There are four dozen named mountain peaks in Switzerland that top out above 4000 meters. If there is a vertical playground anywhere on this planet, it surely must be in Switzerland!
Thanks to 52 mountain railway lines, including cogwheel trains and funiculars, anyone can reach those snowy alpine peaks. Considering that I am a train geek, I have long checked these mountain railway lines off my bucket list. And I am convinced that once you learn more about each line, you will want to ride it, too! Better add a blank page to your bucket list...
Here are my favorite Swiss mountain railway lines:
Jungfraujoch in the Bernese Alps (3454 m)
"The Top of Europe" is a well deserved tagline for the Jungfraujoch. Not only is this summit scraping the sky at 3454 meters above sea. It also encapsulates everything that fascinates us about the Alps: a majestic scenery made up of eternal ice, snow fields and rocky cliffs.
For most, the experience starts in Interlaken. However, you can also get onto the train in Lauterbrunnen or in Grindelwald. Either way, I recommend you maximize the itinerary by going to Kleine Scheidegg one way and returning the other.
(Photograph copyright Rio Akasaka)
Once you reach Kleine Scheidegg, you will be transferring to the cogwheel train to take you to the top of the Jungfraujoch. The majority of this stretch as you cross the Eiger will be inside a tunnel. At Eismeer, the train will stop so that you can get off and have a peek through windows carved into the Eiger North Face...
More than one million visitors have taken the 130-minute trip to Jungfraujoch in 2019. From December 2020, the new V-Bahn cable car will allow us to bypass Kleine Scheidegg, shaving 45 minutes off the trip to the top.
The bucket list worthiness of Jungfraujoch is obvious: at Europe’s highest-altitude station, you can walk on the Aletsch Glacier, the largest glacier in the Alps. And you get to touch snow any time of the year. If you are still debating whether to visit, have a read of our Jungfraujoch pros and cons post.
The trains to Jungfraujoch operate all year round. Holders of a Swiss Travel Pass get a 25% discount on tickets from Wengen or Grindelwald to Jungfraujoch. The Swiss Half Fare card knocks the fare from Interlaken Ost to Jungfraujoch in half.
Gornergrat in Zermatt (3089 m)
Zermatt is synonymous with the Matterhorn, one of the most iconic mountains in the world. The Matterhorn glacier paradise cable car will get you up close and personal with the mountain. But those who prefer seeing the Horu from a distance should not miss the vantage point at Gornergrat.
Gornergrat offers sweeping views, including the Gorner Glacier, the Matterhorn and Zermatt down below. This trip is definitely a contender for “the journey is the destination”, too: the half-hour ride on the meter-gauge cogwheel railway is exciting and memorable. With a climb of 1469 m to a staggering 3089 m, Gornergrat Bahn holds the record for Europe’s highest open-air cogwheel railway.
The train aficionados among you might be interested to know that in 2021, the current trains will be replaced. Gornergrat Bahn will be receiving five new and energy efficient cogwheel trains named "Polaris".
Thanks to a technology called regenerative braking, the engine will actually be generating energy during each descent. Practically speaking, the power generated from three Gornergrat to Zermatt descents will be ample for two entire ascents.
My timeless advice, no matter the train model or season: for the best Matterhorn views, grab a seat on the right hand side of the train. You will see the famous peak in its full glory! Gornergrat Bahn operates 365 days of the year and provides a 50 percent discount to Swiss Travel Pass holders.
Brienzer Rothorn in Brienz (2244 m)
Often not exactly top of mind is the Brienzer Rothorn, a scenic mountain with sprawling meadows and lake views to die for. The peak is accessible from two sides: by cable car from Sörenberg and by cogwheel railway from Brienz.
Within one hour, the historic open-air coaches will chug you from lake level to the summit. In mere altitude, that's a mesmerizing ascent from 566 meters to 2244 meters above sea. One time when I visited with my brother in law, I paid extra for us to ride along in the engine. It was steamy hot and loud, but what an experience!
We have once stayed overnight at the modest Berghaus Alpine Lodge. One of the highlights was observing the ibex as they approached the lodge after the last day tourists had left. And getting up in time for the sunrise the next morning was the best choice, ever.
Mount Pilatus by cogwheel railway (2128 m)
I have checked Mount Pilatus off my bucket list more than I can count. Be it as part of an unforgettable overnight stay with ibex viewing or by riding shotgun on the Dragon Ride cable car: it is a getaway you won’t forget.
The best way to experience Mount Pilatus is by embarking on the Golden Round Trip in Lucerne. After a boat ride to Alpnachstad, transfer to the world’s steepest cogwheel railway to Pilatus Kulm. On a track length of 4.6 kilometers, the red train will smoothly negotiate an altitude of 1.6 kilometers.
