I can safely say I’ve gone everywhere on the Swiss rail network, and here’s the verdict: Most Swiss train rides are awe-inspiring. But some are merely great, a handful are overrated, and a few simply suck.
For the past nine years I’ve been taking them all in as a ticket inspector with the national railway company. And it’s enough to help you see why the Swiss are so proud of their country.
I was born just across the border from Switzerland and raised to think of it as the land where our French tennis players retired. Plus chocolate and secret bank accounts of course.
The country is tiny (you can ride across it in three hours), but has so much to offer. It boasts breathtaking landscapes, vibrant cities, high culinary savoir faire, and strong and varied cultural identities (with four official languages).
Switzerland can give you a feeling of discovering something totally new every few kilometers. And it’s all very accessible, as Switzerland has developed an extensive public transport network. Basically, anything you’d want to visit is accessible via train and/or bus.
With my work I get free travel allowances and take full advantage of them on Switzerland’s rail network. Even though new lines with fancy names sometimes appear, I can still say I’ve seen them all. And when I have the chance, I enjoy taking my family and/or friends for a mountain train ride. Now I want to take you too.
I realize that you will not be as fortunate to snag free rides, and that Switzerland’s preciseness isn’t a joke, so also I’m here to offer some tips on getting the best prices and how to purchase tickets. I’ve previously offered tips for cheap French trains and my colleagues here offer plenty of strategies for European train booking.
The upside of travelling the Swiss rails is that you will nearly always reach your destination on time. In the very rare cases that problems come up, a rail employee wearing a yellow vest waiting for you and helping you.
Without further ado, let’s take a look at the five best train rides in Switzerland.
- Top Swiss Train 1. The Jungfraujoch: The Highest Train Station in Europe – with Unforgettable Views to Match
- Top Swiss Train 2. The GoldenPass Line: From Snowy Peaks to the Swiss Riviera
- Top Swiss Train 3. The Bernina Express: Start with UNESCO Heritage, End in Italian Culinary Delights
- Top Swiss Train 4. The Glacier Express: Panoramic Views, and In-Train High-End Gastronomy
- Top Swiss Train 5. The Centovalli Express: Cool Down in Crystalline Waters, Become an Italiano
- Buying Train Tickets: Tips for Switzerland
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Top Swiss Train 1. The Jungfraujoch: The Highest Train Station in Europe – with Unforgettable Views to Match
Phonetically it begs to be a curse word, but Jungfraujoch is the highest train station in Europe at 3,454 meters (11,000 ft.). The train to get there leaves from Grindelwald (itself a 30-minute ride from Interlaken) and passes through some awesome Alpine landscapes before you even reach the magnificent view up top.
Once you’re there, you can take a little walk, try some sledges or skis in the snow park, eat some curry or Swiss chocolate, visit the ice palace, try some hole-in-one golf, and many other activities.
Tickets are, euh, pricy. A return ticket for an adult runs about 165 CHF/150€. (There are Eurail and Interrail discounts — see below). Tickets get cheaper if you’re willing to start out very early at either 8:00 or 8:30 am and also return early, at 1pm. This is called the “good morning” ticket, and its price can be as low as about 85 CHF if you book well in advance. In return for the cheaper price, you’re helping the railway populate its less-desired train rides. That’s what we call in the train industry a win-win situation — or just way to make money on broke tourists. But still, it’s also a way for you to avoid the big tourist groups that can be pretty annoying when you’ve come for the peace of an awesome landscape. Tickets can also be purchased on site last minute at the Grindelwald office, or at any SBB train station in Switzerland.
If you are planning to stay a little longer in this area, a great deal is the Jungfrau travel pass, which offers access to various mountain/tourist trains for a period of three to eight days. Discounts apply if you hold a Eurail pass, or various other discount cards.
The main sleeping and eating options are around Interlaken, a beautiful town lying between two lakes. It has all you need but is a bit more for the selfie/shopaholic tourist crowd. Fine with me, but do know that (especially if you used that good morning ticket) ride the train 30/45 minutes further to find yourself in Bern or Lucerne, where you can find places to stay at better prices.
Top Swiss Train 2. The GoldenPass Line: From Snowy Peaks to the Swiss Riviera
A beautiful ride folks, with lots of flexibility. This means there are also quite a few choices to be made, though!
