Travelling around Switzerland is easy, affordable and – undoubtably– spectacular. Here are 5 reasons to ignore the car and instead discover Switzerland by boat, bus and rail…
Switzerland’s famed efficiency might not be as thrilling a selling point as its chocolate and mountains, but it certainly makes travelling the country every bit as fun. Put simply: everything here works. No other country does public transport better, despite the challenges of having to move a lot of people around somewhat testing topography.
The Swiss rail timetable is planned to the second. Around 90% of Swiss trains arrive on time and 98% of passengers that have to change trains make their connections. Delays and cancellations are rare which, for travellers, means stress-free trips. As your train sits at the platform, you can watch the minute hand of the Swiss railway clock – a design icon – flick to the departure time, and feel the train pull away at the same instant.
It’s no chore to travel by train in Switzerland. In fact, it’s a pleasure. Even in second class the carriages are spacious and the seating comfortable, with most trains featuring tables, foot rests and charging points. Some services even have proper restaurants where you can sit at a white-linened table and order dishes ranging from Zurich-style veal to Ticino polenta.
The timetable is designed to be convenient too. For instance, intercity trains usually leave on the hour and half-hour – easy to remember – and are planned to connect with other services (not just trains, but also boats and buses). This makes multi-stage journeys swift and hassle-free.
It’s also good to know that you’re helping the planet. The Swiss network is electrified, with most of that electricity generated by clean hydro-power. Consequently, Switzerland’s railways are among the most energy efficient in the world.
If you don’t want to heft your own bags, use one of SBBs luggage transfer services. Options include station-to-station transfers and even door-to-door – your bag will be picked up from your hotel and dropped at your next one.
Despite its small proportions, Switzerland has a huge rail system – the densest in Europe. It’s also one of the most ingenious, with all manner of clever tunnels, gradient-conquering loops and precipitous bridges employed to forge a way under and over the country’s peaks and undulations.
As such, trains can take you to all corners of the country. There are speedy intercity routes linking the main stations – Bern to Lucerne in just an hour, for example. There are frequent suburban links, for easy day-trips. There are even places that only trains can go, such as accessing car-free Zermatt, up into the mountains or into rural villages. You could land at an international airport mid-morning and, by noon, be lunching on a plate of alpine cheese amid the pastures from which it came. And even if there isn’t a train to take you where you want to go, there will likely be another fantastic form of public transport that will.
A Swiss Pass allows unlimited travel on the Swiss Travel System network (including rail, bus and boat journeys) plus a 50% discount on many mountain trains and cable cars, and free entry to 500-plus museums. Passes are available in durations of three, four, eight or 15 days.
Switzerland isn’t all about bog-standard locomotives. The country’s transport network extends to vintage and themed trains, elegant boats, far-reaching post buses and even cablecars and funiculars, all working together in perfect synchronicity.
This diversity isn’t only useful, it’s a lot of fun. For instance, taking an old paddle steamer across Lake Brienz doesn’t only get you where you’re going, it doubles as a pleasure cruise, offering a closer view of the villages on the water’s edge. Riding the first-class Chocolate Train combines travel and tastings. Ascending Mount Pilatus by train affords both fantastic views of Lake Lucerne and the chance to experience the world’s steepest railway, which first opened in 1889.
So many of Switzerland’s modes of transport are blasts from the past, from a range of 19th-century funiculars to train journeys through old tunnels. But there are state-of-the-art innovations too. Opened in 2012, the Stanserhorn’s CabriO, which climbs high above the lush Lucerne region, is the world’s first double-decker convertible cableway.
Combine public transport with cycling. Bicycles can be carried on most Swiss trains, buses and boats; some services require bike reservations, which can be made up to five minutes before departure. Some train stations offer bike rental and allow you to return the bike to a different station.
Last but certainly not least, the main reason to explore Switzerland by public transport is the breathtaking view unfolding beyond the window. And, because you’re not at the wheel, it’s a view you can get totally lost in; all you need to concentrate on is gazing in awe.
Every mile brings a new perspective – of glittering lakes, cow-nibbled pastures, flower-strewn meadows, rippling foothills and gargantuan mountains. Travelling this way, you see one landscape segue into another, the country transitioning, rolling and rearing before your eyes, providing a more complete picture of how Switzerland ticks.
All Swiss journeys have their pleasures, but some really wow. The GoldenPass line is one such route – a spectacular ride between Montreux and Lucerne that encompasses three mountain passes, eight lakes and an array of 4,000m-high peaks. Or, for the ultimate high, try the journey from lake-straddling Interlaken to the Jungfraujoch, the continent’s highest station: first make the pretty trundle down the Lauterbrunnen valley, then board the historic Wengernalp rack railway to Kleine Scheidegg before hopping on the Jungfrau Railway. In just two hours you can be standing on the top of Europe.
Seat reservations aren’t possible (or necessary) on most Swiss trains. However, on popular tourist routes, such as the Glacier Express and GoldenPass Line, making a reservation is recommended, especially to ensure a window seat.
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