Exploring Switzerland By Rail: Inside The Glacier Express

By Hannah Giacardi

3 weeks ago

All aboard...


Hannah Giacardi journeys through the Swiss Alps aboard the Glacier Express, one of the world’s most famous scenic trains.

Everything You Need To Know About The Glacier Express

Train travelling through the snowy Alps

©Glacier Express AG – Stefan Schlumpf

As 2024 sees a milestone birthday for myself, a trip to Switzerland – which has the world’s second-highest life expectancy – seemed fitting. 

And what better way to discover this jaw-droppingly beautiful country than aboard their uber-swish trains? The Swiss travel by train more than any other nation in the world. 

Children under six ride for free and there are carriages equipped with play areas to make journeys by rail attractive for young families too. And not surprisingly, the country – famous for its watchmaking – ensures its railway systems run like clockwork. 

My plan for this trip? Raise a glass to the end of a decade aboard Switzerland’s famous scenic train: the Glacier Express. And if – like me – you are mindful of how travelling can impact the planet, you’ll be pleased to know you won’t be stepping foot in any airport.

Starting my journey in London, I head to Zurich, via Paris, by train. After a couple of days of sightseeing in the oft-overlooked Swiss city, I journey to Zermatt, one of the world’s top winter sport resorts.

While I expected to be blown away by the famous Glacier Express journey ahead of me, little did I know that a delightful surprise awaited me in Zermatt: the Gornergrat Railway. This cogwheel train glides up the mountain taking you to heights of 3,100m.

Swiss Alps with lakes and meadows

©Glacier Express AG – Stefan Schlumpf

Surrounded by peaks, you’ll pass through picturesque alpine landscapes covered in snow as you journey to the top. All eyes are on one familiar old friend on the horizon, the Matterhorn – the colossus Swiss mountain whose fame is owed to its perfect pyramid shape. The Matterhorn is perhaps also familiar as its striking silhouette used to be on the front of Toblerone’s packaging.

At the end of the line, the Gornergrat observation platform gives first-class panoramic views of the Matterhorn, the Gorner Glacier, as well as 29 other peaks soaring over 4,000m high. Be prepared, depending on the season, for freezing temperatures and whipping icy winds at the top. Wearing my Ralph Lauren tan suede loafers and white jeans to the summit was not my finest hour. Sturdy waterproof shoes with a good grip and warm clothes are advisable.

After one final peek through the Viscope telescope at the summit, I board the Gornergrat Railway once again. Arriving back down to earth in Zermatt, I check in to the Europe Hotel & Spa Zermatt for the night. 

The hotel is a mix of traditional charm and excellent modern amenities, including a spa, a restaurant and a bar. With only 38 bedrooms (all spacious and with a warm and welcoming alpine décor), the chalet hotel has an intimate home-away-from-home feel.

The next day, or the day of my ‘coming of age’ shall we say, began with an early start. My husband, myself and my two-year-old boarded the Glacier Express at 7.30am. 

Dubbed the window to the Swiss Alps, the Glacier Express’s first journey was on 25 June, 1930. Seventy guests were invited to experience the most spectacular train journey travelling from the foot of the Matterhorn to the chic ski resort of St Moritz. 

A masterpiece of Alpine engineering, the Glacier Express route took 40 years to build. The train continues to follow the same 291km (180 miles) of tracks to this day. But while the route is the same, the train itself has been greatly upgraded over the years. Its piece de resistance is its glass-ceilinged carriages designed to give its passengers an unobstructed view of Switzerland’s breathtaking natural beauty. 

Glacier Express train crossing a tall arched bridge between two mountains

©Glacier Express AG – Stefan Schlumpf

Cutting through the magnificent mountain ranges, we pass through remote valleys, sheer rock faces, and over 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels. The highlights of the journey were passing through the deep Rhine Gorge – the Grand Canyon of Switzerland, seeing the famous Landwasser viaduct, and reaching the highest point at the Oberalp Pass (2033m above sea level). 

The eight-hour journey to St Moritz is one of the most relaxing journeys I’ve had in a long time. Tucking into a delicious lunch, chatting to the other passengers and soaking up the stunning mountainscapes cannot fail to leave a lasting impression. 

Mesmerized by the glittering snow heaped head high next to the tracks, it’s hard not to marvel at the ingenuity of the pioneering engineers who conceived this railway line that cuts through some of the hardest topography. The icing on the cake is that the Glacier Express, or the world’s slowest express train, was built purely for others to experience the pleasure and magnificence of the Swiss Alps. 

Pulling into St Moritz, we check in at the Grace La Margna hotel, which is ever-so conveniently located opposite the train station. 

