The Glacier Express & Other Top Scenic Train Routes in Switzerland

Glacier Express

The information in this blog post was provided by Melissa Grandt who is a natural saleswoman, and has been “selling” Rail Europe train destinations for over 15 years. Don’t get her started on Switzerland, or you’ll find yourself across a table from her eating raclette and learning to yodel. She’s been to every region in this Alpine beauty, and just about every train – from the Glacier Express to the Chocolate Train to Jungfroujoch – the top of Europe. Melissa also loves to seek out hidden gems off the beaten – and high-speed – track. 

The Scenic routes in Switzerland provide a relaxing, elegant way to experience the landscape that makes Switzerland so unique – but the actual planning of these routes can be confusing and sometimes stressful. Each scenic route involves mountain peaks, train changes, and some of Switzerland’s most popular holiday towns, and each is guaranteed to provide gorgeous views of the Swiss countryside (which, actually, is pretty difficult not to accomplish when you’re in Switzerland). With the major selling points the same, it can be difficult to differentiate between these routes to figure out which one is the best fit for your itinerary. Here’s a quick breakdown of the top five scenic routes in Switzerland, including a few hints about the little details that sets each one apart.

1. Bernina Express.

The Interior of the Bernina Express Swiss Scenic Train.

This scenic route will take you from Chur or Saint Moritz to Tirano by train, and then, in the summer, you can continue onwards to Lugano by bus. This is the route for those of you who aren’t too scared of heights – you’ll pass over 196 bridges. It’s also one of the shorter train rides in this group, taking you by train to Tirano in just under three hours. In the summer, if you decide to continue on to Lugano, you’ll have time to grab a quick lunch in Tirano before setting out. Located just outside the Lake Como region, Lugano is such a perfect mix of Italian culture and Swiss efficiency that when you arrive you might wonder if you actually traveled a little farther than you thought.

What makes it stand out: Includes a bus portion, and takes you closer to the border of Italy than any of the other routes.

Covered by a rail pass? Yes, any pass covering Switzerland is valid on this route. However, two seat reservations are required: separate reservations for the train & the bus. If you are not traveling with a railpass, you will purchase a ticket for your desired route, plus the additional seat reservations.

2. Wilhem Tell Express.

The Wilhem Tell Express Swiss Scenic Train.

Like the Bernina Express, this route combines two forms of transportation: train and boat. This one can get confusing because all of its cities sound so similar: you can start in either Lugano or Locarno and travel towards Lucerne (or vice versa). From Lugano, you will take a regional train with open seating up towards Bellinzona, where you will then board the panoramic train to Fluelen. From Fluelen, you’ll begin the boat portion of the journey, which lasts around three hours. First class on the boat will get you a meal in the dining salon, and then you’re free to wander around the boat and venture out to the deck. As with the trains, you’ll have those quintessentially Swiss mountain views during this entire ride, and the boat will make a few stops at the villages surrounding the lake until you reach Lucerne. Lucerne is a convenient starting point for several of the mountain top excursions in the region, like the Jungfraujoch or Mount Titlis packages.

What makes it stand out: Only Scenic Route that includes a boat ride. Also easy to remember if you know that all of its starting and end points start with the letter “L.”

Covered by a rail pass? Yes, any 1st class pass covering Switzerland is valid on this route. However, a seat reservation is required between Bellinzona and Lucerne, covering both the train and boat. This reservation would include the meal on board the boat, as well as a small souvenir. If you are not traveling with a railpass, purchase a 1st class ticket for your desired route, plus the additional seat reservation.

3. GoldenPass Line.

The interior of the GoldenPass Line Swiss Scenic Train.

If mountain-top excursions aren’t your thing, you’ll have another Scenic Train option once arriving in Lucerne from the William Tell Express: the GoldenPass Line, which travels through Interlaken and Zweisimmen to Montreux (or vice versa). This is also a wonderful line to take in if you need to get between Zurich and Geneva, because it is not difficult to deviate from the direct route and amble along this scenic route if you have a bit more time. The trip out of Lucerne will take you past several lakes and pastures, through the Brünig Pass, around the Giessbach waterfalls, and finally onwards into Interlaken. From Interlaken you will take a second train along Lake Thun towards Zweisimmen where you will change trains once more to continue into the valley towards Montreux. Make sure to have your camera ready for this last portion of the trip so that you can send friends and family pictures of the quaint chalets nuzzled in the valleys with the jagged, snow-topped peaks as a backdrop. Prepare to deal with major jealousy once you send these pictures. Certain departures on this route will offer panorama cars to give unobstructed views of every gorgeous thing mentioned above.

