This starts as an absolute beginners guide assuming no experience with mountains and that you are not going skiing. However, I hope some of the tips and location ideas will be helpful to more experienced readers too.
I have included a few examples which are actually funicular/trains, just because they are included in the passes.
Important things to check
There are three main things to check before heading out:
The weather forecast and webcams
They are still going to sell you a ticket regardless of whether it is sunny or if it is raining and cloudy. Every cable car station has a webcam (check the official website (for example in the Jungfrau region) or a service which provides multiple locations like Roundshot) and many mountains even have a dedicated weather forecast on the MeteoSwiss app/website.
It is especially worth checking the webcam in the autumn/winter when it might be foggy down in the village but sunny up at the top of the mountain.
What you can do up there
Some places have endless options for hiking and activities, others just have a restaurant with a view.
When it is open
Most mountain top cable cars stop running around 5pm. This can be a surprise – especially when it is broad daylight until much later in summer. There will be a very clear sign saying when the last run of the day is. If there is a village at the top station (e.g. Mürren or Bettmeralp) then it might well continue running until 10pm or later in season.
Service might be reduced or stopped entirely for a few days or even a month during shoulder season (around November and April/May) for maintenance and/or due to low demand. It varies by location, but Summer season typically runs from May/June through to late October, and Winter from December to March.
What to expect
There are three types of cable car.
Ok if you want to be technical there are many types, but the three below cover it well enough. There are also a few novelties like the spinning cable car going up to Titlis, but that doesn’t really add much to the experience other than being something to pad out the marketing brochure.
The classic image of a cable car with a large cabin that can hold a number of people and typically runs every 30 minutes or so (sometimes even every 15 or 20 minutes). I would call this a cable car, but that is clearly going to get confusing.
These are what you use to get up to the highest peaks and are probably the most likely to freak people out.
These go the highest above the ground and might swing when they go past support pylons.
They can also get very busy; if it is peak time and/or ski season then you might find yourself squeezed in like sardines. If it gets crowded then it is good etiquette to put your backup between your feet.
There are a number of little farmer cable cars (see this BBC article).
A small cabin (usually for 4 people but they can be bigger) which is (usually) constantly running so you can jump on without having to worry about keeping to a timetable.
These provide a very stable and smooth ride (if it isn’t super windy).
Increasingly popular due to the high capacity they offer and are common all over the country.
An open bench with a safety bar to keep you in place.
These are usually found where the focus is on skiing and most only run to serve skiers in winter. Chair lifts will often only run in summer if there are no tramways or gondolas.
These usually run constantly or when there is demand.
Pretty simple really: Turn up, buy a ticket (or better yet buy one on the phone app or load it onto your SwissPass), get on.
- Generally you don’t need to (and outright can’t) reserve a spot. You just turn up and join the queue. The only exception I know of is the Triftbahn which has very limited capacity (likewise the nearby Gelmerbahn).
- It is advisable to bring something windproof and warm, it will be cooler higher up (it can also be baking hot in summer). Sun protection is a good idea at any time of year.
- Most cable car stations are on the public transport network and are usually timed to run so you can come down and only have a short wait for your connecting bus/train. In the case of constantly running gondolas it is a good idea to time how long the trip up takes so you know when to start heading down.
- There is a set timetable for Aerial tramways (and sometimes Gondolas and Chair lifts), but if demand is very high then the cable car will run multiple times or even constantly rather than making a long queue of people wait another 30 minutes.
- Some lines have multiple stops (especially on Gondolas) where you pass through stations along the route so you can join or leave the line at different points.
What can you do
Look up the website for information on what there is and what is open/closed. This can also change drastically between seasons; the starting point for numerous hikes in summer might be impossible to leave without skis in winter (I have more details on what to do in winter for non-skiers).
Admire the views
The obvious one really. If nothing else you can do this.
Many will proudly advertise that you can see a certain sight. Some of these are not so special: the Black Forest in Germany is a tiny blip on the horizon from the Schilthorn, and the Matterhorn from just about anywhere but around Zermatt isn’t anything but another peak (you wouldn’t even recognise it from places like Crans-Montana or Glacier 3000).
