Is it possible to see the best of this beautiful country in the heart of Europe, in 4 days? If you’re adventurous and have a reasonable level of fitness, it can be done. Read on to discover how.
Your time in Europe is limited and there’s so much to see. However to miss this tiny country would be a great pity. The people are courteous and friendly, the lakes breathtaking and the mountain scenery the most spectacular in Europe.
The booking clerk at the Zurich Bahnhoff looked at me with surprise when I presented him with my 4 day Swiss Pass and told him of my travel plans. “I hope you are fit “, he said. Fortunately, Switzerland is compact and its travel system is smooth, punctual and efficient.
Zurich is an ideal starting point because of its transport access to the rest of Europe. Most international airlines fly to Zurich and travelers from London can go by Eurostar to Paris and then by express from Paris to Zurich. Lausanne, just east of the border with France, is a convenient finishing point with its TGV high speed rail connection with Paris. I chose a Swiss pass (which must be purchased before you leave) because it offers cheap unlimited travel on all trains, buses and ferries and discounts on most mountain railways and cable cars.
DAY ONE: ZURICH TO SPIETZ
An early morning departure (7.30AM) from the Zurich Bahnhoff was followed by a short ride south through undulating countryside to Lucerne and the first change of trains. Because of the regularity of trains, it is worthwhile taking a 2 hour stop at this beautiful little city on Lake Lucerne. If you have time, four optional excursions spaced over 2 days are worthwhile.
A steamer trip to the eastern end of Lake Lucerne alighting at Fluelen is recommended. The mountain scenery on the south side of the lake is breathtaking. A quick train journey back to Lucerne completes this half-day excursion.
Two mountain trips are within easy reach of Lucerne. The closest is Mt Pilatus, and my suggestion is to take the cog railway up the south face and return on the cable car as you descend the north face. The views north to Lucerne are some of the finest in Europe. Further afield is Mt Titlis. This requires a bus journey to Engelburg, then a series of cable car rides to the summit with its permanent snow cover. Spectacular views of the main mountain peaks in Switzerland await you. The fourth major attraction in Lucerne is the transport museum: reputed to be the finest in Europe.
The next part of the journey is over the top of the Brunig pass. A cog railway is necessary because of the steep gradients ascending and descending these mountain passes. It is worth taking an hour’s stop at the pretty village of Brienz on the north shore of Lake Brienz, before continuing on to Interlaken and the next change of trains.
Interlaken is an ideal base to explore the magnificent mountain scenery of the Bernese Oberland including Jungfrau, one of the highest peaks in Switzerland. A rapid train journey to Thun is followed by a walk down to the harbour to join the ferry for a 1-hour voyage to Spietz, the overnight stop. I would strongly recommend this late afternoon ferry journey on one of the prettiest lakes in Europe.
DAY TWO: BRIENZ to LOCARNO
This spectacular journey includes 2 of Europe’s major tunnels: Lotschberg and Simplon and travels south through high alpine scenery to Ticino, the southernmost and warmest canton in Switzerland. The descent to Brig with views of the Rhone Valley on the right is particularly spectacular. At Brig, following another train change, we travel through the Simplon tunnel to Italy.
Leaving the train at Domodossola, the journey continues on a quaint little privately owned railway to the overnight stop at Locarno. This journey on the Centovalli railway is strongly recommended because of the spectacular gorges and ravines en route. Sit on the right side of the train for the best views.
Locarno has a beautiful location at the top end of Lake Maggiore and a visit to the Madonna Del Sasso church, a short funicular journey from the heart of town, will reward you with magnificent views over the lake.
DAY THREE: LOCARNO to St MORITZ
An early morning train journey to Lugano will be necessary for a connection to the Palm Express: a bus trip over the Majola pass to St Moritz. These Swiss postal buses negotiate terrain which is too steep for trains and the winding journey to the top of the pass is breathtaking. To my surprise, particularly as I was told that bookings were essential, I was the only passenger. The joys of off season traveling resulted in the driver stopping at my whims. He even asked where I wanted to stop for coffee!
St Moritz is the starting point for two of the most outstanding train journeys in Europe: the Bernina Express and the Glacier Express. Most overseas travelers board the Bernina Express and travel to Tirano in Italy but as my time was short and acting on advice from the station master at St Moritz, I left the train at Alp Grum (the top of the Bernina Pass), enjoyed a coffee and the spectacular Alpine views at the summit, before boarding another train an hour later for the return trip to St Moritz.
The Bernina Express journey is on the highest non-cog railway in Europe and the high alpine glaciers and snow-capped peaks viewed on both sides of the train completed a memorable day.
DAY FOUR: St MORITZ to LAUSANNE
The final day of my Swiss pass took me on a 7 hour journey through some of the most breathtaking scenery in Europe. The Glacier Express journey from St Moritz to Zermatt is one of the most popular in Europe and is almost always fully booked. For the first time, I did not have to change trains, enabling me to sit back and enjoy the high alpine scenery of rural Switzerland with its meadows, tiny villages, the sound of cowbells, the distant sound of church bells and the brilliant clear bracing mountain air. Every bend and every tunnel exit presented different vistas, but probably the most spectacular was the descent from Oberalp Pass to Andermatt. The views were unforgettable. The Glacier Express arrived in Zermatt in the late afternoon and unfortunately the Matterhorn was covered in cloud. I reluctantly had to cancel a cog railway ascent to Gornergrat, a high plateau just below the summit of this spectacular mountain. It was here that I wished I had more time. The mountain walks around Zermatt are some of the finest in Europe. Another day perhaps!
So it was down the mountain to Visp to join a mainline express through the Rhone Valley for an overnight stop at Lausanne. Sadly most of this journey was at night. It did, however, give me peace of mind knowing that I would not miss my early morning TGV connection from Lausanne to Paris. Maybe next time, I’ll take the 8-day pass!
If you wish to combine travel in Switzerland with a number of other countries, a Eurail Pass gives you a number of flexible options.