Trains in Switzerland are the best way to absorb the magnificence and unparalleled beauty of this mountainous country whose vistas are world famous. No wonder: The top scenic train routes were devised and designed by English engineers in the mid-nineteenth century in the heyday of tourism made possible by wealth created after the Industrial Revolution and imperialism. (That’s why Swiss trains roll by on the left side: It’s a nod to England!) Nowadays, you can sit back and relax in plush compartments, take in the amazing sights, enjoy gourmet meals and good Swiss wines, and coordinate hiking trips with military precision by using the trains.
The Bernese Oberland is filled with great train rides. The most epic ride not just here but in the entire country takes place on trains owned by a private rail company, and it’s really a must, something every visitor to Switzerland ought to do at least once. There is nothing like it in the world in terms of engineering genius and stunning views. The trip begins in the Lauterbrunnen Valley and takes you up through Wengen, then to Kleine Scheidegg, and finally through tunnels hewn out of the mountains until you reach the Jungfraujoch, which at just over 11,000 feet above sea level, is the highest altitude railway station in Europe. While you can get out and walk around at stops along the way, save time for the top. There’s a museum here that documents the massive sacrifices needed to create the train route, a good Indian restaurant, a new chocolate shop, little ski slopes, and flat out shockingly beautiful views of glaciers and distant peaks. The one caveat is that during summer months the train takes up about 5,000 visitors daily. It gets crowded.
If you want to avoid the crowds, no problem. Switzerland has uber-famous routes that, unlike the ride up to Jungfraujoch, are covered fully by a Swiss Rail Pass. (The pass offers a 50% reduction on the Jungfraujoch excursion.) Certainly among the most majestic is the aptly named Glacier Express. The train goes to and from Zermatt and St. Moritz, over long and stone bridges, past countless waterfalls, in view of primeval forests and past deep valleys. Along the way, you go through Visp, Brig, Andermatt, Disentis, and Chur, and seated in a so-called, “Panorama Wagon,” with walls made of glass, you won’t miss a thing.
Another magnificent train ride is the Wilhelm Tell Express, which links German-speaking Luzern to Italian-speaking Locarno. It’s a wondrous, five hour journey that begins by boat from Luzern to Flüelen. This is where the Wilhelm Tell story began. Heading south, you’re in Ticino, Switzerland’s canton where Italian is the language and norm: Bellinzona with its famous castles; Lugano, which combines Swiss and Italian cultures; and, at last you are in Locarno, which is a lovely, lakeside town near the border of Italy that at one time was a quiet fishing village that inspired Hemingway.
Finally, take the Bernina Express. It’s so extraordinary as to merit being part of UNESCO World Heritage. The route is the highest altitude train journey in Europe, and takes you from Chur, in the region of Switzerland known as the Grissons, all the way to Tirano in Italy. The Grissons are an ideal, rustic part of the country, ideal for remote hikes (as well as family walks in the National Park), and the train spares nothing in terms of vistas.
There are many other train routes of length worth taking in Switzerland—Golden Pass Line and Voralpen Express, for example—and several cantons have nostalgic and private train routes still open that use steam operated engines. Among the best steam train rides in all of Switzerland is the privately run Brienz Rothorn, which takes you up a mountain above the pretty village of Brienz and at the top provides views in all directions.
A few words of advice.
Consider getting a Swiss Pass before leaving for Switzerland. Note: It does not cover the private routes fully; it does cover the famous national routes. When you decide which routes you want to take, be advised that you must reserve seats. If you wish to have a meal in the train restaurant, reserve in advance as well.