Some offer the chance to see snow year round (e.g. Titlis, Jungfraujoch, Glacier 3000). This can be exciting for people from warmer climates who visit in summer, but the snow at the visitor area is likely to be a bit sad and dirty in August. If there is a cold snap then there might be fresh snow down to 2000m even in midsummer.
Just about everywhere is going to have at least one cafe/restaurant at the top. Prices tend to be standard for Switzerland.
Cable car stations are generally rather ugly, and the higher up the uglier and more functional they get. So don’t expect a cosy wooden hut, though nicer ones do exist like the Alter Säntis around the corner from the top of Säntis.
How suitable this is varies somewhat by location. My tips/resources for hiking in Switzerland are here.
You might be able to take a very gentle and flat walk around a little loop or to the next cable car, or every way down might be steep exposed and rocky.
Take it slow if you are going to 3000m or higher, then take it slow at first. You might be surprised by how quickly you get out of breath in the thinner air.
There is often something family friendly like a playground or little activity trail with interactive information stations. Some even have a small museum inside the top station.
Some of the stations have gimmicks like cliff/thrill walks and suspension bridges. I wouldn’t say they are all that impressive or scary, but I spent my 20s hanging off cliff faces so I am not the average person there.
Likewise the suspension bridges at Titlis and Glacier 3000 look impressive in photos, but really you are barely a few metres above the ground (they do still wobble a bit).
Some have nothing, others lean really hard on this. Grindelwald First especially is doing its best to turn the route down into a theme park.
Summer offers activities like trotti (scooters), carts, alpine coaster, via ferrata. Given the choice I would rent a bike/e-Bike over a trotti or alpine coaster. It is much better value for money and offers far more freedom on the usually endless gravel roads.
How to save money
If there is a discount and how much you get off will vary from place to place: check the prices page for any cable car you are planning to visit!
- Go early/late. Some offer early bird discounts. For example the strangely named ‘Comfort-Ticket’ on Niederhorn which costs 27 CHF for a round trip rather than 42 CHF if you go up before 09:00 or after 16:00.
- Go on your birthday. Some places offer a free ride if you present ID proving it is your birthday. This seems to mostly be a thing in the Berner Oberland area (including the expensive Schilthorn which would set you back 108 CHF otherwise) but there are some examples elsewhere like Hoher Kasten in the Alpstein. This offer is sometimes hidden away from the main prices page on most cable cars, so you might need to google the cable car + birthday
- Get a suitable ticket. Some cable cars offer special tickets which can work out cheaper if you know what you want to do. For example the Corvatschbahn in the Engadine offers a cheaper ‘hiking ticket’ where you can go all the way up to enjoy the views at the top station and and then come back down to the middle station to hike to a different destination rather than returning back all the way down to the valley station (such as the fantastic hike over the Fuorcla Surlej and down the Val Roseg). Or even if you plan to return to where you started a return ticket can be a third cheaper than buying a single each way (it can also just be the same as two singles).
- RailAway combined offer. if you are travelling with public transport then the SBB offers a number of discounts on cable cars.
- Guest card. If you are staying in the same resort/area you might get a discount or even a free ride. The most generous is the upper Engadine which includes basic transport and rides up and down a number of cable cars. Check the info online to find out what is valid in each area and if you have to stay in certain types of accomodation to earn the pass (search ‘guest card location’).
- Transport pass. Most (but not all!) cable cars give a 50% discount if you have the Swiss Travel Pass/GA or Half Fare card. Cable cars up to villages are entirely covered by the Swiss Travel Pass/GA (e.g. Mürren, Rigi, Bettmeralp, Braunwald). You could make a day trip out of taking the train to Mörel, going up to Rideralp, walking along to Fiescheralp, and going down to Fiesch without spending a single rappon. If you have the Swiss Travel Pass then a few mountaintop rides are also included for free (currently: Rigi, Stanserhorn and Stoos).
