Tales On Rail: 72 Hours on the Scenic Swiss Travel System


#TalesOnRail is an ongoing series in which Rail Europe staff share stories and tips from their travels through Europe. To kick off 2015, the Rail Europe team is traveling from London, England to Zurich, Switzerland, and Marketing & Community Manager Jackie will be blogging about their experiences. You can also see photos on Instagram and Twitter by following @raileurope!

glacier express
View from the Glacier Express. Photo by Jackie DesForges

As you saw in our previous blog post, the first half of our TalesOnRail trip was a whirlwind experience! For the second half, we met up with our friends at Switzerland Tourism and Swiss Travel System to put our Swiss Travel Passes to the test and experience what is, in my personal opinion, Switzerland’s greatest accomplishment: the scenic trains.

The Swiss are well-known for being efficient, prompt, friendly, and lucky for living in one of the most beautiful countries on earth. We’re pretty jealous of them. With that in mind, we went into this whole scenic trains experience with pretty high expectations — we were expecting the best of the best — and the Swiss delivered it without even breaking a sweat.

First of all, a quick lesson: what is a scenic train and how is it different from a regular train?

If you already know the difference, feel free to just skip down to the pretty photos. We won’t blame you.

If you don’t know the difference, here it is: a regular train is meant to take you from point A to point B. Yes, you may see some scenic views out the window –and European trains in particular are known for being some of the most scenic and enjoyable in the world — but the main point of these trains is transportation, not sightseeing.

Switzerland’s scenic trains do take you from point A to point B, but they purposefully pass through the most scenic landscapes you could ever imagine. The view out of the window and the experience of enjoying the train ride are the focus of the scenic trains.

This 30-second video helps explain further:

But just because scenic trains are meant to be scenic doesn’t mean they aren’t efficient!

There were two things I noticed in particular about the efficiency of the Swiss Scenic Trains — and they both had to do with the windows. First of all, you don’t have to worry about which side of the train you’re seated on. The train turns and passes through certain scenic areas in such a way that both sides of the train have equally great window views throughout the trip. For five minutes your side of the train may have the great view, and then it will switch to the other side of the train for a few minutes, and it continues on like this for the whole trip.

The second thing I noticed was the fogging: once, when we emerged from a few minutes inside a tunnel, the train windows were completely fogged up and we couldn’t see out of them. The train stopped outside the tunnel for about two minutes and the windows began to de-fog. Once we could see through them again, the train started moving. The Swiss have literally thought of everything.

Our three-day scenic itinerary was planned in a way  that we could experience three different kinds of scenic train rides in three different parts of the country.

Bernina Express – Photo by the lovely Alisha Hill

Day 1: Bernina Express & Funicular to Muottas Muragl

The Bernina Express connects Switzerland and Italy, and so it seemed like an appropriate way for us to leave Italy behind and head into the next phase of our trip: three days of Switzerland! We took a train from Milan to Tirano, and picked up the Bernina Express from there to continue on to St Moritz. (Tip: make sure to leave yourself at least 10-15 minutes to make any needed train connections)

Our train made its way through little Swiss towns as the landscape changed from sun to snow. The windows on the train were panoramic, meaning they were larger than normal train windows and stretched all the way up around part of the ceiling so as to allow for the best possible views and photo opportunities.

st moritz switzerland
St. Moritz was stunning from the moment we stepped off the train. Photo by Jackie DesForges

The Bernina Express route has four major stops: Lugano, St. Moritz, Chur, and Tirano. We hopped off in Moritz for a quick walking tour and were greeted by the massive frozen lake (where a few events will take place this winter, including a horse-race right there on the ice — the thought of this amazes me); we also snuck a peek inside the grounds of the St Moritz Bobsleigh Club — the oldest club in the world of its kind — before heading up to the peak of Muottas Muragl for dinner in the restaurant on the mountaintop.

We rode the funicular up to Muottas Muragl for drinks and dinner on the mountaintop — a perfect way to end our first night in Switzerland! The funicular was a fun change from the trains — as much as we love trains, it’s always nice to try a different form of transport every now and then to shake it up, right? — and it was very surreal to watch ourselves climbing higher and higher up the mountain and through the clouds. A few us agreed it felt like an amusement park ride (but with wine and delicious food waiting for us at the top so, even better!)

More Bernina Express:
Bernina Express train FAQs
Michele’s #TalesOnRail Experience on the Bernina Express last year

glacier express first class
1st Class on the Glacier Express! Photo by Jackie DesForges

Day 2: Glacier Express & Wilhelm Tell Express

I call the Glacier Express our “Snow Globe Train” because we all agreed that we felt like we were traveling through a little winter wonderland inside a snow globe. The views from this train just seem like they are too pretty and perfect to actually exist in real life.

The Glacier Express is the perfect choice for anyone who wants to experience landscapes that look like they might literally be out of this world. That was my first thought during the beginning of this train ride: the scenery was so vast and so untouched by anyone that it looked like it might be the surface of another planet. Or a snow globe.

The entire Glacier Express route stretches from St Moritz to Zermatt and the ride lasts about 8 hours. During the winter months there is one Glacier Express train per day, but during the summer there are three daily trains to choose from.

Because the journey is a longer one, you’ll want to enjoy at least one of your meals onboard. Travelers in first-class may choose to reserve a 3-course meal that includes soup in the winter or salad during the summer, meat with vegetables and side dishes, and dessert or a selection of cheeses. We had an absolutely amazing lunch, a bit of wine, plenty of chocolate (of course), and a cup of coffee to finish it off. The coffee cups were really cute — they had a little Heidi illustration on the front edge. No detail left out in Switzerland.

