The 9 Most Scenic Rail Journeys in the Alps

26/6 | Alicia Taylor, Editor

Rhaetian Railways on its way through Chur, SW

Rhaetian Railways on its way through Chur, SW

Copyright: swiss-image.ch/Andrea Badrutt..

You know how the saying goes: Sometimes the journey is the destination. Trains are the ideal way to discover the dramatic scenery of the Alps—just sit back, relax and watch the ever-changing landscape from the comfort of your seat. What you see along the way is as much a part of the holiday as arriving at the destination. 

Check out our suggestions for the most scenic railway journeys in the Alps...

1. Glacier Express 

This narrow-gauge train takes you on an impressive 180-mile journey from Zermatt to St. Moritz in Switzerland, or reverse, in seven hours. Watch the spectacular mountain scenery unfold as the Glacier Express passes through the heart of the Swiss Alps— with lush meadows, mountain streams, craggy cliff faces, picturesque villages, vineyards and lakes. The train climbs up to the Oberalp pass at a height of 2,033 meters.

"The Glacier Express is the slowest express train in the world and takes you across Switzerland's untouched mountain landscapes, deep gorges and valleys," Julie Melet from Switzerland Tourism said. "The entire journey crosses 291 bridges and passes through 91 tunnels."

The train makes various stops along the way and you can join or leave the trip wherever you like. The most-impressive stretch is the high-mountain pass between Disentis and Brig (three hours) which can be done instead of the entire seven-hour journey.

Enjoy a three-course menu in the dining car; a reservation is always necessary. For a taste of locally-cured meats and cheeses, order the Farmer's Special. All trains also have a Railbar serving snacks and drinks.

You can listen via your personal earphones to a commentary telling you all that's worth knowing about this trans-alpine route. There are several daily trains in summer, as well as hourly local trains operating over all sections of the Glacier Express route.

Glacier Express on the Landwasser Viaduct. Photo Courtesy of swiss-image.ch/Christof Sonderegger.

2. The Bernina Express 

Cross the Alps in style. This narrow-gauge train is one of the most exciting train rides through the Swiss Alps. The little red train (without cogwheel drive) climbs up vertigo-inducing inclines passing cliffs, glaciers and waterfalls, making short work of the 55 tunnels and 196 bridges.

Härtli Peider from Rhaetian Railways (RhB trains) said, "Onboard the Bernina Express BEX, you discover three seasons in 4.5 hours—climbing from 500 meters (Chur) up to 2,253 meters (Ospizio Bernina) and back down to 400 meters (Tirano)."

This combined bus-train route runs north to south (or vice versa) over the Swiss Alps and takes approximately 4.5 hours. Starting in the Swiss mountain town of Chur, the RhB train passes through Davos, St. Moritz and twists up to the Bernina Pass and down the other side to Tirano in Italy. From here, it's a bus ride along the west bank of Lake Como to the palm-tree town of Lugano.

It is not an "express" in the sense of being a high-speed train, but rather in the sense that it provides a one-seat ride for a long duration trip. The Bernina Express itself is composed of panoramic coaches with a piped multilingual commentary. Seat reservation is necessary.

Arosa train of Rhaetian Railways on its way through Chur. Photo Courtesy of swiss-image.ch/Andrea Badrutt.

3. Wilhelm Tell Express 

This is the perfect way to travel between Central Switzerland and the Italian-speaking Ticino region. The journey is named after William Tell, who, legend has it, was forced to shoot an apple off his son's head because he refused to bow to the Habsburgs, which in turn inspired the Swiss to rebel against their rulers. The train route crosses the place where the first Swiss cantons pledged "all for one and one for all," the birthplace of the Confoederatio Helvetica in 1291.

The Wilhelm Tell Express is a combined boat and train journey linking Lucerne with Locarno or Lugano. Starting in Lucerne, it's a slow boat trip on a vintage paddle steamer (nearly three hours) along the coastline of Lake Lucerne to Fluelen, where you board the Wilhelm Tell Express. If you're short on time, you can skip the boat and head straight to the train. This first-class panorama train takes you via the imposing Reuss Valley and along the famous Gotthard line to the Mediterranean landscape of Ticino in approximately two hours.

A three-course menu is served on board. The Wilhelm Tell Express operates from May to October and takes approximately five hours in total (boat and train).

Paddle steamer on Lake Lucerne. Photo Courtesy of SGV Luzern/swiss-image.ch.

4. GoldenPass Line 

The GoldenPass train route cuts diagonally across the center of Switzerland, connecting Luzerne with Lake Geneva's Montreaux in five hours.

