Switzerland by Train: The Glacier Express

The next day we set off for St. Moritz on the first day of our 8-day Swiss Rail Pass. The pass gets you unlimited rides on trains, buses, and boats, and discounted rides on scenic/mountain railways. My favorite part was not having to purchase individual train tickets – you just board your train of choice and show your pass. This also means that you aren’t locked into a schedule and can be pseudo-spontaneous. I recommend downloading the SBB app for point-to-point train schedules and real-time platform updates.

I’d heard nothing but good things about train travel in Switzerland, and it immediately lived up to its expectations. Trains are on time to the second. If they’re ever off-schedule, even by a single minute, your SBB app flashes the delay in red. I was enamored by this concept as somebody coming from NYC where you’re more likely to get an accurate subway time by throwing a dart at a schedule board. They’re are also extremely clean, and most have power outlets. Local trains lack A/C, so prepare to pop the windows down by your seat if it’s a hot day. Actually, most of Switzerland lacks A/C, which was a struggle for somebody who can get overheated on a snow day.

The landscape between Zurich and St. Moritz quickly opened up into a green and serene stretch of space. The little towns in between looked idyllic, with houses that had thick wooden balconies lined with flowers. Paddleboards and kayaks floated along stretches of blue water. St. Moritz itself was a ghost town when we arrived, a stark contrast to Zurich. The altitude was also greater and the power of the sun was more prominent, piercing my eyes as we wandered. That night the sky turned a cool blue and a breeze whispered across the hills. We had a mountain view from our balcony with the clock tower shining in front. The hills were still in that time before tourists are flooding the streets.  

We chose St. Moritz, normally a ski town, because we could pick up the Glacier Express from there and end in Zermatt. The Glacier Express is an 8-hour scenic train journey that has been on the top of our list for a long time. The Swiss Pass saves you the ~$150 per ticket cost that the trip would otherwise run you, though you need to pre-book a seat reservation (about $40). Seats open up 93 days before the trip, and I recommend booking them immediately and choosing window seats that face each other.

The Glacier Express left St. Moritz at 8:50am and arrived in Zermatt at 5:10pm with a handful of stops at small towns in between. We found our seats and were immediately joined by a chatty set of British couples occupying the aisle-side seats next to and across from us. Panoramic windows made the scenery feel like it was within reach. We learned that the on-train bar was not operational, so all food and drink had to be ordered from your seat. As convenient as it was, it quickly became clear how difficult it was to sit for that long, and we had to take regular breaks to wander and shake out our feet.

The weather was about 50% on our side that day. It rotated between a piercing sun that painted the mountains nearby and slate-gray clouds which gave everything a muted temperament. As the train began to climb the nearby hillsides, we got uniquely unobstructed mountain views and sped through several steep tunnels. By lunchtime we were digging into bowls of pasta with ground beef and a side of chutney (a Swiss specialty – sounds odd, but totally worked), overloaded cheese plates and a few glasses of prosecco. Every so often a bell would sound over the train speakers, signaling that it was time to put your headphones in and listen to the “audio tour” tell you random tidbits about the towns you were passing. Just an appropriate level of kitsch. I learned about the rows of “avalanche guards” often seen protecting towns and train tracks, which look like thick fencing that cuts into the hillside.

By the time we reached the highest point in the journey, a freak rainstorm blew through, pounding the panoramic windows with water and drawing in a thick blanket of fog. We briefly stopped at the summit so that riders could jump out onto the platform for photos, and for just a moment the sun peaked its way through the deluge. The cool burst of fresh air was welcomed after hours inside the train car.

Towards the second half of the ride, a series of “ticket checkers” came through the train to double-check the work of the initial “ticket checkers” who had cleared passengers when they boarded. They hovered throughout the cars, selectively alerting passengers who had purchased the incorrect fare or used the wrong type of pass. Our British neighbors found this quite humorous, joking about whether they were going to leave a few of us at the top of the mountain. This random double-check (especially after passengers were a few drinks deep) was distracting and overbearing, a first of the Swiss train system so far. The dry humor of our “neighbor” made up for it, who coughed “check your ticket” under his breath whenever the lead ticket lady walked by as the rest of us laughed like 4-year-olds. She was not amused.

We rolled into Zermatt right on time, bidding goodbye to our panoramic ride. Did it live up to the expectations? Parts of it did. There were serene moments where it felt like there was nothing for miles other than the snaking of train tracks. Other parts were sadly marred by the grey weather and lack of places to “wander” on board. My feet are especially antsy these days, and need space to move.

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6 thoughts on “Switzerland by Train: The Glacier Express

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  1. Well, despite your (few) points at the end, all you’ve done here is make us doubly excited about our trip next February. We are due to be catching this very train and doing the same journey as part of that trip. I was already looking forward to it but after reading this I’m even more excited.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Have so much fun!!! It really is beautiful and hopefully your weather will cooperate. Our train neighbors actually took the trip before in winter and said that it was magical. Definitely stretch your legs, and have a prosecco 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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