March 7, 2015
In a country known for its clocks, it’s not surprising that Swiss trains famously run on time. But efficiency alone does not make an epic adventure. It’s for the sheer drama and beauty of the landscape that Switzerland remains the grande dame of scenic train travel. Imagine soaring high-altitude views from funicular cars and cog railways that are impossible to glimpse any other way—except from ski lifts.
In winter, gorge yourself on Gruyère fondue on a ski (or après-ski) weekend in Verbier or Zermatt. Come summer, sip cool Lavaux white wines at the palm tree-lined Swiss Riviera, or attend the Eidgenössisches Jodlerfest (National Swiss Yodel Contest).
This mountainous country’s location bordering Germany, Austria, France and Italy hints to three of its four official languages. (The fourth, Romansh, is a descendant from spoken Latin.) Throughout the seasons, the Swiss rail network––covered by several Eurail passes––offers frequent connections to both urban and remote destinations, with only a few scenic routes closed in winter.
The Bernina Express
55 tunnels. 196 bridges. Alpine heights that reach 7,391 feet above sea level. No wonder this 4-hour adventure through the Swiss and Italian Alps was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
I began my journey in idyllic Chur, home to an impressively raucous weekend nightlife scene. The next morning, the train climbed the narrow-gauge track past pristine glacial lakes nestled between remote peaks, and through fetching villages––such as Pontresina and Poschiavo––dotted with Baroque church spires. But it was the bridges and tunnels, with their heart-pounding twists and plunges into darkness, which I won’t forget.
The Bernina is my holy grail of train journeys, capturing every possible cliché: riders literally ooh and ahh as they ascend towards the high point of Ospizio Bernina, wind around the stunning Brusio Spiral Viaduct, and dip into valleys where cows placidly munch on improbably green grass. There’s no bar service in winter, yet by the time we approached the Italian border, everyone was drunk on the views.
In quiet Tirano, buses connect to lakeside Lugano, nicknamed the “Monte Carlo of Switzerland.” But don’t make my mistake: the buses don’t run in winter. Instead, it was back up to posh St. Moritz, home to the 1928 and 1948 Olympics, to sip a glass of Swiss wine by the fire and vow to return in summer.
The Golden Pass
While the Golden Pass line technically goes from Zweisimmen to Montreux, I kicked off my trip around dawn in Lucerne, home to a quaint Old Town and Europe’s oldest covered bridge.
Next stop: Interlaken. Stepping off the train, it was a veritable blizzard. I hadn’t anticipated this issue: while freshly snow-capped mountains make for wintry charm, the distant peaks were virtually invisible under a whiteout sky. Gorgeous? Sure, but those keen on photography may want to check the forecast.
As the train descended into posh Montreux with its lakeshore promenade on Lake Geneva, the phrase “Swiss Riviera” suddenly made sense. The Montreux train station features a Golden Pass center, with free wifi, a café, and helpful booking services. While in town, don’t miss the iconic Château de Chillon, a medieval castle immortalized by Lord Byron. Take a stroll by the Freddy Mercury statue at the lake, a nod the town’s interesting musical heritage––it’s also home to the world-renowned Montreux Jazz Festival.
Tips for the Bernina Express and the Golden Pass
For both of these routes, I recommend––just barely––the North-South route for sheer scenic wow factor.
From late fall through mid-spring, make sure to plan your journey so that you’ve reached the end destination by late afternoon. While the views are stunning as sunset fades to dusk, nightfall doesn’t them justice.
One myth about these routes: that seat reservations (€9-13) are absolutely essential. That’s only for the panoramic cars––first and second class standard cars don’t require reservations. While it’s true that the panoramic cards offer impressively soaring windows, I found the views from my standard car perfectly gorgeous (and appreciated the fact that I could simply hop on and off along the way with zero reservation worries). Photographers may actually prefer the standard cars in summer, when the ability to lower windows makes for glare-free shooting.
The William Tell Express
The draw of the William Tell is not so much its famous namesake (a 15th century Swiss folk hero handy with a crossbow, legend has it, that not even apples were safe) but in the contrasts it offers. After crossing lovely Lake Lucerne on a vintage paddle steamer, you’ll switch to a train that ascends into steep mountain terrain before traversing Gotthard’s Tunnel at 3600 feet. Descending through villages dotted with chestnut trees in the Italian-speaking Ticino canton, the trip ends in Bellinoza, a UNESCO world heritage site worth visiting for its ancient castles.
This journey’s pricing can be tricky. Do you want to splurge on a three-course lunch in the boat’s opulent Belle Epoque dining room, enjoy free booze on the train, and take home a Swiss Army knife souvenir? (Sorry, no crossbow.) With a first class rail pass, expect to fork over 79 CHF (the Premier class supplement)––or simply make a seat reservation fee (39 CHF), which includes an onboard lunch voucher. Second class pass holders can upgrade (86 CHF) for first class amenities, while all pass holders can hop any standard train car and ride sans reservation.