Andy Mossack embarks on the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland, an epic train journey around Switzerland’s best tourist attractions from Zurich to Geneva.
A few years ago, I drove the Grand Tour of Switzerland, a road trip of 1,600 kilometres taking in every famous attraction in Switzerland without ever using a motorway. It’s a route designed to recreate the great carriage journeys of the 19th century when a ‘grand tour’ was just that. A travel adventure of discovery. By taking a clockwise or anticlockwise circuit and simply following the Grand Tour road signs, I got to see the best sights of Switzerland on a thrilling circular road trip. It’s not meant to be the fastest route, just one of the most dramatic and memorable journeys you’re ever likely to experience.
Imagine my joy when I discovered I could do it all over again, only this time travelling by train First Class. The sheer scale and breadth of Switzerland’s train network not only makes this possible but allows you to do it in style. No driving stress, just sitting back in glorious panoramic carriages which are 80% windows bringing stunning alpine lakes, monumental glaciers, extraordinary tunnels and bridges, and famous landmarks within touching distance.
All of this is available with just one single Swiss Train Pass.
So, join me as I sample one of the best sections of the Grand Train Tour, from Zurich down to Geneva travelling on the Gotthard Panorama Express, Glacier Express, the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn, the GoldenPass Panoramic and the Stadt Luzern paddle steamer. Sit back and enjoy the ride with me.
Zurich to Lucerne
It’s just over an hour by train to Lucerne direct from Zurich airport, yet there’s no hint of what awaits you in this gorgeous city until you emerge from the station and come face to face with Lake Lucerne. However, Lucerne’s signature attraction is its 14th-century Chapel Bridge, a beautiful wooden masterpiece that had to be painstakingly rebuilt following a fire in 1993. It is lovely to be reunited with this grand old lady, still looking magnificent in the early afternoon sunshine. Lake Lucerne is spectacular any time of day, gloriously framed by the towering Rigi mountains, while the city’s medieval heart is achingly photogenic. I’ve always enjoyed wandering around the cobbled streets and alleys, passing gold-painted guildhalls, frescoed houses and timeless watch retailers. The best view of the entire city can be had at the top of the Gütsch Funicular, carrying guests up to the fancy Hotel Gütsch since 1881. Using my Swiss Rail Pass from this lofty perch I can spot Lucerne’s 14th-century city walls with its nine defensive towers. Four of them are usually open and it’s well worth climbing up at least one of them for a guard’s view of the city.
I spend the afternoon exploring the Swiss Museum of Transport, a few minutes away by bus, (free with my Swiss Rail Pass, which also provides a big discount on the museum entrance fee). Don’t let the name put you off as this is a remarkable experience. It’s a huge facility that deals with everything that moves; from trains, planes, buses, and boats, to racing cars and even space travel. There’s a gigantic hangar for each subject with all kinds of hands-on activities that will engage adults as much as kids. My personal favourite is a robot crane which I can direct to pick up full-size cars stacked high and wide with 150 years of automotive history between them and deliver them next to me for a closer look.
I spend my first dinner enjoying an epic cheese fondue; melted local Gruyere and Emmental cheeses in white wine, accompanied by chunks of fresh crusty bread and boiled potatoes. It’s a short stroll to Hotel Des Balances for my overnight stay, a stone’s throw from Chapel Bridge, where I dream about bowls of hot melted cheese.
Lucerne to Flüelen by vintage paddle steamer
The day dawns clear for my two-and-a-half-hour cruise around Lake Lucerne to Flüelen, the gateway to the famed Gotthard Pass. My Pass gets me aboard the classic paddle steamer, Stadt Luzern, the flagship vessel of the Lake Navigation fleet. An art deco beauty that has been painstakingly restored to her 1928 launch condition. It seems fitting for me to enjoy a leisurely lunch in the elegant Queen’s Salon upper deck lounge, named after Queen Elizabeth II, when she dined in here during her state visit in May 1980.
Lake Lucerne is immensely important to the Swiss because it’s been central to so much of Switzerland’s history. From the creation of the Federation with the first four Cantons at the meadow of Rütli on the lake’s west bank to the legendary escapades of William Tell marked by Tell’s Chapel on the eastern flank. All its historical sites are accessible on the way around to Flüelen via stops at Weggis, Vitznau and Beckenried.
The Gotthard Panorama Express from Flüelen to Andermatt
I leave the ship to board another Swiss legend, the Gotthard Panorama Express. It’s owned by the same company so it’s a seamless operation – just a few steps from the pier to the station platform. This is a ship/rail adventure that begins here in German-speaking central Switzerland and ends in the Italian-speaking heart of Locarno in the palm treed south. Flüelen used to be where goods were unloaded from barges onto pack horses to trek across the mountain passes. Fortunately for me, I’ll be doing the same journey a lot more comfortably.
