The Bernina Express: one of the world’s most beautiful train rides

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!

Leaving Chur

Sweeping through the countryside

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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.

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The Landwasserviaduct

Wow…

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“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!

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The lower & upper Engadin

Chugging up!

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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!

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The Morteratsch glacier

And then there was silence…

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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.

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 Lago Bianco en Lej Nair

Are we still on earth?

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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.  

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Alp Grüm

The beginning of the end

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Next up is Alp Grüm, a railway platform at 2.091 meters. This is where the track makes a 180 degree turn and the Bernina Express continues its meandering course south. The final stop: Tirano, 1.800 meters down below! For me, Alp Grüm is where my Bernina adventure ends. Time to get off and head back to Chur, but not without enjoying the landscape first. Alp Grüm offers a wide view of the Palü glacier and if the wheather is clear, you can see all the way down the valley. Whenever someone mentions the Bernina Express to me now, I do exactly as the Swiss do. My voice goes up an octave and I go “The Bernina Express! That’s wonderful! You’ll love it!”

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Good to know:

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 Alp Grüm. It’s completely normal.

  • 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…

www.rhb.ch

 

 

  • Wow! What a cool train ride. Thanks for the complete overview. I’ll have to add that to my travel “to do” list.

  • A wee bit of advice re the Bernina Express (and this is the same for the Glacier Express train in Switzerland). Both of these trains are designed for tourists. They are invariably packed (the ones that I saw were) and those lovely curved panoramic windows don’t open. Which is a bit of a problem if you want to take photographs free of the reflection caused by the sun on the windows. And you WILL want to take photographs. Both trains pass through some truly spectacular scenery. My advice would be to take the “normal” trains operated by RhB (the same people who run the touristy trains). They travel along the same lines (so the scenery is identically spectacular), they are MUCH less busy (the trains I travelled on were about one third full), and, other than the ticket collector, there will be at least one more Swiss local on the train 😉

    And, most importantly, the windows open (slide down) for those all-important photographs.

    Enjoy!

    • Thanks for the advice! I didn’t go for that option because I was told that they traveled slower plus I would have to change trains a few times during the route, correct? I was carrying quite a lot of luggage (hiking bag+photography bags) so I took the easy option. Fortunately my photos turned out quite okay even though they were shot from behind the window 🙂 Thanks for stopping by!

    • BTW I have added your advice in my ‘good to know’ section!

  • I’ve been on this one and the scenery is definitely pretty special.

    • It really is! I bet it’s worthwile in wintertime as well.

      • I reckon you’re right. That gives me an idea…

        • 🙂 Keep me posted! Oh btw I signed up to receive your book, buy I didn’t get any email yet… Should I be worried or am I being impatient?

          • Hmm, strange. It’s just a link to Amazon where you can download it to your kindle or kindle app. I’m not sure why it’s not working.

          • False alarm: I was waiting for an email, the link Amazon link works fine! Thanks

          • Great. Listen, do me a favour? Let me know what you think when you finish it?

          • That’s a deal! I will have to read it on my computer though: I just found out that my Sony e-reader won’t open Kindle formats. Grr.

          • Oh no! Sorry about that. I’m sure my story will make it all worthwhile. I hope you enjoy it.

          • I’ll let you know! 🙂

  • I LOVE a good train trip. Must remember this one. I love those high bridges, they are amazing!

  • Having travelled much of this route (went from Chur to St. Moritz), I can only say that this was the most picturesque railway journeys I’ve ever made. It definitely warrants me to follow through to Torino when the time comes!

  • The photographs are stunning. It is such a beautiful part of the world to visit and you always know that you can depend on the local public transport because it is so efficient. I really enjoyed reading about the journey.

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  • About the changing trains. Yes, you are probably correct. I changed at Samedan (near St.Moritz) from train on Glacier Express route to train for Tirano.

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