The 5 best scenic train rides in Switzerland

The Swiss are big on trains. I mean, Sheldon Cooper big.

Let me explain that.

Switzerland only measures 220 by 348 kilometres, which results in a very manageable landmass of roughly 41.000 square kilometres. That’s only half the size of Lake Superior in the US/Canada. Or 2.5 times the size of Beijing.

Like I said, pretty manageable. 

Yet, if you sum up all the railway tracks running across the country, you’ll end up with a total of over 5.200 kilometres

That’s a lot. 

That’s the distance from Vancouver to Halifax. Or from Ushuaia to São Paulo. Or from Cairns to Sydney. Return!

You get the idea. The Swiss are big on trains. 

So it comes as no surprise that, in a place that gets often associated with amazing scenery, a handful of these 5.200 odd kilometres pass through some pretty impressive landscapes. 

In this post, I’ll introduce you to the five most scenic train rides in Switzerland. Mountain railways excluded.

And don’t panic if you’re not crazy about listening to the clickety-clack below your seat for hours on end. You don’t have to share Sheldon’s love for trains to enjoy these trips. Just keep gazing out the window and focus on the landscape passing by.

1. The Golden Pass Line

The Golden Pass Line connects the centre of Switzerland with the shores of Lake Geneva. This spectacular journey leads past eight lakes, rides through six different cantons (the Swiss version of states), crosses three mountain passes and connects two language regions with each other.

And it offers about an estimated gazillion photo opportunities.

Golden Pass Line map

Duration:

5 hours 8 minutes

Distance:

191 kilometres (119 miles)

Transfers:

Interlaken and Zweisimmen (as of 2019, you'll only have to transfer in Interlaken)

Schedule:

Trains run eight times a day, all year round.

Travel passes:

Eurail*, Interrail*, Swiss Travel Pass (Flex), SBB Day Pass

Reservation required:

Not unless you’d like to use one of the panorama wagons attached to the trains between Lucerne and Zweisimmen. However, the Golden Pass customer service recommend booking a seat for the segment between Zweisimmen and Montreux, as it can get pretty busy during high season. Costs vary between 5 CHF and 8 CHF to make a reservation. But technically, you can do the whole trip without reserving a seat.

Places of interest along the way

Lucerne

Lucerne is where most people start their Golden Pass journey. This beautiful city by the shores of Lake Lucerne is mostly known for the Kapellbrücke – a wooden footbridge leading across the River Reuss – spectacular views over Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatus as well as the famous Lion’s Monument and the Glacier Garden.

Lucerne with view over Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatur

View over Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatus

The city of Lucerne

The old town of Lucerne with the Kapellbrücke

Lake Lungern and Brünig Pass

On the way from Lucerne to Interlaken, you’ll pass by Lake Lungern. This picturesque lake lies in a valley and can best be seen if you grab a seat on the right side. Coming from Interlaken, the best lake views are on the left. 

After passing the lake, the train starts climbing up to Brünig Pass, which sits at 1.008 metres (3.307 feet) above sea level. After the pass and on your way down to Interlaken, you’ll be presented with stunning views over Lake Brienz and into the Bernese Alps.

Lake Lungern

Lake Lungern

Lake Brienz

Lake Brienz, coming down from Brünig Pass

Interlaken

Interlaken is the starting point to many an adventure and most visitors to Switzerland pass through it at some point. You’re really spoiled for choice here when it comes to things to do. 

Activities include a very expensive cruise up Jungfrau (Top of Europe), a boat ride on Lake Brienz or Lake Thun, a trip to the villages of Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald, an adrenaline-packed session of skydiving, paragliding, canyoning or just a good old hike in front of the famous Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountain trio.  

Lauterbrunnen

Lauterbrunnen

Eiger Mönch and Jungrau Mountains

The Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau trio in the Bernese Alps

Lake Thun and Spiez

Lake Thun tends to take people’s breath away. Gazing out the window on your way to Spiez, you might understand everyone’s affections for this lake. Grab a seat on the right side for better views.

Built by the shores of Lake Thun, Spiez is a wonderful little town. A one-hour stopover gives you plenty of time to head down to the shores of Lake Thun, visit the castle, walk through the pretty town with its vineyards or even go for a quick dip in the lake.

Lake Thun in Spiez

Lake Thun in Spiez

Spiez Castle

Spiez Castle

Bernese Oberland

A big chunk of the Golden Pass Line takes you through the Bernese Oberland. This area is a dream for mountain-lovers and pretty much sums up what Switzerland is about. Lakes, mountains, lush meadows with grazing cows, glaciers, tons of hiking trails, wonderful landscapes and cute little villages.

