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The expanded Glacier Express

Photo: Looking up the Aletsch Glacier near Bettmerhorn.

The Glacier Express often appears on ‘must do’ lists, but I don’t think it is worth the hype. The route is pretty, but not the most spectacular, and many of the best sights in Switzerland are actually just out of view of the train line.

I also have an expanded version of the Bernina Express (a route which I personally think is much better than the Glacier Express anyway) and the GoldenPass line.


The Glacier Express

Disclaimer: I have never set foot on the actual Glacier Express trains, but I have read up on it, done all of the route on regional transport multiple times, and spent weeks on end in some of the areas.

The Glacier Express connecting Zermatt and St Moritz is a standard entry on the top 10 lists of scenic train routes, a must do in most guide books, and probably the first train that most tourists would/could name in Switzerland.

It is run by a private company, not by the Swiss federal train service (SBB), and what they do best is advertising. Like Jungfraujoch it is a long and slow journey, which is full of tourists who are convinced it is a ‘must do’ when there are many cheaper and easier options to get a similar experience. It certainly has many people convinced it is an essential experience. I have seen people go a bit crazy with planning trips around it: one couple I met spent 3 days in Switzerland, the whole time was given over to sitting on trains doing the Glacier Express or getting to/from the end points. So far I have never met a Swiss person who said it was a must do or even recommended it.

  • It is an express train in the old fashioned sense of the word: meaning you don’t have to change. The average speed is about 36km/h (22mph), hence their tagline that is ‘the slowest express train in the world’. It would actually be an hour faster to go on a massive diversion up through the Flatland via Zürich on 4+ other trains instead.
  • The glacier part of the name apparently comes from the fact it used to pass the Rhone Glacier, but that stopped in 1982 when the Furka base tunnel opened allowing year round travel on the route but detouring away from the glacier (the glacier has since retreated out of sight from the old train line anyway). Now you can still see a few bits of various glaciers far above you along the route, but really it is about the worst way to see a glacier when visiting Switzerland (not least as you pass so close but out of sight of the mighty Aletsch glacier).
  • The ticket for the route is covered with a train pass like the Swiss Travel Pass or EU/Interrail, but a seat reservation is mandatory for the train itself (with a fairly hefty extra charge starting from 29 CHF in low season) and it does seem to sell out so needs to be booked in advance.
  • All the cars are the same modern glass design, the days of 2nd class still using the old wagons that some people mention on forums are long gone.

It clearly fits some people’s interests. I don’t doubt that there are some who will be delighted to spend all day watching the world go past, wish it was longer, and are counting down the days until they can do it again. But I suspect that there are quite a few people who take it because they think they should, rather then because it suits them, so….

My reasons not to ride it

If you are already travelling in the mountains it doesn’t offer anything new. While the route is all mountains and almost all rural (bar the odd industrial bit) I don’t think it is the most interesting or scenic way of seeing the Alps. Almost any given view will be beautiful, but never exceptional – just fairly standard for trains in the Alps. There is never any WOW moment on the train like seeing the Morteratsch Glacier from the Bernina line or the view up Lauterbrunnen valley when entering Wengen on the train to Kleine Scheidegg (actually the 40 minute Lauterbrunen to Kleine Scheidegg train squeezes in more impressive views and variation than the whole 8 hour Glacier Express…).

