Switzerland to Italy: Lakes, Alps, and Glaciers on the Bernina Express Train
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We love taking trains, they're a fantastic alternative to planes, when going from one place to another. However, the Bernina Express was on our bucket list for an entirely different reason. The sheer beauty of the mountains, glaciers, lakes, water falls, rivers, and bridges that the train passes makes this train arguably one of the most beautiful train rides in Europe, and possibly the world. For us, there was no work to be done on this train, and the destination was less important than the train ride itself. We were excited to spend the four hour train ride looking out the panoramic windows at the scenery as it passed by.
You may be asking yourself, 'What makes this train ride so beautiful?' Well, first it’s on the Rhaetian Railway, a UNESCO World Heritage Site Railway Route. It takes but a glance at the brochure to recognize the beauty of the scenery. For almost the full four hours of the train ride, we found ourselves entranced by the views and we couldn’t take our eyes away from the panoramic windows of the train.
What's the Bernina Express?
It’s the highest railway crossing the Alps. The highest point is at 2,253 meters (7,391 feet) above sea level.
It passes through five tunnels and crosses 196 bridges.
The scenery is extremely varied, from small towns, castles, and churches, to orchards and vineyards.
You’ll see the highest summit of the Eastern Alps, Piz Bernina, and lay eyes on the Morteratsch Glacier.
It crosses the 136 meter (446 feet) long Landwasser Viaduct, which was built between 1901 and 1902. The archways are spectacular. Sitting on the right side offers views of the train as it crosses the Viaduct and then enters the 215 meter (706 feet) long tunnel.
It goes through the Domleschg Valley, which is the valley with the most castles in Switzerland.
It makes a full 360 degree circle on the Brusio Circular Viaduct, which was built to extend the length of the track to withstand the gradient.
Two railways, the Albula Line and the Bernina Line, make up the Bernina Express. The Albula Line was completed in 1904, the Bernina Line in 1910. Each ran independently of each other until Rhaetian Railway purchased the two and combined them in 1940.
Parts of the Bernina Express Line are shared with the famous Glacier Express.
The best views on the train are from cars with panoramic windows. Do yourself a favor and be sure to make seat reservations for one of the panoramic cars. The seat reservations are separate from the train ticket itself.
Booking Tickets for the Bernina Express
It’s advised that you book your tickets well in advance. If you book them on Rhaetian Railway's website, the maximum time in advance that you can book is 90 days (3 months). However, if you book them on German Railway's (Deutsche Bahn) website, you can purchase them up to six-months in advance. While we knew that we’d take the Bernina Express at our first available opportunity, we ended up choosing our dates for the train and booking our tickets only about three weeks in advance. This was due in large part to the way we’re traveling, only planning one to two months in advance. Obviously, the advantage of this is having flexibility in our traveling schedule, and being able to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. The downside, we found in this situation and similar ones, is that we end up spending a bit more because we miss advance purchase discounts.
In case you don't know, Rhaetian Railway operates the Bernina Express. Most websites and brochures will advise you to purchase your tickets directly through them. However, there’s a workaround that could save you over 65% on ticket prices! If you read our city guide to Zurich, then you'll know that Zurich is expensive. This holds true from the food to the attractions, and certainly includes train fares. So, not only can you book your tickets up to six-months in advance with the German Railways, but you can also save big on your tickets by booking on their site. Follow this tip and you'll spend as little as €29.00 per ticket, compared to €85 or more with Rhaetian Railway. Do keep in mind that purchasing tickets through German Railways requires booking an extra leg of the ticket, from Singen, Germany to Zurich, Switzerland. However, you don’t need to actually be on board for this leg of the train ride. You can still start your journey in Zurich. Just keep in mind, that because the train leaves Zurich at 7:37 am, you’ll need to schedule the Singen to Zurich portion for the day before. So, if done correctly, you’ll have an itinerary that's from Singen to Zurich, with an overnight ‘layover’ in Zurich. Followed the next morning by a 7:37 am train departing Zurich, bound to Chur. In Chur, you'll transfer to the Bernina Express, who's ultimate destination is Tirano, Italy. Again, it's very important to be sure and book the Singen to Zurich portion of your itinerary for the day before you plan to be on the Bernina Express.