- Regional pass. Some regions offer a dedicated pass which covers entry for all the basic transport and cable cars up to the mountains within a certain area (e.g. the Tell pass, or Jungfrau pass). If you are planning to stay in one area and want to go up a number of mountains this could be a good call.
- Ski pass. I am unsure if this works, but it might be worth looking into. If you visit in the winter it might be cheaper to buy a ski pass for the day than pedestrian tickets. A standard return up to Titlis is far more expensive than a Ski pass for the day for example.
Where to go
There are endless cable cars all over the country. Some are very well known to tourists (eg Pilatus, Schilthorn, Grindelwald First) but they are far from the be all and end all.
Some of my favourites are:
- Eggishorn (Fiesch). This is one of the most impressive viewpoints in the country: on one side you are perfectly positioned to see the full length of the Aletsch Glacier curling past, and on the other is a panorama of high peaks (it also makes a good starting point for walking alongside the glacier). The ride up to the midstation at Fiescheralp is free with the Swiss Travel Pass/GA, so a discounted return to Eggishorn would only cost you 21.40 CHF.
- Diavolezza (Pontresina). A lonely cable car station on the Bernina Pass takes you up to a ridge with one of the most impressive glacier views in the country. Free if you have the Engadine guest card.
- Corvatsch (Silvaplana). The top station is amongst the highest in the country at 3300m, but there isn’t anything to do up there beyond admiring the view. Combine it with the hiking ticket to go up then get off at the middle station and hike along the lakes or over the Fuorcla Surlej and down Val Roseg.
- Männlichen (Grindelwald/Wengen). A walk up to the strangely named Royal lookout and then along the panorama trail to Kleine Scheidegg is fantastic in summer and is doable in winter as a prepared path (if you don’t mind crossing a few pistes).
- Pointe de la Plaine Morte (Crans-Montana). An impressive and variable ride in itself. This traverses 3km crossing into different valleys and constantly changing what you see. It then drops you by the vast glacier where you can admire the views, head back down the same way, or go over the ridge and down to Lenk. The tourist website is useless for summer information, if you have the guest pass then full use of the network is 24 CHF.
- Brienz Rothorn (Sörenberg). Not the famous steam train which goes up from Brienz, but the cable car that goes up the other side from Sörenberg. The cable car might not be as historically interesting but it is much quicker and cheaper, plus you climb out of one valley and suddenly get the entire majesty of the lake and Jungfrau region at once.
- Niederhorn (Beatenberg). A fantastic view of the Jungfrau region. You don’t get both lakes like at Harder Kulm, but everything else is much better. Walking down to Wildegg or Habkern is a good way to spend a day. I pushed through to Schangnau once and the changing landscape through forest and into the rustic Emmental region was well worth the length.
- Säntis (Schwägalp). A popular choice for good reason. A very prominent mountain with extensive views in every direction. The hikes up/down are stunning, but they are also very steep and exposed at times.
- Aroser Rothorn (Lenzerheide). Another fantastic viewpoint. A short walk takes you up to the Parpaner Rothorn. We visited after a cold snap in August dusted the mountain with a few cm of fresh snow.
- Weissenstein (Solothurn) and Wasserfallen (Reigoldswil). The only gondolas in the much lower and gentler Jura mountains. The folded Jura landscape in that region is beautiful in summer, and in winter you often have a clear view over the sea of fog to the Alps from Bavaria to Mont Blanc. Wasserfallen is possibly the lowest top station in the country at an adorable 924m.
- Hockenhorn (Lauchneralp). We went up here on a whim just to see if it was worth it for the view; it was. There is a very short winter path to one of the best lookout points in the country (which might carry on to the hut if conditions are right).
- Tschinglen-Alp (Elm). There isn’t anything special about this in itself, I just love that the top station is a bench and a signpost. I used this as the starting point for a fantastic (but long) hike over the.
- Gimmelwald to Stechelberg. For the first few hundred metres you glide just above a gentle meadow, then the ground suddenly drops away and you are hanging a 1000m over the valley floor.