Written + Photographed by Sal DiBenedetto [@TheGrubfather]
There’s magic in Switzerland. I realized that fairly quickly after boarding the train from Zurich to St. Moritz. As I watched snow peaked mountains and translucent lakes roll alongside the window, I got this feeling that there was more to this land than the alps, cheeses and chocolates… & damn was I right.
I’ve always had a railway journey through Switzerland on my own list and recently I was able to cross it off with a Vacations By Rail tour. The timing was ideal as well, as the Glacier Express’ new Excellence Class has created waves of praise across the travel world (and for a really good reason)
Switzerland is a diamond country with heritage meccas like Italy, France, Germany and Austria surrounding it. Each has infused the landlocked nation with a bespoke mix of high culture, rich history and unique architecture. All the while, Mother Nature has afforded it some of the world’s most lauded landscapes with the likes of the Swiss Alps, Lake Geneva and the Matterhorn.
Admittedly jaded by New York’s shabby transit systems, I’ve always been put off by rail travel. Switzerland quickly converted me with its bullseye sense of timing, first class options and mesmerizingly scenic routes.
Combine these elements with a good book and anticipated soundtrack and you’ll understand why slow travel is considered a sacred practice among those who have unlocked its element.
Though it’s entirely possible to create your own agenda, I found venturing through Switzerland on a train with Vacations By Rail helped to keep things organized, efficient and well planned out.
Pro Tip: To ensure an even more stress-free adventure, travel at the end of peak season (or perhaps at its very start) to avoid massive crowds in both resort towns and trains. I often had empty seats around me which made for quite a leisurely ride.
After spending a week exploring Switzerland by rail, here’s my list of the villages, experiences and moments you shouldn’t miss:
LUXURY IN ST MORITZ & PONTRESINA
Luxe businesses, polished charm and alpine elements set the tone for St. Moritz, making it a great first stop in Switzerland. The small town has hosted the Winter olympics twice, which should give you an insight into the prestige here. If not, the endless amount of fashion houses who have set up outposts along its streets should do the trick. A stay at the Kulm Hotel will satisfy those who wish to mirror the town’s historic elegance in their accommodations.
The neighboring village of Pontresina offers easy access to St. Moritz’s glamour while maintaining small town charm. The Grand Hotel Kronenhof, operated by the Kulm Hotel, sits as an anchor for visitors to explore Pontresina’s artisan fueled main street. Be sure to find the chocolates and Swiss baked goods at Gianotti’s.
Dining Tip: Time a funicular up to nearby Muottos Muragl for sunset and take in a stunning display of warm orange and icy blue skies descending behind St. Moritz, Pontresina and the Alps. After marveling atop have dinner at the rustic clad Romantik Hotel Muottos Muragl, whose schnitzel and fries were pretty on point.
GET LOST IN THE ITALIAN INSPIRED POSCHIAVO
South of St. Mortiz and settled on the border of Switzerland and Italy, you’ll find Poschiavo. Travelers who can appreciate Old World Italian village vibes will revel in the aesthetic here. Along the cobbled streets you’ll find pastel hued buildings, towering views of the Swiss Alps and a medieval style square that feels like something right out of movie. Architecture enthusiasts should check out the inside of Poschiavo’s quaint church while landscape lovers will find great hiking trails departing from the town.
Dining Tip:Stop for pizza, gnocchi and local wine at Hotel Albrici, located in the square. Follow up with dessert at the gelato stand just across the way.
RIDE THE GLACIER EXPRESS’ NEW EXCELLENCE CLASS
Famed for its stunning views of Switzerland’s alpine heritage, the Glacier Express whisks travelers from St. Moritz to Zermatt on an eight hour excursion. Standing at the pinnacle of what it means to rail travel in Switzerland, the line just launched a new Excellence Class cabin which exceeds the standards of first class.
Guests will find a spacious seats, a lavish gold tinged bar and curated tasting menu, tea time and pristine service aboard. Paired with unlimited champagne, wine, beer and top shelf liquor and you’re set for a pleasant journey through Switzerland’s most picturesque lands. You’ll even stop at a glacier for a scenic outing where you can enjoy a drink whilst peering out onto an icy tundra of beauty.
REVEL IN ZERMATT & THE MATTERHORN’S BEAUTY
I fell into a deep slumber the moment I arrived to Zermatt due to jet lag (and maybe a little too much champagne) but this afforded me an excellent opportunity: Waking up in Zermatt by sunrise and grabbing a crazy viewing of the village’s icon: The Matterhorn. Those who awake during the sunrise will be treated to a special half hour viewing of the mountain as the sun turns its snowy white hue from pink into blood-orange.
Zermatt is easily digestible to any skill-level of traveler and like many other areas of small town Switzerland, it is a beautiful showcasing of alpine heritage. You can easily wander through Zermatt but never get lost.