  • You are always deep in the valley with 1000m of mountain above you on either side, sometimes gentler with meadows, sometimes steeper and more wild/rugged, but never that varied. Other than the Andermatt side of the Oberalppass there is not really anything that you would call a wide sweeping view or where you are set back enough to really appreciate the peaks around you.
  • The much advertised Landwasser Viadukt is an impressive enough bit of engineering, but it only lasts a few seconds and isn’t all that different to any other bridge.
  • The lack of a wow factor is made a bit worse considering that the full thing is 8 hours (though you can shorten it and just do a segment). 8 hours stuck sitting with the people around you and whatever the weather might be that day. I imagine that the novelty and the scenery will wear off for many people after a few hours (I would compare it to watching the Lord of the Rings films back to back, some people will love it but many will be feeling a bit and restless long before Helms Deep). Plus if you are travelling in winter you might well run out of daylight before the end.
  • You pass close to, but just miss out on so many things. Including ironically enough the largest glacier in the Alps. The view of the Aletsch Glacier from Eggishorn is only a 20 minute cable car ride from the train station at Fiesch which the Glacier Express just breezes through. You don’t really get many good glacier views from the train at all (especially compared to the Bernina Line). If you want to see a glacier than you can take a cable car or mountain train up to various peaks with fantastic views instead (e.g. Gornergrat in Zermatt, Diavolezza on the Bernina line, or Eggishorn above Fiesch).
  • People love to quote the statistic about the number of tunnels, but the two longest tunnels mean that you miss out on some of the best spots on the route. Plus tunnels are notable for being pitch dark things without any kind of view except your own reflection.
  • On which point the windows are reflective and cannot be opened – which will ruin most photographs.
  • With all the windows it looks like it must be a mobile greenhouse. Reviews and comments online confirm this. I have personally been stood waiting in the shade at a station on a hot summers day whilst a Glacier Express train with some very hot and bored looking passengers sat in the full sun (waiting for my approaching train to clear the line), they still had 4+ hours to go too……

The Glacier Express vs local trains

The entire route used by the Glacier Express is also used by standard regional trains. I am most certainly not the first to suggest or take the regional trains, but not many suggest spreading it out so much.

  • The main differences are that the regional trains are slightly slower (7hr46min vs 8hr23min) and require a number of changes (0 vs 4), the base ticket price is the same but regional trains don’t require the faff or extra cost of a seat reservation.
  • Regional trains run hourly on each line so there is quite a bit of flexibility to hop on and off.
  • Regional trains run every day year round. The Glacier Express takes a break from late October to mid December (which isn’t going to be the most attractive time on that route in fairness).
  • On the regional trains you can open the windows on the older wagons, or some of the newer trains come with panoramic viewing sections with openable windows.

The expanded way of doing the route

Rules: Everything suggested is either a train stop that the Glacier Express passes through, or is at most a direct and reasonable public transport connection away from a stop on the train line (technically Hamburg is a direct train ride from Chur, but that is clearly a bit silly).

  • I would say this is best over summer July-September when everything is open and accessible.
  • A travel pass is going to be advisable. The best solution for numerous days with short rides and/or cable cars would probably be a mix of the Half-Fare and Saver Day Pass.
  • You could do this in anything from a few days to a month depending on how much you like mountains, and how much time (and money) you have.
  • Likewise you can do anything from downhill technical mountain biking to a series of scenic coffees and gentle strolls.
  • I have just listed a few ideas and where possible links to my trips in the various regions. You could fill a book talking about all the options in all the places along the way.
  • Even keeping it brief this going to be quite an info dump. If I had to pick the top 3 places to explore along the route they would be: Aletsch Arena, Flims/Rhine Gorge, Bergün (runner up the Oberalppass and Andermatt/Disentis).

I have split this into 5 sections to line up with the regional trains (obviously going the other way works fine too):

  • Stage 1: Zermatt to Visp (1hr09min).
  • Stage 2: Visp to Andermatt (2hr12min).
  • Stage 3: Andermatt to Disentis/Mustér (1hr11min).
  • Stage 4: Disentis/Mustér to Chur (1hr18min).
  • Stage 5: Chur to St Moritz (2hr2min).

Stage 1: Zermatt to Visp

The Gornerglacier and Matterhorn seen from the ridge above Gornergrat.
The tough but rewarding end of the Platthorn hike.

