Ready for one of the most beautiful train rides in the world? The panoramic Bernina Express travels on the highest railway in the Alps, showing off the beauty of the mountains in a spectacular and memorable way. The train takes you from Chur in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy, while chugging through a landscape of majestic mountain peaks, magnificent pine forests and unearthly stone fields. All aboard!
Whenever you mention the Bernina Express to locals in Switzerland, you’ll notice their voices going up an octave in excitement. “The Bernina Express! That’s wonderful! You’ll love it!” So by the time I’m standing on the platform, waiting for the bright red train to arrive, my expectations are running very high… The Bernina Express is scenic train owned by the Rhaetian Railway (RhB), the private railway company of Graubünden, the largest and easternmost canton of Switzerland. Starting point is Chur, the oldest city of Switzerland and the capital of Graubünden. From there, the train travels through the Swiss Alps on two historic mountain railways: the Albula Line and the Bernina Line. Both are built over 100 years ago, the Bernina Line being one of the steepest railways in the world without a cogwheel track. Part of the route is classed as a Unesco World Heritage site, which is pretty impressive if you know that there are only two other railways in the world that are listed. But if you’ve been to Switzerland before, it won’t come as a surprise: the country is breathtakingly beautiful with its glistening glaciers, pristine lakes, spectacular ravines and charming valleys. Watching the Alps pass you by from a seat in the panoramic Bernina Express train just ads a bit of magic to it all!
Sweeping through the countryside
I’m taking my seat right next to one of the huge panoramic windows in the middle of the train. The entire route of the Bernina Express is printed out on the tables: four hours of mighty mountain georgeousness! At exactly 8.32 am the Bernina Express takes off and first treats you with a view of Chur – the oldest city of Switzerland. Worthy of its name, the ‘Express’ train leaves the city behind and enters the countryside at an impressive pace. For a short while, the narrow railway runs along the charming river Plessur, a 33 km long tributary of the Rhine river. Then, after the meadows and castles that lie deep in the valleys of Reichenau and Domleschg, Thusis comes in sight. The municipality lies at the foot of Piz Beverin (2.998 meters above sea level) and marks the official start of the Albula line – and it shows! Hardly any of the passengers in the train car that I’m in are still seated. Everyone spontaneously starts to walk around, and that is exactly the effect the landscape has on me, too: you just don’t want to miss any of it! First, the train passes the deep and narrow Viamala gorge, formed by up to 300-meter-high cliffs. Next, the train teeters on the famous Solis viaduct, an architectural masterpiece of 43 meters long and 100 meters high (the longest and highest viaduct on this route). The Albula river is flowing right below us.
“Grüezi miteinand!” The train conductor tries to get our attention to sell breakfast (Buttergipfel or croissants and coffee), but his efforts are pretty much in vain: everyone has their nose pressed up against the windows! The further south we go, the more beautiful it all gets, like the picturesque village of Tiefencastel with a small church on top of the Kirchhügel hill and the Landwasserviaduct, the most photographed piece of art of the Rhaetian Railway. Because of the sharp turn you can even see the viaduct from inside the train. The retired Swiss couple in the seats in front of me notices my enthusiasm and smiles. Turns out they regularly take the Bernina Express: they go all the way to Tirano, have lunch there and then return… The saying ‘It’s about the journey, not the destination’ has never made more sense to me than right now!
The lower & upper Engadin
Next up is the Landwasser tunnel, with the Engadin awaiting us on the other side. The Engadin is a long valley that follows the route of the Inn River. If you haven’t heard of it before: it’s the home of the populair skiing resort St. Moritz! The upper Engadin is one of the highest valleys in the Alps so the Bernina Express is gradually chugging up the high mountain sides. The tracks go up at a steady pace via tunnels, curves and bridges and before you know it, the Bernina Express has climbed 416 meters. Meanwhile charming communes now and then appear between the pine and spruce forests, like Davos and Bergün. The next bit between Bergün and Preda takes you through ‘Park Ela’, a Nature Park of a phenomenal beauty and size (it’s 3,5 times bigger than the Swiss national park!). The low hanging clouds on the mountains, the river happily dancing along the tracks, the occasional mountain bikers and hikers that halt for a while to watch the train go by… Postcard sceneries all the way up!
The Morteratsch glacier
And then there was silence…
The upper Engadin is where the Albula Line ends and the Bernina Line begins and immediately you’re pampered with a stunning view of the greatest asset of the Bernina Range: the Morteratsch glacier. It’s a staggering piece of the Alps with its glistening blue and white cliffs of ice and inside the train car, silence prevails. The glacier is the largest one in the Bernina Range and the highest peak is the Piz Bernina (4049 m). It’s the moutain the Bernina Express was named after. After the glacier, the train keeps on climbing until it has reached the highest railway station in Graubünden and on the entire Rhaetian Railway network: Ospizio Bernina (2.253 m). Its’a popular starting point for hikers.
Lago Bianco en Lej Nair
Are we still on earth?
Passed Ospizio Bernina, the train heads for lower places again and the landscape changes drastically. All the warm greens have gone and an unpolished rocky landscape is now dominating the view. Crawling like a caterpillar, the Bernina Express winds its way around two articifial lakes: Lago Bianco and Lej Nair. Their milky white-green colors create an unearthly atmosphere and even though they’re man-made, you just can’t deny their beauty.
The beginning of the end
Next up is Alp Grüm, a railway platform at
Good to know:
- Experience the Bernina Express via this video that I made!
The Bernina Express travels over 196 bridges and viaducts, through 55 tunnels and 20 charming communes in total!
- It takes about four hours to get from Chur to Tirano (140 km). From Chur to Alp Grüm it’s 122 km.
The Swiss railway system is very punctual! Make sure you arrive on time.
There’s no restaurant inside the Bernina Express, but there is someone serving you with a portable mini-bar.
It’s okay to walk around in the train. Everyone does!
The best seats are those in first class. This is where the panoramic windows are the biggest. You find the fares via the link below.
The combination of rapidly changing heights, thin air and many turns, you might feel a bit sick around
A tip by www.100trains.com: the windows of the Bernina Express don’t open (so photography might be an issue) , but there are other ‘normal’ trains (also operated by the Rhaetian Railway) that travel along the same line and have windows that slide open. Apparently those regular trains are less touristy as well, but personally I didn’t think the Bernina was too crowded. Perhaps it depends on the season…