Your choices are many, but one thing they all have? Wondrous views.
Train travel may be the best way to absorb the magnificence and unparalleled beauty of Switzerland’s mountainous country, and it’s no wonder why. The top scenic train routes were designed by English engineers in the mid-nineteenth century, during the heyday of tourism—made possible by the wealth that flourished after the Industrial Revolution and imperialism. (That’s why Swiss trains roll by on the left side: It’s a nod to England.) Those grand days may be behind us, but you can still sit back and relax in plush compartments, take in the amazing sights, enjoy gourmet meals with good Swiss wines, and take breaks with hiking trips for fresh air along the way. Here are the routes not to miss.
The Bernese Oberland is filled with great train rides. The most epic—and one everyone should do at least once—begins in the Lauterbrunnen Valley and takes you up through Wengen, on to Kleine Scheidegg, and finally through tunnels hewn out of the mountains until you reach the Jungfraujoch. At just over 11,000 feet above sea level, this is the highest altitude railway station in Europe. While you can get out and walk around at stops along the way, save time to do it at the top. There’s a museum here that documents the massive sacrifices needed to create the train route, as well as a good Indian restaurant, a new chocolate shop, little ski slopes, and beautiful views of glaciers and distant peaks. Travelers beware: during summer months the train takes up about 5,000 visitors daily.
The Glacier Express
Switzerland has other routes that, unlike the ride up to Jungfraujoch, are covered fully by a Swiss Rail Pass. (The pass offers a 50 percent reduction on the Jungfraujoch excursion.) Certainly among the most majestic is the aptly named Glacier Express. The train goes to and from Zermatt and St. Moritz, over long stone bridges, past countless waterfalls, in view of primeval forests and past deep valleys. Along the way, you go through Visp, Brig, Andermatt, Disentis, and Chur, and—seated in a so-called “Panorama Wagon,” with walls made of glass—you won’t miss a thing.
Wilhelm Tell Express
Another magnificent train ride is the Wilhelm Tell Express, which links German-speaking Luzern to Italian-speaking Locarno. It’s a wondrous, five-hour journey that begins by boat from Luzern to Flüelen. This is where the Wilhelm Tell story began. Heading south, you’re in Ticino, Switzerland’s canton, where Italian is the language and norm. You’ll go through Bellinzona, with its famous castles; Lugano, which combines Swiss and Italian cultures; and, at last you are in Locarno, which is a lovely lakeside town near the border of Italy that at one time was a quiet fishing village that inspired Hemingway.
Finally, don’t overlook the Bernina Express. It’s so extraordinary as to merit being part of UNESCO World Heritage. The route is the highest altitude train journey in Europe, and takes you from Chur, in the region of Switzerland known as the Grissons, all the way to Tirano in Italy. The Grissons are in a rustic part of the country, ideal for remote hikes (as well as family walks in the National Park), and the train spares nothing in terms of vistas.