This coming winter, bypass the crowds of the Italian coastline and head instead for a new type of European summer – witnessing the beauty of Switzerland’s most picturesque boutique towns and landscapes from the comfort of the country’s – and maybe the world’s – most spectacular rail journey, the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland.
Switzerland. It has majestic mountains, CGI-perfect green scenery and cities so pristine you’d be forgiven for thinking they were mere decades in age rather than centuries. The country has long been a favourite spot for powder-seeking ski bunnies, but in the summer months of June to August, is often overlooked in favour of its more showy neighbours – Italy and France – with their pull of the glamorous Riviera.
And yet those that opt for an escape in Switzerland are rewarded with a sort of untouched natural beauty that is hard to beat during its sun-drenched summer months. You could choose to take all this dramatic beauty in by car, but we think there’s a better way to see Switzerland, and that’s by train, from the comfort of a First Class carriage on the famous Grand Train Tour of Switzerland. Combining the eight most beautiful panoramic train routes into one momentous journey, the Grand Tour can be enjoyed in as few as four days or as many as eight, with stays in various boutique towns and cities along the way making sure you’re really experiencing all Switzerland has to offer.
With one single ticket, the Swiss Travel Pass, you can experience the best of Switzerland on multiple routes coveing 1,200 jaw-dropping kilometres. Begin your journey at any point on the tour going in any direction you choose, but we love the Zurich to Lugano route, which takes a leisurely eight days, with opportunities for extra excursions along the way to stretch your trip out even further.
Let the journey begin
The picturesque and cosmopolitan Zurich is the perfect city from which to begin your journey, and get your first of many culture fixes. With over 50 museums and more than 100 art galleries, the city is home to international and local designer shopping, and is the nightlife mecca of Switzerland. For those on a nature awakening, there’s the beautiful riverside and lakeside bathing areas found in the heart of the city, as well as the famous hike up Uetliberg mountain.
Zürich-Schaffhausen-St. Gallen (2h 50 min)
The start of your scenic rail journey takes you briefly into Germany before reaching the largest waterfalls in Europe, Rhine Falls in Neuhausen. Following the Rhine upstream you’ll pass historic Schaffhausen and then Lake Constance, before arriving in St. Gallen, the main metropolis of Eastern Switzerland. Famous for its Abbey precinct, (a UNESCO World Heritage site), the city has a gargantuan collection of 170,000 historic books and hand-written documents housed in a historic Baroque-era library you won’t want to miss.
St. Gallen-Luzern on the Voralpen-Express (2h 15 min)
If Switzerland is known for one thing, it’s mountains. The Matterhorn, Titlis and Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau are the stars of the Swiss Alps, but the green pre-Alpine landscape has tranquillity, charm and beauty in spades, and we think it’s just as big of a drawcard as its 4000- metre-high counterparts. On the Voralpen-Express, visitors discover a different kind of Switzerland – undulating hills, picturesque villages and Instagram-worthy orchards bursting with colour. Travelling from St.Gallen to the beautiful city of Lucerne, the Voralpen-Express offers more photo opportunities than your iPhone’s storage capacity can handle, including a landmark trip over the highest railway bridge in Switzerland – the Sitter Viaduct, which sits at 365 metres long and 99 metres tall. Crossing over Lake Zurich and through the Rothenthurm upland moor, you’ll reach the much-loved, scenic stretch between Arth-Goldau and Lucerne. A constant visual feed of Swiss Alpine panorama will bring you to Lucerne , the gateway to central Switzerland, with its pretty lakeside setting and mountain surrounds.
Lucerne to Montreux via Interlaken on the GoldenPass Line (5 hours)
Journey along the GoldenPass Line, named for good reason, on three train experiences, including two Premium Panoramic trains. With Interlaken, one of Switzerland’s most popular holiday destinations, mere hours away, you’ll travel on the Luzern-Interlaken Express with its see-all panoramic windows and luxury dining car. Passing by five crystal clear mountain lakes and steep rock faces of surrounding mountains, you’ll journey to spectacular Interlaken before changing trains and then taking in the beauty of Lake Thun.