This is the one section I have only done by train, so these are just ideas I have:

  • The Charles Kuonen suspension bridge is a day hike from the station at Randa, it was briefly the longest pedestrian suspension bridge in the world.
  • A much tougher option is the Barrhorn, the highest marked footpath in Switzerland at 3600m and possibly the highest peak in the Alps that you can summit without proper mountaineering gear. It is 2500m above the trainline, so almost certainly has to be a 2 day tour staying at one of the SAC huts.
  • Grachen sits above the split where one valley goes off to Zermatt and the other to Saas-Fee. I am told this is a nice spot to spend a few days.
  • From Visp a Postbus runs up to Visperterminen which has the highest vineyards in Europe.
  • Visp itself looks like it has a little bit of old town (I have never ventured beyond the station), but is mostly modern, ugly, and industrial.

Stage 2: Visp to Andermatt

A long section that climbs slowly up to the far end of Valais, then pops out of the Furka tunnel into the Ursener valley for the last 10km to Andermatt.

Visp to Brig

  • 10km of mostly industrial valley floor. Nothing much of interest here as far as I am aware.
  • There is a bit of a nice old town and a castle/palace. Not a must visit, but not a bad place to wander around for a few minutes. Postbuses run up from Brig station to the Simplon pass or Belalp.

Aletsch Arena

For me this is THE place to see a glacier along the route. I have written about this (and the next) area before in summer and also as a non-skier during the winter with more descriptions of the hikes I did.

The Aletsch Glacier seen from around the Bettmerhorn.
Bettmeralp.

Around Fiesch and Obergoms

  • From Fiesch a Postbus runs into the Binntal, a little known but beautiful side valley.
  • You can make a loop around the area crossing the Fürgangen suspension bridge and passing through the rustic little village of Ernen.
  • From Fiesch the train passes through the relatively flat Obergoms. A walk along the valley passing through the villages which are mostly old and jaunty rustic huts is nice at any time of year.
Ernen.
Binn.

Oberwald to Andermatt

  • The main trainline (and Glacier Express) enter a tunnel directly after Oberwald to take a practical, but not very scenic, approach to the next valley. During the summer you can take the Postbus over the Furka Pass to Andermatt (you could get off at the Hotel Belvédère or Pass and hike down to the station at Realp, starting from 10km +150m, -1000m and getting as long and hard as you fancy if you want to push on all the way to Andermatt), or the steam train that runs along the original Glacier Express route from Oberwald to Realp. For those who are feeling fit (or rent an E-bike for the day) I can also attest that going over the Furka by bike is stunning.
  • A walk along the valley floor from Realp to Andermatt is gentle and scenic, if the traffic noise isn’t too high (10km, basically flat).
  • Andermatt itself is building a resort to one side but the old town area is left alone so it is still quite nice. The location wouldn’t be a bad base for a few days with direct access to multiple passes by bus or train, or cable cars like the one going up to Gemstock.
Looking towards from Grimsel Pass from the Furka Pass.
The Goldfinger memorial close to Riealp.

Stage 3: Andermatt to Disentis/Mustér

Over the Oberalppass and a little way down the Vorderrhein valley. The views are generally very impressive along here, but doing much can be a bit hard without a mountain bike or a good hike.

I spent a few weeks based out of Disentis covering this area by foot and bike

Oberalppass

  • From Andermatt the train climbs up right away to the Oberalppass – the highest point on the Glacier Express line at 2204m. The pass has the typical restaurants and even a cable car. There isn’t much of a view from the pass itself which sits in a bend, the lake would be quite nice for a walk or to relax – if it were not for the road noise.
  • A popular option here is going to the source of the river Rhine; either directly (10km +/-500m) or via a bigger loop. I also recommend following Route 85 over the Tiarms Pass  and turning off at Milez down to Dienti station (9km, +300, – 800m) a hike with some fantastic views and in my experience no other people around.

The Vorderrhein valley

  • Going down the main valley there are some beautiful side valleys (though quite a tough slog by foot) and the resorts at Segnes, Sedrun, and Disentis offer cable car access higher up.
  • Disentis isn’t especially memorable (other than the giant monastery), but it does make a good base in the region with easy transport up and down the valley, and also off to the Lukmanierpass.

