The Grand Train Tour of Switzerland delivers year-round adventures by rail, bus and boat in spectacular settings, writes Andrew Conway
On any other train in any other country, the gentle rocking of the locomotive would surely put me to sleep, but not this one. As I press my nose against the oversize windows of Switzerland’s Bernina Express, an extraordinary alpine panorama keeps me fully awake and feeling very much alive.
From St. Moritz to Tirano by train and on to Lugano by express bus – a journey lasting just over seven hours – this wonderful excursion weaves from glaciers to palm trees via snowcapped mountains, cerulean lakes, church spires, chocolate-box villages, meadows blanketed with spring wildflowers and rolling vineyards.
Through Switzerland’s mountains and lakes
Covering only 183 kilometres from start to finish, I’ve crossed bridges, languages and cultures, traversed the UNESCO World Heritage route of Rhaetian Railways, marvelled at the glorious Bernina Pass, and ended my journey along the languid shores of Lake Como on the way to Lugano.
The best of the Swiss Alps? Think again. The Bernina Express is merely one of eight spectacular routes on The Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, an unforgettable journey of discovery extending 1,280 kilometres of the country’s astounding natural beauty, history and heritage.
The Bernina Express
Taking in 11 iconic lakes, four official languages, five UNESCO World Heritage sites, and an array of picturesque cities, towns and villages, this eight-day, seven-night tour by train, bus and boat should be on every active traveller’s European bucket list.
Starting from Zurich, Montreux (if you fly into Geneva) or Basel, the Grand Train Tour features six highly individual trains: Luzern-Interlaken Express; GoldenPass Panoramic; Glacier Express; Bernina Express; Gotthard Panorama Express; and Voralpen-Express, with an optional boat excursion from St. Gallen/ Rorschach to Schaffhausen.
Eight spectacular routes
Each train route crisscrosses Switzerland’s most scenic regions, conveniently linked much like downhill runs in ski resorts. There is no predetermined direction or duration; travellers can hop on and hop off wherever they please, and the entire tour can be experienced with a single ticket – the Swiss Travel Pass.
Flexibility on the Grand Train Tour
If you don’t have the time to complete all eight routes, you can opt for one or multiple sectors. Travellers can book their own accommodations and stay for as little or as long as they like in each destination, allowing for deeply immersive experiences in a variety of spectacular city, lake and alpine mountain settings.
Zurich to Interlaken
About 3 hours
Having explored the delights of Zurich, take an intercity train to Lucerne before boarding the premium Luzern-Interlaken Express with its glorious lake and mountain scenery. Many alpine adventures await in and around Interlaken, with excursions to Brienzer Rothorn, the soaring Jungfraujoch, mountaintop Schilthorn, Harder Kulm funicular, and historic Schynige Platte railway.
Interlaken to Montreux
About 3 hours
Explore Lake Thun, the Simmen Valley and Zweisimmen where the GoldenPass Panoramic train takes over, passing castles and meadows of grazing cows, before winding through the hills of Montreux. The vineyards of Lavaux, Chillon Castle, Chaplin’s World and a mountain excursion to Rochers-de-Naye are highlights making Montreux an absolute delight.
Montreux to Zermatt
About 2.5 hours
It’s an alpenhorn’s toss from Montreux to Visp, but the journey through the Nikolai Valley – the deepest in Switzerland – is sublime. As the iconic Matterhorn comes into view, the train rises 900 metres in altitude, partly with the help of cogwheel technology. Zermatt’s glamorous and car-free village is the perfect base for exploring the Matterhorn’s vast glaciers.
Zermatt to St. Moritz
About 8 hours
The world’s slowest – but surely most beautiful – train sees the fabled Glacier Express weaving through the Swiss Alps and linking these uber-chic, all-year resorts. Travel through the pretty Cantons of Valais, Uri and Grisons as the train traverses 91 tunnels and 291 bridges with majestic views of mountains, deep ravines and valleys.
St. Moritz to Lugano
About 7 hours
The lovely Bernina Express to Tirano followed by the onward express bus to Lugano delivers travellers from mountains to lake. Sit back and soak up the scenery as knockout views abound of glaciers, turquoise waterways and verdant valleys.
Lugano to Lucerne
About 5.5 hours
The first-class Gotthard Panorama Express takes guests from Mediterranean-style Ticino along the grand Gotthard Panorama Route, before transferring to a boat that glides over Lake Lucerne, surrounded by Switzerland’s traditional heartland and imposing mountains.
Lucerne to St. Gallen
About 2.5 hours
Explore Pilatus, Rigi, Stanserhorn and Titlis from Lucerne before boarding the Voralpen-Express through more classic Swiss scenery. The train passes Lake Zurich, Rapperswil – the ‘city of roses’ – and the Sitter Viaduct. At 99 metres, it’s the highest railway bridge in Switzerland.
St. Gallen to Zurich
About 2.5 hours
Despite being landlocked, Switzerland has its own ‘maritime’ heritage, best seen by train on a 40-kilometre stretch of Lake Constance shoreline and following the Rhine downstream to Schaffhausen, home to Europe’s largest waterfalls, the Rhine Falls. It’s a fitting finale to an extraordinary round-trip journey from Zurich, and one that delivers Switzerland at its very best.
Door to door luggage
Swiss Federal Railways has a ‘Luggage Door to Door’ service, which takes the hassle out of schlepping your bags from station to station and offers maximum convenience in 20 tourism regions.
For a nominal charge of 12 Swiss franc (about $18) per luggage item or a flat rate door-to-door charge of 40 Swiss franc (about $61), the network will collect your luggage from your accommodation address and deliver it to your next address the following day, with one of three time windows for collection and delivery.
Alternatively, you can opt for express shipping for an additional 30 Swiss franc (about $45) and have your luggage collected and delivered to your destination address on the same day (orders must be placed no later than 8pm two days before collection).