Switzerland's rail network is one of the world's best, defying steep mountain gradients, threading through dramatic valleys and around beautiful lakes to showcase the country's finest scenery. Here is all you need to know about Switzerland's best train rides.

What to Know Before Boarding

Switzerland's rail network is one of the world's best: you will be left wondering how a country with tricky topography connects so many remote mountainous reaches with such efficient train services. All the nation's trains are of an excellent standard too: clean and with comfortable seating and tables. The rail network's environmental credentials are also high, with the whole network projected to be climate-neutral by 2030. No train ride in Switzerland needs to be longer than three or four hours, which is the time it takes to travel across the country from one side to the other. The one exception is the Glacier Express (below), with a journey time of eight hours because it is primarily a tourist route.

In a country already world-famous for being expensive, it is worth noting that train travel can be too—but does not have to be. While several of the most beautiful sections of railway line have trains with panorama carriages (carriages with huge windows to let in expansive views), these are tourist trains and pricier as a result. Regular trains will nearly always travel the same tracks as the tourist ones, offering the same views for a much cheaper fare. Tickets do not need to be purchased in advance and can be bought on the day in most cases, although their websites offer options to pre-buy for the most popular train routes. If you can, buy your ticket from the station at the beginning of the route you wish to take the day before you travel. 

Journey to Europe's Highest Railway Station, Jungfraujoch

A train heading up toward Jungfraujoch

The "Top of Europe" is the phrase that announces Jungfraujoch, stunningly located in the upper reaches of Bernese Oberland, as you disembark the train at the Jungfrau Railway's top terminus. At 11,332 feet (3,454 m), this is the continent's highest-elevation railway station, and feels it, too, with a view of snow-capped ridges opening up as you explore the station complex. You cannot help but marvel at the feat of engineering which brought rails to this seemingly inaccessible saddle. 

The Jungfrau Railway embarks from Kleine Scheidegg, a mountain pass and popular mid-station where many hiking and skiing routes converge, and clambers 5.6 miles (9 km) to Jungfraujoch. Kleine Scheidegg is also connected by rail to Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, both linked to the national rail network via Interlaken. 

To make the return journey from Jungfraujoch even more marvelous, you could alight at the middle station on the Kleine Scheidegg-Jungfraujoch run, Eigergletscher, heading back to Grindelwald Grund station by the Eiger Express gondola cableway which opened in 2020.

From: Kleine Scheidegg To: Jungfraujoch
Runs: Hourly year-round. Check the exact schedules at Jungfrau

Glimpse Alpine Panoramas Aboard the Glacier Express

The Landwasser Viaduct

One of Switzerland's epic train journeys and probably its best-known, even though it does not reach the record-breaking heights or gradients of other rail routes in the country, is the evocatively named "Glacier Express." The route connects Switzerland's two glitziest mountain resorts, Zermatt (in Valais) and St. Moritz (in Graubünden).

Despite its title, this is no express run but an eight-hour, 181-mile (291-km) trundle that navigates almost all the length of South Switzerland's Alps. However, it is direct, meaning passengers need not worry about changing trains and can instead focus on the view. It is especially impressive with panoramic windows on the train carriages: a series of peaks (starting with the iconic Matterhorn), glaciers, mountain passes, and gorges. You'll get freshly-prepared meals served at your table if you choose.

In addition to attractive start and finish points, other highlights include the crossings of the breathtaking Oberalp Pass at 6,706 feet (2,044 m) above sea level and Landwasser Viaduct, a magnificent six-arched bridge carrying the train a hair-raising 213 feet (65 m) above a gorge. If you don't fancy shelling out the fare for the Glacier Express, regular trains at far-cheaper prices run the same route, just with a change along the way.

From: Zermatt/St.Moritz To: St.Moritz/Zermatt
Runs: Twice-daily in winter (December-April), three times daily (May-October), normal train only (November). Check the exact schedules at Glacier Express 

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Cross the Swiss Alps on the Bernina Express

Ospizio Bernina and Lago Bianco on the Bernina Express route

The city of Chur, the capital of Graubünden and one of Switzerland's oldest settlements, is the start point of the 90-mile (144-km) ride right over the Swiss Alps to Tirano, just over the border in Italy. The run is so splendid that the section from Thusis to Tirano has been appointed a UNESCO World Heritage Site under the moniker "Rhaetian Railway." It was designated the status not just for the landscapes it runs through but also for the marvel of the engineering behind the line, with its 196 bridges and 55 tunnels built in the early 20th century.

