Photo: On the Bernina pass between Ospizio Bernina and Diavolezza, 2019-April-22.
The route taken by the Bernina Express is beautiful, but there are far too many amazing sights along, or just off, the route to rush past and miss them all.
- The Bernina Express
- The Bernina Express vs standard trains
- The Expanded Bernina Express
- Part 1: Chur to Samedan (Inc Albula Railway)
- Part 2: Transfer around Samedan/St Moritz/Pontresina
- Part 3: St Moritz/Pontresina to Tirano (Bernina Railway)
- Part 4: Tirano to Lugano
- Suggested 7 day itinerary
The name often causes confusion:
- The ‘Bernina Railway’ is a train line which connects St Moritz (Switzerland) to Tirano (Italy) via the Bernina Pass. The route is narrow gauge, but all standard “friction” trains (no cogwheels) so it has to gain and lose height slowly – hence all the winding sections and loops which look like a model train enthusiast got carried away. It also has the highest through station in Europe; ‘Ospizio Bernina’ which at 2253m is over a 1000m lower than Jungfraujoch but isn’t a dead end.
- The ‘Bernina Express’ is a special premium train exclusively aimed at tourists which runs a few times a day from Chur to Tirano (or VV); along the Bernina Railway and also the Albula Railway. It is also marketed as carrying on to Lugano with a special bus running non-stop from Tirano to Lugano, but I am going to mostly ignore that part.
The Bernina Express
Disclaimer: As with the Glacier Express I have ridden the whole of the train route (much of it many times over), but have never set foot on the Bernina Express train itself so I can’t talk about the quality of the service. Nor have I covered the extra section from Tirano to Lugano by bus.
- This is what I would call a ‘premium tourist train’; it requires a seat reservation at an additional charge, has big glass viewing windows, only allows on/off boarding at a limited number of stops, and is entirely aimed at tourists.
- Whilst it is not as famous as the heavily marketed Glacier Express the Bernina Express is getting increasingly better known (thanks in part to the social media friendly scenes of the red train in the snowy landscape). The Chur-Samedan section is covered by both trains and is said by many people to be the best part of the Glacier Express. I would say the Bernina Express route is much more varied, has more impressive views, and is more consistently interesting (plus it actually has good views of glaciers). Basically given the choice of the two I would choose the Bernina Express.
- The Bernina Express takes half the time of the Glacier Express, clocking in at around 4 hours. But as with the Glacier Express I still think that charging through in a single sitting (in as much as that train can charge) misses out on too much or barely gives you a glimpse of some things along the route. For example the stunning view of the Morteratsch glacier and Piz Bernina passes by in only a few seconds. However in comparison with the Glacier Express there are less diversions. Partly because it is much shorter, but also the route goes through much steeper and emptier landscapes.
- Like the Glacier Express the express part of the name has more to do with the outdated use of the word meaning the train is direct rather than fast. In this case the regional trains are actually faster by 15 minutes.
- The full thing actually consists of two parts (at least as advertised by the Bernina Express website): the train from Chur to Tirano (4hr 17min), and a non-stop bus from Tirano to Lugano (3hr 19min). The bus part seems to be much less popular, and I have not covered that section. I suspect it was mostly added to provide a way to add a comfortable link on the southern end so that higher end tourists wouldn’t have to take a regional train to Milan if they wanted to avoid backtracking.
- If you have a spare 850 CHF sitting around then you can arrange a “Footplate ride” and ride sat by the driver in the cab.
The Bernina Express vs standard trains
- As with the Glacier Express you can ride the whole route on standard regional trains. This requires changing twice (simple and with only short waits), but gives you much more flexibility and doesn’t require the (14 CHF) seat reservation. The basic price of the train ticket is otherwise identical.
- Regional trains are hourly in each direction on every section; so it is easy to hop on and off as you like.
- The old rolling stock used on the regional trains (with the smaller windows which can be fully opened) are being slowly phased out in favour of more modern wagons (with sealed but much larger windows). It is still common to see a train composed of a mix of the two. Some of the modern stock comes with a viewing section where little bits of the windows can be opened.
