Switzerland’s alpine peaks beg to be explored. Wherever you go, you’re confronted with yet another spectacular vista with a seemingly endless supply of mountains. In my view, with the crunch of gravel underfoot, fresh alpine air in your lungs, and a challenging grade ahead, hiking is the best way to get the full experience.
But what’s the best way to get those high-alpine hiking experiences when your time is limited? Enter the cable car, an engineering marvel that the Swiss have turned into a standard form of transportation in this horizontally-challenged landscape. Ride them up, hike among the alpine views to your heart’s content, have a sumptuous meal at a mountain station, and move on to the next “peak” experience. These trips never cease to amaze me, so here are a few of my favorites to include on your next Swiss adventure.
Scenic Engelberg is not only home to a Benedictine monastery with lovely gardens, but also to Mount Titlis, a rocky alpine playground of a peak that guards the charming town. Getting to the top of Titlis requires taking two cable cars, the second part of which is the spectacular TITLIS Rotair, which rotates 360 degrees during the trip, showing off the surrounding Uri Alps in all their glory.
Up on top of Titlis is a playground of sorts, which includes opportunities to ski and snowboard, of course, but also a cliff walk, glacier cave, a restaurant, and, curiously, a photo studio where you can dress up in traditional Swiss costumes and have your picture taken. If you make it to Titlis, check out the wall of celebrities who have visited there - you’ll see me proudly sporting a Swiss costume while holding an alphorn and pretending to yodel.
Stans (Lucerne) - Stanserhorn CabriO
Just a short 15-20 minute train ride from Lucerne, a day trip to Mt. Stanserhorn is an easy choice. The journey starts with a ride on the historic funicular from the town of Stans to the cable car station Kätli. There, you’ll board the double-decker CabriO cable car, which features an open upper deck for an exhilarating view of the surrounding region. Once on top, enjoy hiking, views, and visiting the resident marmots, colonies of which have lived on the Stanserhorn since 1912. Enjoy a meal in the revolving restaurant or, better yet, consider making a reservation for one of their candlelight dinners which are served Fridays and Saturdays, May through November.
Stechelberg (Lauterbrünnen) - Cableway Schilthorn
While a trip to the Schilthorn alone is worthwhile, the Lauterbrünnen Valley offers so much for travelers that you should plan to make this more than just a day trip. The village of Lauterbrünnen with its famous Staubbach Falls serves as a great base for exploration of the valley. Take a bus to Stechelberg to the Schilthorn Cableway station. The cable car here offers access to the car-free villages of Mürren and Gimmelwald, where you can visit Swiss farms to sample alpine cheeses and sausages or embark on a Via Ferrata climbing and hiking course. Continue up past these villages on the cable car to the Schilthorn mountain station for awe-inspiring views of the Jungfrau region. Before the revolving Piz Gloria restaurant opened to the public, it served as the location for the villain Blofeld’s hideout in the James Bond film “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.” To this day, the Schilthorn celebrates its role in film history with a Bond-themed museum, brunch, and even a cappuccino with a “007” stenciled chocolate powder topping. As with other Swiss mountain destinations, enjoy skiing, the Thrill Walk, and other activities.
Kriens (Lucerne) - Pilatus Dragon
One of the many legends of Mount Pilatus asserts that it is a place where dragons dwell. Dragons are said to be spotted in the region regularly - either flying from peak to peak or swimming in Lake Lucerne - and one reporter suggested that these sightings begin nearly every year at the start of the tourist season. Whether or not you get to see a dragon, you can ride the Pilatus Dragon Ride cable car from Kriens to the mountain station on Pilatus at about 7000 ft in elevation. From there it’s possible to hike to the summit (about 50 minutes) or to surrounding platforms for unobstructed views all around. You can stay in the hotels here or just get a meal in one of the restaurants. I especially enjoyed our visit at sunset, oohing and aahing at the lights winking on in the villages below as darkness fell. Take the cable car round trip or take the cogwheel train for one leg of your journey. This is a great day/evening trip from Lucerne.