In winter, the area turns into a haven for the snow-seeking crowd. Gstaad, the counterpart to St.Moritz in the Bernese Alps, is particularly popular.

Bernese Oberland

Cruising through the beautiful Bernese Oberland

Golden Pass Train

The Golden Pass Panorama Express train

Montreux

Montreux marks the end, or the beginning, of the Golden Pass Line. This beautiful city by Lake Geneva is the gateway to many attractions in the area.

Whether you‘re visiting the Château de Chillon, the city of Vevey, the UNESCO World Heritage site of Lavaux vineyards or just hanging out next to the Freddie Mercury statue in Montreux, this city will make it worth your while.

Throughout the year, several music, comedy and arts festivals take place. The Montreux Jazz Festival being the most popular one. 

The city of Montreux by Lake Geneva

The city of Montreux by Lake Geneva

Chateau Chillion

Chateau de Chillon

2. Glacier Express

The Glacier Express - also known as the world’s slowest express train – is probably the best known scenic train ride in Switzerland. It connects the two highly popular mountain destinations of St.Moritz and Zermatt. 

What makes this journey so memorable are the fantastic views you get left, right and centre throughout the whole ride. The train takes you across 291 bridges, through 91 tunnels, three cantons and two language regions.

Glacier Express map

Duration:

8 hours 3 minutes

Distance:

291 kilometres (181 miles)

Transfers:

none

Schedule:

Trains run once a day during winter and four times a day during summer. But only two out of the four summer trains complete the whole journey between St. Moritz and Zermatt.

Travel passes:

Eurail*, Interrail*, Swiss Travel Pass (Flex), SBB Day Pass

Reservation required:

Yes. Even if you have a travel pass, reservations are mandatory. Short distances cost between 13 and 33 CHF, while long distances range between 23 and 43 CHF. Depending on the season you travel in.

To add a reservation to your travel pass, head to the Glacier Express booking site. Follow the booking process all the way through to the end, select your pass just before checking out and the ticket price will be taken off your total.

Penny-pincher version:

It’s possible to travel between St. Moritz and Zermatt without paying a reservation fee. For this, you’ll need to downgrade from the fancy Glacier Express trains and use regular trains instead. 

Get on in St. Moritz and transfer in Reichenau-Tamins, Disentis/Mustér, Andermatt and Visp. You’d be surprised, but even though you’ll be changing trains all the time, it’ll only take you around 20 minutes longer to reach your destination. To put together your schedule, head to the SBB website.

These regular trains travel the exact same route as the Glacier Express does. The only thing you’ll be missing out on are the panorama windows. 

In addition to saving you the reservation fee, this option also lets you travel more flexibly because trains run a lot more frequently.​​

Places of interest along the way

St. Moritz

The mountain village of St. Moritz is a highly popular holiday destination all year round. Surrounded by towering mountains and in close proximity to Lake St. Moritz and Lake Silvaplana, the area offers something for everyone. Whether you’re into biking, hiking, stand up paddling, swimming, windsurfing, skiing, sledding, ice skating, snowshoeing or just enjoying the views, you’ll find your heart’s desire.

St. Moritz

The fancy mountain resort of St. Moritz

Lake St. Moritz

Lake St. Moritz

Albula Line (UNESCO)

The Albula Line between Preda and Bergün is going to make your head spin. Since the train loses lots of altitude in this segment, it spirals its way down across six viaducts and through three loop tunnels. If you pay attention, you’ll notice the train changing the side of the valley several times. 

Landwasser Viaduct

The Landwasser Viaduct between St. Moritz and Thusis is quite a masterpiece. This impressive construction is 142 metres (466 feet) long and 65 metres (213 feet) high. What makes it so unique is the fact that the viaduct leads straight into a tunnel. 

The Landwasser Viaduct

The impressive Landwasser Viaduct disappearing into a tunnel

Chur

Chur is the capital of the Canton of Grisons. Relatively small in size, it offers plenty of sights and a wonderful old town. It’s also the starting point to many a trip in the vicinity, like to the crystal clear Lake Gauma or the dramatic Rhine Gorge.

The city of Chur

Chur is the capital city of the Canton of Grisons


Rhine Gorge

Also known as the „Swiss Grand Canyon“, the Rhine Gorge was formed during a massive landslide around 10.000 years ago. Carved out by the river over many centuries, the Rhine Gorge is now a popular destination for hikers, bikers and river-rafters. Coming from St. Moritz, you’ll get the best views of the canyon if you sit on the left.