View from the window of the Wilhelm Tell Express. Photo by Jackie DesForges
View from the window of the Wilhelm Tell Express. Photo by Jackie DesForges

The Wilhelm Tell route was up next, and I was excited to try this one out — it includes both a train ride and a boat ride! We only did the train portion at this point, but we were able to ride the boat later on (more on that later). We hopped off the train in Bellinzona, one of the key stops along the route, to wander the quaint streets and  hike up the castle grounds to get an overview of the whole town (and all of the castles — there were so many. If you’re a fan of castles, this is the place for you.)

On our way back to the train station it was a bit chilly, so we figured we should probably try out the hot chocolate to warm up — definitely one of our better choices. We then picked up a few pieces of our luggage at the storage locker in the train station (a great resource for those who want to make a stop for a day trip along a longer train journey. We also used the train station lockers for a few hours in Marseilles earlier in the trip.)

More Glacier Express & Wilhelm Tell:
St Moritz train station information
Glacier Express train information
Wilhelm Tell information

View of one castle in Bellinzona from the grounds of another castle in Bellinzona. Photo by Jackie DesForges
View of one castle in Bellinzona from the grounds of another castle in Bellinzona. Photo by Jackie DesForges

Day 3 Part 1: Centovalli & GoldenPass Line

This day was jam-packed with scenery and with different forms of transportation. One of the things that makes the Swiss travel system unique is that there are a lot of different ways to get around — train, bus, boat, cogwheel train, funicular — and on this day we covered most of those bases.

First up was Centovalli: a scenic cogwheel train ride from Locarno to Domodossola, and then Domodossola to Montreux. This reminded me a little of the Glacier Express — much less snow, but still very quiet, untouched scenery and beautiful mountains. This train ride passes through Italy and also the Italian region of Switzerland, and you can definitely tell — the little houses that pop up every now and then have a distinctly Italian flair to them.

Next up was the GoldenPass Line: this one was my favorite. While the Glacier Express is all about mountain views and snowy wilderness, the GoldenPass gives travelers a more intimate view of the little towns scattered throughout Switzerland. We started off in Montreux and traveled along the coast, then began to pass through village after village of snow-capped houses, children leaving for school, skiers coming into town for a break, and other scenes of small town Swiss life.

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View of Swiss neighborhood from the window of the GoldenPass Line. Photo by Jackie DesForges

The GoldenPass Line stretches from Lucerne to Lake Geneva. The GoldenPass Classic Belle-Epoque train cars are probably what most travelers imagine when they are thinking of the romantic train rides seen in movies and old photographs. There are even wine cellar cars on these trains! The Classic cars run in both directions between Montreux and Zweisimmen and then there are panoramic train cars (which is what we rode) between Lucerne and Interlaken.

Since we were switching between so many trains and forms of transport on this day, we decided to try out the Fast Baggage system. We left our luggage in the hotel lobby in Locarno in the morning, and then it was waiting for us in our next hotel in Rigi later that night. This was a lifesaver, especially considering that at this point we’d all done a good bit of shopping and all of that Swiss chocolate was making our bags pretty heavy.

More GoldenPass:
GoldenPass train information
Michele’s #TalesOnRail GoldenPass experience from last year!

We took the Wilhelm Tell boat after dark, but this photo gives you a better of what it's like.
We took the Wilhelm Tell boat after dark, but this photo gives you a better of what it’s like.

Day 3 Part 2: Wilhelm Tell & Mount Rigi

Day 3 was a big one. After Centovalli and GoldenPass trains, we hopped on the boat portion of the Wilhelm Tell Express in Lucerne. This boat was lovely — we sat on the second floor in an enclosed room (the walls were entirely glass so we could see out as we were moving) and enjoyed wine and snacks for the whole ride. It was a very relaxing way to spend the evening after a full day of traveling.

When we docked, we were about a 10-15 minute walk away from the Mount Rigi cable car station (but we opted for a cab — we were tired from having seen so many pretty views). The cable car ride was pretty exhilarating for most of us — the majority of us had never experienced something like this before and so we were nervous — but it was fun! It’s very surreal to feel yourself rising higher and higher above the trees and eventually the clouds. I am a bit scared of heights but I am happy to say I only freaked out for about two minutes, tops — the stunning mountain views were more than worth it.

mount rigi
Coming down Mount Rigi at sunrise. Photo by Jackie DesForges

The trip up to Mount Rigi is included in the Swiss Travel Pass. You can also reach the mountain peak by cogwheel train (from March through October) but I do recommend giving the cable car a shot! If you’re going to go up a mountain peak, you might as well do it right.

We finished the night with dinner at the hotel on top of Mount Rigi, and then the next morning we were off to Zurich Airport to head home. You can take the train directly to Zurich Airport, which is really convenient — no dealing with cabs. The airport also has its own ticket counter and resources for travelers who fly into Zurich and begin their traveling from there.

We were sad to part ways at the airport (some of us headed back to our New York office, some to the Chicago office), and we were even sadder to part ways with Switzerland! Luckily, I’m pretty sure we took enough photos and brought home enough Swiss chocolate that we can all continue to live vicariously for at least the next month or so.

Let us know if you have any questions for us about this trip or the scenic trains in the comments below, and we’ll do our best to answer!

glacier express
Group shot with Isabella of Swiss Travel System! Thanks Isabella for this great photo of everyone (and for being a wonderful tour guide!)

A special thanks to our friends who made this trip possible for us, who pampered us with delicious food, and who taught us all about these absolutely stunning places and trains: Martin of St Moritz Tourism in St Moritz, Patricia of RhB on the Glacier Express, Charles of Ticino Tourism in Locarno, Christian of Rigi Railways, and especially Michelle and Isabella from Switzerland Tourism and Swiss Travel System.

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