Highlights of the route include the crossing of the Landwasser Viaduct (on the part of the route shared by the Glacier Express above) and the climb up to Ospizio Bernina station at 7,391 feet (2,253 m) via the Morteratsch Glacier. Panoramic carriages help to maximize the mountain views.

While it is possible to return to Chur by train from Tirano, most passengers do the route one-way and get the bus from Tirano to Lugano at the end or carry on by train into Italy. As with the Glacier Express, you can travel the same track on regular, non-panoramic trains with more changes for a much-reduced fare.

From: Chur To: Tirano, Italy
Runs: Daily mid-May to December. Regular trains only from December to mid-May. Check the exact schedule at Rhaetian Railway.

Travel Between Switzerland and Edge of the Italian Lakes on the Gotthard Railway

Travel across Lake Lucerne by paddle steamer to begin the Gotthard Panorama Express

Another spellbinding Trans-Alpine Switzerland-to-Italy run is the 128-mile (206-km) Gotthard Railway. The mainline runs between Immensee on Lake Zug, in Central Switzerland just south of Zürich, to Chiasso, Switzerland's southernmost municipality and only about 2 miles (3.3 km) from the shores of Lake Como. It is also yet another Swiss line to break into the record books, this time for featuring the world's longest train tunnel, the Gotthard Base Tunnel. To navigate the mountains, it cuts underneath them rather than traveling over the top.

The Gotthard Panorama Express is a captivating way to travel a large portion of this railway line. You embark in Lucerne, boarding a historic paddle steamer to cruise across Lake Lucerne to Flüelen to connect to the mainline, before continuing via a train with panoramic carriages for the journey as far as Lugano. It is only a 25-minute trip from Lugano to the end of the line at Chiasso. Regular trains run along the same route as the Gotthard Panorama Express after Flüelen for much lower prices: you need to change once or twice, but you can still see the same outstanding scenery. 

From: Immensee (normal train) / Lucerne (Gotthard Panorama Express) To: Chiasso (normal train) / Lugano (Gotthard Panorama Express)
Runs: Hourly year-round (normal train) / once daily Tuesday-Sunday April-October (Gotthard Panorama Express). Check the exact schedules at SBB

Climb the World's Steepest Rack Railway on the Pilatusbahn

The steepest rack railway in the world climbs Mount Pilatus

Reaching gradients of up to 48% as it rises 5,344 feet (1,629 m) in just 2.8 miles (4.6 km), this is the steepest rack railway (cog railway) in the world. The railway ascends Mount Pilatus' slopes, a group of peaks looming over Lake Lucerne dramatic enough to inspire the music of one-time resident Richard Wagner. The views on the way down across the lake to one of Switzerland's prettiest cities, Lucerne, are sensational.

Inaugurated in 1889, the railway still uses its original tracks. From the shores of Lake Lucerne, it climbs to a terminal at Pilatus Kulm at the height of 6,801 feet (2073 m), just 182 feet (55 m) shy of the highest summit of Mount Pilatus. From Lucerne, you can travel across the lake by boat to Alpnachstad, linking with the beginning of the rack railway for an enjoyable day out, and you can descend from Mount Pilatus by cable car for a more varied round trip.

From: Alpnachstad To: Pilatus Kulm, Mount Pilatus
Runs: 1-2 times hourly, May-November. Check the exact schedules at Pilatus

Tour UNESCO-Listed Vineyards on the Lavaux Express

The pretty Lavaux vineyards

If you wish to linger in the wineries of the UNESCO-listed Lavaux vineyards, one of Switzerland's best wine regions, the Lavaux Express is for you. The drama-charged Swiss mountains may be distant here, with the landscape instead replaced by the sparkling blue of Lake Geneva and the gold-green of the terraced vineyards sloping directly into the lake. Nor is the Express a train in the traditional sense—it's a toy-town train pulled by a tractor—but the rewards of riding this quirky transport are manifold.

You get to visit the best wine-making villages, such as Lutry, Aran, Grandvaux, Cully, Riex, Epesses, and Dézaley, without the niggle of how to get back again after you've had a few glasses. And you will want to try the wine, which is not possible to taste anywhere outside the region. Nor can many of the world's wine regions boast a backdrop of lake and mountains as beautiful as this, either, making the journey even more special.

Beginning at Lutry and Cully, the routes are all loops and include a 15-minute winery stop. You can also arrange in advance for the train to stop for longer at a winery for a tour.

From: Lutry Pier/Cully Pier To: Cully Pier/Lutry Pier
Runs: 3-4 times daily Wednesday-Monday, April-October. Check the exact schedules at Lavaux Express