Ask me about my favorite sightseeing experience in Switzerland, and I will likely tell you: the Golden Roundtrip.
This expression is code for a “roundtrip journey from the city to the mountaintop involving a boat, the world’s steepest cogwheel railway, and two kinds of cable cars.”
Anyone fortunate enough to complete the iconic Golden Roundtrip will surely remember this term for good. It is as good as gold, and here is the journal of when we revisited it.
By boat from Lucerne to Alpnachstad
Just outside the Lucerne train station is the boat landing. We quickly spot platform B where our boat has already docked.
As passengers in the first class, we get to sit on the upper deck. The higher position provides even better views of Lucerne’s sights, such as the modern KKL Culture and Congress Centre.
Three cantons (and two half-cantons) border Lake Lucerne in the heart of Switzerland. If there was ever a landscape so quintessentially Swiss, it is this. Think majestic mountains in all directions, juicy green slopes for grazing cows, and historic towns with lakeside charm.
In the part of the lake called the “Funnel of Stans” near Horw, our boat passes Villa Krämerstein, a retreat for artists and scientists surrounded by a sprawling park.
In the vicinity of Hergiswil at the foot of the towering Mount Pilatus, the density of old and new mansions increases noticeably.
After a stop in Stansstad, the boat crosses underneath a bridge and enters the Lake of Alpnach. Once the boat docks in Alpnachstad, we spot the tracks of the much-touted cogwheel railway. Yes, this incline looks as steep as they say from down here…
The transfer by foot to the Pilatus Railway station takes less than five minutes. On a busy weekend, expect crowds with the same destination in mind. (Some of them will arrive by train from Lucerne, missing out on the lake’s beauty.)
To a certain extent, the cogwheel railway is flexible in terms of capacity. Most passengers usually find a seat on the scheduled run.
The world’s steepest cogwheel railway is: steep!
We deliberate on which side of the coach offers better views, opting for the left side in the direction of travel. Above the tree line, there should be sweeping views of the meadows and of Pilatus Kulm.
The coaches depart in pairs, each with a safety distance to the one that is following behind. From the get-to, the cogwheels are running at full speed as we chuff our way up.
The brief stop at Ämsigen is a tease for hikers like us. There is a chalet right beside the station - a typical sight on alpine meadows in Switzerland. Iconic cowbells are displayed on its front porch, and a yellow hiking sign points towards Unter Steigli near the top of Mount Pilatus. We are close to jumping off the cogwheel railway, but we realize in time that we are not geared up for a mountain hike.
At its most extreme, the cogwheel railway climbs a gradient of 48 percent, making it the steepest cogwheel railway in the world. Look out for yellow markers indicating the gradients along the way.
Once we exit the final tunnel, we can spot the Hotel Pilatus-Kulm, a mountain lodge built in 1890. Our conclusion about the seating: either side of the coach is fine, with the right side offering photo ops of the lake below.
Scenic views from the top of Mount Pilatus
Once on the viewing platform, we experience a profound change of perspective. Were we not just at lake level some thirty minutes ago? In little time, Switzerland was turned into a miniature railroad set with a tiny version of Lucerne below!
We are tempted to follow the sounds of the alphorn playing on the restaurant terrace. (It is past lunchtime, after all.) But we remember that this summer, in particular, we need to seize every opportunity when the sun is out.
So we climb to the summit at 2118 meters above sea level. Although it only takes ten minutes to reach the “Esel” peak, this mountain trail is breathtaking in its own right.
With seemingly every turn, we are offered new vantage points. One moment, Lake Lucerne and Mount Rigi are straight ahead, even Mount Säntis. Mount Stanserhorn presents itself around the next bend, and even the snow-capped Bernese Alps appear in the far distance.
Along the alpine flower trail to Tomlishorn
After lunch at Hotel Pilatus Kulm, we embark on the flower trail towards Tomlishorn. It will take us about 1.5 hours to walk the course and return to the cable car station. The cliff-hugging path is mainly paved, often graveled, and rocky towards the peak.
It is constructed in a way that most everyone, regardless of their physical abilities, gets to “hike” in the Swiss Alps. Around the many turns, we cross a small bridge and go through a few tunnels. Off to the side, we even spot a cave… Could this be the home of the legendary dragon?
Along the way to the summit of Tomlishorn, we spot various alpine flowers, mosses, and plants. Many of these patches feature permanent placards, giving this beautiful alpine flora a name.
At 2128 meters above sea level, Tomlishorn is the highest peak around here. The final ascend requires some sure-footedness. There are guard rails to hold on to, as well as fencing to indicate off-limits spots.
The views from up here are something else...
By aerial cable car back to the city
The descent from Pilatus-Kulm to Fräkmüntegg is another highlight of the Golden Roundtrip. Aptly named the “Dragon Ride”, this aerial cable car is quite a designer piece. It has oversized windows on all sides. And with a bit of imagination, this lofty cabin creates the sensation of flying on a dragon’s back.
In Fräkmüntegg, we swiftly transfer to a smaller gondola cable car. The adventure playground, mountain coaster, and other activities we spot from the air are reasons to return at a later time.
As we walk from the cable car station to the bus stop in Kriens, we look back at the mountain one last time. What a riveting adventure! This excursion has solidified my personal choice for the best sightseeing experience in Switzerland.
About the Premium Golden Roundtrip package
This summer presents a golden opportunity: the boat, cogwheel railway, and cable car combination is on offer. As part of the Premium Golden Roundtrip package, you will receive not only all the fares but also a 30-franc meal voucher redeemable at a mountaintop restaurant.
Best of all, this package includes a first-class upgrade to the upper boat deck between Lucerne and Alpnachstad! It’s worth its weight in gold.
Please note that the Golden Roundtrip will take a minimum of five hours. For instance, we departed on the 10:38 AM boat from Lucerne, made it to the top at 12:50 PM, and arrived back in Lucerne at 3:30 PM.