What makes it stand out: This trip probably includes the most varied landscape of the Scenic Routes, from valleys and waterfalls to mountaintops and meadows. This is for the traveler who doesn’t want to leave anything out.

Covered by a rail pass? Yes, any pass covering Switzerland is valid on this route. However, a seat reservation is required on select trains, so check your schedules. If you are not traveling with a railpass, purchase a ticket for your desired route, plus the additional seat reservation, if required.

4. Glacier Express.

An Interior View from the Glacier Express Swiss Scenic Train.

This may be the most popular route amongst the Scenic Trains – and also probably the longest. The complete route operates from Zermatt to St Moritz (or vice versa), although you could pick it up at any point in between. Known worldwide as the “world’s slowest express train,” it will take you through mountain landscapes, very deep gorges, 91 tunnels, and across 291 bridges in about seven hours. The highest geographical point of the trip comes when traveling over the Oberalp Pass, which reaches over 6600 feet above sea level! Begin your day with views of the Matterhorn and end it in the holiday destination of St Moritz. Some of the inclines are so steep that drinks are served in a special tilted glass so as to avoid spills. Leave it to the Swiss to think of everything.

What sets it apart: Covers the most ground, and is generally the most well-known route.

Covered by a rail pass? This is where it can get a bit tricky, as part of the route is operated by a private rail operator. If you are traveling with a Swiss Pass or Swiss Flexipass, it is valid on this route. However, a seat reservation is required at an additional cost. If you are traveling with a Eurail Pass, it is only valid between Disentis and St Moritz, but not between Zermatt and Disentis. However, Eurail Pass holders are entitled to a discount of 25% on this section. A seat reservation is also required at an additional cost. If you are not traveling with a railpass, purchase a ticket for your desired route, plus the additional seat reservation. Fairly easy to keep all of that straight…. compared to something, I’m sure?

5. The Chocolate Train.

The View from the Chocolate Train

This train begins in Montreux on the Swiss Riviera and takes you to the Gruyere Castle – as in cheese. Because clearly, you need an appetizer before you get to the chocolate. You’ll have time for lunch in Gruyeres before continuing by train to Broc, home of the Cailler-Nestle chocolate factory, where you’ll get to sample the goods before returning home in the train style of your choice: either a vintage Pullman “Belle Epoque” carriage or a modern panoramic car with over-sized windows. This is a daylong excursion, and your ticket from Montreux to Broc will cover the return trip as well.

What makes it stand out: The calories.

Covered by a rail pass? Yes, with mandatory reservation supplements. Just enter Montreux to Broc when you search. If you are not traveling with a railpass, purchase a ticket for your desired route, plus the additional seat reservation.

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6 Comments Add yours

  1. Avatar yogi says:

    Useful info on this website.
    Iam planning to travel to switzerland and want to give my partner a surprise trip.
    First time booking things on my own and am a bit lost.
    But I don’t know which city to go in switzerland for romantic walks and relaxing with scenic views.
    We have to travel from London to switzerland.
    I also tried looking for a nice hotel to stay & a flight or train but I am completely lost.
    Could anyone help to guide.

    Would be grateful
    Thanks 🙂

    1. Avatar Sandy says:

      I would suggest Lucerne as a romantic city with scenic views. It is very picturesque and has a beautiful lake. I really can’t help with flight information, but Rail Europe’s website is very helpful with train information. We just got back from a week in Switzerland by train using a Eurail pass and it was wonderful.

  2. Avatar Jacqueline Easley Graham says:

    I have limited time in switzerland but I want to take a “wow” train trip that shows off the alps. which one shows off the mountains best or goes the highest in the mountains. Thank you

  3. Avatar jessica says:

    The Glacier Express was the most incredible experience of my lifetime. It is a one of kind experience. I’ve been on many trains throughout Switzerland and Europe, but the Glacier Express is the most incredible of all. I cannot wait to return and do it again! Surprisingly awesome food service as well.

  4. Avatar Renu Nair says:

    Hello Melissa! This is an absolute detailed Swiss information site for me when it comes to train travel

  5. Avatar Jim Hiatt says:

    We will be staying in the Geneva area in July and are wanting to take one of the train rides in the Alps. Is Glacier Express a “doable” one? Do you need to make overnight plans? Is there a round trip ticket?

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