- The new wagons on the Regional Chur-St Moritz line give announcements on the history and sights along the way in German and English.
- During summer some of the regional trains from St Moritz to Tirano run with a pair of open air wagons at the end of the train (look for an AW (Aussichtswagon) in the timetable). These offer the best views and are good fun (in nice weather). You can’t board the open air wagon directly from the platform, instead you get on the last normal wagon and go through the connecting door. No reservation is possible, and there is no extra charge – you just need a standard 2nd class ticket and maybe some luck finding an empty seat on a busy day.
- A number of the smaller stations are ‘Halt on Demand’ (Half auf Verlangen/Fermata su richiesta/Fermada sün dumonda), requiring you to press a button at the station or on the train to order a stop. Keep an eye out for that to avoid watching the station/train you want fly by.
- Getting from Tirano to Lugano is somewhat slower and less practical by public transport. Either a 4hr train trip via Milan which goes rather off route, or following closer to the actual route via Menaggio takes over 5hrs with 2 trains and a bus.
The Expanded Bernina Express
Rules: Everything suggested is either a train stop that the Bernina 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).
- Even keeping it brief this is going to be quite an info dump. If I had to pick the top 3 places to explore along the route they would be: Bergün, Morteratsch Glacier/Diavolezza, Val Bever.
- I would say this is best over summer July-September when everything is open and accessible. October can be very beautiful in the region with the larch trees turning gold, but snow might start to block higher paths and the days are getting shorter. Deep in the snowy winter is also a good time, especially with the bright red train contrasting against the white snow (there might however be higher prices due to ski season demand).
- 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.
- Given that the best parts are arguably from Bergün to Alp Grüm, in the middle 2 hours of the 4 hour ride, you could use a base in the centre like Samedan/Pontresina/St Moritz and make easy day trips out over all of the route.
- You could do this in anything from a day to a month depending on how much you like mountains, and how much time (and money) you have. You could even day trip the whole thing and back from Zurich (12 hours) if you are a bit odd and/or want to get your money’s worth from the Swiss Pass.
- Likewise you can do anything from downhill technical mountain biking to a series of scenic coffees and gentle strolls.
- If anyone has 10 spare days and likes to walk then most of the route is covered by the Via Albula/Bernina.
- I have just listed a few ideas and (when possible) links to my trips in the various regions. You could fill a book talking about all the options along the way.
I have split this into 3 sections to line up with the regional trains (going the other way works fine too):
- Stage 1: Chur to Samedan (1 hour 47 mins).
- Stage 2: Transfer around Samedan/St Moritz/Pontresina (~10 mins).
- Stage 3: St Moritz/Pontresina to Tirano (1 hour 56 mins).
Part 1: Chur to Samedan (Inc Albula Railway)
Check that you are taking the correct direct train via Bergün. The alternate route via Landquart is only 2 minutes slower and is often suggested by the SBB, it is still beautiful (and could be a good option later on if you are headed back towards Zürich) but it isn’t the Albula line.
For a really alternate trip you can take the 2hr25min Postbus from Chur to St Moritz via Lenzerheide and the Juliapass which is a stunning route (or take that coming back).
Chur to Thusis
- I have never explored this section. The first few minutes are somewhat industrial, then after Reichenau-Tamins it starts to get more impressive, the valley leading up to Thusis is noted for having a number of castles (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 from there. 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 a very steep and wild wooded valley, so there isn’t a whole lot directly alongside the train line.
- Tiefencastel. A small, but pretty little village (the best part is the hidden church at Mistail). Not really worth a visit in itself, but it has good bus connections towards Lenzerheide and Bivio. I used it as a base for a few days
- The Landwasser Viadukt is often marketed as one of the must see bits of railway; I don’t really get the hype – it is an impressive enough bit of engineering but it isn’t that special and passes in seconds. 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 train cross it and then be back in time for your next train (though that doesn’t give you the best view).
