The Glacier Express is one of the most iconic train trips in the world – and probably the most thrilling and comfortable way of getting close up to Switzerland’s mountains.
The Glacier Express – a ride with history
Any other train would derail in an instant on these steep gradients and narrow curves, but not the Glacier Express. It defies the forces of nature as it chugs from the idyllic mountain town of Zermatt to the elegant Alpine resort of St. Moritz, passing some of the world’s most stunning scenery on the way.
The journey starts in Zermatt, the famous mountain resort at the foot of the majestic Matterhorn. The town is combustion-engine-free, but who needs cars when you’ve got the Glacier Express, which has linked Zermatt and St. Moritz since 1930. The line’s unique rack and pinion system and special tracks allow the train to climb and descend thousands of metres, passing through 91 tunnels and crossing 291 bridges.
Up, up and away!
The train’s whistle screeches and off we go! Every year, 250,000 passengers from all over the world ride on the Glacier Express. From Zermatt we descend one thousand metres, stopping briefly at Brig, a village dating back to the 13th century, and reaching the Rhone Valley at an altitude of 658 metres above sea level. From here, we climb an incredible 2044 metres to the Oberalp Pass, through the Furka Tunnel, which is 15 kilometres long and allows the train to bypass an open stretch that is prone to avalanches in winter. The moment we exit the tunnel, the sight of the incredible view across to the surrounding mountains above the cloud line has everyone reaching for their cameras. Overnight snow has coated the slopes in a thick blanket of white. The view is unforgettable! We are literally surrounded by snow-covered valleys and mountains.
Thanks to the curved panorama windows, you feel that you’re immersed in the winter wonderland, but at the same time you’re safe and snug in the cosy coaches. After a few minutes, the train starts to descend again. An ordinary train would never be able to handle a steep downhill ride like this, but the Glacier Express has a cogwheel that keeps it firmly on the rails so you can sit back, enjoy the ride and look forward to lunch. Whether you choose from the menu or pre-book a meal, the staff will serve your food at your table. This beats an ordinary buffet car anytime!
It’s all about the journey
Although the route is only 290 kilometres long, the trip takes roughly eight hours. The top speed is approximately 100 km/h, but for the most part the train is much slower, averaging around 40 km/h on the steep stretches with the cog wheel. Not that any of the passengers are in a hurry. Quite the opposite: the leisurely speed gives everyone plenty of time to enjoy the stunning scenery. “It’s all about the journey”, says the person sitting opposite.
After the Rhine Gorge, popularly called the “Swiss Grand Canyon” and famous for its white cliffs and bizarre rock formations, the next highlight on the route is the Landwasser Viaduct. Spanning 142 metres and standing 65 metres tall, the viaduct is a breath-taking bridge that rests on five brick pillars. Although there’s a bit of a glare from the glass windows, everyone is on their feet, craning to get a view of this famous landmark. The dizzyingly high bridge, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is simply jaw-dropping and the view from up here is beautiful. However, you have to hurry to get the perfect snapshot, because even though the train slows down for its passengers here, the next tunnel awaits at the end of the short viaduct.
We have arrived
With all the incredible scenery outside, the journey seems to pass in a flash. We could have spent many more hours gazing out of the windows, lost in the beauty of the snow-covered mountains. There’s only one answer: we have to do it again – perhaps in summer. The sight of the Swiss mountains through the windows of the Glacier Express is more than worth the trip!
Getting there and further details:
Tickets for the Glacier Express cost from around €150 in second class or from €250 in first class. If you’re flush then book a seat in the Excellence Class (for an additional fee of around €390). This gets you a guaranteed window seat in a special luxury carriage, concierge service, a 5-course menu, afternoon tea and lots more. For further details and to book, visit https://www.glacierexpress.ch/en/
The Glacier Express leaves from Zermatt in the morning shortly before 9 am, so you will need to arrive in Zermatt at least the day before. If you have a little more time, then plan to stay a couple of days because there is so much to see and do here: novices and expert skiers are spoilt for choice on 360 kilometres of perfectly groomed slopes in Europe’s highest skiing region. Plus, there’s always a great view of the north, east and south flanks of the famous Matterhorn.
If you fancy getting some peak action without skis, then may we suggest a trip on the Peak Lift, which will take you up to the highest viewing platform in the Alps at nearly 3900 metres above sea level. Thanks to the 360-degree panorama, you can see 38 four-thousand-metre peaks and 14 Alpine glaciers. Then take a lift 14 metres below the surface where a magical palace made of ice awaits. If that’s all too high and too spectacular for you, then there’s plenty to do in the village itself, from strolling around the cosy streets to visiting the Matterhorn Museum - Zermatlantis (https://www.zermatt.ch/en/museum), which provides fascinating insight into the development of the village and also the tragedy involved in the first ascent of the Matterhorn. Wellness enthusiasts will love the Day Spa at the 5-star Zermatterhof Hotel (https://zermatterhof.ch/en/) where you can pamper yourself all day for approximately €40. Traditional Swiss cuisine is served at the rustically furnished restaurant Zum See, which lies above Zermatt and is roughly a 30-minute walk from the town centre (https://www.zumsee.ch/en/home/). For comfortable accommodation not far from the centre with a small sauna and delicious breakfast, check out the Aristella Zermatt Hotel (https://www.aristella-zermatt.ch/en/, where rooms cost from €200 per night).
It’s also worth planning to spend at least one night in St. Moritz (the Glacier Express arrives at shortly before 4 pm). If you want to treat yourself, book a traditional afternoon tea at the elegant 5-star hotel Suvretta House (served between 2 and 6 pm), prices from €35 per person. Prior booking essential: https://suvrettahouse.ch/en/startpage-winter/). A great place to stay is Hotel Hauser, which is right in the centre of St. Moritz; there’s a fabulous Aprés Ski Bar in front of the hotel (rooms from €120; for details and to book, visit: https://www.hotelhauser.ch/en/hauser-st-moritz/).
Enjoy every Bite.