage sites.
With its fantastic network of superb trains, and typical Alpine landscapes in the heart of Europe, Switzerland lends itself perfectly to rail travel. What better way to experience all the regions of this varied and unique country than from the comfort of your seat? Especially when the trains alone – the panoramic ones especially – are an experience in themselves? It’s possible to wander explore Switzerland on normal trains, that require no booking and follow many of the scenic routes, so there are innumerable possibilities for traveling in perfect ease and comfort.
You can piece together the perfect itinerary for your Swiss train journey – and we can help! Contact us today!