Have you ever taken any particular mode of transport just for the experience of travelling that way? Back in my days of London commuting, I would have laughed if you’d told me that one day I would go on the Glacier Express Switzerland, an all-day train journey, purely for the views and the experience. However, having heard rave reviews from a number of people who had experienced this epic train journey through the Swiss Alps, we decided to take the Glacier Express in winter.
This Glacier Express review is based on our booking of the first class Glacier Express experience. All opinions are our own.
So why do this?
The Glacier Express is possibly the most famous Swiss Alps train. This is no ordinary train and the route it takes is no ordinary journey. If you take the entire trip from St Moritz to Zermatt (or the other way around) the over the whole trip, you will roll through the ever-more stunning Swiss Alps for seven and a half hours.
The Glacier Express route runs over 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels. Climbing to more than 2,000 metres above sea level at the highest point in the trip, the Oberalp pass. Through mountain villages, alongside rivers, and trundling lazily past skiers and snowboarders jumping from chairlifts to zip off into the distance. It is definitely one of the most scenic train rides in Europe.
The Glacier Express train Switzerland is known as the slowest express train in the world. This is not so much a journey as an experience in itself. If England is only 500 miles away, the horror of London commuting is five hundred thousand miles away from this.
We decided on this particular getaway because it was my birthday. And what better to do on a birthday than one of the best things to do in Switzerland in winter? We had opted not to do the full Glacier Express journey as we only had three days and wanted to spend a full day somewhere not travelling. So our Glacier Express experience was from Chur to Zermatt.
Glacier Express ticket and booking
As it was my birthday, we decided to treat ourselves to the first class tickets. Glacier Express bookings must be made well in advance as the tickets tend to sell out quickly, especially at the weekends. The Glacier Express ticket price is obviously cheaper in standard class, however, the first class carriages have full glass roof that adjoins the side carriage windows meaning that for the entire journey, you get panoramic views of the Alps rolling past.
The Glacier Express Chur-Zermatt journey that we did takes about five and a half hours, but the boarding time still allows for lunch service on the train.
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A panorama of the Swiss Alps
The Glacier Express service has been running since 1930 and is named after the Rhone Glacier. It starts in St Moritz, in the south-east of Switzerland and travels through Chur where we boarded.
Chur is the capital of Canton Grisons, which is also called Graubunden. Did you know that Swiss cantons and even some towns can be named differently in French or German, or even in Italian as well? This can be incredibly confusing to a foreigner. When I first moved to Switzerland I thought there must be about eighty Swiss cantons when in fact there are only 26.
Apart from the stunning mountain scenery and the fact that it is the largest canton in Switzerland, Graubunden is actually a trilingual canton. Native speakers of Swiss German, Italian and Romansch (the least-spoken and little-known fourth language of Switzerland) exist side by side in the pretty mountain villages.
From Chur, the train climbs up narrow-gauge rails to Disentis and the Oberalp pass, into the canton of Uri. From there, it descends through to Andermatt and into the canton of Valais (or Wallis, in German!). The train stops at Brig and Visp and climbs up through the Mattertal valley. The journey ends in Zermatt, 1600m above sea level.
On board the Glacier Express
We boarded the Glacier Express at Chur around 1130. If you do the full Glacier Express St Moritz to Zermatt, you will need to board in St Moritz around 0900.
The first thing that struck us about the Glacier Express train carriage is the extra light and views in the panoramic coaches. This is not just a gimmick, it really makes the whole carriage feel so close to the scenery outside.
At our first class seats, we found menus and earphones on the table, which was already set for lunch. The earphones are complementary to enable listening to the audio guide to the Glacier Express rail journey through the in-seat audio jack. The guide is available in multiple languages.
Lunch on the Glacier Express is available as a fixed menu of three courses, or only the main course. The entree on the day we travelled was pork pepper steak with spätzli.
While the train was fully booked, the first class seats are very spacious with just three seats spread across the carriage, so we didn’t feel at all crowded.
We were sharing our table with a couple on holiday from South Korea. They told us they were doing a multi-stop trip across Switzerland as we chatted with them over lunch.
After lunch, Tom and I decided to visit the bar carriage as we had aisle seats (tip: make your Glacier Express seat reservation early if you want window seats!) and we wanted to get some photos from the windows. We also treated ourselves to a small bottle of fizz to celebrate my birthday.
After lunch and our photo session, we had nothing else to do but enjoy the journey.
It is so incredibly relaxing. There is really nothing to do for hours. Except stare out of the panoramic windows at the dazzling scenery that sweeps past relentlessly. The most strenuous thing I had to do was keep putting my sunglasses back on quickly enough when the train moved from the mountain shadows into the piercing sunlight, which reflected off the glittering snow so brightly it made my eyes leak.
The reading material on board the train mentions the foresight of the mountain-dwellers who built the Swiss railways. They correctly predicted that the only sustainable future for the people of the mountains was to attract tourists. Building the railways has ensured that tourists can sustainably access the mountain villages and skis areas.
Arriving in Zermatt
As we alighted the train and came out into Zermatt, one of the best destinations for Swiss winter holidays, it was easy to see the accuracy of the early mountain-dwellers foresight. The tourists far outnumber the locals in this pretty but developed alpine village.
Feeling fully relaxed after our experiencing of the Glacier Express in winter, we walked the short distance to our hotel and prepared for our weekend in the shadow of the mighty Matterhorn. If you plan to spend some time in beautiful Zermatt or another mountain winter resort, then check out our winter packing list.
You can read about our weekend in Zermatt in part two of this post.
You can check the Glacier Express schedule and ticket availability/price at the Glacier Express website.
It is now on our list to take the Glacier Express in summer! Plus, we would also like to take the sister train of the Glacier Express, the Bernina Express. Which epic train rides are on your bucket list? Start the discussion in the comments below!
Looking for hotels? Check out our Zermatt Hotel Guide or our deals finder below to find the best hotel deals for your Swiss Alpine getaway!
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