The Rhine Gorge

The Rhine Gorge - also known as the Swiss Grand Canyon


Oberalp Pass

At 2.033 metres (6.670 feet) above sea level, the Oberalp Pass connects Disentis/Mustér in the Canton of Grisons with Andermatt in the Canton of Uri. This pass is the highest point of the Glacier Express.

The Oberalp Pass is the highest point on the Glacier Express journey

The Glacier Express making its way across the Alps at Oberalp Pass


Zermatt

The village of Zermatt sits right in front of the Matterhorn, Switzerland’s most famous mountain. In case you don’t know what the Matterhorn looks like, have some Toblerone chocolate and study the packaging. 

The hiking, biking and photo opportunities in this area are seemingly endless. Riding up the Gornergrat with its mountain and glacier views will blow your socks off. And only 15 minutes from Zermatt lies Randa, the starting point to hiking across the world’s longest suspension bridge.

For more insider tips about what to do in Zermatt, read the interview I did with my local friend Gabriela. 

The village of Zermatt

The village of Zermatt


The Matterhorn

The Matterhorn, Switzerland's most famous mountain


3. Bernina Express

They say the most spectacular way to cross the Alps is on board the Bernina Express. 

And they might be right. 

This train takes you from the medieval city of Chur across the Alps and all the way into sunny Italy. Between Chur and St. Moritz, the Bernina Express covers the exact same route as the Glacier Express. 

After St. Moritz, it starts climbing up to glistening glaciers before heading down to the palms of Italy. It passes through 55 tunnels and crosses 196 bridges along the way.

The train ends in the Italian city of Tirano. From there, the Bernina Express Bus takes passengers through the famous Valtellina wine region past Lake Como and back into Switzerland.

Bernina Express map

Duration:

4 hours 13 minutes (train from Chur to Tirano), 3 hours 10 minutes (bus from Tirano to Lugano)

Distance:

156 kilometres (97 miles) on the train, 90 kilometres ( 56 miles) on the bus

Transfers:

Tirano

Schedule:

The Bernina Express runs from May through November. Unfortunately, their schedule is too complicated to put in words. Please check their current timetable to put together your itinerary.

Travel passes:

Eurail*, Interrail*, Swiss Travel Pass (Flex), SBB Day Pass

Reservation required:

Yes. Even if you have a travel pass, reservations are mandatory. Between May and October, reservations for the train and bus cost 14 CHF each. In November, it’s 10 CHF. Head to the Bernina Express booking site to make your reservation.

Penny-pincher version:

The same principle that works for the Glacier Express applies to the Bernina Express. To avoid paying the reservation fee, use regular trains. Get on in Chur and transfer in St. Moritz and Poschiavo. If you add the journey from Tirano to Lugano, you’ll need to transfer in Tirano and Monza as well.

However, if you travel onwards to Lugano, your Swiss Travel Passes won’t do you any good since this part is served by the Italian Railway. For detailed ticket information, consult the Trenitalia website. 

Places of interest along the way

Between Chur and St. Moritz, the Bernina Express covers the exact same route as the Glacier Express. Please see above for a more detailed description of Chur, the Rhine Gorge, the Albula Line, the Landwasser Viaduct and St. Moritz.

Ospizio Bernina

At 2.535 metres (8.317 feet) above sea level, Ospizio Bernina is the highest point of the Bernina Line. It’s around here that you cross the language border between the Romansh-speaking Engadine and the Italian-speaking Poschiavo Valley. 

Ospizio Bernina

The Bernina Express at Ospizo Bernina

Bernina Express

The Bernina Express making its way across the Alps

Valposchiavo

The Poschiavo Valley in the southern Alps is a fantastic place to go hiking or enjoy a walk along the lake. It’s where the Bernina Express crosses the Swiss-Italian border and takes you to Tirano, where you transfer to the Bernina Express Bus to Lugano.

Lago Bianco

Lago Bianco on the way to Valposchiavo

Lago di Poschiavo

Lago di Poschiavo

Brusio Circular Viaduct

The circular viaduct in Brusio is another spectacular construction on the Bernina Line. In order to overcome the altitude in the narrow Poschiavo Valley, the train has to take a 360-degree turn.

The Bernina Express spiralling its way down to the Valposchiavo in Brusio

The Bernina Express spiralling its way down to Valposchiavo in Brusio

Valtellina and Lake Como

On the way from Tirano to Lugano, you’ll ride through the stunning wine region of Valtellina. Before crossing the border back into Switzerland, you’ll be driving past Lake Como, the place where George Clooney and many other celebrities got married.