Its central location laces together many of Switzerland's top sights (Luzerne, Interlaken and Lake Geneva). The most picturesque stretch lies between Zweisimmen and Montreaux (two hours). From Luzerne, the GoldenPass takes you over the Brunig Pass to Interlaken and Gstaad, a favorite for the rich and famous. The train then makes a striking descent towards Montreaux, passing through vineyards and country estates and finally arriving in Lake Geneva.

Two train changes are required along the way due to the tracks changing from narrow to standard gauge. You can also easily connect onward to Zurich or Geneva with standard trains.

Golden Pass train. Photo Courtesy of swiss-image.ch/Christof Sonderegger.

5. Zurich to Innsbruck via the Arlberg Pass 

Whichever direction you choose to travel, this is one of the prettiest routes through the Alps. From west to east, the train leaves Zurich, along the bank of Lake Zurich before the alpine scenery comes into view. It travels up over the Arlberg Pass into Austria, hugging the sides of the valley and passing through spectacular rolling alpine scenery that could be plucked straight out of The Sound of Music. After arriving in Innsbruck, the train continues on to Salzburg, Vienna and Budapest. Depending on whether you're starting in Austria or Switzerland, you can book with OBB or SBB trains. The journey takes approximately 3.5 hours.

6. Innsbruck to Garmisch-Partenkirchen 

The Mittenwald Railway, popularly known as Karwendelbahn, is a railway line in the Austrian and German Alps. It connects Garmisch-Partenkirchen in Bavaria with the city of Innsbruck in the Austrian Tyrol. The Mittenwald Railway follows a bold route, planned by the pioneering railway engineer, Josef Riehl in the 1880s and was opened in 1912.

The north to south route begins in the former Olympic venue of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, at the foot of the mighty Zugspitz, and winds through Mittenwald to Seefeld in Austria, before making an impressive descent into Innsbruck along the side of the steep Inn valley and over the river on a steel bridge.

Regionalbahn services operate hourly on the German side, running between Munich and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. This section of the journey is also scenic, as the train climbs up into the German Alps, passing close to Oberammergau before arriving in Garmisch.

Mittenwald Railway line in Schnaz, Tyrol. Photo Courtesy of Leo-setä.

7. Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch 

Take a train from Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg in the Swiss Alps, which is surrounded by the iconic peaks of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. From here, take the cog train to the Jungfraujoch, up an impossibly steep track though tunnels carved into the Eiger, the Monch, and finally arriving at the top of the Jungfrau (3454 meters), Europe's highest altitude railway station.

At the top, you'll find an Ice Palace with tunnels and statues carved deep inside the glacial ice. Out on the observation deck, you'll see the numerous streams and waterfalls around Lauterbrunnen, and on a clear day, views extend as far as Vosges in France and Germany's Black Forest.

Jungfraujoch Glacier Restaurant with views over the Aletsch Glacier. Photo Courtesy of swiss-image.ch.

8. Chamonix to Mer de Glace 

The Montenvers rack railway in the French Alps starts from Chamonix and, in 20 minutes, reaches the bottom of the Mer de Glace (1,913 meters).

"This 100-year-old train with a retro atmosphere takes you in a romantic journey up to France's largest glacier," Nathalie Tortora at Chamonix Tourism said. "Be sure to have a drink on the terrace of the Montenvers Grande Hotel overlooking the Mer de Glace and facing the Drus."

At the top, take a tour of the Ice Cave into the heart of the glacier. Re-sculpted every year, it describes the life of mountain people in the early 19th century. The Crystals Gallery, with its collection of items from Mont Blanc and the "Glacioriulm" are also included in the tour.

The complete tour (including the cave and traveling time) takes an average of two to three hours. The time required for the tour may double during peak periods.

Hill walks include the hike from Montenvers to Plan de l'Aiguille via the Grand Balcon Nord hill walking trail, and also the return descent down to Chamonix via Les Planards or Les Bois village.

Montenvers rack railway. Photo Courtesy of Thierry llansades.

9. Swiss Chocolate Train  

In summer and fall, the Swiss Chocolate Train takes tourists to the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory. This combined train-bus journey begins in Montreaux, where the train climbs up the hillside overlooking Lake Geneva. The first stop is the medieval town of Gruyères (home to the cheese of the same name). In Gruyères, tour the cheese factory, the castle and have lunch. Then it's on to Broc where you take a bus to the Cailler-Nestlé chocolate factory for a tour and free samples.

"The chocolate train combines the best of what Switzerland is famous for: scenic rail journey through breathtaking landscapes and delicious chocolate treats," Julie Melet from Switzerland Tourism said.

All train carriages are first-class, but you can choose from the vintage 1915 Pullman car or the modern panorama car. The Swiss Chocolate Train runs every Monday, Wednesday and Thursday from May to October and every day in July and August. Reservations are compulsory and can be made at the Montreaux train station. The package includes coffee and a croissant on the train, bus transfers and all tours. The journey takes nearly 10 hours.

 

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