For this longtime East Coast commuter, riding the rails in Switzerland upended everything I thought I knew about train travel. The cars were spacious, clean, assiduously organized, and run with the precision of a Swiss watch. Armed with an eight-day Swiss Travel Pass and a bespoke itinerary from leading rail tour operator Vacations By Rail, I experienced a clutch of premium panoramic trains, including the Bernina Express, Glacier Express, and GoldenPass. I saw snow-capped mountains and sparkling lakes, toured a medieval castle so fantastical it inspired a Walt Disney film, and ate my weight in chocolate and fondue. What follows are highlights of that journey and legs to consider when booking your own Swiss train-cation.
Zürich to St. Moritz
My journey started and ended in Zürich, the largest city in Switzerland. I arrived a few days early to take advantage of the perks of my Swiss Travel Pass, which includes free use of public transportation in more than 90 cities and waived admission to hundreds of museums. I used the pass to zip all over Zürich, checking out conceptual art at Haus Konstruktiv, feasting on vegetarian spreads at Maison Blunt and Hiltl, and touring the greenhouses at Sukkulenten-Sammlung Zürich, one of the world’s largest and rarest succulent collections.
But it wasn’t until my first big train ride from Zürich to Chur that I truly felt like I was in Switzerland. When the train shot out of a darkened tunnel, the sky opened up and the mountainscape looked so radically fake, it could have been printed on a Hollywood film scrim. This was the Switzerland I’d been imagining—the one of Heidi books and Ricola commercials. I was thrilled by steepled chapels balanced precariously on rocky cliffs and rolling green meadows foregrounding silvery peaks.
After switching trains in Chur, I disembarked in glam St. Moritz. Despite a year-round population of fewer than 6,000 residents, the former Olympic host and mountain resort town made a name for itself with the jet-set elite. It’s a whole scene, but not one I gelled with. Instead, I stayed in Pontresina, 4.3 miles away.
The single-stoplight village is known for its cross-country skiing and snowshoeing trails, but it’s also home to the five-star, 112-room Grand Hotel Kronenhof. Breakfast is served under majestic ceiling frescoes painted by Otto Haberer. The 2,000-square-foot spa has a pine-infused steam bath, a float therapy tank with psychedelic lights, and a swimming pool that plays underwater music.
Another bonus to booking a hotel in Pontresina: proximity to the Muottas Muragl, a steep funicular that climbs 2,297 feet from the Punt Muragl station. Go before sunset to see the upper Engadine lakelands and the sky painted with every color and stay for dinner at the aptly named Hotel Romantik. With elevated Swiss fare, candles flickering in every window, and some of the best stargazing in Switzerland, the mountaintop restaurant is a destination unto itself.
Pontresina to Poschiavo (and back)
For a fun day trip, hop the Bernina Express from Pontresina to Poschiavo and back. Operated by Rhaetian Railway, the line boasts UNESCO World Heritage status—and with good reason. It tackles gradients up to 70 percent, crossing the Solis Viaduct and climbing to the Ospizio Bernina station, some 7,392 feet above sea level. Although I could have taken the train all the way to Tirano, Italy, I hopped off in Poschiavo, a sleepy town of 3,495, mostly Italian-speaking residents. It’s a lovely spot to wander, with a 516-year-old church anchoring the town square. Stop by Tessitura Valposchiavo for a lesson in traditional linen weaving or take lunch at Ristorante Albrici Poschiavo, best known for its housemade buckwheat pasta and gnocchi.
St. Moritz to Zermatt
The Glacier Express, which travels between the Engadine and the Matterhorn, has been called the “slowest express train” in the world. After 89 years in operation, it has a new compelling reason to climb aboard: Excellence Class. This premium cabin, which launched in March, is a step above first class, with an actual red carpet rolled out during boarding. Thanks to the seat configuration, every passenger gets a cushy leather window seat with a panoramic view.
From the moment I stepped aboard in St. Moritz until I alighted in Zermatt, I was treated like a crown princess—plied with booze, amuse bouches, and a five-course meal I’d expect in a Michelin-starred restaurant. Much of the produce is sourced from local Swiss cantons and everything is prepared fresh onboard. Two dedicated concierges topped off champagne flutes and took cocktail orders in a private bar carriage with a gold-plated compass built into a domed ceiling. Personal tablets with headphones offer maps and tidbits of information throughout the eight-hour journey, which crosses 291 bridges and passes through 91 tunnels. And while the panoramic glass in Excellence Class is not anti-glare, I could open the exterior windows in the train’s vestibule to take photos of the scenery.