Tip: If an itinerary starting in Singen, Germany doesn't come up with the cheapest tickets (€29.00 or €39.00), try instead searching for Freiburg (Breisgau) as a starting point. This is actually what we ended up doing.
Unfortunately, for us, because we didn’t book far enough in advance, we only saved about 10% by booking on the German Railways site. However, the ride was still well worth the cost of the ticket! The last part of booking the ticket is to book your seat reservation. This will cost an additional 10 CHF and can be done on either the Rhaetian Railway website or the German Railways website, independent of where you originally purchased the tickets. Booking a seat reservation is the only way to get access to the cars with panoramic windows. During our train ride, we sat next to a couple who’d purchased tickets for the Bernina Express, but hadn’t purchased seat reservations. They were lucky enough to be able to purchase two aisle seats in the panoramic car last minute, but if there hadn’t been space, they would’ve had to sit in the non-panoramic cars. We can only imagine what a bummer that would’ve been!
Unfortunately, when making seat reservations, you’re unable to see which side of the train is which on the seat map. So, while we’d consider the right side the ‘better’ side (but it’s a very close call!), you can’t choose the right side, it’s just a 50/50 shot. However, if you’re traveling in a pair and don’t mind sitting across the row from each other, we’d recommend booking a ticket by the window on either side of the train. This way, between the two of you, you’ll see everything. In the end, don’t worry about it too much, throughout the four hour ride fellow passengers are routinely getting up and looking out different windows.
When booking your seat reservations, don't worry about reserving seats on the trains prior to the Bernina Express (Chur to Tirano). The seats on these trains are 'first come, first served', and can't be reserved.
The Bernina Express line ends in Tirano, Italy, which is a very small town with limited attractions. Most people spend a few hours here, and then move on. Common destinations in the region are Lake Como, Lugano, and Milan. We decided to continue on to Milan and purchased train tickets through Omio.com (formerly GoEuro.com).
Tip – Check out The Man in Seat 61’s post on the Bernina Express. He outlines very clearly, with superb detail on how to book the Bernina Express.
Anticipation of the Big Day on the Bernina Express
The train ride is great both in the winter for a lovely winter wonderland, and in the summer for the bright green rolling fields. In our case, we booked our tickets for spring, so it was a gamble on what the weather would be like. We hoped for a sunny, clear day. We tried not to torture ourselves by continually looking at the extended weather forecast (Sergio is better at that than Shannon is, for sure!). Ultimately, the weather would be what it would be, and there was nothing we could do to influence or change it.
Before taking the Bernina Express we had several days in Zurich planned. We were doing a house sit, caring for two adorable dogs, and of course exploring Zurich. We did our best to focus on the adventures at hand and stay in the present moment; this is something we try to do in all of our travels. The last thing we want is to miss, or waste a moment because we’re too focused on what’s to come. So, with this in mind, we let ourselves be enchanted by the charm of Zurich. Although, we must admit, there were several times that our thoughts and conversation turned towards the excitement of the Bernina Express.
The Big Day Arrived
We said goodbye to our hosts and the dogs the night before, because we’d be leaving the house when everyone was still sound asleep. We quietly put on our backpacks, wrote a note thanking Zuley and Alexis for their immense hospitality, and shut the door behind us. We had the option of taking a tram to central train station, Zürich Hauptbahnhof (Zurich HB). But, since we were going to spend most of the day on trains, we opted to walk the 2.2 miles to the station. We’d been to Zurich HB station a couple of times while exploring the city, and that morning was just like every other time, as there seemed to always be people giving out free samples. That morning it was gummy vitamins, but we’d also seen flavored drinks, yogurt, and popcorn. We’re not sure if it was just our timing, or if free samples are common in Zurich train stations?
