Switzerland’s Grand Tour: Train Travel Itinerary
Climb aboard for an epic public transit tour of Switzerland. This seven-day itinerary is a celebration of all things transport: trains, boats, buses, zip lines, cogwheel trains, funiculars, and more.
By Maryellen Kennedy Duckett
GATEWAY AND DEPARTURE AIRPORT Zurich Airport, Zurich
Climb aboard for an epic public transit tour of Switzerland. This seven-day itinerary is a celebration of all things transport: trains, boats, buses, cogwheel trains, funiculars, and more. The sample schedule is tight, so consider adding days to spend more time in specific destinations. Also, some sections of the route are seasonal, so check operating dates carefully when planning your trip. For unlimited access to trains, buses, boats, and public transportation, buy an all-in-one Swiss Travel Pass. (Tip: Kids under 16 travel for free with a parent who has a Swiss Travel Pass.) For a rail-only ramble, consider the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, a four- to eight-day train-palooza covering up to 795 miles of all the great rail routes of Switzerland.
DAY ONE: LUCERNE TO INTERLAKEN
GET THERE BY PUBLIC TRANSIT Lucerne-Interlaken Express train
MAKE TRACKS Take the train from Zurich to your starting point in Lucerne. There, board the Lucerne-Interlaken Express, one of three lines that are part of the GoldenPass line. Although regular trains ply the route, this is a special branded trip with carriages offering panoramic windows, infotainment systems, and platform-level entry. The two-hour journey travels through Brünig Pass into the Bernese Oberland and shows off Alpine lakes, gorgeous waterfalls, mighty tors, meadows dotted with cows, and the Brünig Safari, a zoo of wooden animals displayed from May to October along the route between Giswil and Meiringen (check with the train crew on when to look).
OPEN-AIR MUSEUM Consider a stop in Ballenberg to visit its fascinating open-air museum (open mid-April through October) featuring traditional architecture and buildings from all over the country. Exhibitions include the history of naturopathy and the drugstore, Swiss costumes and music in the house from Burgdorf, and the legacy of agriculture sponsored by the Swiss Farmers Association, among many others.
MOUNTAIN VIEW Travel back in time aboard the Wilderswil to Schynige Platte cog railway featuring 19th-century carriages. You’ll see views of the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau during the 50-minute journey up to and on the mountain. For a different perspective, take the cableway up to Interlaken’s local mountain, the Harder Kulm. The cableway station is a short walk from the train station, and the ten-minute cable car ride zips you up to an elevation of 4,337 feet. And from Interlaken Ost railway station, it’s only 75 minutes by train (transfer in Lauterbrunnen) to Kleine Scheidegg, billed as the “center of the Alps.” The railway station here sits at the summit of the 6,762-foot pass, which has views of the famous north face of the Eiger.
EAT Hüsi Bierhaus, Interlaken
STAY Hotel Rössli, Interlaken
DAY TWO: DAY TRIP TO JUNGFRAUJOCH
GET THERE BY PUBLIC TRANSIT Jungfraujoch Railway
MIGHTY MOUNTAIN Today is devoted to the cogwheel train from Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch, and the highest railway station in Europe (elevation 11,332 feet). The Jungfraujoch Railway covers five and a half miles and climbs more than 4,500 feet, including over four miles through a mountain tunnel. At the top, there are hiking trails and a full range of activities, including tubing on the year-round snow, hiking, and dining in the Top of Europe tourist complex. Climb the observation platforms on the 14-mile-long Aletsch Glacier (the longest Swiss Alpine glacier and part of a UNESCO World Heritage site). Visit the Ice Palace, a world of ice floors, walls, and sculptures that is constantly refurbished as the ice shifts and melts.
EAT Restaurant Eigergletscher, Jungfraujoch
STAY Hotel Rössli, Interlaken
DAY THREE: INTERLAKEN TO MONTREUX
GET THERE BY PUBLIC TRANSIT BLS RegioExpress train > Zweisimmen; GoldenPass Panoramic or GoldenPass Classic trains > Montreux
ABOARD AGAIN The remaining rail trip to Montreux has two legs: Take the BLS RegioExpress to Zweisimmen, then board either the GoldenPass Panoramic or GoldenPass Classic. The former is a modern train with big windows for viewing the countryside. The latter is a reproduction of the belle epoque style of traveling and features cars with decor from the 1930s; one of the coaches is a wine cellar that offers tastings.
SWEET RIDE In Montreux, add a sweet twist to the transportation theme by riding the Chocolate Train, a joint venture of GoldenPass Services and Cailler-Nestlé (operates from late spring to early fall, May through October). Going to medieval Gruyères and back, the train offers both a modern panoramic carriage and a vintage 1915 Pullman car—take your pick. The fare includes a sweet tour of the Cailler-Nestlé Chocolate Factory in Broc and a cheese factory in Gruyères. (Note: Gruyères is a day trip).
MORE MUNCHIES The Cheese Train also operates from Montreux, doing the round-trip to Château-d’Oex on Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays from winter to spring (reservations required). Learn the secrets of cheese-making and visit the Vieux Pays-d'Enhaut, a Swiss folklore museum.
ALTERNATIVE OVERNIGHT If you don’t feel like traveling all the way to Montreux, consider spending the night in Gstaad. The jet-set town is a wonderland in winter, featuring not only skiing but eight thrilling toboggan runs. Take a gondola to the top of the local mountain, Wispile, for views year-round. Shop in the upscale town center for luxury brands and indulge yourself and stay at the five-star Alpina Gstaad.
EAT Montreux Jazz Café, Montreux
STAY Eurotel Montreux, Montreux
DAY FOUR: MONTREUX TO ZERMATT
GET THERE BY PUBLIC TRANSIT IR (InterRegio) train > Visp; R (Regio) train > Zermatt
ALL ABOARD The next part of this train journey involves one connection: Travel first from Montreux to Visp, then transfer to a Regio (regional) train or the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn into car-free Zermatt.