Holders of a Swiss Travel Pass or a Swiss half fare card enjoy a 50 percent discount on all tickets. The cogwheel railway is operational at one point in May through mid November. Consult the timetable and check a webcam before going up.
Schynige Platte (2076 m)
The Schynige Platte cogwheel train still uses original Belle Époque carriages. On the 50-minute trip from Wilderswil to the summit, you will be crossing forests and alpine meadows, pass by chalets and herds of grazing cows.
And all the while you will have a clear view of the most iconic triplet of the Bernese Alps: Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. One of the recommended activities at Schynige Platte is the alpine herb garden. It contains more than 700 native plant species, and admission is included in the train ticket.
As is the case with the Brienzer Rothorn, you can pay extra to ride in the driver's cabin. It may be less comfortable, but what an experience to write home about! The Schynige Platte railway operates from July through mid October. Holders of a Swiss Travel Pass or a Swiss Half Fare card enjoy a 50 percent discount.
Rochers-de-Naye (2042 m)
When it comes to Montreux, no convincing whatsoever is required: I would move to the banks of Lake Geneva in a heartbeat for the Mediterranean lifestyle and sunny weather.
Until recently, I had no idea that Montreux has its own mountain top as well: Rochers-de-Naye. Accessible by cogwheel railway from the Montreux train station, this peak has lots in store. From panoramic hikes during summer and fall to skiing and Santa visits in winter!
On the 55-minute ride to the top, you will first be crossing neighborhoods and forests before the views open up. Then, a magical thing takes place right in front of your eyes: after each of several tunnels, Lake Geneva seemingly “moves” from right to left, and back to the right!
The train can get crowded during Christmas season, so make sure to reserve a spot. A Swiss Travel Pass will get you from Montreux to Haut-de-Caux for free, with the remaining stretch being half price. Check the webcams before going up.
Mount Rigi - Queen of the Mountains (1798 m)
Who knew that the cogwheel railway to the top of Rigi is Europe’s oldest? In fact, it is not only the oldest of its kind, but the very first mountain railway of any kind. The Vitznau - Rigi Kulm cogwheel railway has been operational since 1871.
The best way to access Mount Rigi is by way of boat from Lucerne. Once in Vitznau, the transfer to the cogwheel railway is effortless. The ride from the shores of Lake Lucerne to the summit takes just 30 minutes.
And the best part? Holders of the Swiss Travel Pass enjoy free travels to the top of the self-proclaimed "Queen of the Mountains". To plan your trip, consult the timetable and as the Swiss would do, check the webcams!
Monte Generoso in Mendrisio (1704 m)
Is this generous peak at the southern tip of Lake Lugano on your radar? If not, it is time to make it a destination. At 130 years of age, the Monte Generoso steam train is the oldest of its kind in Switzerland. But during WWII, it was nearly going to be dismantled and sold off for steel.
Mr. Duttweiler, the founder of Migros, believed that the public needs to have access to the mountain's panoramic terrace. He went on to purchase the rack railway which will be undergoing a complete renovation during winter season until 2023.
At the summit of Monte Generoso, you will immediately notice the Fiore di pietra building. It was designed by the world famous (and local) architect, Mario Botta. Alongside the nostalgic rack railway from the Belle Époque, the modern structure fits into the picture.
After soaking in the architecture, you could pick one of countless hiking paths. They range from nature trails to a planetary walk. And along the way, you might even spot wild horses and rare flowers.
Harder Kulm in Interlaken (1322 m)
For some inexplicable reason, it has taken me half a lifetime to visit the Harder Kulm viewpoint. This is even more surprising as Harder Kulm is the most accessible mountain tops of all... Let me say, it was a fantastic experience that I can highly recommend!
The funicular station is located just a brief walk from the Interlaken Ost train station. I timed my visit so that I would have 15 minutes between the arrival of the train and the departure of the funicular. I barely made it because I did not account for the train crossing which is frequently blocking access.
Once on the funicular, it is a smooth ten minute ride to the top, and a brief walk to the viewpoint. On a clear day, you will have panoramic views of all the Bernese Alps. And looking down at Lake Brienz and Lake Thun feels short of majestic.
Harder Kulm is included in the Swiss Travel Pass. Purchasing a roundtrip ticket online allows you to keep that tight schedule...
Stoos in the Canton of Schwyz (1300 m)
Last but not least, there is Stoos in central Switzerland. While this funicular might not take you to 3K altitudes, it offers another kind of extreme: since 2017, the Stoos funicular claims the record of being the world's steepest funicular.
The unique thing about this funicular is that the coaches are in the shape of round barrels. No matter the grade of incline, these “barrels” are always levelled as they rotate along. Words cannot do justice to this unique experience, so add the Stoosbahn to your bucket list already!
The line takes you from the Schlattli station in Muotathal to the village of Stoos. And since it is considered to be an essential link for residents, the fare is fully included in the Swiss Travel Pass!