My fellow passengers and I are introduced to train conductor Reinhardt, a gentleman who knows this route’s history like the back of his hand. He avails us with amusing anecdotes as we begin our elevation into the mountains, past alpine meadows and across sweeping gorges. I sip a fresh coffee as my panoramic carriage offers up a front-row seat to the Schlossberg Glacier as we make our way past Erstfeld and on up to the 15-kilometre-long Gotthard Tunnel. Reinhardt reminds us of Swiss engineer Louis Favre who designed and built the game-changing tunnel through the Saint-Gotthard Massif, but tragically died before it was completed in 1882.
He invites us to visit him in the next carriage and we find him (well, a gold-coloured statue of him) sitting in one of the old carriage seats! We emerge from the tunnel, where the train makes its famous double loop to manage the huge elevation up to Wassen, a picturesque alpine village. Reinhardt tells us to keep a lookout for the ‘Swiss flag waver’ who’s always there each time the train passes through. Sure enough, there he is atop a hill giving us his regular salute. We wave back as he disappears into the distance. I bid a fond farewell to Reinhardt at Göschenen to catch the local cogwheel service for my overnight stop in Andermatt. As I wait a few minutes for the train, the fresh mountain air is a stark contrast to the summer heat of Lucerne.
A former military town, Andermatt has been transformed by Egyptian billionaire Samih Sawiri into a thriving resort offering golf, skiing, and hiking. It’s well worth a stopover for at least a couple of days to see a few sights here. I have fond memories of driving down James Bond Strasse, the snaking Furka Pass just outside Andermatt where famous scenes from Goldfinger were shot. There’s also the sinister-looking 16th-century Devil’s Bridge, and you can visit the source of the mighty Rhine and Rhone rivers. Not to be missed. I spend a very restful night at the new Radisson Blu dreaming of chasing 007.
The Glacier Express to Brig and on to the Aletsch Arena Glacier
I’m now well and truly in the Alps and a new treat lies in store. The Glacier Express is another example of Swiss rail ingenuity; a 186-mile alpine trip from the Matterhorn’s Zermatt to the iconic ski resort of St. Moritz. I’m not going to experience the full eight-hour trip as I am stepping off at Brig, but I have enough time to sample the first-class hospitality and fine dining the Glacier Express has to offer. The panoramic carriages really are panoramic, practically all glass, making for an extraordinary visual feast while the three-course lunch is served directly to my seat table. This is all about making the passing landscape front and centre with no hint of distraction. For those who feel first-class hospitality is not enough, the Glacier Express now goes one better – Excellence Class. This carriage has a dedicated concierge, a lounge bar, a seven-course menu with wine, a guaranteed window seat, high tea and a digital tablet providing info on the route and entertainment. Perhaps next time for me.
Brig beckons now, and this is also worth a stop. It was once the gateway to Europe and Turkey due to its position next to the Simplon Pass, a key trade route across the Alps. It became even more important once the rail tunnel opened in 1906 making the town a magnet for tourists. The jewel here is the 17th-century Stockalper Palace with its three gold-domed towers. It was once the home of Kaspar Stockalper, an immensely wealthy merchant who built a private road across the Simplon Pass giving him a monopoly on trade using it. Ultimately, he lost everything when he was exiled, and the palace is run today by the City as a museum. After a quick coffee in the charming old town centre, I head for the bus to take me to Fiesch where I’ll be catching one of Switzerland’s fastest gondolas up the Fiescheralp to see the Aletsch Arena Glacier.
This is an unmissable feast of nature. At 20k, it is the longest ice stream in the Alps, stretching from the Jungfrau at 4,000m down to the Massa Gorge at 2,500m with ice 800m thick, weighing over ten billion tons. Standing at the Eggishorn look-out I get a magnificent view of this immense glacier that seems so close it could be within touching distance. The sheer scale of it takes my breath away. However, the latest measurements show global warming is shrinking it by 50m every year and reducing its edges significantly. I stand gazing respectfully giving it a silent wish for longevity.
I spend the night high up in Bettmeralp, one of Switzerland’s prettiest mountain villages. After a rustic dinner at the Swiss chalet Panorama Hotel, I fall asleep thinking of glaciers to the gentle patter of snowflakes against my window.
