Taming the Glacier Express
When it comes to scenic rail routes in Switzerland, saying you’re spoilt for choice is an understatement. In spite of the country’s somewhat diminutive size, saying a lifetime may not be enough to fully embrace all of the scenic rail journeys that await you there is only slightly hyperbolic. Indeed, some of the most beautiful rail routes in the country don’t have fancy names or floor to ceiling spotless glass windows, but there’s something quite dramatic about boarding a train called the Glacier Express in the shadow of a mountain called the Matterhorn.
What is the Glacier Express?
The Glacier Express is a scenic train that runs east to west, or west to east, almost following the southern border of Switzerland. Its starting and ending points are either Zermatt or St. Moritz, or any of the cities in between, and it runs throughout the year come rain, shine, or heavy snow.
The “Express” is actually a bit of a misnomer – this train is anything but fast. In fact, if you ride it from start to finish, it’ll take you close to eight hours to complete the relatively short 180-mile journey. Though the average speed is just 25 miles per hour, at times you’ll be willing the train driver to feather the brakes a little more – either to give your heart a break, or to allow you to fully absorb the endlessly spectacular scenery that’s rolling on by.
What can you expect on board?
The Glacier Express has quite the reputation to live up to, but the moment you see your glistening train waiting for you in the station, you’ll feel a true sense of satisfaction wash over you. This train is the epitome of sheer Swiss rail genius, and no expense has been spared to make this one truly iconic journey.
The blood red train itself is a thing of sheer beauty. Large windows, including angled glass panels on the roof – allow you to see from the depths of the valleys to the tips of the peaks. The carpeted, air-conditioned interior is spotless, clinical almost, and the seats spacious and comfortable, regardless of whether you’re traveling in first or second class. There’s also an audio tour that provides occasional insight into the route’s key features and attractions.
Given the train’s long distance, food is essential. If you’re feeling flush, you can order meals directly from the staff who serve you at your seat. Though meals are great, and a worthy treat, they are on the expensive side. If you’ve already maxed out your budget, you can also bring your own food and drinks aboard. You can also order a full menu when you reserve your seat. It’ll be served on proper china with all the trimmings of a posh restaurant.
What makes it so unique?
While it’s easy to get carried away with the sheer pleasure of being aboard such an engineering masterpiece, the true draw card of the Glacier Express is undeniably the scenery. The scenery varies greatly depending on the season and the weather.
In summer, you can expect stark, soaring peaks, the remnants of winter snow, stubborn glaciers, and sheer green pastures dotted with cows. There are also fast-flowing rivers that look surprisingly tempting, but are thoroughly freezing.
In winter, you can expect a snowy Swiss fairytale of a ride. Thick snow blankets pretty much every part of the route. Where the cows and hikers once were, you may just find the occasional snowman, skier, or intrepid snowshoer making some tracks.
The scenery is impossible to describe. It will leave you truly speechless as you struggle to know where to look and how to photograph it all so that everyone back home believes you when you try and tell them just how stunning it all was.
When do the Glacier Express trains run?
The Glacier Express is a regular line that runs between Zermatt and St. Moritz, and so it runs throughout the year. During the summer months, there are up to three daily trains in each direction; in the winter, this drops to one.
Is my Rail Pass valid on this route?
Yes, for most of the journey. The route is run by two private railway companies, so you’ll need to buy a separate ticket for part of the journey – between Zermatt and Disentis. Your Eurail or Interail pass gets you 50% off this ticket.
What about seat reservations?
A Eurail or Interail rail pass will likely cover you for the rest of the journey between Disentis and Chur; a Swiss Rail Pass will likely cover you for the full journey. However, you will need to make a seat reservation. All rail pass holders must make seat reservations if they want to travel on the Glacier Express. You can do this online on the Glacier Express website. It’s recommended that you do so soon, as tickets do sell out. Though it may seem expensive compared to your regular rail reservation (at about 33 CHF in summer and 13 CHF in winter), remember that this is no ordinary train ride.
- Given the amount of glass, it doesn’t really matter which side of the train you sit on. You can absorb the views on both sides from your seat, facing backwards or forwards, left or right. You also can’t determine which direction the train will be traveling when you reserve your ticket, so don’t stress about it at this stage. Of course, when you’re on board, there’s nothing stopping you from hopping from seat to seat to get the best view, provided they’re vacant, that is.
- That said – book a window seat. Though the aisle gives you views of both sides, there’s something quite breathtaking about being right up against the glass.
- Don’t worry too much about the season – both winter and summer are equally impressive on the Glacier Express. In fact, if you take it in one season, it’ll only make you realize how you’ll just have to return to take it in the other.
- There is no significant difference if you take the train from east to west, or west to east. The scenery is the same, and it leaves and arrives in daylight hours regardless of the direction.
Cynics may look at the Glacier Express as a cleverly marketed rail route. But they’d be eating their words from pretty much the moment the train chugs out of the starting blocks. It takes you as close to the sheer magnificence of the Swiss countryside as any train ride ever could, in true style.
Originally written for Eurail.com