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Crossing the Alps by Train: Three rail routes from Switzerland to Italy

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The view of Lago Bianco near the summit of the Bernina Pass. Photo © hidden europe
The view of Lago Bianco near the summit of the Bernina Pass. Photo © hidden europe

“I want to see the Alps by train, so I’ve the booked a ride south from Berne into Italy,” said Margot. We didn’t have the heart to tell her that a big chunk of the 90-minute run from the Swiss capital south to Domodossola in Italy is through tunnels. Of course, there is a lot of decent scenery too, but traversing the Alps by this Simplon rail route is hardly a great mountain experience.

Here’s our quick guide to your choice of north-south rail routes if you are traveling from central Europe through Switzerland to Italy. There are just three routes to choose from: the Simplon, the Gotthard and the Bernina.

The Simplon route
Our rating: **

Used by four daily EuroCity services from Geneva to Milan and by the thrice daily EuroCity trains from Basel to Milan. Not our favorite option as the best of the scenery is missed in tunnels. The Geneva and Basel routes converge at Brig, and then run through the Simplon tunnel into Italy. The trains from Geneva do offer some super views as they skirt the northern edge of Lake Geneva. But the Basel route south through Berne is pretty but unspectacular, and then plunges through the 34km-long Lötschberg tunnel to reach Brig, where you get a breath of fresh air before diving into the Simplon tunnel.

On the plus side, there are some super views of Lake Maggiore as the train cruises through northern Italy towards Milan. Sit on the left for the views. And it is those lake views which are the redeeming factor for the Simplon route. So we give it two stars.

The Gotthard route
Our rating: **

Used each day by seven EuroCity trains from Zürich to Milan (and also one from Basel to Milan). This route is also taken by domestic Swiss services from Basel and Zürich to Locarno and Lugano. Indeed, this is the main north to south rail axis through Switzerland. The approach to the north side of the Gotthard Tunnel is classic Switzerland. Sit on the right side of the train for super lake views with range upon range of mountains edging ever closer.

South of the tunnel, you’ll get an eyeful of sordid concrete as the train line tangles with a maze of fast highways. But the depression is relieved by some fine views of the castles at Bellinzona and then Lake Lugano.

If you are tempted to ride the Gotthard route, make the journey soon. In 2016, the new 57-km Gotthard Base Tunnel will open. Not a lot of views there so, in rating-agency speak, look for a downgrade. The Gotthard will surely not keep its two-star rating.

The Bernina route
Our rating: *****

Far and away the finest of the three north-south routes from Switzerland into Italy. No ifs, no buts. The Bernina knocks spots off the competition. If you are in a rush to get into Italy, take the Simplon or Gotthard routes. But if you want to see the Alps, the Bernina is the obvious choice. This is the only route that goes over the Alps rather than tunnelling through them.

The Bernina is served by Rhaetian Railway services from St Moritz (in the Swiss Engadin) to Tirano (in Italy). Local trains run hourly on this route throughout most of the day, although evening services are very limited. There are also some through trains from Chur and Davos to Tirano (branded “Bernina Express” and with a supplementary charge).

The beauty of the Bernina, particularly if you ride the local trains which stop at every tiny station, is that you have a real sense of engaging with the landscape. There are glaciers and Alpine meadows, with moments of high drama as the train drops down from high mountain terrain into serenely beautiful valleys. Beyond Tirano, the route runs south-west to Milan, skirting the east side of Lake Como for more than an hour.

The time question

So why does everyone not take the Bernina route? It seems to be really a matter of time. Sadly, most travelers are in a rush. And the lure of a direct train tempts folk to the faster Simplon and Gotthard routes. Journeys from the principal Swiss cities to Milan via the Bernina route require several changes of train. Here are some comparison journey times for Zürich to Milan:

via the Simplon route: 4 hrs 15 min
via the Gotthard route: 3 hrs 45 min
via the Bernina route: 10 hrs 05 min

The travel times speak for themselves. Yes, the Bernina journey takes more than twice as long, but it’s so very, very much better that canny travelers give the Alps the time they deserve. Indeed, there are a heap of places along the Bernina route which warrant an overnight stop, so why not spread the journey over two days?