Berbenno in the Valtellina Valley

Berbenno in the Valtellina Valley

Lago di Como

Menaggio by Lake Como

Lugano

Lugano is the biggest city in the Canton of Ticino and the third biggest financial centre in Switzerland - right behind Zurich and Geneva. Its Mediterranean charm, the flowery parks and the stunning views from one of the many surrounding mountains make this city worth paying a visit. 

The nearby outdoor museum Swissminiatur in the village of Mendrisio is a replica of Switzerland in small. I used to love going there as a kid… I guess I owe most of my Swiss geography knowledge to that place.

Lake Lugano

Lake Lugano

The Swissminiatur in Mendrisio

The Swissminiatur in Mendrisio

4. Voralpen Express

The Voralpen Express, which literally translates to „pre-Alpine Express“, commutes between St.Gallen and Lucerne. In comparison to the other train rides in this post, the Voralpen Express is the least touristy one. 

It doesn’t come with fancy panorama windows and there’s no friendly voice pointing out what viaduct you just crossed. But that doesn’t make it any less worth riding.

Voralpen Express map

Duration:

2 hours 16 minutes

Distance:

125 kilometres (78 miles)

Transfers:

none

Schedule:

The Voralpen Express leaves St. Gallen and Lucerne every hour, all year round.

Travel passes:

Eurail*, Interrail*, Swiss Travel Pass (Flex), SBB Day Pass

Reservation required:

No.

Places of interest along the way

St. Gallen

The city of St. Gallen has a lot to offer. Places like the Abbey District, the recreational area of Drei Weieren and the free wildlife park of Peter & Paul make it easy to spend a few hours in this city. For a more detailed guide of things to do in St. Gallen, head over here.

The cathedral in St. Gallen is probably the most photographed building in the city.

The cathedral in the Abbey District of St. Gallen

The Mannenweier is the perfect place for swimming.

The recreational area of Drei Weieren

Toggenburg

The Toggenburg area is nestled between two towering mountain ranges - the Alpstein and the Churfirsten. This part of Switzerland is incredibly pretty and might make you feel like you’ve stepped into a fairy tale. At least that’s how my Australian friend described it when I took her on the Voralpen Express.

You’ll pass by green, rolling hills and traditional farmers’ houses as the train makes its way through the Appenzell and Toggenburg area towards Lake Zurich.

The Churfirsten Mountain Range in the Toggenburg

The Churfirsten mountain range in the Toggenburg

Rapperswil

This little town by Lake Zurich is one of my favourite places in Switzerland. I lived here for three years while I was studying urban planning with Gabriela, Andrea, Tobi and Yannic

If you have enough time, I recommend getting off the train for an hour and exploring the beautiful „City of Roses". The impressive Rapperswil Castle, the charming promenade, Switzerland’s longest wooden bridge leading halfway across Lake Zurich and plenty of great spots with great views will make it worth your while.

Rapperswil

The beautiful town of Rapperswil by Lake Zurich

Rapperswil

The main square of Rapperswil in front of the castle

Rothenthurmer Moor

Once the Voralpen Express is done climbing the hills behind Lake Zurich, it soon passes through the area of the Rothenthurmer Moor. This swampy landscape stretches across 10 kilometres (6 miles) between Biberbrugg and Rothenthurm and is the first moor to be protected in Switzerland.

Walking the moorland trail between Biberbrugg and Rothenthurm takes just over two hours and is very easy to complete. Another opportunity to break up the Voralpen Express journey…

Lakes Zurich, Zug and Lucerne

Between St. Gallen and Lucerne, the Voralpen Express passes by three lakes: Lake Zurich, Lake Zug and Lake Lucerne.

Lake Zug

On the way from Arth Goldau to Immensee

Lake Zug

Lake Zug

Lucerne

Lucerne is either the starting or finishing point for people travelling the Voralpen Express. This vibrant city by the shores of Lake Lucerne is mostly known for the Kapellbrücke – a wooden footbridge leading across the River Reuss – spectacular views over Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatus as well as the Lion’s Monument and the Glacier Garden.

Lucerne with view over Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatur

View over Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatus

Lion's Monument in Lucerne

The Lion's Monument in Luzern

5. Gotthard Panorama Express

If you follow the motto „the journey is the reward“, you’re going to love travelling the historic Gotthard Line from Lucerne to Lugano.

For the first leg of your trip, you travel across the lake from Lucerne to Flüelen on board a steamboat. In Flüelen, the Gotthard Panorama Express train takes you through the historic Gotthard route all the way down to the sunny south on Switzerland. 

