The Rail route:
The Bernina Express is one of the famous 5 scenic railway routes through Switzerland offering passengers amazing views and history of the region and railway. We were no different; enchanted by the idea of riding one of the routes. However…if you keep reading, you’ll understand why you should not fall into this trap because there’s a better way to see it all!
Where to Stay and Boarding:
We spent three nights in Chur which is the northern most stop on the Bernina Express. It was the perfect home base for this journey and our airbnb was literally across from the train station. We had mountain views on our terrace and the freshest air ever. To add some history to the journey, Chur is the oldest city in Switzerland!
Once we boarded the train we took our window seats and reviewed the map that was on the table in front of us. There were no power sockets at the seats which surprised us considering we had 5 hours on the train before we reached Italy. They say to bring wired headphones with you for the en(train)ment but in realty, you listen via a website on your phone.
The first quarter of the journey is pretty but not as spectacular as the later three quarters. You pass through the Domleschg Valley, known for its castles, although we didn’t really see any from the right side of the train. We soon came up to the Landwasser Viaduct. This iconic curved viaduct stretches 142 meters long and is 65 meters high.
The Albula Line is an integral part of the Bernina Express route and holds the status of a UNESCO World Heritage site. This section of the railway features remarkable engineering, with the train winding through spiral tunnels, crossing viaducts, and hugging the mountainsides. A portion of the Bernina Express route runs on the Albula Line. This 62km railway line runs between Thusis and St. Moritz. It showcases the pioneering achievements of railway engineering in the early 20th century. It was pretty spectacular seeing how they integrated the tracks into the mountainside and gain significant elevation without a rack and pinion system.
It stops in several small towns, one of which is Preda-Bergün. The picturesque village of Bergün, known for its alpine charm, and the neighboring Preda, with its railway museum, offer a stop along the route. However, you booked the Bernina Express so you can’t just hop on and hop off whenever you like. See what I’m getting at?
After some more climbing, you actually stop at Alp Grüm (2,091 m) for about 10 minuets! It was absolutely breathtaking. There’s a glacial waterfall leading down a rocky bank to a large green/blue crystal lake. There is a restaurant here that is only accessible by the railway which is pretty unique. Your sense of scale is so off kilter as this point, you don’t know whether it would take you hours or days of hiking to get to that waterfall.
Many hairpin turns later, the train reaches Cavaglia above the Val Poschiavo, then the Swiss Italian-speaking town of Poschiavo. The train then follows the course of the Poschiavino and stops at Le Prese (964 m) and Miralago (965 m), both on Lake Poschiavo’s shore.
Next up: The Helical Viaduct of Brusio. The viaduct in the shape of a helix, with a radius of 70 m and entirely visible from both sides of the train. Once it spirals down in elevation, it goes through one of its arches to head to Brusio station. We are almost to Tirano! Once we arrived in Tirano, we hunted down pizza and gelato of course; both of which were a reprieve from Swiss prices. Our pizza costs €8.60 and gelato was €4 for three scoops if you are curious. Then we prepared for our 4 hour journey back to Chur. We were going to find out if the regional train was better….and cheaper!
The Perks of the Bernina Express:
1. The Audio Guide:
One of the highlights of traveling on the Bernina Express is the inclusion of an audio guide. This informative companion provides fascinating insights about the history, culture, and natural wonders you encounter along the journey. As you sit back and enjoy the scenic beauty, the audio guide adds depth and context, enhancing your overall experience. Most of this audio guide I wrote above but there’s so much to the history of this railway, it does add a spice to the journey you don’t want to miss.
2. The Slower Pace at Attractions:
The Bernina Express takes its time at the most captivating locations, allowing passengers to soak in the beauty of their surroundings. Whether it’s the sparkling glaciers, picturesque mountain lakes, or charming alpine villages, you’ll have ample opportunity to marvel at each attraction and capture breathtaking photographs.
3. Getting off at Alp Grüm:
Alp Grüm, a tiny mountain station nestled high above the lake below, provides a unique opportunity to step off the train. Here, you can take a bunch of selfies with the glacial waterfall and lake, breathe in the crisp mountain air, and admire stunning panoramic views before continuing your journey. The restuarant on the cliffside is ONLY accessible by this train line, which we thought was pretty unique.
4. No Need to Transfer Trains:
Unlike regional trains, the Bernina Express takes you on a seamless ride from Chur to Tirano without requiring any train transfers. This convenience ensures a hassle-free journey, allowing you to sit back, relax, and watch the unfolding natural wonders.
Taking the Regional Train Back to Chur
Once we got to St. Moritz, we made a train transfer and ended up on a much more modern train called interregio express. This train had a panoramic carriage….yes I said it!! Views from BOTH sides with 6 roll down windows!!!! It doesn’t get better everyone. It just doesn’t. The entire ride, it was basically myself (Amber) and one other dude and both of us couldn’t put our phones down. It was awesome to get views from both sides without having to be the Humpback of Notre Dame over the other passengers. This carriage didn’t have any seats, just a middle leaning bench and handle bars.
The Perks of Taking the Regional Trains:
1. Panorama Cars with Fewer Crowds:
If you prefer a more relaxed and less crowded experience, the regional trains offer a perfect alternative. Particularly in the late afternoon, locals typically occupy these trains, meaning fewer tourists and more space to enjoy the panoramic views. You can savor the tranquility and truly appreciate the beauty of the surroundings.
2. Windows that Roll Down:
Unlike the sealed windows of the Bernina Express, the regional trains provide the option to roll down the windows in the carriages and/or view car. This allows you to feel the refreshing mountain breeze, breathe in the scents of nature, and capture unobstructed photographs of the awe-inspiring landscapes passing by.
3. No Seat Reservations Necessary:
One of the advantages of traveling on regional trains is the flexibility it offers. With no seat reservations required, you can hop on any regional train operating every hour, providing the freedom to plan your journey according to your own pace and preferences. Check the timetables for your journey before assuming trains. You don’t have to have a specific day planned to ride the train so if its raining or super foggy, no problem!
4. Longer Train for the Perfect View:
Regional trains tend to be longer than the Bernina Express, which means you have a better chance of securing a seat with an unobstructed view. This also allows you to get better photographs of the actual train as you snake through mountain sides.
5. Ability to get off and on as you please
You have the ability to get off in any of the small villages if you want to do some exploring. No worries, just catch the next regional train and continue on your journey. Remember when I talked about the railway museum? Ya…. that’s why.
It’s your choice:
Whether you choose to embark on the iconic Bernina Express or opt for the comfort and flexibility of regional trains, the train journey between Chur, Switzerland, and Tirano, Italy promises an unforgettable experience. With its UNESCO World Heritage status, the route through the Albula/Bernina Landscapes offers awe-inspiring natural beauty, including numerous tunnels and bridges. The Bernina Express stands out with its audio guide, slower pace at attractions, the option to get off at Alp Grüm, and the convenience of a direct route. On the other hand, the regional trains provide a more relaxed atmosphere, panoramic windows that roll down, no seat reservations necessary, and an extended train length for optimal viewing pleasure. Whichever option you choose, be prepared to be captivated by the stunning vistas and the charm of this remarkable train journey.
Booking the regional Train Or the Bernina Express
Regardless of which you choose, there are some options for booking! If you pickup a Eurail pass, you get a discount on the Bernina Express Ticket. BUT… you also get the regional train included in the pass! Check it out at their website.
If you are interested in transportation options around the world, We have a couple other posts you might find useful! This one explores the London Tube while this one is a full guide for public transport in Antalya Turkey.