Photograph by Susan Seubert
Carry a Swiss Travel Pass
There are two types of rail passes in the world: the regular rail pass and the Swiss Travel Pass. The latter is the best in the world, and a pure gift to any visitor.
For one, as its name suggests, it includes more than trains. It’s a full transportation system that’s a well-oiled marvel of connectivity. It gets visitors around the country—on trains between cities, local trams, mountain cable cars, yellow postal buses serving far-flung villages, and vintage steamer boats traversing mountain lakes—or into many museums. But, more importantly, it helps one truly experience the country like a local.
Everyone here carries a national version of the pass too. It makes Switzerland less a country than a “city” of mountains. The ride between, say, Interlaken and Zurich is two hours. In the Valais, we met day-trippers from Bern who had come for a long meal of wine and raclette before returning home for an afternoon snack.
Information is a breeze to get, whether from the website or from offices. Train station attendants, almost as a rule, seem to take it as a personal challenge to help you with your trickiest itinerary questions. In St. Moritz, for example, a lip-smacking train officer painstakingly printed a deck’s worth of little cards with alternate arrival/departure times to make a day aboard the Glacier Express a hop on/off experience. “Stopping for the Aletsch Glacier. Hadn’t thought of that before. Very good idea.”
Travel tip: There are flex passes for a few days over the course of a month, plus youth and family discounts.
Take cog railways and cable cars
From the get-go, the Swiss have seemed bent on getting everyone up and into the peaks of the Alps on a remarkably efficient and daring system of cable cars and cog railways that ply the terrain. Most are set up for ease. Jump off a train, say at Fiesch in the Rhône Valley, and find that a yellow postal bus awaits you. Climb in and get out at a cable-car station with cars leading up to the Eggishorn. Then hike on the mountain and soak in dramatic views of the icy, tongue-like Aletsch Glacier.
This isn’t unique. This is Switzerland, and these options are everywhere.
Across the Swiss Alps, you’ll find unbearably charming, narrow-gauge cog railways cranking their way up steep mountainsides, offering views of shining lakes that seem to defy a horizon.
One is Europe's first cog railway, going up Mount Rigi, approvingly called “an imposing Alpine mass” by Mark Twain. From Lucerne, you can ferry to the tiny terminal at Vitznau and ride from the station a few steps from the pier. Opened in 1873, the railway whisks visitors up to a series of peak-top hikes and chalets serving sandwiches and beers with thrilling views.
Travel tip: Some cog railways have intermediate stops. Many locals use them as a hop on/hop off for reaching mountain walks.
Take the world’s steepest cog
Almost all of Lucerne offers a view of imposing Mount Pilatus, rising like a jagged dragon-tooth series of rocky peaks that marks the north end of the Alps. It’s quite a sight. But it’s an even better view from atop it.
The half-hour ride up Mount Pilatus is made by the world’s steepest cog railway (running at 48 percent gradient up, from May to November), in operation since 1889. The ride twists past chalets and rises above the tree line. Way above, in the woozy altitude of nearly 7,000 feet, is a hotel and visitor center with views of the Jungfrau, Lucerne, and landscapes to the north.
Once you’ve caught your breath, you'll find a mix of easy/tough, short/long hiking trails to take. Some run along ragged rock, with steep drop-offs, sharp switchbacks, and viewing points where you can stand and watch an ever changing landscape, with clouds or fog visibly drifting in to fill the valleys.
As you go, watch for (labeled) colorful wildflowers blooming in rocks, look up into crevices above to see if any of the hundred local ibex are looking back, then try to track down the source of those cowbells that echo from across the valley deep below (good luck).
Incidentally it’s sometimes said that the mountain’s name is linked to Pontius Pilate, said by some to have died here and haunted the area until 1980. (Apparently something about the disco age freed his spirit.)
Travel tip: In summer you can visit Pilatus on the so-called golden round-trip, which begins with a steamer ride on the lake and returns via bus. Go early to avoid the crowds—waits can break the hour mark by 10:30 a.m. For additional drama, ride the new cable car that begins operations from the top in 2015.
Paddle the lakes by vintage steamer
Lake Lucerne, Lake Interlaken, Lake Geneva
One of the most relaxing ways to get around in Switzerland is by leaving the train or car behind, hopping on a vintage paddle steamer, and chugging across the emerald waters of a lake. Most steamers accept the Swiss Rail Pass. You can even use a boat as a cab, such as for the ride from central Montreux to the castle-dungeon at Chateau de Chillon. Or just cruise along to view the Jungfrau from Lake Interlaken’s calm waters.
