There’s something about train travel that soothes the soul. The slow chug along a set path familiar to the engine but awaiting your adventure. The slow hum of the engine with a set destination, and the gentle lull of the coach around bends, train travel is already magnificent, but in Switzerland, it’s simply divine. I arrived in Zurich anxious about the three train connections I had to make to Lugano. “What if I miss one?” I think. “What happens?” But the Swiss efficiency leaves no room for error and in two hours I am teetering on the Italian border, in the South of Switzerland.
Prior to the late 19th century in Europe, train travel was considered a means of transportation for both passengers and products. But soon after The Gotthard Railway Tunnel opened in Switzerland in 1882, the expansion of the Rhaetian Railway network began, creating a new role for the railway. “Between 1888 and 1914, 40 cable cars and 13 cog railways were built,” explains Jennifer Cirignotta, European Marketing Director of Rhätische Bahn AG. During this period, the Thusis to St. Moritz line opened in 1904, of which Cirignotta notes, “The number of hotels, especially the Grand Hotels, doubled from about 1700 to over 3500 and towns such as Lucerne, Zermatt and St. Moritz developed into world-famous travel destinations. Thus began the upswing of tourism.”
It’s no wonder, then, that almost 100 years later, in 2008, UNESCO recognized the 80 miles of Rhaetian Railway as a World Heritage Site; a declaration emphasizing both the “outstanding technical ensemble” and “architectural and civil engineering achievement” along the Albula-Bernina Railway. The recognition for human achievement to exist so “harmoniously” in the landscapes along the 80 miles of development is something I witnessed first hand as the Bernina Express transported me through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges, from the palm trees of Tirano to the snow-covered high Alps. Of all the rolling hills passed, and clusters of wooden farmhouses, these are 5 of the cutest towns you can visit via the Bernina Express (one is even in Italy!):
This former fishermen’s village is now an architect haven’s dream, nature lover’s vision and wine connoisseur’s taste. The sleepy Swiss town in the Ticino canton is an effortless day trip from Zurich or an endless starting point for the curious traveler hoping to discover Italian charm with Swiss customs. A leisurely itinerary includes meandering through the former fishing village of Gandria, enjoying the “lidos” as designated swim areas on Lake Lugano and, of course, visiting the local wineries for a taste of both the red and white merlot.
Just 30 minutes from Lugano lies the Italian border, which once crossed, winds you down the mountainside of Lake Como. While you have to hop on a bus for this part, the route is technically part of the Bernina Express, therefore, an accessible, addition to your Swiss experience; highlighting the proximity of cultures that the country borders. After 90 minutes of stunning Como-side mansions, you’ll find yourself in the midst of Ticino, the idyllic square to indulge in the Italian way of life. An afternoon trip en route to your next overnight location is enough time to fit in the essentials of espresso, gelato and risotto before crossing the border and re-entering Switzerland. Two countries in one day? That’s an experience.
Nestled between the eternal snow of St Moritz and palm trees of Ticino, this Swiss village embodies the tranquil lifestyle of a mountain village. It’s here where you’ll find Hotel Albrici, constructed in the early 1600s and opened as a hotel in the 1800s. The charming romance of this historic property is an ode to the village’s test of time and provides guests with an idyllic location in the center of the main square surrounded by Venetian-inspired architecture–if not for a night, at least for an aperitif. Not far from the fairytale home-lined streets, the lake of Poschiavo tempts you to spend time swimming, fishing, or simply basking in the sun on the shores with a backdrop of snow-covered peaks. A night here will take you back in time.
Known as the little sister town to St. Mortiz, Pontresina is a serene summer hideaway, while in the winter it comes alive as a ski resort village. Use the warmer summer days to take advantage of the unparalleled hiking opportunities to peaks like Muottas Muragal, for that postcard view of the Swiss Alps; vivid green contrasting the white mountains. From downtown Pontresina, it’s worth hopping a train to Alp Grüm, a 45-minute, upward journey to explore the mountains in the clouds and a three dimensional view of the Vadret da Palü glacier. It’s also worth hopping a local line, like the Alpine Classic Pullman to explore St. Moritz and compare the glitzy storefronts to the more modest offerings found in Pontresina.
Famed for its self-titled Appenzeller cheese, you may have already heard of this farming town with its endless rolling hills and pastel-painted wooden cottages. On approach to the town, cows graze with their bells gently ringing a soothing soundtrack tailored to the summer landscape of flowers and high grass. While the countryside offers days of hiking trails for the adventurer, the compact city shows off artisan shops, like Flauderei, locally crafted syrups and alcohols, and Café-Confiserie Laimbacher for freshly baked goods like chremfli, a doughy pastry with nut filling, something reminiscent of a fig newton. Don’t forget to look up to take in the ornately hand-painted signs over each shop, a traditional indicator as to preview what you’ll find in the shop before entering. As Switzerland’s smallest canton, population 16,000, you’ll quickly feel at home here, and may even want to extend your stay.
And while the accessibility to these villages, and the village atmosphere themselves, were striking, it was being on the train—the journey—that resonated the most. The stark difference of train travel from the US to the Swiss way was apparent in the coaches with open windows, zero delays, the coach classes, and of course, the landscape. The twists and turns that took me along lakes, small villages, and through viaducts—probably the most stereotypical Swiss picture you can envision in train travel. And all throughout, there’s this universal camaraderie of being on the train and knowing it’s special, after all, it’s one of the many reasons why people travel to Switzerland.