For most, the journey starts in Lucerne and ends in Montreux. But I would advise you to instead to start from Montreux, and get out of there quick, because the tourism offerings are a bit limited, and rather expensive especially if you hit the jazz festival season. Lucerne is bigger and a great jumping off point for seeing all kinds of other tourist sites in Switzerland.
The gorgeous ride between the two will take you about five hours. You will need to change trains twice: in Interlaken and in Zweisimmen. That will be a piece of cake; ask ticket checkers like me if you need any help. Along the way, you will have incredible views over crystalline lakes, snowy mountain tops, three mountain passes, and dozens of elderly Swiss people in a rather classical dress code. Don’t be scared to start a conversation with them in the trains; they mostly are very talkative, proud of their cultural heritage, connaisseurs of smelly cheeses, willing to share their wine, and have a pretty entertaining accent. It will be fun!
Stepping out of the train at random points and then catching a later one is definitely a good idea. Depending on what you want to do, many different options are available. Why not have a walk at the Lake of Spiez, go for cheese fondue in a posh (or dive!) restaurant in Gstaad or Interlaken, or try the semi-dry Swiss white wine in Montreux or in a smaller town nearby? The Swiss tourism office has a great virtual version of this ride.
If you want to travel with a touch of fantasy, you should get a reservation on the GoldenPass Classic train. Prices for a beer are just slightly higher than in a regular bar, but you will experience a fantastic time looking out of the window, and enjoying a glass (or a few) of white wine and Swiss cheese. It may also be the perfect moment to practice good Swiss yodeling.
Top Swiss Train 3. The Bernina Express: Start with UNESCO Heritage, End in Italian Culinary Delights
Leaving from Chur (eastern Switzerland), this 100-mile ride actually exits Switzerland and deposits you in Tirano, Italy. Get your survival kits!
Along the way you will cross 196 bridges of all kinds, 55 tunnels, and reach a height of 7,391 ft. (2,253 meters). The landscapes and the engineering that gets you through them are spectacular. In fact, this section of rail was added to the UNESCO world heritage list in 2008.
Though the view is close to perfect on both sides, I prefer to sit on the left side of the train as the mountain makes a steeper, more impressive rise on this side. People sitting on the right side have to stretch their necks more often or have to concentrate on the valley views.
At the midpoint of the journey there is a 20-minute stop in Alp Grüm. Use it to make sure your camera is still in top working order, as after that you’ll see the Palü Glacier, the turquoise lake Palu, and the Poschiavo Valley. You are in the heart of the Swiss Alps, and you deserve to take in every bit of it.
From there on, the train slowly goes down on the mountain’s south side, and Italian becomes the official language. Not only will your ears notice the change, but your eyes too. Italian-style churches rapidly appear — and I start to get a hankering for pizza, styling and re-styling my hair, and driving a fancy red car. Ma aspetta, amico…
You’ve still got to hit the Brusio Spiral Viaduct. It’s a gorgeous little loop, and hilarious to make a train behave like a carnival ride, but it also serves the very real purpose of keeping the descent at a gradual 7% grade, in line with the standards for that route.
Once in the Italian town of Tirano, order your pizza — I usually walk a block from the train station to an excellent little place called Lo Scrocchiaro di Della Bosca Paolo (and not just because of a particular waitress whose dress was as perfect as the bottle of chianti she brought me).
You can then head back to Swiss civilization the same way you left it, or take a bus to Lugano, an Italian-speaking Swiss city. That route is also breathtaking, and from there you can catch a fast train back north through the Gotthard tunnel (it’s 13 miles long!) to Zürich, Basel or any bigger Swiss city in less time you need to say “arrivederci, Ticino!” (Ticino is Switzerland’s southernmost, Italian-speaking canton.)
We’ll talk about the best ways to book below.
Top Swiss Train 4. The Glacier Express: Panoramic Views, and In-Train High-End Gastronomy
Don your fancy clothes and best manners, because you will be visiting Switzerland’s classiest destinations. Your wallet is about to take a healthy hit too, though I do have some tips to help with that…
It’s commonly called the “slowest express train in the world”. It’s a bizarre formulation, but meaning that this train has fast-train smoothness and services and some top speeds, but slowing down to wind through mountain landscapes with marvelous views.
Your journey will start in St. Moritz and end eight hours later in Zermatt. But just being in this train itself is really the destination; the panoramic windows make it possible to enjoy the surroundings in a fuller way than any other train.
