The Glacier Express is Switzerland’s crowning jewel of rail travel. Travelling by train is without a doubt the best way to see the Swiss countryside and for anyone who has partaken in some or all of the Glacier Express journey, you will know what I mean when I say it is a once in a lifetime experience. But is it all it is cracked up to be?
I recently travelled on the Glacier Express for the full journey from Zermatt to St Moritz to see whether it is truly as impressive as it looks at first glance. The journey, as magical as it was, did have a few flaws and for the purpose of review you will find a full overview in this feature on the famous Glacier Express!
The Glacier Express
Although classified as an express train, the Glacier Express runs in full length from Zermatt to St Moritz (and vice versa) in around 8 hours. Thus it has been self-dubbed the world’s “slowest express train”. Much of the journey travels through the Swiss Alps, as well as a portion of the journey running through the UNESCO World Heritage recognised Bernina landscapes.
The full journey passes over 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels, with the most impressive points of the journey being over the Landwasser viaduct, through the Rhine Gorge and the many countryside towns seen through the Bernina landscapes.
First or Second Class?
As we were travelling with a Eurail Global Pass in first class, we opted to take the journey in first class but were surprised by what little difference there is between the two classes.
The main difference between the two classes was space, though first class wasn’t much different to second and with the same table service + menu, I would recommend taking the journey in both classes – depending on your preference.
What I did notice later in the journey was that the windows in second class were able to be opened, whereas the windows in first class are fixed and result in a strong glare in all of your photos (ugh!) Thus if you are travelling on the Glacier Express for the purpose of taking nice photos of the scenery, I would suggest travelling in second class as a better option.
We started our journey in Switzerland’s most famous ski resort town; Zermatt. This is the beginning or end of the journey (depending in which direction you travel) and is the perfect winter playground to spend a few days to a week in the snow, enjoying the range of activities on offer.
The Glacier Express takes the following route through the Swiss countryside: Zermatt – Visp – Brig – Andermatt – Disentis – Chur – St Moritz (or Davos).
Each stop allows enough time to get some fresh air outside of the train, with a longer stop (30 minutes) in Disentis, allowing enough time to disembark and stretch the legs or purchase some snacks at a fraction of the price you will pay on board.
Villages & Towns
With around 8 hours on board there is more than enough time to experience the Swiss countryside from the comfort of your window. Not only does the Glacier Express stop in a number of Swiss towns, but also passes effortlessly by a number of smaller villages and regions.
From Zermatt, the train descends through the Mattertal line, passing through a handful of small towns such as Täsch, Randa, St. Niklaus, Stalden, and larger towns like Visp and Brig.
From here the train passes through the Furka section, into a winter wonderland as you pass through Andermatt, another popular ski destination.
Onwards to Chur, the train then passes through the impressive Rhine Gorge – home to huge rock faces and a turquoise river that is very popular for locals to enjoy water activities such as kayaking and canoeing.
From Chur the train heads onwards through the Albula line and passes some of the most impressive scenery of the entire journey. This is where you will see the famous Landwasser viaduct (a great photo opportunity) and a number of castles in the mountains and valleys.
Service & Food
This feature/review wouldn’t be balanced without mention of some of the downsides to the Glacier Express, or at least to paint a realistic picture of what to expect beyond the amazing scenery.
The service on board was very attentive and polite, though the menu itself was a bit of a let down. As the train journey includes table service I was excited to spend an hour or more of the journey indulging in local cuisine to help pass the time.
I read a few reviews prior to our journey, all of which didn’t look too favourably on the food, so upon seeing the prices of the food on board we decided to give it a miss. There were a few vegetarian options which was great to see, however it was hard to justify spending around $60 on lunch with an additional $9 for a soft drink or small bottle of water.
The journey ends (or begins for travellers heading in the opposite direction) in St Moritz, infamously known as the winter playground for the International Elite (translation: its expensive).
Popular in both winter and summer, there isn’t a great deal to do in St Moritz outside of these seasons and as we came to learn, it becomes quite a ghost town outside of these times.
Regardless it was a nice pit stop for a couple of nights after such a long travel day and we used this time to refresh before the onward journey to the Italian lakes district!
Thanks to My Switzerland for arranging my visit to Switzerland and journey on the Glacier Express railway.