We used the digital board for train information and found our train, 7:37 am to Chur. We read what platform the train would be leaving from, and made our way there. While we waited we met a very kind couple from the Netherlands that were taking the same trip we were. The'd recently become 'empty nesters' and were eager to travel more. We couldn't help but pause and appreciate our fortune, having the ability to travel as we are, at such a young age. It’s a wonderful experience meeting so many great people while traveling. As the time approached for the train to arrive and one didn’t appear, our new friends went to the monitor to check the train status. The platform had been changed at the last minute, so thank goodness they’d checked. We went to the correct platform and boarded the train. We were on our way to the Bernina Express!
While not the highlight of the ride and not part of the official Bernina Express, we still very much enjoyed the views on-board the train from Zurich to Chur. Once in Chur, we needed to transfer trains. It was super simple, we just hoped off the train, and literally crossed the platform and got on the panoramic Bernina Express. We found our seats and put down our bags. There were maps and brochures of the upcoming train ride that we reviewed while we waited for the train ride to begin.
The Bernina Express Experience
The ride began and we settled in. The views and scenery start slowly, but soon we forgot we were on a train; all we could see was the beautiful scenery and nature around us. It was absolutely enchanting. The train passes through such varied terrain, that you go from green fields, small towns, lakes, and farms and then ascend into the mountains, where trees are more dense and rivers flow nearby. The train ascends even higher as we made our way through the Alps. We saw frozen lakes and white snow as far as the eye could see, and glaciers in the distance. As we descended, we left Switzerland and entered Italy, passing through orchards, vineyards, and quaint towns.
We were in the last car, and there was something spectacular about being able to look out the panoramic windows and see the front of the train make its way along the rail line. Passing over the viaducts and through the tunnels was just as magnificent as you’d expect from the pictures. While we’d hoped the day would be a sunny one, it unfortunately wasn’t. We had many clouds, but thankfully no rain. Occasionally, the sun would peek out and we’d get a glimpse of the mountain peaks. In fact, once we got to the snow packed areas, we actually took out our sunglasses because it was so bright.
At one end of each panoramic car is a compartment used for passing through to the next car. In this small area is a window that opens up, which is ideal to take pictures out of and avoid the reflection of the window between you and the scenery. Some people prefer to sit, take in, and enjoy the scenery. We, however, are the type to take pictures. It’s so beautiful, that in our humble opinion, how could you not? Between the two of us, we must have racked up over 500 pictures and videos.
From Tirano to Milan
The train from Tirano to Milan leaves every two hours. There are a couple of sights to see in Tirano, and many people will stop here for lunch. There were two choices when booking our tickets. One option left us with less than 10 minutes to make our connecting train, and the other with just over two hours to make the transfer. Because we'd brought our own food, had been up since the wee early hours of the morning, and couldn’t see filling two hours with the sights of Tirano, we booked the earlier train. Once we disembarked the Bernina Express, we followed the crowd off the platform. To catch the train to Milan, we headed through the small station, passing the ticket windows, and made our first right turn, onto the next platform. We looked at the signs and confirmed that the large blue-green train was the one we needed to board for Milan.
The train to Milan was a stark contrast from the luxury Bernina Express train we’d just been on. It was older and showed years of wear. However, the seats were comfortable enough, so we were happy travelers. We set down our backpacks and settled in for the two-and-a-half hour ride to Milan. We were pleasantly surprised that along the way, the beautiful scenery continued. We had fantastic views of Lake Como, as about a third of the journey was along the banks of the lake.
Our Adventures Continue in Milan
We arrived safe and sound in Milan. We walked a few miles, stretching our legs after such a long journey, and then took the metro to our Airbnb (use our link and save $40 off your first stay!). Milan was there for us to explore, but first we needed a good nights rest! Stay tuned for our adventures and city guide to Milan.