Rail travel in Switzerland: the story
In the mid-19th century, Switzerland was a latecomer to the railway craze that had been sweeping Europe for several years. But once the movement got under way, the lines developed and stations were built very quickly. By 1860, the country had the densest rail network in the world. Even today, Switzerland holds the world record for the number of kilometres travelled by train each year: more than 2,000 km per capita!
Rail travel in Switzerland has developed thanks to trade and the emergence of innovative technologies such as the rack-and-pinion railway. The Swiss mountain railway brought the country within the reach of wealthy tourists, and led to the development of tourism and the first organised rail trips in Switzerland.
The Grand Tour of Switzerland by train
You may be familiar with the "Grand Tour of Switzerland", a tourist circuit that allows you to discover all the charms of Switzerland by following a 1643 km loop. This famous road tour has a rail equivalent: the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, which allows you to visit the whole country by train.
A train journey in Switzerland that covers the whole of the Grand Train Tour will give you 1280 km of panoramic views and the chance to test out some of Switzerland's most fantastic panoramic trains. It would also give you the chance to discover a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites, including :
- On the St. Gallen - Schauffheusen - Zurich route: The Abbey district of St. Gallen
The abbey district of St. Gallen. Located in German-speaking Switzerland, the Benedictine abbey of St. Gallen was founded in the 8th century. Renowned for its library, it was one of Europe's best-known Benedictine monasteries for several centuries.
- On the Interlaken - Zweisimmen - Montreux route: The Lavaux vineyards
This wine-growing region is famous for its terraced vineyards, which stretch for miles along the shores of Lake Geneva. Built in the 12th century by Cistercian monks, their walls and terraces have been maintained by generations of winegrowers over the centuries. Today, they produce renowned wines.
- On the Lugano - Bellinzona - Flüelen - Lucerne route: The castles of Bellinzona
Situated south of the Alps in the Swiss Ticino, these three castles have been UNESCO World Heritage Sites since 2010. Montebello Castle, Sasso Corbaro Castle and Castelgrande form a unique medieval ensemble that bears witness to how people have adapted to their environment over the centuries.
- On the Moritz - Tirano - Lugano route: The Rhaetian Railway
The Albula and Bernina lines are a technical feat and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. They include dozens of tunnels, viaducts and bridges over just a few kilometres.
Of course, you don't have to cover the entire route of the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland to enjoy an unforgettable train journey in Switzerland. Discovery Trains will help you put together the perfect journey along its most impressive stretches. It's worth noting that unlike the most famous trains to be found in other European countries, the best-known Swiss trains are not night trains, a concept that doesn't exist in the land of trains designed to admire the splendour of the countryside.
Travelling in Switzerland: mountains and exceptional trains
A popular form of rail travel in Europe, tourist train journeys in Switzerland are best known for their panoramic trains, with their particularly large, oversized windows offering breathtaking views of the mountains. As well as individual train sections, today's travellers are increasingly looking for a truly organised rail journey, which is why, in addition to train + hotel bookings, our tours frequently include essential guided tours, while leaving travellers plenty of freedom.
Here are the trains you'll find on our Swiss rail tours:
The Glacier Express
Route: Zermatt to St. Moritz (or vice versa)
Duration: the entire journey takes around 8 hours
This Swiss train, sometimes called the glacier train, crosses the length of the Alps and links the ski resort of Zermatt, at the foot of the Matterhorn (famous for illustrating Toblerone bars!), with the chic town of Saint-Moritz. In eight hours, your journey aboard the Glacier Express takes you over 290 bridges and offers majestic views of the Swiss valleys and heights. It is renowned for offering sumptuous views of the peaks thanks to its panoramic carriages, but also for being the "slowest express train in Europe". This is a train-restaurant where you can enjoy a delicious meal or snack in the incredible setting of the Swiss mountains.
The Bernina Express
Route: from Chur, Davos or St Moritz in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy. The route comprises 25 stops
Duration: approximately 4 hours
The Bernina Express is THE Swiss mountain train. It is the train that climbs the highest altitudes and takes you right up to the glaciers. It runs along the highest railway route in the Alps (at the Ospizio Bernina stop, it reaches an altitude of 2,253 metres, even though it is not a cog railway). The Benina, also known as the red train of the peaks, links the towns of Chur, in the German-speaking canton of Grisons, and Tirano. On this Swiss-Italian train journey, it stops off at the prestigious ski resorts of Davos and Saint-Moritz.
The Bernina Express crosses the impressive Brusio spiral viaduct and the famous Landwasser viaduct. Between Thusis-Valposchiavo and Tirano, it follows the Rhaetian Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In summer, this panoramic train is replaced in Tirano by the Bernina Express panoramic bus, which reaches Lugano in Switzerland in 3 hours, crossing the Mediterranean Valtellina and skirting the beautiful Lake Como.
Gotthard Panorama Express
Route: from Lugano/Bellinzona to Flüelen. It continues by boat between Flüelen and Lucerne.
Duration: approx. 5h30
This is one of the most famous panoramic lines in the world. First you cross Lake Lucerne by boat, then you join the Gotthard Panorama Express. It links the town of Füelen with Lugano, in Ticino, at the southern tip of Italian-speaking Switzerland. The Gotthard Panorama Express passes through the historic centre of Switzerland and crosses the Alps through the Gotthard tunnel (built in 1882) and five spiral tunnels, the longest of which is the Freggio tunnel, over a distance of 1,568 km.
Note that there are no luxury night trains in Switzerland. Similarly, organised train journeys in Canada aboard the Canadian Rocky Mountaineer tourist train take place during the day. By definition, scenic trains are not designed for overnight stays.
When should you travel to Switzerland by train?
When is the best time to take a Swiss train tour? These trips are possible all year round. You can take the train in Switzerland at any time of year, depending on the type of scenery you are interested in. The Bernina Express train, for example, runs all year round: through its wide windows you can gaze out over green pastures or snow-capped peaks.
And if you're wondering where to go in Switzerland in winter and you're not a skier, the panoramic trains are a great idea. Note, however, that some Swiss trains do not run in winter. The Gotthard Express, for example, only runs from April to October. The Glacier Express also takes a shorter break between late October and early December.
If you're interested in travelling in Switzerland between October and March and want to take advantage of the panoramic trains, you can take a look at our Panoramic Switzerland in Winter tour. It will allow you to take full advantage of the magic of winter in Switzerland: snow-covered villages, frozen lakes, vast expanses of white and glistening peaks.
Memories of your train journey in Switzerland
During your train journeys in Switzerland, you'll no doubt come across some large, hollowed-out red coats of arms in the colours of the "Grand Tour de Suisse". These are photo spots: look for them at each stage of your Swiss train journey, take a photo inside and collect them.
Another idea for music lovers: on the Spotify music platform, you'll find playlists dedicated to the Grand Tour of Switzerland. Listen to them without moderation as you gaze out of your panoramic window at Switzerland's most beautiful lakes and breathtaking peaks.
train journeys in Switzerland (ref.)