Riding the rails is fast, comfortable and fun
Part of the fun of traveling in the 26 cantons of Switzerland is viewing the stunning mountain scenery, and this can be done easily and effortlessly using the Swiss Travel System, the vast rail network that has been created over the years. Not only are there many routes to choose from, the trains are comfortable and nearly always on time.
Swiss trains and tracks are constantly being improved and upgraded for more passenger comfort. On many routes the trains bypass or travel underground in congested downtown areas, or they go through mountain passes in tunnels for a faster trip.
With majestic mountains, peaceful valleys, impressive glaciers and picturesque streams throughout the country, not to mention inviting Alpine villages, a trip by train can be a pleasant and exhilarating experience.
Swiss Travel Guide is the ideal public transport app for travelers as it indicates local highlights and provides important information regarding the pass and its additional benefits offline. Once connected there is also direct access to the timetables on the Swiss Rail website (www.sbb.ch).
The Swiss Travel Pass gives you access to unlimited public transport (trains, buses, boats) for 3, 4, 6, 8 or 15 consecutive days. With the one-month Flex Pass, another option, users freely select their travel days. In addition, the passes offer free admission to more than 500 museums and discounted rides on many mountain cableways. Swiss Travel Passes and tickets can be purchased at Rail Europe (agent.raileurope.com)
Another smart feature of train travel is luggage forwarding. With this program, your luggage travels door to door, leaving your hands and mind free for more important things. You can have your luggage collected from any address in Switzerland or Liechtenstein, and it will be delivered to, or shipped from, your hotel, a selected railway station or the Zurich Airport (sbb.ch/en/luggage-groups).
Traveling first class allows you to enjoy more comfort and services during your journey. First class offers ample legroom, extra space between your seat and the one next to you, adjustable seats, power sockets in each compartment, and two-person and one-person seating.
Mountain railroads play a large part in the Swiss transportation system. The Jungfraujoch in the Bernese Alps, Gornergrat in Zermatt, Brienzer Rothorn in Brienz and Harder Kulm in Interlaken, among others, are popular with tourists. Many of the railways operate on steep gradients, and trackage ends at an overlook point high in the mountains.
Two special experiences—one a trainboat combination, the other a mountain cable car adventure—await group travelers in Switzerland:
GOTTHARD PANORAMA EXPRESS
The all-first-class Gotthard Panorama Express offers an exciting rail-boat journey from the German-speaking middle of Switzerland to the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, all in the space of 5½ hours. This inspiring, magical excursion is one of the highlights of a trip to Switzerland.
The adventure begins in beautiful Lucerne in Central Switzerland, where you board a passenger boat for a leisurely trip across the fourth-largest lake in the country. Encircled by mountains, Lake Lucerne borders the three original Swiss cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. The scenery is somewhat reminiscent of a fjord landscape yet remains characterized by a mild lake climate.
The slow-moving boat passes locations that are steeped in history, such as Tell’s Chapel and Rütli Meadow (where the Swiss Confederation was founded in 1291). You also see two important mountains—Mt. Pilatus and Mt. Rigi. Spectacular, 6,995-foothigh Pilatus is one of the most legendary places in Central Switzerland and features the steepest cogwheel railway in the world. From the top of 5,900-foot-high Mt. Rigi, called “Queen of the Mountains,” you can view 13 lakes. Both mountain base stations can be reached by train.
Lake cruises on the fleet of five historic paddlewheel steamers and 15 elegant salon motor vessels are among the highlights of this region. On board you can relax and view the beautiful scenery, enjoy a drink and snacks, or be served a delicious meal. In Flüelen, on the far side of the lake, you change from the boat to the first-class, airconditioned Panorama Express Train.
Traveling south by rail through Switzerland, you’ll spend enjoyable hours gliding through the country, from the cool crisp north to the warm, sunny south, from a distinctly Germaninspired culture to the Italian-speaking Lugano area. On board, a multi-lingual guide explains the culture and landscape of the region. Snacks and drinks can be purchased on the train; you’ll be served at your seat.
The journey over the Alps takes travelers through the famous, 9.5-mile Gotthard Tunnel, built in 1882, and many loop tunnels, all tributes to Swiss engineering. This second section of the Gotthard Panorama Express route runs through the valley of the Reuss River.
The valley floor is relatively wide in the beginning, but once you reach the village of Amsteg, it becomes narrower. It’s interesting to see how the river, railroad, expressway and local roads all fit into the available space. En route, the little, red-sided church of Wassen can be seen from three different angles as the train ascends southward; thanks to the bold railway layout with its many loop tunnels, the church and intricate trackwork have become world-famous. For centuries, the Gotthard Pass has been major route from Northern Europe to Italy and farther south.
As you approach Bellinzona, make sure to watch for three World Heritage castles, and as the train continues south you’ll also see wine-growing country and palm trees. Even more intriguing discoveries await you in Lugano at the end of the line.
You can take the journey either way. The Gotthard Panorama Express operates from mid-April to late October.
For more information, visit MySwitzerland.com/GPX.
RIDING TO THE SCHILTHORN’S SUMMIT
Taking the Schilthorn Cableway from Stechelberg, Gimmelwald or Mürren, you can follow James Bond’s footsteps on an adventure to the top of the imposing, 9,744- foot Schilthorn, one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Swiss Alps. With a magnificent 360-degree view from the observation deck, you can see the Eiger, Mönch, Jungfrau and more than 200 other peaks. The aerial cableway normally carries more than four million passengers a year.
James Bond made the Schilthorn worldfamous when the 1969 action thriller On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, starring George Lazenby as Secret Agent 007, was filmed at this location. Mountaintop attractions include the 007 Walk of Fame, where cast and crew members from the film have left traces; Bond World 007, an interactive exhibit that offers video clips, a helicopter simulator and glimpses behind the scenes of the movie; and Piz Gloria revolving restaurant, where the views and the food are spectacular.
At the Birg middle station (8,783 feet above sea level), away from the summit’s hustle and bustle, you can relax, linger and enjoy the mountain and lake views from three viewing lounges on the Schilthorn Ridge. The Birg Bistro caters to all culinary tastes. For more spine-tingling adventure at this level, the Skyline Thrill Walk is a sequence of see-through plexiglass platforms leading down to the vertical walls of the rock massif and continues along a cliffside pathway under the Birg cable station. Then head down to the charming village of Mürren, a small town that can only be reached by train or cable car.
Mürren, the highest, continually-inhabited village in the canton of Bern, lies on a terrace above the world-renowned Lauterbrunnen Valley. The car-free Alpine village sets the scene with typical wooden chalets and authentic Swiss ambience. A double-cable ropeway leads up onto the plateau from Lauterbrunnen, while a cableway runs from Stechelberg, past turbulent waterfalls and craggy rock faces, into the center of town. Walking through the rustic village, flourishing with mountain flowers and backyard gardens during the summer months, is a special experience that takes you back in time.
Impressive views of the opposing mountain summits can also be enjoyed from Mürren. The holiday resort is the starting point for mountain walks and excursions. A funicular leads to the Allmendhubel, immediately above the village at an altitude of 6,300 feet. Themed walks such as the North Face Trail, providing historical mountaineering information on the north faces, and the Flower Panorama Trail invite visitors to discover the region.
For more information, visit MySwitzerland.com/Schilthorn.
By Don Heimburger