About the author

hiddeneurope

About the authors: Nicky and Susanne manage a Berlin-based editorial bureau that supplies text and images to media across Europe. Together they edit hidden europe magazine.

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15 Responses to “Crossing the Alps by Train: Three rail routes from Switzerland to Italy”

Recliner says:

Some of these travel pieces on your site are very helpful. I must say I have several times travelled through the Simplon Tunnel and the Gotthard too, and both are really a disappointment. This flag for the Bernina will make me give it a try. More descriptions like this, please. There are 100s of website I can turn to for info on destinations, but very very few really highlight routes like this.

The Bookworm says:

One of the best things about the Bernina is that you are not forced to endure St Moritz. The railway company had the good sense to create a direct route south from Pontresina, so obviating the need to go into the middle of St Moritz which is, I fear, something of a contrast to the rest of the beautiful Engadine region.

Heavens, Bookworm (above)
A bit harsh on St Moritz. We think it’s worth going to the Segantini Gallery, the Engadin Museum, the French Calvinist Church and many other distractions and diversions in the resort town. True, it does not have the backwoods charm of other Engadin spots, but we don’t think we would purposefully avoid St Moritz. Indeed we are going there, albeit just briefly, early next month. What makes you feel so averse to St Moritz?
Susanne and Nicky

Joyce Harris says:

We’re taking a Viking Riverboat Cruise, which ends in Basel, Switzerland.
We want to travel the most scenic route across Switzerland by train from Basel to Lake Como, Italy.

Can you suggests the Railway Routes we can take?
A couple of websites state: The Bernia starts in St. Moritz….

The train routes seem to end in Triano, Italy….and I’m not sure how to make the connection from Triano to the City of Como?

So, I’m a “confused” American traveler.

We will be traveling in late-April. Thanks.

.
Hello Joyce

This is very easy. By far the best route from Basel to Como, for lovers of Alpine scenery, is that via the Bernina railway. Allow two days for the journey, even three if you can spare the time. The sections of the journey from Basel to Tirano (all by train) are

1. Basel-Chur
2. Chur-St Moritz
3. St Moritz-Tirano

From Tirano you have three choices. A is the best option, but B comes a close second.

A. Onward by train and boat. That’s what we would do. Train Tirano to Colico, then boat to Como. Brilliant boat journey along the length of the lake, and undeniably the most romantic way to arrive in Como.

B. Onward by bus and train. This is just a once daily connection. Bus from Tirano station at 14.20, arrives Lugano station at 17.30. Connects nicely into train at 17.48 from Lugano to Como, arriving Como at 18.15.

C. Onward entirely by train, changing at Lecco and Molteno.

Hope this helps.
Enjoy your travels.
Nicky and Susanne

Dianne Douglass says:

My son lives in Zurich and 3 of us (he, my sister and I) want to travel to both Lake Como and Lake Garda and back to Zurich over 5 or 6 days late in August. Your advice to Joyce Harris is interesting and also on the best rail route namely via the Bernina route. Are we being over ambitious? Thanks

.
For Dianne Douglass (above)
Not over-ambitious at all. Very do-able in 5 or 6 days.
Should be a wonderful trip.

Dianne Douglass says:

Thank you Hidden Europe (Nicky or Susanne) for your response and encouragement. Your website has been very helpful.

Have decided to concentrate on Lake Como only and forgo Lake Garda:

- train from Zurich to Tirano via Poschiavo (overnight) (Bernina Express)

- train Poschiavo to Colico, ferry to Menaggio (Lake Como Hostel) 2 nights

- Menaggio to Bellagio, apartment 3 nights where my son will join us with car

- drive back to Zürich

I feel we will find plenty to do and look forward to sampling the local food and culture.

Dianne (and Lynne)
Australia

Cindy Nei says:

1. Basel-Chur
2. Chur-St Moritz
3. St Moritz-Tirano

How long does each of theses take, if you go by train all the way? I am trying to pick one overnight stop. Thanks for the great info. No one else has explained this trip so well.

.
Basel-Chur takes 2hrs 20mins on the fastest trains, or just under 3hrs on the slower trains.