Montreux at Lake Geneva is your next must-see stop, and aboard the MOB Panoramic, the vast view can be savoured from the comfort of your VIP seat. In Interlaken, make sure to visit Harder Kulm – Interlaken’s “house mountain”, which can be reached by cableway. This one isn’t for those with a fear of heights, with the Harder Kulm viewing deck offering visitors unimaginable views of the whole Jungfrau region. For those with extra time up their sleeves, take the train from Interlaken to the Jungfraujoch, the highest railway station in Europe at 3454m, for a photo opportunity quite unlike any other.
From Montreux, begin the upward journey to the infamous Matterhorn, through the lush Rhone Valley to Visp. If you’re a lover of history, from here you’ll want to take an extra trip to Brig – home to the Stockalper Palace, a privately constructed castle dating from the 17th century. From Brig the journey takes travellers through the Nikolai Valley, the lowest-altitude valley in Switzerland, and on to Zermatt. After a steep, 900 metre incline, the mighty Matterhorn comes into view. The medieval, historic Château de Chillon is another gorgeous site not to miss. A moated castle located on the Lake Geneva shoreline, a few kilometres from Montreux, it served as the summer residence of the counts of Savoy for 400 years, and today is the most visited historic building in Switzerland.
If you have even more time, you can add the Lake of St. Leonard to your itinerary. Located between Sion and Sierre, it is the largest natural navigable underground lake on the European continent. It measures 300 metres by 20 metres and can be explored by rowing boat on guided tours.
Day Five sees you boarding the world-famous Glacier Express. In a First Class panorama carriage you’ll travel through a unique part of the Alps, taking in the view of the deep Rhone valley on your way to St. Moritz, passing through 91 tunnels and over 291 bridges. The visual feast of a journey moves at a leisurely eight-hour long pace, giving guests the chance to fully experience the dazzling scenery on show on the way to St. Moritz. With its overnight panoramic windows, the Glacier Express opens up unobstructed views of the Switzerland countryside.
At St. Moritz you’ll board the Bernina Express and enjoy one of the most impressive scenic rail journeys Switzerland offers. Another of the country’s incredible panoramic trains, it connects the north of Europe to its south – right through the UNESCO World Heritage site of Rhaetian Railway, passing by glaciers on its way down to palm trees. Fresh mountain air and stunning views from the Albula and Bernina rail lines appear before passengers, while those travelling in our recommended season of summer are spoiled with open panorama coaches on the route between Davos Platz and Tirano. Still not close enough to nature for you? The glass-free Cabrio coaches put you practically in the wild and allow you to take unobstructed photos that will give your friends and family back home some serious holiday envy. In Tirano, Italy, you’ll change to the Bernina Express Bus for the journey to Lugano, southern Switzerland’s largest town.
As you near the end of your journey, take the Gotthard Panorama Express from the Italian-speaking, Mediterranean south town of Lugano through the traditional heart of Switzerland and over the Alps towards the north. En route, take in world-famous views of the church of Wassen from three different angles. Transferring to the historic Wilhelm Tell paddle steamer boat in Flüelen, take a cruise across beautiful Lake Lucerne, passing historic sights like the Rütliwiese, the Schillerstein and Tell Chapel.
It’s back to the Swiss metropolis of Zurich today, but if you have time you’ll want to fit in a visit to Mount Pilatus. It has excellent hiking trails that branch off from the top to the various vantage points, and you can do a brief tour around the Oberhaupt in only 20 minutes, or climb the Esel in just fifteen. A half-hour’s hike will bring visitors to the Tomlishorn, the furthest peak. Here the views are colossal: not only can you see mountains ranging from the Glarus to the Central Swiss Alps, you can also glimpse the Bernese Oberland peaks and the Diablerets, Schrattenfluh, Napf, Jura and the Black Forest. Just jump on the Pilatus Funicular to the summit for yet another one of Switzerland’s unbeatable views.