Three years ago, I gave you five jaw-dropping train journeys in Switzerland.
They bring you the comfort and ease of train travel with the beauty of Switzerland's mountains. At the time, I purposely left out a few elephants in the room, including one train that is world renowned, takes you from valleys to peaks and from the Alps to the Mediterranean south. Here is the ultimate guide to the Bernina Express train line!
A brief history of the Bernina Express train line
Before you embark on this fantastic journey, you should know that you will not be on one, but on two amazing railways: the Albula Line and the Bernina Line. Both lines are considered UNESCO World Heritage sites since 2008, with the trendy town of St. Moritz in between.
Both lines opened at slightly different times: 1904 for the Albula Line and 1908 for the Bernina Line. They use different types of electric power, and originally served different purposes for the region.
Then in 1969, the Rhaetian Railways (Rhätische Bahn, RhB) opened a through-and-through service from Chur to Tirano. Bear in mind that there are other services available from Davos, Landquart and St. Moritz. So, wherever you are staying in Graubünden, there will be an opportunity to catch the Bernina Express easily.
While some Bernina Express trains operate on their own, others are attached to the local RhB regional services. Either way, you will recognize the Bernina Express thanks to its imposing panorama windows, available in both first and second class! These will not let you miss any bit of the show.
From Chur to St. Moritz on the Albula Line
The service from Chur leaves at 8:32 AM and takes 4 hours 17 minutes to Tirano. (Try not to be late as this is the only smooth connection without transfers.) Chur is the oldest town in Switzerland and the capital of the Grisons (Canton Graubünden). And as the train pulls out of this historic town, you will first be following the young Rhine river.
Along the river, dozens of castles and fortresses are scattered across the valley, as it used to be an important thoroughfare. Slowly but surely, the train gains altitude. Yet at no point in the entire journey will it need a cogwheel, despite reaching gradients of seven percent!
The Albula railway is known to be braving extreme natural conditions.
The entire journey has no less than 55 impressive tunnels, with three of them being spiral tunnels. Basically, you will be going up and up in a snail-shape manner... There are also 196 bridges, such as this one:
But the most iconic bridge is the six-arched Landwasser Viaduct.
You will easily recognize this masterpiece just outside of Filisur. Traveling across the 136-meter long viaduct may take all but a few seconds, but it is definitely a memorable experience:
There is much to do in Bergün!
While Graubünden is a huge playground, there is one area that particularly caught my fancy: the tobogganing run from Preda to Bergün, which follows the tracks of the train at multiple points. The run lasts half an hour and takes you through 7 kilometers of wooden and alpine territories. It is an amazing experience which shows that getting off the train can also be the fun part of the journey.
The town of Bergün is also home to the Albula Railway Museum. It is a worthwhile destination for those who want to learn about the history and heritage of this technological masterpiece. The museum is packed with interesting artifacts, historical video footage, an area to dress like a conductor as well as a miniature railroad.
The museum is closed on Mondays but opens at 10 AM on remaining days. It would be cumbersome to try and do the Bernina Express to Tirano while also visit the museum. I would suggest making the museum a separate trip entirely because Bergün has much to offer: after the museum visit, you could have lunch at the Kurhaus Bergün, followed by a stroll around the cutesy old town.
From St. Moritz to Poschiavo on the Bernina Line
If you are traveling on the Chur to Tirano service, the train will bypass St. Moritz and you will seamlessly enter the second leg of the journey: the Bernina Line. Unlike the Albula Line which ends in St. Moritz, the Bernina Line has far less tunnels and viaducts as it had to be built with less funding. But this does not mean that it is less impressive!
For instance, consider the majestic Morteratsch Glacier just past Pontresina on your right hand side:
The Bernina Line is all about altitude. It reaches the highest point on the entire trip, the Ospizio Bernina, at 2253 meters above sea. Amazingly, there is no cogwheel technology needed to reach it. This feat makes the Bernina Line the highest railway in Europe without a cogwheel.
Once the train reaches the majestic Lago Bianco and snakes along its banks, it will even stop for fifteen minutes so you can take pictures, soak in the magnificent views and enjoy the sun. Fun fact: this lake is a watershed, feeding the Baltic Sea to the east and the Adriatic Sea to the south.
Alp Grüm is the last stop before the Bernina Express continues its descent towards the Italian border.
In case you decide to hop off here, the lovely Albergo Ristorante Alp Grüm right at the station offers magnificent views from its balcony:
Right below Alp Grüm is this impressive curve which sets the tone for the remaining descent into the valley of Poschiavo:
The outside temperatures will slowly increase, palm trees will pop out here and there, and you will feel like speaking Italian all of a sudden. Your final feat of engineering to notice is the Brusio spiral viaduct, an iconic piece of architecture which helps to limit the gradient to seven degrees. Within a minute, you will be traveling on it - and under it! And just a few moments later, you will enter the town of Tirano with its winding streets.
Some options to continue your trip from Tirano
Once you have made it to Tirano, you have officially left Switzerland and entered Italy. The train will arrive right on time for an Italian pranzo (lunch). From Tirano, you have lots of options. Of course, you could take the Bernina Line back towards St. Moritz. (It leaves about an hour and a half later.)
You could also take an Italian train that will take you to Milan via the banks of Lake Como. In the summer, the Bernina Express experience can also be extended by panoramic bus from Tirano to Lugano. From there, you could continue your Mediterranean experience in Switzerland's Ticino region.
From May 11, the Bernina Express will be extended by 45 kilometers as it will commence in Landquart as opposed to Chur. The scenic ride through the Prättigau valley and a wild gorge between Davos and Filisur looks like a true enrichment for this (already amazing) railway journey.
My advice for traveling on the Bernina Express
With so much to see on both sides of the tracks, there is no particular side I would recommend sitting on. However, it seems that you will generally see more landmarks and highlights by sitting on the right hand side in the direction of the train.
This is true for the Morteratsch Glacier near Pontresina, the Lago Bianco and the Brusio spiral. Also, the Landwasser Viaduct between Filisur and Bergün is best enjoyed by sitting on the right hand side so that you can watch the engine cross the viaduct and enter the tunnel. Genrally speaking, picking a coach at the end of the train allows you to see the front of the train in the curves.
Once you have tried the wide and high panoramic windows, you may think there is no better way to experience the scenery. Wrong! In the summer months, you can choose to hop onto the yellow, open-air carriages. This is an amazing way to also enjoy the fresh mountain air and to take the best pictures.
To me, the Bernina Express may well be the best train experience out there. It is definitely one of the most Swiss trains, crossing so many different types of landscapes, three national languages, and connecting the Alps to the Mediterranean world. And Switzerland is the best country in the world for trains, no?
More information about the Bernina Express
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