With a valid a Eurail (non-Europeans)/ Interrail (Europeans)or a Swiss travel pass, you will just need to pay for your seat reservation (from 23 CHF in low season to 43 CHF in high season) — see below.
The starting point, St. Moritz, is itself worth a careful visit. It is a beautiful Swiss skiing resort with well-renovated old luxury hotels. You’ll see plenty of fancy cars, fat cigars, blond hair over dark furs, Asian tourism groups buying expensive watches as if they were gumdrops, and, sometimes, backpackers rushing into the local supermarket to buy their lunch.
Once on board, let yourself be inspired by the views. Some say the view on the right side is a little more thrilling, since if you travel in summer, you can still see some snow (don’t forget your sunglasses). You can get a great three-course lunch (for 43 CHF / €38) prepared by a chef in the train which is a brilliant opportunity to throw out your preconceptions of train food. The meals are delicious, and the service is of high quality. If that’s too expensive, try a simple snack, or even a bottle of wine, or just bring a packed lunch from the supermarket I mentioned.
Zermatt is the last stop of this journey. It’s another fantastic place. You can admire Switzerland’s highest peak, the Matterhorn, from a fancy restaurant terrace, or simply sit on a wooden bench on the sunny side of the street with a tasty coffee from the newspaper stand just outside of the train station. For those with some extra time (and money), you can ride up to the Matterhorn glacier paradise. It is the world’s highest cableway, and you’ll have a stunning view from up top.
If your wallet is feeling light after a day like that and you need a cheaper place to spend the night, hop on a local train, and head to Brig or Visp (larger towns) in the main valley. Prices for food and shelter will definitely be lower compared to posh Zermatt.
Top Swiss Train 5. The Centovalli Express: Cool Down in Crystalline Waters, Become an Italiano
I’ve saved the best for last; this is my favorite train in Switzerland. The views are not as remarkable as the other train rides described above, but this is an incredibly charming ride along the Melezza river from Locarno, a small Swiss Italian town on the side of a beautiful lake, to Domodossola in Italy.
This route is about 50 miles long and takes about two hours to be completed. What I like the most about this part of Switzerland is the Italian spirit mixed with Swiss flair. Start your experience with a tasty gelato while resting on a bench on the banks of the Lago Maggiore, and listen to the sweet silliness of the Italian language.
Trains run every hour, so don’t hesitate to step out of the train whenever you spot a good place to take a dip in the river. This is pretty popular with locals; families often go on a Sunday to escape the summer heat and cool down in the fresh, crystalline mountain river.
There are numerous bars and restaurants along the way to choose from if you need a bite. Why not try a “grotto”, a typical Ticinese restaurant partially located in a cavern? A tomato and mozzarella salad alongside with some Italian sausage or dry cheese and a good glass of red wine will make you feel like a king.
No mass tourism groups are to be seen here, nor souvenir or watch shops. Enjoy! Now if you feel like losing a bit of those extra calories, follow the well indicated hiking trail that runs along the river (or the one up the mountain, for the most athletic) and catch your train at the next stop. Easy as can be!
Here again, a Swiss travel pass or Eurail / Interrail ticket will be enough to get you under way, no booking necessary! Here’s how all that works…
Buying Train Tickets: Tips for Switzerland
As we’ve mentioned, these trips are discounted or free if you hold a Eurail (non-Europeans)/ Interrail (Europeans) pass or a Swiss travel pass (though check if these passes are really worth it — generally you have to be on the rails a lot for them to actually save you money).
If you decide to book individual tickets, our favorite way to do that is Trainline, which in our extensive testing has come up as the overall cheapest and also smoothest way to book train tickets for Switzerland as well as for Europe in general.
You can possibly save a few bucks (~2-5 Swiss francs per ticket) when booking directly from the official SBB homepage or at a train station in Switzerland. However, this is fraught for foreigners as there are lots of issues with credit card processing and non-Swiss credit cards, as well as site usability and translation issues. At last check the site was not working from a non-Swiss IP address, though often it does work.
My travel writer colleagues at this site have successfully bought directly from SBB, but they generally forgo the aggravation and just use Trainline. Also, if you’re crossing borders on your trip, Trainline generally delivers much cheaper tickets than any particular national carrier.
Train riding in Switzerland is in my eyes the best way to explore the country and discover its many touristic sites. Costly, yet extremely effective, train traveling can made be easier and cheaper if you are flexible enough to snag special deals.
Wishing you all terrific adventures on Swiss trains!