The very first time I traveled to Switzerland was to shoot the inaugural episode of Real Rail Adventures. I touched down at Zürich airport ahead of the crew by about eight hours. I was eager to soak in this new place, so I took a brief walking tour of Zürich’s Altstadt (old town) and then boarded a train to Chur, where I’d been instructed to check into the hotel and wait for the rest of the crew.
I’d never heard of the place, but as it was one of my first impressions of Switzerland, it stuck with me. Maybe it’s because of Chur’s location, in a stunning valley, surrounded by imposing Alps. Maybe because it’s one of the oldest human settlements in Switzerland, dating back nearly six thousand years. Whatever it is, Chur just feels good, and I love to wander its streets early and late, along the banks of the rushing Plessur or through the cobbled lanes of the Altstadt.
Here are a few things to keep you busy during a couple of adventurous days in Chur.
Not only does a good walk aid in curing jet lag, but it’s also the best way to get to know a place. Amble past St. Maria Himmelfahrt Cathedral, the Rathaus (city hall), St. Martin Church, and the Rhaetian Railway building and through Arcas Square, Kornplatz, and St. Martinsplatz. Duck into shops and stop for a coffee or a shot of Churer Röteli (a local cherry liqueur) and pick up a Bündner Pfirsichsteine or two (a local snack that looks like a peach pit, but is actually a tasty bite of not-too-sweet confection). Guided tours are available at the Chur Tourism office or download Chur Tourism’s City E-Guide app and take any of the e-guided tours for free.
Haldenhüttli - A (Free) Scenic View
I’ll never stop extolling the virtues of walking aimlessly in a new place to get to know your way around. While you’re at it, why not gain some elevation and get a bird’s-eye view to help you really orient yourself? One of the best places to do this in Chur is the Haldenhüttli viewpoint, a small pavilion to the southeast of town a very short way up the road that eventually leads to the resort town of Arosa. Here, you’ll be treated to a rooftop view of Chur to get a better sense of how things are laid out, and it’s the perfect place to take your panoramic shot of the surrounding Alps.
Brambrüesch - Chur’s “Local” Mountain
To get a view that is slightly more expansive, take the mountain cableway that leaves directly from town to high alpine meadows. Hiking here is spectacular, with popular routes connecting the three resort areas of Chur-Brambrüesch, Pradaschier, and Feldis. Savor the views and fresh air, take in a meal at any one of several mountain restaurants when you reach the trail’s end, and keep your eyes peeled for ibex and marmots. If you’re looking for a little more adrenaline, there are toboggan runs at Pradaschier, a bike park, and a three-mile downhill scooter ride suitable for the whole family. The area is equally popular in wintertime, when people swap out their hiking boots for snowshoes, skis, and snowboards.
Rafting the Vorderrhein - Swiss Grand Canyon
Just 35 minutes by train from Chur is the town of Ilanz, the jumping-off point for all kinds of adventures in the Rhine Gorge, or what locals call the Swiss Grand Canyon. While not as sweeping as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, this is still one of the most dramatically beautiful spots in Switzerland - and that’s saying something for a place that’s already dripping with superlatives. In Real Rail Adventures: Swiss Grand Tour, we took this day trip to raft the Vorderrhein (literally, “before the Rhine”), the Rhine tributary that runs through the canyon. The river is swift but not technically difficult to raft or kayak, and Swiss River Adventures will take care of you from put-in to take-out.
This is one of the two epic, world-famous panoramic trains that depart from Chur. While I love to ride both the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express, the latter is my personal favorite. Highlights include the towering Landwasser Viaduct, the Albula Tunnel, passing Lago Bianco over the Bernina Pass, awe-inspiring views of the Palü Glacier at Alp Grüm, the corkscrew Brusio Viaduct, and, if you choose to ride the entire route, Tirano, Italy. I like to ride the panoramic train to Alp Grüm, get off for a hike, and have lunch at the station restaurant (I highly recommend the house-made capuns: chard-wrapped dumplings with bacon and cream sauce; a local specialty). Then, with your Swiss Travel Pass, you can take regular trains either back to Chur or onward to Tirano.
This panoramic train is often touted as the most scenic train ride in the world. For rail fans, it’s less a bucket list trip than a religious pilgrimage that must be made at least once in a lifetime. Billed as “the slowest express train in the world,” the entire ride from Chur to Zermatt, the home of the Matterhorn, takes seven hours. You’ll pass through the Swiss Grand Canyon and climb to Disentis, where your train will pause for a few minutes to change engines for the climb over the magnificent Oberalp Pass and down into Andermatt. Then you’ll roll through the Realp, Obergoms, and Goms valley regions on your way to Brig before heading up to Zermatt. Once again, you can choose to ride the whole route or just a section, and I have often taken regular commuter trains on the same route when the panoramic version didn’t fit my timeline.
Places to Stay
I have stayed at Hotel Stern in the past and found it very nice and in a good location. Other options include Central Hotel Post and Drei Konige. All are within a 10-minute walk from the train station, or you can take a bus that will get you slightly closer.
I’ve only scratched the surface of the possible things to do in and around Chur. What are your favorite activities in this alpine city? Are there any hidden gems that you might not see on typical tourist paths? Let me know in the comments and subscribe so you don’t miss a thing!