Traversing the alps on a train
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Traversing the alps on a train

Ride the Bernina Express to get from glaciers to palm trees in a matter of hours

Traversing the alps on a train

One of the most scenic train journeys in the world, the Bernina Express in Switzerland connects the north of Europe to its south.

Running between Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy, it is a narrow-gauge system that covers a distance of 122km and takes around four hours. The train operates all-year with daily departures each way. No matter the season the Bernina Express offers glaciers, mountaintops, lakes, tunnels… I could go on and on.

It is to note that the journey is only enhanced with the special first class panoramic carriages. The bright red train has specially designed wide glass windows that go almost over the roof bringing the outdoors in, making you one with nature! These carriages require an extra supplemental charge and must be booked in advance.

I took the train from St Mortiz since I was already in the canton of Graubünden. This journey takes around two and a half hours, does not include the north of Graubünden and also ends in Tirano. The entire purpose of the Bernina Express was to be a sightseeing attraction and it does just that. 

ProTip: Make sure you book a seat on the right-hand side of the train, if going north to south and vice versa, for the best views and always be camera ready. The spaces between carriages have small windows that open and offer a glass-free view… for your IG moments. It was recently named Instagram’s favourite train ride. 

The train makes it way through the Unesco World Heritage site of Rhaetian Railway, passing by glaciers on its way down to palm trees. Possibly the best way to cross the Swiss Alps, without skis, the Bernina Express rolls over the 65-metre-high Landwasser Viaduct, the signature structure of the Rhaetian Railway and one of the world’s most iconic railway structures. 

The train also travels through several charming Swiss towns and villages, including Pontresina and Poschiavo, where passengers can disembark and explore the local sights and attractions, if travelling on the classic route. On the ascent to the summit of the  namesake Bernina Pass, you can enjoy views of the surrounding mountains, glaciers and valleys, including the  Morteratsch Glacier, which is one of the largest and most accessible glaciers in the alps.

Being in first class means that instead of buying souvenirs of your journey, you are given them. A train tin of chocolates and a traditional Engadin biscuit. There is catering onboard so you can always buy a glass of prosecco if you wish. 

During the entire journey, the train would have passed through 55 tunnels and goes over more than 196 bridges from Chur to Tirano. Do not miss the Montebello curve with a view of the Bernina massif, the three lakes Lej Pitschen, Lej Nair and Lago Bianco, the Alp Grüm, where the train makes a 15-minute stop for photo ops, and the Brusio Circular Viaduct, a nine-arched stone marvel that doubles back like a double helix to enable the train to gain elevation. 

Once the train starts passing villages that look more Italian than Swiss and rides on the street, because there's not enough space for a road and a rail track, you know you’ve come to the end of the journey. What told me we were in Italy was a classic sight — a couple on a Vespa. We had arrived in Tirano.  

In a country like Switzerland where scenic trains are by the dozen, the Bernina Express stands out, but don’t take IG or my word for it. You have to ride it! 

Bernina Express Factbox

• It is the highest railway journey in Europe, reaching a maximum altitude of 7,392 feet above sea level at the Ospizio Bernina station. 

• An engineering feat, it is also one of the steepest railways journeys, with an incline of up to 7%. 

• The railway takes it all in stride, powered electrically rather than steam or cog wheels.

• It became a Unesco world heritage site in 2008, 100 years after it first opened. 

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