Our favorite place to ferry-hop is Lake Lucerne, or Vierwaldstättersee, literally "the four forested cantons," which it uniquely bisects. The boat hopscotches to villages on either side of the lake, often reaching postal bus or cable-car stops or hiking paths that reach the mountains that crowd the lakeshore. A ride on the boat deck is part of the prize, with hidden bays guarded by jagged mountains appearing as the boat glides over the emerald water.
Travel tip: Combine boat trips with a train ride to save time. From Lucerne, you can train to Fluelen at the end of the lake in an hour, then boat back, stopping off to hike parts of the lake-rimming Swiss Path between various stops (the William Tell Chapel pays tribute to the “Swiss Robin Hood”; Rütli Meadow is the site of the founding of the Swiss Confederation in 1291).
Take the Glacier Express and Bernina Express
St. Moritz to Zermatt; Chur to Tirano, Italy
All Swiss train rides can be highlights, but a couple of lines are attractions in and of themselves. The Glacier Express and Bernina Express are scenic day rides, the former with fully catered meals, that offer wide-open panoramic windows for maximum viewing of an Alpine paradise.
The epic Glacier Express, begun in 1930, is slow for an “express,” taking nearly eight hours between St. Moritz and Zermatt via outrageous switchbacks, the Rhône River Valley and Furka Pass. But the marvels are constant: The train crosses over 291 bridges that curl before you, tiny steepled churches and quaint villages in sight far below. After dipping into one of 91 tunnels, it emerges to reveal a quick panorama of great pines clinging to steep mountains before popping into another tunnel. It feels like a carousel ride at times.
All the while, a recording peppers you with details of the sites you pass in a matter-of-fact British accent. “Be prepared,” the announcer warns as you approach the Landwasser viaduct, “because you will be amazed.”
Perhaps even wilder and more amazingly pastoral are the views from the narrow-gauge Bernina Express, which overlaps most of the Glacier Express’s ride southeast of Chur (just four hours one-way). It passes nearby St. Moritz, then continues southeast, up grades of 7 percent, past glaciers and into neighboring Italy via the Bernina Pass.
Travel tip: On the Bernina Pass, you can avoid backtracking by taking the Bernina Express bus from Tirano to Lugano, in the Italian part of Switzerland.
Go 007 through Furka Pass
One of Switzerland’s most iconic stretches of road runs over the steep, sharp switchbacks that reach above the tree line, then way down again, via the 7,969-foot-high Furka Pass. Wide-open Route 66 this is not, but something of a Route 007. After all, it was here that Sean Connery’s James Bond took in the massive vistas and broke up a bad-guy picnic in the 1964 film Goldfinger, prompting 007 pilgrims to follow in his tread marks.
The only way to take in this classic is by car—and a Toyota rental’s fine if you don’t have the DB5 that Connery drove. The ride runs alongside the Rhône Glacier at the end of the Andermatt Valley, conveniently en route between St. Moritz and Zermatt.
Last year, the Swiss James Bond Club—yes, that exists—restaged the chase, and 80 showed up, including the film’s heroine, actress Tania Mallet. She called the return to the pass after half a century “a dream come true.”
Travel tip: The ride runs along the course of the Glacier Express, so it's a logical route between Zermatt and St. Moritz.
Go by horse to a car-free valley
Val Fex, southwest of St. Moritz, is a gently bowled valley framed by rocky Alpine mountains reached either by a three-hour hike—or the old-fashioned way: horse-drawn carriage. The valley follows a babbling stream that curves through meadows on its way to the historic Val Fex Hotel, with woodsy rooms and a free breakfast and dinner.
The area has been inspiring ground for many writers and thinkers, including Boris Pasternak, Pablo Neruda, Marcel Proust, and Herman Hesse. In the 1880s, German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, and his giant moustache, summered in Sils-Maria, the storybook town that’s the starting point for the carriage ride. His home is now the Nietzsche Haus, a museum that tells of his philosophy and musical scores (labels are in German, but there are tours available in English, Italian, and French). From the gift shop you can gaze to hilltop villas, including Villa Laret, where Anne Frank’s family stayed shortly before World War II.
Travel tip: In fall, watch for the Majola Snake, a curious, serpent-shaped cloud phenomenon that creeps above the valley floor. It inspired the award-winning 2014 film with Juliet Binoche, The Clouds of Sils Maria.