Visiting Switzerland via Grand Train Tour
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It’s not the destination; it’s the journey.” On the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, it’s both.
This past October, my wife and I had the opportunity to enjoy both the ride and the country on a train tour through Switzerland.
Our trip started in Lugano, where I was attending the Adventure Travel World Summit — the first in-person summit since the pandemic began. I can’t think of a better place to break out of a pandemic: a beautiful lake, historic hotel, and a lovely lakeside promenade linking our hotel and the modern convention center, where the summit was held.
For variety during the weeklong stay, I sometimes walked down the winding pedestrian streets through town, lined with ritzy shops and restaurants and leading into hidden plazas. You could also catch a funicular up a steep hill to reach the shops near the lake, where most residences are located.
Lugano is very close to the Italian border, so the language and food is Italian. The pasta was a revelation. Unlike the robust, chewy pasta I am used to eating here, it was silken, delicate, velvety. All in all, southern Switzerland is like Italy with more efficient trains and less graffiti.
A World Heritage Site on rails
At the conclusion of the summit, we boarded a bus for a three-hour scenic ride along Lake Lugano, then past Lake Como (I peered through the bus windows for a glimpse of George Clooney, but to no avail) to Tirano, where we boarded the Bernina Express to St. Moritz. That was the first of three iconic train rides over the next few days.
The Bernina Express is listed as a World Heritage Site, one of the few railroads to be so designated. It is also the steepest narrow-gauge railway — and provides one of the most scenic train journeys — on the planet.
The train sure beats Amtrak. It is comfortable and roomy with huge windows, the better to gawk at the jagged peaks, plunging waterfalls and gleaming glaciers of the southern Alps, with farms, tiny villages and church steeples nestled in the broad valleys.
The color palette was wide and vivid: blue skies, green fields and trees tinged with the reds and yellows of autumn. Everywhere you looked was a postcard. Think of The Sound of Music and Heidi and you get the idea.
Our first destination, St. Moritz, is known for its skiing as well as for the beautiful, rich and limber people who populate the slopes and shop in its expensive stores. It wasn’t ski season, so we spent our one evening wandering among stores selling products we couldn’t afford.
Glacier Express to Zermatt
The next day we boarded an even posher train, the Glacier Express, to Zermatt. During the seven-hour train ride, we were served a three-course meal on white linen with fancier glass and silverware than we use at home for special guests.
Zermatt is best known for its cross-country skiing, hiking and mountaineering, as well as the Matterhorn, which looms over this rustic but upscale town.
The weather was mostly overcast for our two-night stay, precluding a gondola or cogwheel train ride up the slopes for a closer look at the Matterhorn and the usually breathtaking views of the surrounding 13,000-foot-tall mountains.
But it cleared enough on our second morning for some stunning photos of the rays of the rising sun shining off the slopes and the peak of the mountain.
Montreux, masterpiece on a lake
From Zermatt, we took two trains to Montreux. Neither of them was luxurious or iconic, just the usual comfortable, clean, punctual and efficient components of the deservedly famous Swiss rail system.
Montreux was my favorite stop on our train tour. I first heard about Montreux when I was a teenage jazz fan and fantasized about attending the Montreux Jazz Festival, then one of the premier jazz festivals in one of the most beautiful settings in Europe.
Now, the festival leans heavily toward pop music, but the town is still incredibly beautiful, sitting on a huge, sparkling lake ringed by mountains.
We were only there for one night, just enough time to take a long walk on the wide lakeside promenade, dotted with whimsical sculptures, colorful patches of flowers, and grand old Belle Époque homes and hotels.
We stayed in one of these grand old hotels, the Suisse Majestic, in a room overlooking the lake. If we didn’t have a train to catch, we would have stayed there for days.
The Golden Pass to Lucerne
From Montreux, we headed to Lucerne on the Golden Pass, a Belle Époque-era train with red-velvet seat cushions, wood paneling and bronze fixtures. It was old-world, regal and elegant, a leftover from the days when train travel was the thing to do.
The Golden Pass was only the first of four trains we had to take that day, illustrating the precise choreography of the Swiss rail system. Switching trains was literally like clockwork. I knew exactly where to go, how much time I had between trains, and when the train would pull out of the station.
Like Lugano and Montreux, Lucerne is a charming town located on a large, scenic lake surrounded by mountains. Besides its stunning setting, Lucerne is also known for its well-preserved medieval architecture, including a wooden bridge built in the 14th century.
Our plan was to ride the gondola to the top of Mt. Pilatus just outside town, ride the cog railroad down and take a boat back to town, but the skies were leaden with clouds. Since we figured the views wouldn’t be great, we opted instead for a round-trip, six-hour boat ride to the opposite end of the lake.
A cruise back in time
Because the shape of the lake is irregular, with many bends and turns, the boat trip is more like cruising down a winding, scenic fjord than crossing a large, open body of water. The lake is surrounded by steep mountains, so the views throughout the trip were magnificent, at first silvery and moody from the low clouds, then sparkling and bright when the clouds and mist lifted in the afternoon.
The boat, a classic paddle wheeler built in 1926, stopped in several picturesque and historic lakeside villages and towns along the way. Stops included where the Swiss Confederation was established in 1291, the site of Wilhelm Tell’s heroic exploits in the 14th century, and a town where Mark Twain lived for several months in 1897.
We disembarked at Flüelen, the town at the far end of the lake, took a short walk, and stopped at a café for a takeaway lunch. We found a place to sit and eat our lunch while admiring one of the best views of the trip, toward a mountain across the water while a lone sailboat floated in the light breeze in the distance.
Before heading back to Lucerne on the next boat, we tried to absorb the scene and burn it into our memories. It will have to do until our next trip to a destination as beautiful as Switzerland and as easy to get to via the most efficient and comfortable transportation system in the world.
If you go
Economy round-trip flights from D.C.-area airports to Zurich range from less than $1,000 for connecting flights to around $2,000 for non-stop flights. Check Kayak.com for current fares.
A Swiss Travel Pass, which is good for travel on trains, buses and boats, plus access to many museums and other attractions, costs about $700 for a first-class, 15-day pass. Seats on the Bernina Express, the Glacier Express, and the Golden Pass are extra. Go to bit.ly/SwissTravelPass for more information or to purchase.
Contact The Swiss Travel Centre at switzerlandtravelcentre.com to arrange a tour. For general information, go to MySwitzerland.com.
In Lugano, we stayed at the Hotel International au Lac (hotel-international.ch/ en/home). Rooms are about $200/night, including breakfast. In St. Moritz, try the Hotel Steffani (steffani.ch/en) for about $300/night with breakfast.
A Zermatt splurge is the Hotel Julen (julen.ch/en/romantik-hotel-julen) at about $350/night. And in Montreux, try the Marriott’s Grand Hotel Suisse Majestic for about $250/night.
In Lucerne, Hotel Continental Park (continental.ch/en) is about $200/night.
Don and Katherine’s trip was organized and hosted by the Switzerland Travel Centre. For more photos, go to Don’s blog on his website, adventuretransformations.com.