Zweisimmen to Montreux on the GoldenPass Panorama
After dropping back down via two thrilling gondola rides and a couple of local trains, I arrive in Zweisimmen. This may be just a small village close to Gstaad, but it’s the launch point for a two-hour belle époque experience courtesy of the GoldenPass Panorama train. It recalls a bygone era when well-heeled tourists travelled in style across the Bernese Oberland from ritzy Gstaad to the Montreux Riviera switching languages from German to French as they reached Lake Geneva (or Lac Léman as it’s known locally) and Mediterranean ambience. A constantly changing landscape of rolling meadows, bell-toting cows, towering alpine peaks and traditional wooden chalets all captured from giant panoramic windows.
But, like all great shows, there’s always a grand finale, and this one is truly spectacular. After squeezing through a tiny tunnel, the train banks around a curve and suddenly, far far below, the great expanse of Lake Geneva materialises in all her glory. And then, coquettishly flits in and out as the train spirals downward until finally arriving lakeside at Montreux. It’s a city forever immortalised in Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water anthem after the famous casino burnt down, (now rebuilt with a free-to-enter Queen recording studio museum inside) and for the annual jazz festival of course. But its celebrity status cannot be denied, a glance at one-time resident Freddie Mercury’s statue, ever the haunt for a tourist photo, is evidence enough.
Taking a walk around the lake path to explore Chillon Castle is always a must as is the brand-new attraction, Fort de Chillon, directly opposite. It’s a chance to explore one of the Swiss Army’s legendary mountain defence tunnels purchased with all its inventory still left inside (they tell me the Swiss mountains are like Swiss cheese as they are so full of holes). Thankfully, the tunnels never had to be used in conflict, but their construction and outfitting are extraordinary. The original equipment with state-of-the-art visuals, tells the story of Switzerland’s incredible defence tunnel network.
Montreux never fails to enchant me, but I wanted the last night of my Grand Train Tour to be next door in Vevey.
For me, Vevey deserves to come out from under Montreux’s shadow as its old town is lovely. It’s just one stop on the local train but a world away from Montreux’s crowds. The old town is full of belle époque architecture, and the Grand Place, the second biggest market square in Europe, reminds me of when I was last here for the Winegrower’s Festival, held once every 25 years! A temporary arena for 16,000 spectators was constructed specially for the festival.
Milk chocolate was invented here in 1875 and Vevey is still the HQ of Nestlé. Charlie Chaplin lived out his last 25 years here, and his family home is now an excellent museum and part of the Chaplin’s World experience. It’s an attraction containing reconstructions of some of his famous movie sets built from original blueprints donated by his family.
Vevey’s delightful lake promenade is where you go for people-watching. Two art pieces to look for; Charlie Chaplin’s statue and the giant Fork sticking out of the lake, emblematically face each other.
I spend my last luxuriating night in the Grand Hotel du Lac, the setting for Anita Brookner’s Booker Prize-winning novel of the same name.
It’s a 90-minute train ride from Vevey direct to Geneva Airport but it gives me time to reflect on my epic rail adventure. There’s no doubt Switzerland’s Great Train Tour is a more relaxing way to do the Grand Tour than driving it. Both options offer different ways of travel, but Switzerland’s canvass of breath-taking scenery remains the same. It is an extraordinary country with an equally extraordinary train network that runs on time every single day. Seems very fitting to make use of it the best way, doing the Grand Train Tour with a Swiss Rail Pass.
All images (C) Andy Mossack except Glacier Express images including featured image (C) Stefan Schlumpf, Lucerne Walls, Charlie Chaplin and Fork, Vevey street, Gotthard Express, Steamship, Goldenpass Panoramic, and Altech Arena (C) Swiss Tourism.
Tell me more about the Grand Train Tour of Switzerland
For more information on Switzerland and the Great Train Tour, visit myswitzerland.com
Swiss Travel System: Provides a range of exclusive travel passes and tickets for visitors from abroad. The Swiss Travel Pass offers unlimited travel on consecutive days throughout the Swiss Travel System rail, bus and boat network. Prices start at £186 for a three-day, second-class ticket. mystsnet.com
Swiss International Air Lines (SWISS): Operates more than 160 weekly flights from London Heathrow, London City, Manchester, Birmingham and Edinburgh to Zurich or Geneva. One-way fares start from £76 to Zurich and from £54 to Geneva. swiss.com
- Hotel des Balances, Lucerne – rooms start at £212/night (including breakfast):
- Radisson Blu Hotel Reussen, Andermatt – rooms start at £227/night (including breakfast):
- Panorama Hotel and Restaurant, Betmeralp – rooms start at £167/night (including breakfast):
- Grand Hôtel du Lac, Vevey – rooms start at £309/night (including breakfast)