Perfectly punctual and impeccably polished, Switzerland’s trains combine convenience and beauty. The country’s rail routes reach into its most remote corners, whether winding up to wind-beaten Alpine passes, skirting brilliantly blue lakes or gliding through valleys carpeted with wildflowers. To experience them at their best, make for the 800-mile Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, a series of train trips that encompass 11 lakes, five UNESCO World Heritage sites and four of the country’s cultural regions. It’s a wonderful way to take travel at a slower pace, combining sleek city sophistication with high-altitude alpine adventure.
Logistically, it’s a breeze: all routes are covered by the Swiss Travel Pass and a dedicated app aids navigation. From classic routes through picturesque towns to three-day lake breaks and extended tours through winter landscapes, there’s an itinerary for everyone. And for those without as much time to spare, there are several shorter — but no less spectacular — stints to enjoy. Here are three of the best.
1. Glacier Express
The name Glacier Express promises good things and this luxurious eight-hour service certainly delivers, meandering from the mountain resort of Zermatt — overlooked by the magnificent Matterhorn — to the opulent town of St Moritz. Powering through the high Alps that tear across the country’s south, expect views of dense forests, rivers, flower-flecked meadows and glaciated peaks, all visible from the comfort of a modern panoramic carriage.
There are plenty of places worth exploring along the way, from the castles of Brig to the peaks of Fiesch, where you can take a cable car up to the Aletsch Glacier. Disentis, famed for its eighth-century Benedictine monastery, Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, and Thusis, gateway to the dramatic Viamala gorge and its over-the-mountain trail to Italy, are popular stops en route, too. Those with a head for heights will delight as the train traverses the Furka, Oberalp and Bernina passes. However, the real highlights are the 2,000-metre-high Oberalp Pass and the six-arched Landwasser viaduct, which vaults between Tiefencastel and Filisur.
Top tip: You can ride the Glacier Express year-round (bar six weeks from November to mid-December), but spring is particularly glorious, when snow dusts the mountaintops and meadows are in bloom.
2. GoldenPass Express
A newcomer to Switzerland’s rail route portfolio, the GoldenPass Express is a three-hour foray through some of the country’s most picturesque natural landscapes. The train sets out from Interlaken, deep in the Bernese Alps, where the snow-frosted peaks of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains hover on the horizon. It then chugs through the lush valleys of the French-speaking Pays-d’Enhaut, before reaching its destination in Montreux, on the eastern cusp of Lake Geneva. Settle in and enjoy the sights as you pass the piercing blue Lake Thun and its vineyards and castles, the quaint wooden chalets of Zweisimmen and the glitzy Alpine village of Gstaad, where you can hike in the summer and ski in the winter.
As the journey draws to a close, you’ll reach the penultimate stop at Château-d’Oex. Here, you’ll often spot hot air balloons soaring high above ragged peaks, particularly during January’s International Hot Air Balloon Festival. It’s worth alighting for a visit to Le Chalet fromagerie, where you can see and sample cheese made in the traditional way over a wood fire. Then, your journey will continue west until you reach your destination at Montreux, perched on Lake Geneva’s sparkling eastern shore. This modern city is nestled below lush green hills and close to the turreted medieval fortress of Château de Chillon. Trains run year-round, but summer visitors will be treated to Montreux’s world-class summer jazz festival.
Top tip: Reserve Prestige Class for an elevated view and increased immersion in your surroundings (the leather seats have a 40cm lift and can be rotated 180 degrees on request).
3. Bernina Express
A 90-mile journey linking Switzerland’s oldest city, Chur, with Tirano in Italy, the Bernina Express is a tour de force of early 20th-century Swiss railway engineering. Twisting high into the Alps, diving into 55 tunnels and bounding over 196 bridges, this four-hour ride really does prove the old maxim that the journey is the destination. The Thusis to Tirano section is itself a UNESCO World Heritage Site, offering views of soaring glaciers, deep gorges, sapphire lakes and peaks punching high to almost 3,000 metres.
Panoramic windows in every carriage ensure that you won’t miss a moment as the train traverses the single-track, six-arch Landwasser Viaduct, navigates the 180-degree Montebello curve below the Morteratsch Glacier and climbs to the route’s highest point, the 2,300-metre-high Bernina Pass. Looping the 360-degree Brusio Spiral Viaduct before dropping into Lombardy in Italy is similarly unforgettable. Once you’ve reached your destination in Tirano, find a picturesque piazza for a gelato or plate of pizzoccheri (buckwheat pasta with potatoes, chard, cheese, butter and garlic). Hop onto the first morning train from Chur and you’ll be in Tirano in time for lunch.
Top tip: The Bernina Express runs year-round and is particularly dramatic in winter snow. Seat reservations are required.
Fly with SWISS direct to Zurich or Geneva from Heathrow or take the Eurostar to Paris, connecting to a high-speed TGV to Basel (three hours), Zurich (four hours) or Geneva (three hours). Reservations are recommended for Switzerland’s panoramic rail routes. For more details, visit myswitzerland.com