Traveling through Switzerland is a feast for the senses. Impossibly beautiful alpine peaks stand imposingly over lush meadows where happy cows graze. Crystal-clear, glacier-fed creeks burst over sheer cliff edges to become waterfalls, a million brilliant gems in the sunshine. The cool mountain air smells of spruce and needles crackle under your feet. Taste the fondue in Gruyères, the wine in the Lavaux, and the rösti in Zürich. All of these things together help make Switzerland a bucket list destination.
To say that Switzerland is a magical place is an understatement, but to really kick that magic into high gear, it’s best to experience this small, landlocked country by rail. And to get the best of what Swiss trains have to offer, take the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland (GTToS).
The GTToS isn’t a single route, but a collection of the very best scenic train trips in the country. On it, you’ll pass through cities and villages, navigate viaducts and tunnels, glide along pristine alpine lakes and rivers, and crest high mountain passes. All the while, you won’t have to keep your eyes on the road, but you can gaze and snap photos, take a walk in the aisles, and have a traditional meal or snack in the dining car. The separate sections can be tied together in one long trip or taken on their own. There’s no set direction, schedule, or duration, so you can hop on and hop off as you like. The easiest way to approach the GTToS for a newbie might be to sign up for an established tour with a guide from a larger operator, but it’s easy to design a custom, self-guided trip to your tastes.
The trip is made simple by purchasing one ticket, the Swiss Travel Pass (STP), which gives you access to travel on almost all trains, buses, and boats, plus a discount on cable cars, free travel on city trams and buses, and free access to over 500 museums across the country. The STP is available in first- or second-class and in a variety of durations 3, 4, 6, 8, or 15 consecutive days. It’s also available in a “flex” version which gives you either 3, 4, 6, 8, or 15 days of travel within a month - you pick the days. This allows you to stay put when you want to take a day or two off from traveling.
The GTToS is comprised of 800 miles of highlighted routes within the Swiss Travel System, reaching a large portion of the country and all of its language regions. The eight sections of the GTToS are:
Zürich - Luzern - Interlaken
Zürich to Luzern: 40 - 50 minutes
Luzern to Interlaken: 1 hour 50 minutes - Switch to the Luzern-Interlaken Express panoramic train, which changes to cogwheel technology to climb the Brünig Pass
Top sights include Zürich old town tours, tandem paragliding over the Interlaken region, canyoning Grimsel Canyon, hiking at Schynige Platte, the Via Ferrata at Mürren, Gimmelwald
Interlaken - Zweisimmen - Montreux
Interlaken to Zweisimmen: 1 hour 30 minutes
Zweisimmen to Montreux: 2 hours 9 minutes - Switch to the GoldenPass Panoramic Express for the ride from German-speaking Switzerland to the French-speaking part
Top sights include side trips to Lauterbrünnen and to the Schilthorn mountain station, a sunset dinner at Harder Kulm, the Brienzer Rothorn steam train excursion, and ascending the Jungfraujoch to view the Aletsch Glacier
Montreux - Visp - Zermatt
Montreux to Visp: 1 hour 10 minutes
Visp - Zermatt: 1 hour 20 minutes - Change to the Matterhorn Gotthard Railway to climb the nearly 3000 feet via cogwheel to Zermatt, home of the majestic Matterhorn
Top sights include biking and tasting in the Lavaux vineyards, the Rochers-de-Naye mountain excursion for views of Lake Geneva, a visit to the famed Castle Chillon, and a visit to Chaplin's World, celebrating Charlie Chaplin
Zermatt - Chur - St. Moritz
The Glacier Express Panoramic: 7 hours 45 minutes - This famous train is the longest single section on the GTToS, and is also known as the slowest express train in the world. It takes you through 91 tunnels and over 291 bridges, passing some of the most incredible scenery anywhere in the world along the way
Ascend the Gornergrat for views, sled down Muottas Muragl
St. Moritz - Tirano - Lugano
The Bernina Express Panoramic: 6 hours 45 minutes - One of my favorites, this excursion takes you over Bernina Pass, crossing the famous Landwasser Viaduct along the way. From glaciers to palm trees in one day, transfer to the Bernina Express bus in Tirano for the rest of the trip to Lugano
Stop at Alp Grüm for lunch and a hike, and enjoy the circular Brusio Viaduct and the impressive Landwasser Viaduct
Lugano - Flüelen - Luzern
Lugano to Flüelen: 2 hours 20 minutes - The Gotthard Panorama Express (April - October) and the Treno Gottardo (year-round) operate on the same route, bringing you from the sunny south to Lake Luzern
Flüelen to Luzern: 2 hours 47 minutes - Board the boat for a stunning ride across shimmering Lake Luzern
Top sights include the Mediterranean feel of Lugano, Bellinzona and its castles, a hike to the Tibetan Bridge
Luzern - St. Gallen
The Voralpen-Express: 2 hours 15 minutes - This train takes you across the foothills of the Alps, crossing the Sitter Viaduct, Switzerland’s highest, with plenty of spectacular peaks to view along the way
Top sights include Luzern's Chapel Bridge, mountain excursions to Rigi, Pilatus, and Stanserhorn, a boat cruise on stunning Lake Luzern, a visit to Culinarium Alpinum in Stans for local food, and a visit to the Museum of Transportation in Luzern
St. Gallen - Schaffhausen - Zürich
St. Gallen - Schaffhausen: 2 hours - Pass along Lake Constance and through the storybook town of Stein am Rhein
Schaffhausen - Zürich: 1 hour
Top sights include the Rhein Fall at Schaffhausen, the Abbey in St. Gallen, an optional riverboat ride between Schaffhausen and the colorful, quaint village of Stein am Rhein, and biking along Lake Constance
Often, you’ll travel on a standard regional or intercity train for the first part of a section, connecting to a premium panoramic train part of the way through. You’ll want to check timetables carefully so that your standard train arrives in time to connect with the panoramic train, which may only run once or twice a day. Also, some panoramic trains require a surcharge, class upgrade, or reservation, so make sure that’s all squared away before you start the travel day.
The trick is to decide the places you want to see and the experiences you want to have and then build your itinerary from there. All four episodes of Real Rail Adventures can help. They’re available on your local PBS station or to stream for free on the PBS Video App if you’re a member of your local station. Other tools you’ll find helpful for planning are the GTToS app (general planning and information as you travel), the SBB Mobile app (for Swiss train timetables, tickets, reservations, and upgrades), and the extensive My Switzerland website. Plus, there are apps too numerous to name from local and regional tourism boards in Switzerland - just search on any app store for apps that cover your specific destinations.
Have you ever traveled on the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland? What were your favorite parts? Have any questions about your next trip to Switzerland? We can help you plan and book your itinerary - contact us! Let us know in the comments below and subscribe to our email newsletter so you never miss a thing on Jeff Wilson Explore!