SIGHTING THE MATTERHORN The Matterhorn, the symbol of Switzerland, near Zermatt, is not always easy to see, especially in bad weather. Increase your chances by heading up a nearby alp on the Gornergrat Bahn. Sit on the right side of the railway on the way up and on the left going down for the best views of about 30 peaks, some topping 13,000 feet. At the top, you’ll find an observatory and food service.
MOUNTAIN MUSEUM The Matterhorn Museum Zermatlantis traces the development of Zermatt from farm village to Alpine resort, with a particular focus on the first modern ascent of the Matterhorn in 1865. Four of the seven climbers died on the descent, and the museum displays the broken rope from that event. A special exhibit running until April 2016 details the deadly story of the first climb.
AERIAL ADVENTURE For an adrenaline rush in the treetops, head to the Forest Fun Park in Zermatt. The park is a maze of 110 platforms and 25 zip lines.
GONE TO THE DOGS The Saint Bernard has been the Swiss national dog since 1887. Learn about the breed and its connection to Switzerland’s Great Saint Bernard pass at the Barryland Musée et Chiens du Saint Bernard (Saint Bernard museum) in Martigny. The museum is housed in a former armory next to a Roman amphitheater. And though the exhibits are informative, the star attractions here are the friendly Saint Bernard dogs that spend the summer (typically late June to October) at the kennels on the Great Saint Bernard Pass. Summer museum tickets include opportunities to see and possibly pet the dogs. Small group hikes with the dogs typically are offered for an added fee (reservation required).
EAT Höfu, Zermatt
STAY Hotel Firefly, Zermatt
DAY FIVE: ZERMATT TO SAINT MORITZ
GET THERE BY PUBLIC TRANSIT Glacier Express (not available late October to early December)
WINDING RIDE Today you’ll spend eight or so hours on the famous Glacier Express—the only train which makes fresh food directly onboard. Billed as the slowest express train in the world, the historic railway connects Alpine Zermatt with the glamorous resort town of Saint Moritz. The route travels through such areas as the 6,670-foot Oberalp Pass before dipping into the Rhine Gorge (up to 1,300 feet deep), also known as “the Swiss Grand Canyon.” Along the way see the Domleschg Valley’s castles and the traditional houses of the Engadin with their elaborate sgraffito (layered plaster adorned with decorative etchings) facades.
AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE Stop in Punt Muragl to take the funicular railway to Muottas Muragl, the best place to get an overview of the area. Take in the mountain peaks, look down on the lakes of Engadin and, at night, see the twinkling lights of the villages below. Skiing is the thing here, of course, but alternatives are a stroll on the Philosophers’ Trail through a landscape of mountain beauty or the toboggan run down the mountain.
WORLD HERITAGE On Sundays, the Albula Experience offers open carriages (June through September) from Landquart to Samedan, through a UNESCO World Heritage site. The locomotive leads the way over the Solis and Landwasser viaducts and into the tunnels between Preda and Bergün, where you can visit the Albula Railway Museum.
ANCIENT HISTORY It’s worth a stop in Chur to visit Old Town, a car-free area that has a settlement history going back 5,000 years or more. Visit the capital of Graubünden's three museums or more than 500 shops.
EAT Pavarotti & Friends, Plazza dal Mulin 3 7500 Saint Moritz +41 81 833 07 00 (no website)
- Nat Geo Expeditions
STAY Kulm Hotel Saint Moritz, Saint Moritz
DAY SIX: SAINT MORITZ TO LUGANO
GET THERE BY PUBLIC TRANSIT Palm Express bus
ROLLING ALONG For the journey from Saint Moritz to Lugano, you’ll switch to the Palm Express, a four-hour bus ride that takes you from glaciers to palms through northern Italy. The route includes some single-lane roads and passes through Silvaplana and Sils, over the Maloja Pass, and into the Bregaglia Valley, then onto the shores of Lake Como and Lake Lugano.
CRUISE LAKE LUGANO The lake is the main attraction in Lugano. There are more than 30 boat excursions from which to choose. The Crociera Lunch Boat, for example, is a midday cruise, with meal service, that stops so you can get off and explore at Swissminiatur, a park full of Swiss landmarks in miniature; Morcote; Scherrer Park, a magnificent house and garden in Morcote; and Serpiano.
EAT Ristorante Deseo, Lugano
STAY Villa Principe Leopoldo, Lugano
DAY SEVEN: LUGANO TO LUCERNE
GET THERE BY PUBLIC TRANSIT Wilhelm Tell Express
LAST LEG The last part of your journey takes you two and a half hours north from Lugano via rail, then two and a half hours from Flüelen on a paddle steamer or salon motorboat to Lucerne—collectively called the Wilhelm (William) Tell Express. The train travels on the legendary Gotthard Line, which includes several exciting spiral tunnels and the Gotthard Tunnel, which opened in 1882. The boat cruise passes Tell’s Chapel, the spot where, as legend has it, William Tell escaped from an Austrian bailiff called Gessler, who he later killed. This led to the Swiss Confederation’s assembly on August 1, 1291. The anniversary of the day is still celebrated as a Swiss holiday.
SWISS TRANSPORTATION ON DISPLAY End your adventure with a celebration of what you have experienced on this trip. Visit the Verkehrshaus der Schweiz aka the Swiss Museum of Transport, Switzerland’s most popular museum, in Lucerne. There is a Swiss rail collection that includes an impressive display of railroad stock such as vintage locomotives and carriages.
EAT Blend Teehaus, Lucerne
STAY Hotel Schweizerhof Luzern, Lucerne