Switzerland by Train: Alternatives to the Glacier Express

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Swiss railway Zentralbahn
One of the highpoints on the Zürich to Lausanne route at Brünig station. Photo © hidden europe

Last week, we looked at the celebrated Glacier Express rail route, and questioned whether it might just take in one glacier too many (not to mention the 191 tunnels along the route). It’s a long haul from any major Swiss city or airport to either St. Moritz or Zermatt, which are the end points of the Glacier Express.

The Bernina option

But let’s say you are in St. Moritz. As one Cheapo, commenting on our post last week, nicely put it “the Bernina route is more amazing and a lot cheaper.”

Tirano (via the Bernina Pass) makes a superb day out from St. Moritz. Trains run hourly and a return ticket from St. Moritz to Tirano costs 58 Swiss Francs ($68). If you have a Eurail or InterRail Pass valid in Switzerland, you’ll ride for free. By contrast, a return run to Zermatt on the Glacier Express is 338 Swiss Francs ($398) and neither InterRail nor Eurail will get you a free ride.

If you do ride the Bernina route and it’s a fine day, opt for the 10:45 a.m. departure from St. Moritz which until August 31 carries open-top carriages. Allow a couple of hours for lunch in Tirano, where the Ristorante Sale e Pepe (right by the station) is a great choice, and take the 3:40 p.m. train back to St. Moritz.

Zürich to Lake Geneva

But let’s assume you are a real rail-hound, keen on long journeys and want to see a lot of Switzerland through the train window. If you are in any of the main cities, and are pressed for time, you could do better than the Glacier Express.

Our favorite Swiss rail route is the seven-hour journey from Zürich via Lucerne, Interlaken and Gstaad to Lausanne on Lake Geneva. The journey is often dubbed the GoldenPass route. It requires changes of train along the way (as the track gauge switches from standard to narrow and back again).

For a map and a table showing the main stages of the journey from Zürich to Lausanne, just follow this link. Distance-wise, this route is much the same length as the Glacier Express, though the overall journey time is about an hour shorter.

The one-way fare from Zürich to Lausanne by this route is 89 Swiss Francs ($104). The Swiss Pass, InterRail and Eurail Pass are all valid for the entire route. And there are no nasty supplements. Major agents such as Rail Europe UK or their US representative can give helpful advice on ticket deals and packages or simply buy your ticket on the Swiss Railways Web site and hop on the next train.

Route highlights

The first part of the ride south from Zürich is tame, but south from Lucerne the hills close in and the train climbs steeply to a summit station at Brünig-Hasliberg, which happens to have in the station building what must surely rate as one of Europe finest bric-a-brac shops. With trains running every hour, it is easy to break your journey.

From Brünig, it’s downhill all the way to Meiringen, a town that claims to be the birthplace of meringue (the confection rather than the Caribbean musical genre of the same name). Then west to Interlaken and Spiez — with fine views over the Thunersee — before climbing the Simmen Valley.

Hills roll into more hills and the train traverses several ridges, passing the resort town of Gstaad, before a spectacular descent down to Montreux on the shores of Lake Geneva. The final part of the journey to Lausanne traverses the Lavaux Vineyard Terraces, a wonderful sweep of ancient villages and vineyards that is inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

Options

From Lausanne, you can continue to Geneva, with five fast trains each hour taking about 40 minutes. Or you can return north on the main line with trains that run every 30 minutes to Berne (1 hr 10 mins travel time) and Zürich (2 hrs 10 mins travel time).

If you want to spread the journey over several days, obvious places for overnight stops are Lucerne, Interlaken, Gstaad and Montreux.

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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