Whether for skiing or sight seeing, the train up to Gornergrat and the pinnacle itself is an essential Matterhorn experience. Sit on the right side of the train for the best views and photo ops of the mountain. After arriving to the top, take in the sweeping panoramic scene of the Matterhorn and the surrounding alps.
Dining Tip: The Gornergrat Kulm Hotel, which sits atop of the ridge, is home to an incredible cream of garlic soup stewed into a wholewheat Swiss bread bowl.
SINK INTO SUNSETS AND CULTURE IN MONTREUX
Emerge from your train in Montreux and revel in the essence of France, which sits in view just across Lake Geneva. French influenced architecture reigns supreme here while cultural nods to the nearby country can be felt in everything from language to cuisine.
The late, great Freddie Mercury found haven in Montreux’s distinct essence and the city would go on to host Queen through the recording of their last two albums. Including one of my favorite songs of all time, Don’t Stop Me Now. Mercury’s love for Montreux is commemorated by a statue of Mercury along the banks of Lake Geneva.
Also, a brand new interactive Queen experience has opened in the former Mountain Studios (their famous recording studio), you can visit it at the Casino Barriere de Montreux. The museum allows visitors to see a variety of artifacts from the band’s peak period, including some of Freddie’s wild costumes.
The main walking strip of Montreux lines Lake Geneva and is an ideal place for a rendezvous, especially in the warmer weather. Come sunset and the lake is a translucent display of blooming colors that is an artistic display all of its own. Set side aside to enjoy this sunset and thank me later.
Photography Tip: Use the lakeside sunset as a way to capture vivid silhouettes pressed against Lake Geneva.
History buffs will be delighted by the city’s Chillon Castle, an incredibly well preserved medieval castle and one of Switzerland’s most visited sites. Exploring the castle is like stepping back in time.
Make a point to make it to the top of the castle’s keep. From this peak you’ll have panormic views of the mountains, lake and Montreux in all its glory.
Dining Tip: Visit the Fairmont’s Montreux Palace and dine at the Jazz Club, an intimate and whimsical experience that parlays well into the musical heritage of the city.
LAUNCH INTO EXPLORATION FROM GRINDLEWALD
Shrouded by two gigantic mountains, decked out in warm charm and in close proximity to several other worthwhile sites, Grindelwald is a great destination to end your Swiss adventure. A stay at the Romantik’s Hotel Schweizerhof comes equip with a quality spa, Michelin recommended restaurant and a sense of true Alpine essence.
Dining Tip(s): Vising Barry’s for a charming ambiance, quality fondue and Mongolian BBQ. The ability to craft your own sautéed plate of meats, vegetables and carbs was a meal ideal for all kinds of diners. End your night at Avocado Bar, a local watering hole where you’re guaranteed to be immersed in local ski culture.
Aside from a relaxing stint in small town Switzerland, use Grindelwald as a launching point into a few worthy excursions:
This scenic Swiss town isn’t just visually blissful, it’s also an excellent place to fly. Paragliding tours here offer up divine views of the back country that will be nothing short of exhilarating.
MURREN / SCHILTHORN
Venture into the sky when you ride gondolas through a dramatic mountain landscape into Murren, up Schilthorn and eventually to Piz Gloria, whose claim to fame comes from the 1968 James Bond film, On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. The small town grips tightly to this legacy from its lowest elevation to its highest.
The bond theme runs strong at the mountain top’s Piz Gloria, where a 360 panoramic view is complimented by a revolving restaurant (whose regrettable $25.00 Burger is one of the worst I’ve had in my life). Opt for the buffet or eat before your journey and simply enjoy a drink while taking in the views.
Thrill seekers will be delighted by Schilthorn’s thrill walk and bridge. The pathway hugs the side of the mountain and is highlighted by two suspended, steel mesh bridges that will make your knees quake. Those with a bit more dare left in them can waltz across a glass floor on the edge of the walkway. I myself am afraid of heights and conquered the feat… It’s worth the fear.
Swing through Stechelberg on your way down from Schilthorn where a country landscape evokes vibes that live in the crosshairs of the Wild West and Lord of the Rings. The village is also home to Switzerland’s highest waterfall and scenic hikes. Ideal for a quaint stroll, a stop here is worthwhile, even if just for a visual feast.
Heading to Switzerland, I had anticipated a few things. I knew the country’s thunderous mountains would take my breath away and that its sultry chocolate and cheeses would satisfy my sinful cravings. However, what I found along the rail tracks was much more than that, it was a voyage into a land whose boundaries were seasoned with global richness and adventure. I’m real grateful I was able to check this off my longtime bucket list.
Want to take a similar adventure? Check out Vacations By Rail to plan your trip.