Before the world’s longest tunnel opened in 2016, travelling this route through the Gotthard massif was the normal way to get to the Canton of Ticino by train. Today, the 57 kilometres (35 miles) long Gotthard Basistunnel saves commuters lots of time by bolting through the Alps in less than 20 minutes. 

Gotthard Panorama Express map

Duration:

2 hours 43 minutes (boat from Lucerne to Flüelen), 2 hours 28 minutes (train from Flüelen to Lugano) 

Distance:

38 kilometres (24 miles) on the steamboat, 183 kilometres (114 miles) on the train.

Transfers:

Flüelen

Schedule:

From Tuesday through Sunday, the Gotthard Panorama Express leaves once a day. Their season starts in April and ends in October. Check their current schedule here as the dates change every year.

Travel passes:

Swiss Travel Pass (Flex), SBB Day Pass 

With a Eurail* and Interrail* Pass, you get 50% off the boat ride from Lucerne to Flüelen. The train ride from Flüelen to Lugano is included.

Reservation required:

Yes. The reservation fee costs 24 CHF.

Penny-pincher version:

You can travel the Gotthard Panorama Line without making a reservation by, you might have guessed it, using regular trains. Even though the historical Gotthard line is no longer the primary way to connect the Ticino with the rest of Switzerland, it’s still in use.

Trains run hourly between Erstfeld and Bellinzona all year round. To put together your personal itinerary, consult the SBB website

Places of interest along the way

Lucerne

Lucerne is either the starting or finishing point of people travelling the Gotthart Panorama Express. This beautiful city by the shores of Lake Lucerne is mostly known for the Kapellbrücke – a wooden footbridge built in 1356 – spectacular views over Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatus as well as the Lion’s Monument and the Glacier Garden.

Lucerne with view over Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatur

View over Lake Lucerne and Mount Pilatus

The famous Kappellbrücke in Lucerne

Lake Lucerne

On the ride across the stunning Lake Lucerne, you’ll pass by several places of importance in Swiss history. You’ll see the Rütliwiese, Switzerland's founding place, and you’ll also get a glimpse of the Tell’s Chapel. According to legend, our alleged national hero, William Tell, escaped the fangs of his enemy in this place by jumping off his boat. Read more about William Tell and the saga around his existence here.

Cruise across Lake Lucerne on a steamboat

The Tell's Chapel on the way to Flüelen

Baroque church of Wassen

This little church is iconic to the Gotthard line and every child in Switzerland knows about it. Well, if they’ve travelled to the Ticino by train before 2016, that is. 

This little church in the village of Wassen, commonly known as „Chileli vo Wasse“, sits on a hill and can be seen from three different angles on the way up to the former Gotthard tunnel. Since the train passes two turning loops in this area, it keeps riding past the Chileli from different sides, which is what makes this spot so well-known. 

There’s even a song about the Chileli vo Wasse… That’s how popular it is.

You'll pass by the Chileli vo Wasse three times on your way to the Gotthard Tunnel

Bellinzona

Bellinzona is the capital of the Ticino. It’s mainly famous for its three impressive castles Montebello, Castelgrande and Sasso Corbaro, which are part of the Swiss UNESCO World Heritage sites. They were built in the 15th century and make for an impressive, knight-like excursion. 

Piazza Independenza in Bellinzona

The Piazza Independenza in Bellinzona

UNESCO Castle in Bellinzona

One of the three castles in Bellinzona

Lugano

Lugano is the biggest city in the Canton of Ticino and the third biggest financial centre in Switzerland - right behind Zurich and Geneva. Its Mediterranean charm, the flowery parks and the stunning views from one of the many surrounding mountains make this city worth paying a visit. 

The nearby outdoor museum of Swissminiatur in the village of Mendrisio is a replica of Switzerland in small.

Ospizio Bernina

At 2.535 metres (8.317 feet) above sea level, Ospizio Bernina is the highest point of the Bernina Line. It’s around here that you cross the language border between the Romansh-speaking Engadine and the Italian-speaking Poschiavo Valley. 

view over Lugano

View over Lugano

The Swissminiatur in Mendrisio

The Swissminiatur in Mendrisio

Time to take your pick

So here you have it.

Five amazingly scenic train rides in Switzerland summed up. Of course, there are plenty more great rides you can enjoy around here. Like for instance the mountain railways up Jungfrau, Pilatus or Gornergrat. Just to name a few.

If you’d like to share any additional train rides you've been on in Switzerland, please let us know in the comments below. 

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