The Glacier Express ended in Zermatt, a car-free ski town with a family-friendly vibe. Its showstopper is the 14,691-foot Matterhorn. The lazy person’s way to revel in the glory of the Matterhorn is via the Gornergrat Bahn, the highest-altitude open-cog railway in Europe. Sit on the right side of the train when going up and the left side going down; springing for a priority boarding pass gives you first dibs on the best seats. It’s a 35-minute, 5.6-mile ride to the top; once on the summit, you’ll be 10,134 feet above sea level and surrounded by 29 peaks higher than 13,000 feet.
Zermatt to Montreux
Stunning scenery aside, my favorite thing about traveling by rail in Switzerland was being introduced to cities and towns I might never otherwise think to visit. Montreux is a prime example. Located in the French-speaking part of Switzerland, the diverse city is home to 120,000 residents and 145 nationalities. I was floored by its Belle Epoque architecture and views of the snowy French Alps. Both Freddie Mercury and Charlie Chaplin sought refuge here and I could immediately see why.
With just 24 hours to explore, I walked a good chunk of the nearly 5-mile-long “Montreux Riviera,” a manicured promenade along Lake Geneva. The path was flanked by tulips, cherry blossom trees, weeping willows, and a landmark statue of Mr. Mercury. I also ducked into “Queen: The Studio Experience” at the Casino Barrière Montreux. Once home to legendary recording studios (Queen recorded seven albums here between 1978 and 1995), it’s now an exhibition space packed with handwritten lyrics and flamboyant costumes.
After bedding down at the businesslike Eurotel Montreux, which offers outstanding views of the lake and mountains, I headed to Chillon Castle, Switzerland’s most visited historic monument and the inspiration for the palace in Disney’s The Little Mermaid. The thousand-year-old fortress is perched on a rocky islet. Tours offer insight into daily life under the House of Savoy, with information about everyone from the aristocrats who dined on extravagant banquets to the prisoners chained in the dungeons. Most rooms—including the great halls, chapel, watchtower, and wall-walks—are open to visitors.
Montreux to Grindelwald
Next, I boarded the GoldenPass panoramic train to Zweisimmen, with connections to Interlaken. My final destination before returning to Zürich was Grindelwald, but this “layover” in Interlaken allowed me to take in the scenery. The city is a paradise for paragliders, and I loved watching them land in the grassy park off Schlossstrasse.
Grindelwald (population: 4,000) sits at the base of the 13,105-foot Eiger, one of the most famous mountains in the Bernese Alps. It is a gateway to the Jungfraujoch, the highest-altitude train station in Europe, with knockout views of the UNESCO-protected Aletsch Glacier. Since I was pressed for time, I skipped the Jungfraujoch and visited the Schilthorn peak that towers over the village of Mürren instead. An aerial cableway runs from Stechelberg in the Lauterbrunnen Valley to the summit. The 9,744-foot perch has a skyline viewing platform where you can see more than 200 other mountains, a 360-degree rotating restaurant, and “Bond World 007,” an exhibition devoted to the 1969 James Bond film On Her Majesty’s Secret Service; many daredevil snow scenes were filmed here.
Those who like courting terror should make a special stop at the cliffside Thrill Walk at Birg. In sections of the path, you can waltz on a glass floor and tightrope walk across a steel cable suspended more than 600 feet in the air (there’s a net to catch you). Or follow my lead and watch with amusement as others wobble and squeal.
How to arrange a Swiss train vacation
The excellent Swiss Travel Pass (starting at $250) is your golden ticket to Switzerland’s public transportation network. A single ticket allows you to explore the country by train, bus, and boat. They’re available in three-, four-, six-, eight-, and 15-day allotments, which must be used consecutively. Scenic routes with panorama trains (like the aforementioned Glacier Express) are included in the ticket price, but reservations must be booked in advance. Another perk: up to 50 percent off ancillary mountain excursions like the Schilthorn (normally about $100).
D.I.Y. travelers can research and book travel passes, hotels, and activities directly. But using a tour operator can make the planning phase a lot less complicated. Vacations By Rail offers a vast selection of independent and escorted rail tours throughout North America and Europe, including more than 25 options in Switzerland, which are fully customizable. Alpenwild offers a 10-day trip ($5,695), and Cosmos has a nine-day tour of Switzerland (from $2,239).