Seeing Switzerland by Rail
By Shelley Seale
The central European country of Switzerland, land-locked and bordered by Italy, France, Germany, Austria, and Liechtenstein, could be described as having a split personality. In the northern and central regions you will find the Swiss-German feel of the country – more Germanic in culture and attitude yet with the independent, unique Swiss personality.
The western edge of the country is more French in nature, with French spoken widely and a definite influence from France. To the south, bordering the Alps and Lake Como, you will think you have entered Italy.
Italian is spoken here and the customs, food, and attitude are definitely Italian. There is even a small percentage of the country that is Romansch and still speaks that disappearing language.
All of the country, however, embodies the friendly hospitality of the Swiss, along with their efficiency and reliability. And it’s all breathtakingly gorgeous. The best way to see this country and its different faces is via their incredible public transportation system.
From the highest mountains to gorgeous blue lakes, Italian towns to French cities and Swiss-German burgs, the Swiss Travel System connects them all.
The Swiss Travel system consists largely of the excellent train system; but it also encompasses boat transport, buses, aerial cable cars, metros, and trams. With a Swiss Pass, you can travel 26,000 kilometers using just one ticket – and without needing reservations or advance booking.
Public transportation is so well-organized, reliable and safe, that you can just step aboard; and there’s always another train or bus coming soon if you miss a connection. Using the Swiss Travel System you can go from the dramatic, snow-capped Alps mountaintops to tropical lake cities in a matter of hours, traversing some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere. A few fun facts about the Swiss public transport system:
- It has the first panoramic rail route in the world. The GoldenPass Line between Montreux and Zweisimmen was the first panoramic tourist train journey anywhere.
- Here you find the highest-altitude aerial cableway in Europe. The route to the top of the Matterhorn climbs 3,883 meters to reach an amazing vantage point, where you can see 38 snow-capped summits and 14 glaciers. You can even take an elevator down inside the glacier, where tunnels and ice sculptures have been carved into an incredible ice palace.You can also “travel topless” in the world’s first double-decker, open-air cable car. The Cabrio cable car at Stanserhorn-Bahn, open for about a year, is an engineering marvel. Attaching the aerial tram that goes to the top of the mountain at the sides, rather than from the top, allows the CabriO to have an open-air second level that is unique anywhere in the world.
- It includes the highest railway station in Europe. The Jungfraujoch – or Top of Europe – is the highest railway station on the continent, reachable by the Jungfrau Railway that goes up 3,454 meters. The Jungfrau just celebrated its 100th anniversary in 2012.
Here are some railroad routes through Switzerland to get your planning started:
The Glacier Express made its maiden journey in June 1930 and is still one of the most popular train journeys today. The eight-hour trip between St. Moritz and Zermatt offers full panoramic windows to take in the impressive Alpine views, traversing 291 bridges and 91 tunnels along the UNESCO World Heritage Albula-Bernina Railway.
At one end of the voyage lies Zermatt, a village at the base of the most photographed mountain in the world: the Matterhorn. Outdoor activities are plentiful, from of course skiing and mountain climbing to hiking, bicycling and golf. One of the coolest things about Zermatt is that it is entirely car-free; visitors and residents alike get around on foot, bike, carriage or via the electric taxis and buses in the village. Tempston Luxury has loads of chalet and apartment rentals in Zermatt.
At the other end of the Glacier Express is St. Moritz, playground of the rich and famous. It first gained its reputation when British royalty began flocking here in the 1800s, and has been one of the elite European destinations ever since. There’s plenty for anyone to enjoy, however, and surrounding towns offer a range of budget accommodations and activities. The setting on the lake with the Alps rising in the background is quite magical.
St. Moritz, playground of the rich and famous
The Palm Express takes you from St. Moritz to Lugano, in the Italian region of Switzerland. In fact, you pass through Italy to get there, spending a couple of hours of beautiful Italian scenery.
This journey is taken by bus, traveling over the Maloja Pass and its series of hair-raising switchbacks to navigate the steep mountainside. Crossing into Italy, the bus drives alongside Mezzola and Como lakes before crossing back into Switzerland and the inviting village of Lugano.
With its Mediterranean flair, Lugans is the largest town in Ticino and a town of parks and flowers.
The Wilhelm Tell Express is a must for lovers of train travel. From Lugano or Locarno in the south, this rail journey follows the historic route of Swiss national hero Wilhelm Tell – as well as a historic route in railway travel, as it was the first rail system to cut through the Alps to join north and south.
This journey is unique and spectacular partly because it combines both train and boat travel. The leg between Lugano and Flüelen takes part on the train, which climbs from 470 to 1,100 meters and goes through the 15-kilometer long Gotthard tunnel.
In Flüelen, the trip changes as you switch from the train to board a boat, just a few steps away, for crossing Lake Lucerne to the city of Lucerne. Here, imposing mountains tower over charming villages that dot the various arms of the lake that are crossed by boat, passing the historic Tellsplatte rocks on which Tell leaped while making his escape while being ferried across the lake.
No matter which route you take, it’s sure to be spectacular and get you from one diverse part of Switzerland to another. Enjoy!
For more information on getting to and around Switzerland:
And for more information on the Eurail train services, check out GoNOMAD’s “Everything You Need to Know About Railpasses“
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Shelley Seale is an Austin, Texas-based freelance journalist who writes about lifestyle, travel, health, education, business, and nonprofit issues. She has written for National Geographic, USA Today, Andrew Harper Traveler magazine, Yahoo, CNN, the Austin Business Journal, Austin Woman, and many others. Her favorite quote is by Helen Keller: “Life is a daring adventure, or nothing at all.”