- Filisur also has a train up to Davos which offers plenty of cable cars and mountain options.
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 seeing the old houses properly. I mention it in this post, which also covers the next two points. Bergün also has the Bahnmuseum Albula at the station, not been inside myself but it seems some evil/genius sadist came up with the idea of selling conductors whistles to children in the gift shop.
- The Darlux chair lift in Bergün has an awkward hourly schedule in the summer, but offers fantastic views.
- 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. During Winter the road is closed to traffic and becomes a sledging run.
- 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.
Preda to Val Bever
After Preda the train enters the Albula tunnel, popping out in the last 3km of Val Bever at the Spinas station. The announcement in the train will tell you how wild and romantic the Bever valley is, and it is attractive at the base but the best part is further up and out of sight of the trainline.
- 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).
- 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 laidback location. I did this either simply straight up the valley on the (unpaved) road, and passing by on the Survetta loop.
Part 2: Transfer around Samedan/St Moritz/Pontresina
There is endless stuff that you can do in this region taking trains up and down the Engadin. I could spend a month here without running out of things to do.I have lots of ideas listed in trips August (2 weeks) and October (1 week).
Samedan to Pontresina
The fastest (and more accurate) way to complete the route is skipping St Moritz by changing at Samedan for the 10 minute ride to Pontresina, then changing again to the Tirano train.
- The only stop on this section is Punt Muragl where you can change and take a funicular which runs up to Muottas Muragl which has fantastic views up the Engadin and over the lakes.
- Pontresina is also a major tourist town (note the massive hotels) but it is much nicer than St Moritz. There is still some old town and a bit of charm left to it.
- Val Roseg. You only get a hint of the forested mouth of the valley from the train, pushing up 7km through the valley to the end of the forest where the valley opens out and gives a stunning glacier view. This can be done as a there and back by foot/bike/horse and carriage (14km, +320m, -320m) or dropping into the valley from the Corvatschbahn and following it down to Pontresina (14km, +170m, -1100m).
- Alp Languard. A chair lift goes up from Pontresina to the Alp. I have yet to do it, but one of my plans in the region is to go to Alp Languard and then up and over the end of the valley and drop down to Diavolezza (10.7km, +614m, -861m).
It is technically slightly off the route, but you could stay on for the last 10 minutes to St Moritz and take the Tirano train from there.
- The location around a lake and with towering peaks around it is stunning, but the town itself is pretty charmless: almost all fairly bland modern buildings and rather busy. I avoid it myself other than somewhere to change trains.
- It does serve as a good base for exploring the region with direct bus and train connections up and down the valley and over various passes.
Part 3: St Moritz/Pontresina to Tirano (Bernina Railway)
In addition to the train there is also a Postbus that runs from Samedan to ‘Poschiavo, Stazione’ every 2 hours. This would provide some views on the south side of the pass that the train doesn’t get, and is the best chance to reach the lakes such as Lago Saoseo by public transport.
Pontresina to Morteratsch
Morteratsch is a tiny station (shack) with a restaurant/hotel. The main draw is the side valley with some of the most impressive glacier views in the Alps.
- Walk along the valley floor to the tongue of the glacier and back (6km, +150m, -150m). If you do nothing else along the Bernina Express route I would say do this. The path is wide and smooth so should be accessible to everyone. This could be done in time to get a train 2 hours later, but I would say aiming to be back in 3 hours is much more relaxed and enjoyable.
- A slightly tougher option is slightly up the valley side to the Boval Hut and back (10km, +700m, -700m).
Morteratsch to Alp Grüm
From Morteratsch the valley has a short steep step up to the plateau. You get a good view of the Morteratsch glacier from the train, but only for a few minutes. From here it is a very gentle climb over the pass until the landscape suddenly drops off again at Alp Grüm.
- Just beyond Morteratsch station is the Cascada da Bernina path which follows a series of waterfalls. This can easily be combined with the walk to the glacier and/or a section of the pass.
