There are many famous scenic train rides in Switzerland (and often many unknown routes are pretty too). These are well documented in endless tourism websites.
A few tips
- My single biggest tip would be to get off and explore a stop or two, or hike around a bit. Even just taking a little walk lets you get so much more out of these places.
- With the exception of the Glacier Express and the Express version of the Bernina route these are normal trains and do not require reservation.
- With the exception of a few of the mountain lines like the Rothorn bahn these are open everyday year round.
- They really love the word “Express”.
- When using the SBB planner you might need to add a “via” station or the system will try and route you to the fastest option instead.
- I have written about general transport in Switzerland before.
- Most of the routes have, or are getting modern trains with bigger panoramic windows as standard.
- Luggage space is almost always limited.
The big ones
The Glacier Express
This is probably the most famous, but I would also say it is the most overrated and it misses out on so many of the best sights that are just beyond the train route.
The Bernina Express
This is probably my favourite.
This can be done in standard regional trains, or the reservation required Express version. I favour the standard trains. Not least as this route especially is far too good to waste in a single ride. There are trains every hour so you can hop on and off easily. I have written about it in more detail here, but some of the best sights along the route are:
- Walk up literally right up to the Morteratsch Glacier. You see this from the train for a minute, but it is so much better seeing it close up. Get off at the Morteratsch stop and follow the flat(ish) and easy path along. Doable to get the train 2 hours later if you rush, but best done as a 3 hour diversion.
- Walk from Preda down to Bergün. Bergün a beautiful spot that is worth a look around even if you just stop there for an hour.
- Get off at Filisur and see the Landwasser Viadukt. It is the most iconic part of the route, but it isn’t that impressive from the train itself. Doable in an hour to get the next train if you are fast.
- St. Moritz is an ugly pile of modern buildings. Do not waste your time seeing it for the village itself.
Often just thought of as being Golden Pass at the Montreux end (which has the fancy cars and most promotion), it does actually include the whole thing from Montreux to Lucerne as is well outlined by the goldenpassline.ch website. I have split it into two so it is easier to talk about, and as it makes a good way to break the trip up.
This is not direct train, requiring a quick and easy change at Interlaken Ost and (until December 2022) Zweisimmen.
Golden Pass part 1: Montreux- Interlaken
The Montreux end of the route has a more impressive landscape and nicer trains.
- This route is through the pre-Alps. It is very pretty but not the most majestic in terms of scale of the mountains. The climb up from Montreux is the single most impressive part.
- You get some special options on the Montreux-Zweisimmen section, like the classic carriages (standard ticket), or the ones where you can sit in front of the driver (special ticket required). Check the time table which lists when each one will run. The classic looks interesting but isn’t that special when the novelty wears off, indeed the standard more modern glass carriages are more comfy and offer better views. The train from Zweisimmen to Interlaken is very mundane in comparison.
- There are a few themed event trains on the Montreux end of this route: the Chocolate train, and the Jazz train, and the cheese train.
Getting off most places will offer some option for pretty wooden houses and a pleasant walk with nice views. But for the more interesting options in the area you will have to go a bit further.
- Launensee. A bus ride away from Gstaad.
- Gruyere (a train ride away from Montbovon) is a pretty and popular tourist town, and has the HR Giger Alien Bar and museum.
- The cable car up to Glacier 3000 offers some very impressive views. An easy bus ride away from Gstaad.
- Stockhorn offers fantastic views of the Jungfrau region and over lake Thun. A cable car ride up from Erlenbach im Simmental.
- Gstaad itself is a famous stop. It is OK but I wouldn’t bother with it if you are short on time.
Golden Pass part 2: Interlaken – Lucerne
This is a standard train that runs direct between two of the most popular tourist spots in the country. All the trains on this route are modern with big windows, and some cars are panoramic ones. No reservation or special ticket required, just be warned that it can be busy.
- Get off the train and take the boat from Brienz to Interlaken. Brienz itself has some beautiful buildings and is worth a look around for an hour or two.
- Get off at Meiringen. The town itself isn’t that special (other than the Sherlock Holmes obsession) area around it has some really nice places to visit like the Hasliberg and Aare gorge, and also the Trift bridge, or social media friendly Gelmar bahn are an easy bus ride away.
- An easy option for a very beautiful walk is from the Brünig Pass station to Reuti (2hours, 8km with +/-200m height difference), from which you can get a cable car down to Meiringen and hop back on the train.
- You pass by the scenic Lugernsee. It is worth a stop to get off and see the lake, but Lungern itself isn’t very exciting.
Gotthard Panorama Express
It used to be that if you went from Basel/Luzern/Zürich to Locarno/Lugano/Milan you would climb up to the Gotthard tunnel, including the confusing looping around the village of Wassen where you wind 3 times around the same church. Now with the Gotthard basis tunnel opening in 2016 the journey is quicker but less scenic. The classic route can still be done on local trains, or at the weekend as a special scenic train.
- This includes a very scenic boat from Luzern to Flüelen (3 hours) before taking the train over the mountains.
- If you are doing this slowly there are a number of side valleys like Göschenental and Maderanertal that can be explored.
These are the purely touristy rides up to a high scenic point. A pass will get you a discount, but not a trip up to the top for free.
- Jungfrau bahn and Jungfraujoch. If I could wipe my memory of one trip and redo it again for the first time it would be the ride from Lauterbrunnen to Kleiner Scheidegg. Jungfraujoch itself is very expensive to get up to, very slow, and often rammed with tourists – I really don’t rate it as essential.
- Gornergrat. The classic option for seeing the Matterhorn. I highly recommend walking further up the ridge for better views and less people. It is also worth having a read of the Zermatt section of Mark Twain’s “A tramp abroad” where he climbs up to here in an absurd and amusing tale.
- Brienzer Rothorn
- Rigi bahn
Less well known but still scenic.
- Centovalli Railway (Domodossola-Locarno, 2 hours). A gorgeous ride along a gorge dotted with little villages. Half of it is actually in Italy, but it is the main connection from Valais through to the Ticino area of Switzerland: in 4 hours you can go from the base of the Matterhorn to swimming in the Italian lakes. This is also a Ferrovie Autolinee Regionali Ticinesi run line, which means that it has the giant word FART written on it.
- Appenzellbahn (Gossau-Wasseraun, 50 minutes). The Appenzell rural landscape itself is really beautiful, and this route climbs up to the Alpstein mountain massif which has plenty to offer too. I really can’t recommend the area enough.
- Voralp Express (Luzern – St Gallen, 2 hours)
- Emmental (Bern – Luzern, 1 hour 30 minutes). A nice route with steep wooded hills and giant farmhouses connecting two major tourist cities. Be sure to take trains that go via Langnau i.E. to avoid the faster but less scenic option which loops around the flatland instead. This might be direct or with a change at Langnau. At the Trubschachen stop you have the Kambly which is the factory of the very Swiss Kambly biscuits. Another good option is hiking part of the route by going up to Napf, which I rate as one of the best hikes in the country on a clear day.
- Lavaux and lake Geneva (Lausanne – Veytaux-Chillon, 40 minutes). A train ride along the shore of lake Geneva: with the lakes and Alps on one side, and the Lavaux vineyards on the other. To top if off this puts you right next to the Château de Chillon. You can also do the same route by boat which is probably nicer, or take the boat out and the train back for the best of both worlds.