As a freshly minted 40-year-old, dropping my bags at this utterly gorgeous luxury hotel felt like a very grand way to continue the celebrations. After tucking into a seriously delicious meal washed down by excellent wines at The View restaurant, my family and I finished the day with a nightcap in Grace La Margna’s No. 5 Bar.

The next day, a lazy start to extend our stay at the Grace La Margna was welcome. Beginning the day, we breakfast like kings and queens at The View, which looks out over Lake St Moritz. Transformed into a winter wonderland during the colder months, Lake St Moritz is a destination in itself. From ice skating and the Snow Polo World Cup to the car race, this frozen lake is a hive of alpine winter activities. 

After visiting the Grace La Margna spa with its divine pool, whirlpool, sauna and steam baths, we feel rejuvenated and ready for our next train journey.

A lake in the Swiss Alps

©Glacier Express AG – Stefan Schlumpf

Our original plan was to take Switzerland’s other famous scenic train, the Bernina Express – but sadly a recent landslide on the tracks meant our journey was cancelled a few days prior, forcing us into a rethink.

So while we didn’t get to experience the Bernina Express in all its splendour, we did get to travel to the city of Chur through absolutely stunning landscapes on Switzerland’s regular (and no less excellent) trains. And although these might not compare to the luxury of the Glacier Express and Bernina Express, don’t go picturing your good-old commuter train from back home: scenic windows and comfortable seats make for an extremely enjoyable ride.

Plus, we still got to see some of the same landscapes as we would have on the Bernina Express. Our train to Chur, via the alpine village of Bergün, took us through the multiple spiral loops and tunnels of the 100-year-old, UNESCO-listed Albula section of the Bernina railway line.

After a break for lunch and a tour of the Albula Railway Museum in Bergün, we arrive at Chur, the oldest town in Switzerland, which has a history spanning around 5,000 years. There, we checked in to Hotel Stern Chur.  

Our tremendous train trip ends with a ride back to Zurich, before heading back to the UK via Paris. We’ve loved travelling by train: being able to enjoy the trip as much as the destination. Plus, it’s good for the planet – something the Swiss know a thing or two about. Switzerland is an eco-friendly goddess; from its exemplary recycling system (50% of waste is recycled), green economy, and renewable energy (56% of its renewable energy is from hydroelectric power), there’s a lot to learn from the Swiss love of nature and dedication to protecting it. And travelling by train to discover this staggeringly beautiful country is certainly a good place to start.

STAY

Europe Hotel & Spa Zermatt

This family-run hotel offers traditional charm and modern facilities in an intimate setting. The rooms are spacious and comfortable with balconies to take in the fresh alpine air and mountain vistas. The train station and centre of Zermatt are only a few minutes’ walk away. And if you’re tired after a day on the slopes or exploring, you’ll be perfectly at home enjoying the beautiful décor, relaxing at the spa, grabbing a bite at on-site Restaurant OVIS, or just knocking back a few G&Ts at the bar. europe-zermatt.ch

Grace La Margna

Grace La Margna is an exceptional luxury hotel just opposite the train station in St Moritz. Equipped with a phenomenal spa, gastronomic restaurant and stunning rooms, this is the place to check into in St Moritz for a five-star experience. From its Feuerstein toiletries and Swiss coffee Stoll Kaffee to its Elite Swiss beds, Grace La Margna prides itself on using locally sourced products across the hotel. I particularly liked the plastic-free bathroom accessories and hangers crafted from recycled grass. This detailed effort towards protecting and preserving the environment highlights how the finest experience doesn’t need to cause harm to the planet. It is also an excellent choice for families with a sensational kids club kitted out with beautiful wooden toys and an attentive staff that will do everything to make your little one feel welcome. gracehotels.com

Hotel Stern Chur

A Swiss Historic Hotel in the heart of Chur, Switzerland’s oldest town, Hotel Stern Chur is an excellent choice, with the main attractions within walking distance. The hotel has an award-winning restaurant and a wine cellar featuring some excellent bottles. stern-chur.ch

BOOK IT

We travelled with a Swiss Travel Pass, which offers unlimited travel (rail, bus and boat) on consecutive days across the Swiss Travel System. This pass also covers scenic routes and local trams and buses in around 90 towns and cities, and includes the Swiss Museum Pass, which grants you free entry to 500 museums and exhibitions. Prices start from £209 for a three-day second-class ticket. myswitzerland.com 

Hannah Giacardi travelled to Switzerland from London by train, with a carbon footprint of 5.62kg of CO2, each way. This is 20 times less than an equivalent journey aboard a plane.