- Between Morteratsch and Bernina Suot there is an unmarked side path that leads to the Chünetta Aussichtspunkt. Not a must do, but good views and pretty much certain to be very quiet.
- Between ‘Bernina Suot’ and ‘Alp Grüm’ there are a series of train stations crossing the relatively flat plateau on the pass which are 40-60 minutes apart by foot, allowing a scenic hike which can be shortened or extended as you like (Bernina Suot to Alp Grüm: 12.5km, +400m, -350m). The path is mostly well separated or far away from the road. The main path doubles for much of the way as the official MTB route, mostly this is fine with plenty of room but in some sections it is narrow (having ridden down this myself I came across more than a few annoyed hikers).
- The ride down from the pass by mountain bike including one of the rare bits of proper groomed trail on a Switzerland Mobility route.
- At the Diavolezza the cable car takes you up to a ridge with stunning views over glaciers and high peaks. This is possibly the single most impressive view along the route (I have yet to find a better one anyway) and is something the Bernina Express totally misses out on. Worth it for the view, or a walk up to Munt Pers for more extensive views.
- The Bernina pass itself is quite wide and flat so from the highest point you can’t see very far in either direction. The best view down the valley towards Tirano is from Alp Grüm. What you get instead is the view over the Lago Blanco to the glaciers of Piz Cambrena directly across from the train station.
- There is some infrastructure going over the pass (power lines, ski infrastructure) which takes away from it a bit, but doesn’t ruin it.
Alp Grüm to Tirano
From Alp Grüm the pass descends steeply to Poschiavo and then carries on to Tirano. I have only done this part once (there and back) so I am much less familiar with it. Maybe someone can correct me, but the valley generally didn’t seem all that interesting compared to the rest of the route. It is still a beautiful ride, and there isn’t anything wrong with it, but I don’t think it is an essential part of the experience. If you are short on time then just going to Alp Grüm for the view down is enough.
- There is a Glacier garden by the Cavagila stop. Not done this yet myself, but I would probably combine it with a hike further down the valley to Poschiavo.
- My big to do in this section is taking the postbus to hike up to the lakes in the Val da Camp. The Lagh de Saosea in particular is meant to be one of the most beautiful in Switzerland.
- Poschiavo is a pretty little village that is worth an hour to take a (very relaxed) walk around between trains.
- I thought the Lago di Poschiavo was a dam at first. It isn’t ugly, but it isn’t the most impressive lake in the Alps either.
- Tirano itself isn’t a bad place to spend a few hours or the night, there is a bit of old town and the area around the church at Madonna di Tirano is nice too. The train enters the town by ploughing down the middle of the main street which is an amusing novelty.
Part 4: Tirano to Lugano
I have not done this, no idea if/when I will. The lakes are obviously a beautiful and well known region, so there won’t be a lack of sights or things to do. Taking the train from Tirano along to ‘Varenna Esino’ to do the classic Menaggio/Bellagio/Varenna area in the middle of the lake is about all I can suggest from my limited experience.
I know the end point at Lugano much better and it is certainly worth a few hours to explore the old town and lakefront. It is also a good base for plenty of hikes and sights in the region.
Suggested 7 day itinerary
As a suggestion of how to do this in a week with what I think are the best sights/spots along the way:
- Day 1: Zürich to Bergün.
- Day 2: Around Bergün. Take the cable car up to Darlux, or walk to/from Preda.
- Day 3: To Samedan/Pontresina region, use this as a base until day 6. Head up Muottas Muragl, or hike around the lakes.
- Day 4: Val Roseg.
- Day 5: Diavolezza and/or Morteratsch.
- Day 6: to Tirano. Hike along a section of the pass like Diavolezza to Alp Grüm, or hop on and off at a few stops along the way.
- Day 7: Tirano to Milan (or back to Zürich). Hopping off at a few points along the way like Varenna (you could even switch onto the ferry to Como from there to make it very scenic).