Lucerne/Vitznau/Weggis - Mt. Rigi
An excursion to Mount Rigi gives a traveler multiple experiences at once. A train from Zürich to Lucerne leads to a boat ride across Lake Lucerne to Weggis where you board the cable car that lifts you far above the lake to Rigi Kulm. Once up top, enjoy hiking, paragliding, or a visit to the Rigi Kaltbad spa. Hungry? Either bring a picnic with some things to grill and light a fire at the park just below the Kaltbad hotel or snuggle up to a piping-hot fondue at Restaurant Lok 7. Take the cable car down when you’re done, or ride the cogwheel train down to Vitznau where you can catch the boat back to Lucerne. A way to take an extended trip on the Weggis cable car is to make reservations for the Restaurant in the Sky, a gourmet meal served in a cable car that’s turned into a dining room at sunset. If this doesn’t bring out the romantic in you, nothing will.
Ever since the first travelers came to the region, humans have endeavored to reach high elevations faster and in better comfort. Enter the all-new Eiger Express, a sleek, modern cable car that claims to reduce the trip from various places in Switzerland to the Jungfrau by a whopping 47 minutes. The trip starts from the modern Grindelwald terminal and the innovative 3S cableway technology quietly rockets you up to the Eigergletscher station in just 15 minutes. The new technology requires fewer towers which made the construction less destructive to the alpine environment below. While it’s primarily used as a way to get to the popular Jungfraujoch, there is plenty of hiking available with views galore.
Engadin (Surlej/St. Moritz) - Corvatsch
An easy day trip to Mount Corvatsch from St. Moritz starts with a 25-minute bus ride to the village of Surlej, where you catch the first of two cable cars. At the first station, Murtèl, get off and enjoy a hike to admire the Biancograt ridge. Reboard the cable car to the top station where, on a clear day, you can view 1000 alpine peaks as far away as the Matterhorn. Have a meal at the panoramic Restaurant 3303 (the elevation, in meters, of Piz Corvatsch), which specializes in meals from the Ticino region and features whiskey made in its own distillery.
Zermatt - Matterhorn Glacier Ride
While there is no end to the thrilling activities available in Zermatt, the Matterhorn Glacier Ride, from Trockener Steg to the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise at over 11000 ft in elevation, will take your breath away. This is the highest cable car anywhere in the world, and a larger project, the Alpine X, aims to connect Switzerland with the Testa Grigia cable car station in Italy with another 3S cable car. As if this weren’t enough, it’s also possible to book a special car called the Crystal Ride, which is not only bedecked with crystals inside and out but has a glass floor that becomes transparent a few minutes into the ride, revealing views of the glacier over 500 feet below riders’ feet. Aside from the magnificent views from the Matterhorn Glacier Paradise, you can enjoy the Glacier Paradise ice cave tour, restaurants, and plenty of skiing and hiking, all in the shadow of the impressive Matterhorn.
Col du Pillon (Gstaad) - Glacier 3000
While we were shooting for Real Rail Adventures: Swiss Winter Magic, we visited Glacier 3000 to show off its many excellent wintertime activities. As we arrived at the cable car station it began to snow, and by the time we arrived at the top station, it was difficult to see past the tip of my nose. Still, we bravely walked the Peak Walk suspension bridge as the weather worsened. Usually reached by an hour-long hike, we were fortunate enough to snag a snowcat out to Restaurant Refuge de l’Espace, a rustic, intimate hideaway with fantastic fare with a home-cooked feel. While the snow made our trip magical in its own way, we were unable to take advantage of the many activities here, from skiing and snowboarding to dog sledding and tobogganing. Whatever the weather, Glacier 3000 is a memorable excursion.
In the far northeast of Switzerland, the Appenzell region is well-known for its farms tucked into the rolling green hills which are dotted with legions of cows. Alpine cheeses from this area are prized for their quality and taste. It’s also home to the Aescher Hostel, which you have probably seen dozens of times on postcards or your favorite social media channel. The hostel is perched on a steep cliff and reachable only by a cable car from Wasserauen to Ebenalp, followed by a short hike through the Wildkirchli caves. While the cable car ride alone is worth the trip, take a hike, wander through the caves, and sit down for a meal of rösti with melted Appenzeller cheese and a fried egg. And don’t forget a mug of Appenzeller beer to wash it down!
Any of these trips will give you the jaw-dropping sense of awe you dream about when planning your Swiss vacation. With a Swiss Travel Pass, which covers all of your public transportation on trains, buses, boats, and trams, you’ll also get a 25%-50% discount on cable car tickets. Plus, some cable cars, like the Schilthorn Cableway, let you ride for free on your birthday.
What did I miss? Do you have a favorite cable car ride in Switzerland or beyond? Let us know in the comments below and subscribe to our monthly email newsletter so you never miss a story!