Chur-St Moritz takes 2 hrs

St Moritz-Tirano takes about 2hrs 20 mins.

For an overnight stop, we would recommend Zernez, a pleasant small Engadine town, well served by train and about mid-way along the route from Basel to Tirano via the Bernina route.

So on Day One, travel Basel to Zernez (changing once at Landquart), then on Day Two travel from Zernez to Tirano (changing once at Pontresina).

Trains are generally at least hourly throughout the entire journey. These are easy journeys. No need to book or reserve in advance.

We think it is worth making shorter stops, just for an hour or so, along the Bernina route. Ospizio Bernina and Alp Grüm are both worth just such a brief stop. Both have cafés at the station.

Ron says:

My wife and I will be arriving in Zurich by air Sept 15. We’ll spend one night in or near Zurich. We plan to travel by train to Milan with 2 nights in the Alps along the way. We have to be in Milan Sept 18 for a flight the next morning to Rome. Sounds like we should take the Bernina route. What train ticket do we want and where should we stay? Thanks. (then we’ll be biking in Sicily for a week)
Ron

Davide says:

If you go to Tirano, don’t miss the wonderful sanctuary of this town, one of the best religious building in the Alps, full of art treasures, in particular the wooden organ

Bev says:

We’re planning a 30th anniversary trip in June 2014 to switzerland and Italy. We aren’t big on the bigger more popular cities, but like the less traveled areas, with more opportunities to mix with locals. We also aren’t travelers that like to rush through areas to see the most we can see in a certain amount of days. We prefer to pick a few nice locations to spend about 4 or so days and get to really see a specific area. We should have a total of 16 days for the trip coming from Los Angeles. Would love your input. We originally wanted to spend time in the alps and in Tuscany and coastal italy and are still planning on that unless there is something that we are missing by doing so. My husband is a big history fan and wants to go to Rome for a few days, but we don’t want to spend tons of time in museums. Which towns in e alps would you recommend spending a few days in. Or, can we rent a car once up in the area and drive around? I’m excited to hear all the recommendations.

Fara says:

Hi
Me and my Husband, we`re planning to travel and explore Europe and we`re complete virgins as we`ve never travelled to Europe before. i`d like to know which is the most shortest affordable way to travel between Milan, Interlaken, Nice and Milan. And also should we pick other destinations? We’ve got 16 days and we want to make the most of it.

Thanks :)

From Milan to Interlaken takes between 3 and 4 hours – and involves one easy change of train at Spiez. You might break your journey by stopping off for a night or two at Stresa on the shores of Lake Maggiore. It’s just an hour north of Milan, and all the fast trains stop there. Lovely lake and mountain setting. Definitely take the boat ride out to Isola Bella for an afternoon.

From Interlaken make the day excursion statutory up to the Jungfraujoch, but make time too for the smaller villages along the way (like Grindelwald, Wengen, etc). A half-day or evening trip to the Swiss capital in Berne is also worthwhile. It’s less than an hour by train from Interlaken.

From Interlaken to Nice is a long haul, at least 9 or 10 hours, and fastest route is back via Milan. But here’s an alternative suggestion. Why not stop off for a night in Geneva and then Avignon on the way? It’s a longer route but then breaks up the journey.

Nice is great, but have to say we prefer Menton. Much quieter. and you can always make a day trip to Nice which is just 30 mins away by train.

Here’s what a two-week itinerary might look like:

Day 1 Train Milan to Stresa (1 hr)
Day 2 Stresa
Day 3 Stresa to Interlaken (3 to 4 hrs)
Day 4 Interlaken
Day 5 Interlaken
Day 7 Train Interlaken – Zweisimmern – Montreux – Geneva (Wonderful rail route though mountains, takes best part of a day) (7 hrs)
Day 8 Train from Geneva to Avignon (5 hrs)
Day 9 Avignon
Day 10 Train Avignon to Nice (or Menton) (3 hrs)
Day 11 Nice (or Mention)
Day 12 Nice (or Menton)
Day 13 Train from Nice (or Menton) to Milan (4 hrs)

Book all tickets well in advance, ideally 2 to 3 months, for the best fares.

Hope this helps.
Nicky and Susanne

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