Stage 4: Disentsis/Mustér to Chur

Disentis to Ilanz

Val Russein
Zervailia.

Around the Rhine Gorge

  • Hike in the Rhine gorge which has 4 stations in or next to it. Valendas-Sagogn to Versam-Safien (5km, +/- 200m) after Versam the path diverts around the gorge until Trin station from where it is another 5km through some more of the gorge until Reichenau-Tamins.
  • A Postbus runs from Versam-Safien station up the Saifental. The Saifental is stunning and this is worth it just for the bus ride. My notes are in here.
At the top of the Flims Wasserweg.
Watching the Glacier Express pass through the Rhine Gorge from the lookout tower at Il Spir.

Reichenau-Tamins to Chur

  • Changing at Reichenau-Tamins after the Rhine Gorge to the final train to St Mortiz is sufficient. But you can carry on the last 13 minutes to Chur and come back on yourself if you want to really go the whole way.
  • The train line along to Chur has some nice mountain views as usual on the route, but doesn’t add anything special (other than a giant chemical factory).
  • Chur has a good old town, museums etc, and links up to places like Arosa or Lenzerheide.
Arosa Bear Park.
Fresh snow in August on the Parpaner Rothorn above Lenzerheide

Stage 5: Chur to St Moritz

This is to me the most impressive section. The Bernina Pass also covers this section, which combined with the fact that the whole Bernina Express only takes 4 hours, and that the 2 extra hours unique to the Bernina Express are even more scenic, is why I would much rather do the Bernina than the Glacier Express.

For a really alternate route you can take the 2hr25min Postbus from Chur to St Mortiz via Lenzerheide and the Juliapass which is a stunning route (or take that coming back).

Chur to Thusis

  • I have never explored this section, though the valley is noted for having a number of castle (ruins) and must have some nice bits of mountain.
  • There is a S-bahn train from Chur to Thusis which stops at places along the way, the St Moritz train doesn’t stop until Thusis.
  • Thusis has a Postbus going up to the Glaspass, and the Viamala Gorge is easy to access. I have not done either of these but they are on my to do list.

Thusis to Bergün

After Thusis the train enters the UNESCO Bernina Line (though everywhere in sight of the train is apparently part of the ‘Buffer Zone’ so you technically enter it before Thusis).

Much of this section is in very steep and wild wooded valley, so there isn’t a whole lot directly alongside the train line.

  • Tiefencastel. A small, but pleasant little village (the best part is the hidden church at Mistail), good bus connections towards Lenzerheide and Bivio. I used it as a base for a few days
  • At Filisur you can follow a short path to a lookout over the Landwasser Viadukt, the closest option is only about 15 minutes away so it is easy to see a few trains cross it and then be back in time for your next train.
  • Filisur also has a train up to Davos.

Bergün to Preda

  • The village of Bergün itself is really beautiful and is well worth an hour between trains to explore. You get a good view of it nestled in the mountains as the train loops up the hillside afterwards, but that is nothing compared to actually exploring the streets and properly seeing the old houses. I mention it in this post, which also covers the next two points.
  • The Darlux chair lift has an awkward hourly schedule in the summer, but offers fantastic views.
  • It is 12km and 1400m above Bergün, but the Kesch-hütte is a stunning spot opposite a glacier and the valley leading up there is beautiful. Doable (but tough) with a bike.
  • The Bergün-Preda part of the line is one of the most memorable as the train loops its way up. Walking down from Preda to Bergün (7.2km, +114m, -538m) or VV with the trains passing by is a fantastic hike.
Bergün.
Hiking from Preda down to Bergün.

Preda to St Moritz

From Preda the train enters the Albula tunnel, popping out in the Val Bever and then entering the Oberengadin. there are a final few stops before the Glacier Express route terminates in St Moritz.

  • Hiking over the Fuorcla Crap Alv between Preda and Spinas (12km, +820, -780m) (or 3 flat kms further to Bever itself) is a fantastic day hike which covers a section of mountain where the train is entirely underground. Though I suggest going from Spinas to Preda to have the steepest part be uphill, have a lake near the end to wait by and put your feet in, and there are more frequent trains at Preda (Spinas oddly is only every 2 hours in each direction).
  • As you come out of the tunnel the train announces that you are entering the ‘wild and romantic Val Bever’, but the train passes through the last few kilometres of the valley. The upper part that you can’t see is much more beautiful. One of my favourite memories in the region is going to the lonely and basic Alp Suvretta for a very relaxed lunch in a wonderfully serene and laid back location. I did this by bike, simply straight up the valley on the (unpaved) road and passing by on the Survetta loop. Renting an E-bike would be an easy way to get up the valley.
  • Samedan doesn’t look like much from the train line but it has a lovely old town and a very nice spa.
The Lai da Palpuogna above Preda.
Looking up the Val Bever.

Oberengadin and St Moritz

St Moritz is world famous as a glitzy ski resort favoured by the rich. I am really not a fan of the town itself: the location is stunning and it has great transport links, but the town itself is rather charmless. Instead Samedan is my base of choice in the region.

I have spent quite a bit of time around here and there are endless things to do, see this post on a week in October and this post on 2 weeks in Samedan in August.

At the risk of appearing lazy I am going to say see those two posts for ideas in the area. But a few of my favourites (covered in the above posts) are:

The Engadin valley seen from Muottas Muragl.
Looking at the Bernina group from Munt Pers above Diavolezza.

Bonus Stage: The rest of the Bernina line

If you are in St Moritz then it is easy to hop on the regional train over the Bernina Pass. The extra route taken by the Bernina Express only takes 2 hours to Tirano (but I would argue that the 1 hour to Alp Grüm covers the best parts). Again there is too much on the route to just ride past in one go. I have made an expanded post for that too, but here are just a few of my favourite bits:

  • Walk to the tongue of the Morteratsch glacier.
  • Glacier view from the cable car station at Diavolezza and hiking up beyond it at Munt Pers.
  • Hike a section of, or completely over the pass. There are a number of stops on the train line and the pass itself is plateau rather than a long climb so it is easy to take a gentle walk.
  • View from Alp Grüm.
  • Poschiavo is a nice little village to spend an hour between trains exploring.

Suggested itinerary

Clearly that was a massive information dump of an endless list of suggestions that would take months to visit. So here is my suggested way of doing it.

If nothing else then at least visit the Aletsch Arena.

10 day suggestion:

Turning an 8 hour route into 8 days (and assuming you are travelling light).

  • Day 1 – Zermatt. Arrive.
  • Day 2 – Zermatt. Head up to somewhere like Gornergrat.
  • Day 3 – Aletsch/Fiesch.
  • Day 4 – Aletsch/Fiesch.
  • Day 5 – Over the Furkapass to Andermatt.
  • Day 6 – Train to Oberalppass, hike to Dieni or Sedrun via route 85, overnight in Ilanz.
  • Day 7 – Flims or Vals day trip from Ilanz.
  • Day 8 – To Preda, hike down to Bergün and overnight there.
  • Day 9 – To St Moritz and something in the Oberengadin like a chunk of the Bernina line.
  • Day 10 – St Moritz. Head home.

Top Glacier Viewing spots:

On the Glacier Express route:

  • Gornergrat. (I assume Glacier Paradise does a decent job there too, but have not been up there)
  • Eggishorn. Any part of the ridge above the Aletsch Arena villages will do too, but Eggishorn gives you a fantastic view up the whole length of the glacier.
  • Rhone glacier. The easiest way is to take the Postbus to the Belvedere Furka stop then pay to enter the glacier grotto, or just follow the footpath slightly up the hill (then hike to Realp or Oberwald). A possibly more impressive option would be to go to Grimselpass then follow the path along the Nägeligrätli beyond the Grätlisee (though that might be tricky with bus times and I have yet to do it myself).
  • Top of the Corvatsch cable car and the end of Val Roseg.

On the Bernina line: