Glacier Express in Switzerland – Experiences and Information

HOW TO BOOK YOUR GLACIER EXPRESS RIDE + HONEST FEEDBACK

If you are planning your Switzerland itinerary, you might want to consider adding a “Glacier Express“ ride to it. Why? Riding the Glacier Express is once in a lifetime experience! 

Without a doubt, it is one of the best train rides in Switzerland, and probably in the whole world. If you enjoy scenic train rides this is for you. If you do not enjoy train rides you probably have not been on a train ride in Switzerland – let alone on the Glacier Express.

This post is all about the Glacier Express. So, here is everything you need to know about the Glacier Express: prices, booking information, route, stops, and more. You will also find out about my conclusion if the Glacier Express is worth it and alternatives to the Glacier Express.

The Glacier Express crosses the central Swiss Alps to connect the two most famous mountain resorts in Switzerland, St. Moritz and Zermatt. This direct train is also called “the slowest train in the world” and it passes through 91 tunnels and more than 291 bridges! 

RHAETISCHE BAHN: Bernina Express- Albulalinie
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swiss-image.ch/Peter Donatsch

Is the Glacier Express special?

Let me be honest: these are some of the best window views you will see from a train. Not only St.Moritz and Zermatt (the starting and endpoint of the trip) are gorgeous, but the whole train ride is just wonderful.

HOWEVER, there are a couple of not-so-positive aspects, too which I will take about here as well.

WHAT IS THE GLACIER EXPRESS – FACTS

Before we get to the detailed itinerary, here are some interesting facts about the Glacier Express.

  • Start and end: The journey starts in Zermatt (Valais Canton, in the West) and ends in St. Moritz (Graubünden Canton, in the East). Of course, you can do it also the other way around. Alternatively, you can also take the Glacier Express from Zermatt to Davos instead of St.Moritz.
  • Stops: Zermatt, Brig, Andermatt, Disentis, Chur, Tiefencastel, Filisur (change here if you want to get to Davos), Samedan, St. Moritz (or Davos alternatively).
  • You can also get on or off at any of the stops. Of course, your tickets need to match, it is not a hop-on hop-off train.
  • Length: 291 km
  • Duration: Approximately 8 hours, all during the day (there isn’t any night train)
  • Elevation change: The start at Zermatt is at 1606 meters, then the Glacier Express descends to 651 meters close to Brig, it climbs up to 2034 meters after Andermatt (Oberalp Pass, its highest point), it descends again to 585 meters at Chur (its lowest point), and finally it reaches St. Moritz at about 1800 meters.
  • Tunnels: It goes through 91 tunnels, such as the Furka tunnel (15,4-km-long) and the Album tunnel (5,8-km-long). 
  • Bridges: The Glacier Express crosses 291 bridges, including the famous Landwasser Viaduct.

HOW OFTEN DOES THE EXPRESS GLACIER RUN?

  • Operating period: The Glacier Express operates year-round, except for approximately 6 weeks from the end of October to mid-December.
  • Frequency: One train/day during the winter (from mid-December to mid-May). Two trains/day from mid-April, four trains/day during the summer (from mid-May to mid-October) (only two summer trains go the whole way).

GLACIER EXPRESS SERVICES

  • Toilets: There are several toilets on boards which are nicer than the average train toilets.
  • Accessibility: There is a wheelchair compartment and a toilet suitable for disabled people – just contact the Glacier Express Central Reservations. 
  • You get food served on your seat. Food prices are similar to regular restaurant prices in Switzerland. You can also bring your own food and drinks. 
  • If you have luggage, you can put it between the seat backs, and there is also a small luggage area.
  • Animals: Unfortunately dogs can’t ride on the Glacier Express (except for guide dogs).
  • Photographers should be prepared for the glare of the windows, which will affect your pictures. There is a photo compartment which, however, was closed during the time of my trip. BUT you can open the windows between the compartments. It can be quite busy at times because many people want to take pictures without the glare of the windows and you always have to leave your seat for taking pictures.
  • The carriages are air-conditioned during the summer and heated during the winter.

Glacier Express in Switzerland 1 class
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WHAT CLASSES TO BOOK FOR GLACIER EXPRESS

Apart from the direct direction, the panorama express (PE) trains in Switzerland, the Glacier Express have all big panorama windows which allow you to enjoy better views. Windows are very large on all classes!

Glacier Express in Switzerland
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So, what is the difference between the classes?

  • The 2nd Class on the Glacier Express has two seats per side and four seats per row (so a 2-2 configuration on both sides).
  • The 1st class on has two seats on one side and one seat on the other (so a 2-2 configuration facing each other on one side, and a 1-1 on the other side). So, people enjoy more space in the 1st class. 
  •  There is also an additional new class known as the Excellence Class which has one seat per side and enormous windows, plus a 5-course menu with wine. This class is only available during the summer months.

Glacier Express window views
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PRICES FOR GLACIER EXPRESS – TICKETS

  • The Glacier Express is free with a Swiss Travel Pass. But you have to make a compulsory reservation in advance (approx. 37€ in low season, 47€ in high season).
  • Without Swiss Travel Pass, tickets start at approx. 135€, plus the compulsory reservation fee.
  • Children under 6 travel for free, children from 6 to 16 pay half price plus the full reservation fee. 
  • You do not have to do the full train ride and you can also book a shorter part of the ride – the ticket is cheaper as is the reservation fee. 
  • A reservation in advance is compulsory. During high season it is highly recommended to book in advance as it can be booked quickly. 
  • You can buy your Swiss Travel Pass here. In this case, you will only need to make a reservation.
  • Booking: If you do not have a Swiss Travel Pass, buy your ticket on the official site. You have to choose your seat too, but the site does not show in which direction the train is going. Window seats start to get booked approximately 3 months in advance in the busy summer months.

Even though it is called the Glacier Express, unfortunately, you won’t really see any glaciers, as they are up on top of the mountains. Also, it is not called “express” because it is fast, but because it is a direct train and it is faster than changing trains several times.

GLACIER EXPRESS ROUTE DESCRIPTION

But what do you see during those 8 hours on the Glacier Express? Keep reading to find out. I start with Zermatt but of course, you can also start in St.Moritz and end the ride in Zermatt.

ZERMATT

Zermatt is one of the prime resort towns in Switzerland. It is known as one of the best places to ski in Switzerland. However, Zermatt is so much more.

Riffelsee in Zermatt with Matterhorn
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It is a perfect destination for any time of the year – offering many hiking trails or easily accessible mountain peaks via cable car. But the village center itself is also cute and let´s not forget THE main attraction in Zermatt: The Matterhorn Mountain.

I recommend staying at least a day in Zermatt (2 days would be better) before you start your Glacier Express ride.

The train station in Zermatt is quite small and in the heart of the town center. It is time to start your trip.

FROM ZERMATT TO BIRG

Say goodbye to the stunning Matterhorn! Once you depart from the Zermatt station, the Glacier Express follows the Matter Vispa river down the valley.

In 1 hour and 20 minutes, the train descends from 1606 meters of altitude at Zermatt to just around 600 meters at Brig. 

You’ll cross from this side of the river to the other along this beautiful valley lined with villages. On the steepest parts of this line, a cogwheel under the locomotive engages with a toothed rack in order to maintain its grip better.

Some parts of the Matter valley are quite narrow between impressive peaks, while others are more open; you’ll find yourself next to the road and also really close to the river.

Near Brig
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Brig to Zermatt in Glacier Express
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The town before Brig is Visp, where the Vispa river meets the Rhone river. Here is where the Glacier Express turns east and travels flat for a while, before climbing up the Upper Rhine Valley. 

This part of the Glacier Express ride is beautiful – it will get better later on but it is already a beautiful train ride.

The Brig Station is an important one (though not really pretty), with trains going to many Swiss cities, Geneva, and also Domodossola in Italy. 

FROM BIRG TO ANDERMATT

After a few short minutes, the Glacier Express departs towards Andermatt (1437 meters above sea level). It takes approximately 1,5 hours to get there.

Andermatt to Ilanz
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The wide Upper Rhone Valley is also dotted with pretty villages, wooden houses, and cute churches. During the summer, the balconies are decorated with flowers. Where there aren’t any towns, it’s lakes and forests and pastures, spectacular scenery at any time of the year.

And then, right after the town of Oberwald, starts the Furka Base Tunnel. This 15,4-km-long tunnel bypasses the Furka Pass, which is covered in snow during the winter and climbs some 200 meters of altitude. It takes approximately 30 minutes from one side to the other! 

Andermatt to Ilanz
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Shortly after the end of the tunnel, you will arrive in Andermatt. 

Before arriving/After leaving Birg, the scenery is a little less spectacular but the close you get to Andermatt, the prettier it gets.

Tip: if you are curious about the actual Furka Pass, check out the tourist steam trains that run during the summer. 

FROM ANDERMATT TO DISENTIS

The Glacier Express stops for a few minutes at Andermatt Station, so you can get out and stretch your legs quickly. It will take approximately one hour before the next stop.

From 1436 meters, the train starts the ascent to the Oberalp Pass, the highest point of the ride at 2033 meters of altitude. Expect snow from November to April! 

Oberalpsee at Oberalppass
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There will be some curves, tunnels, and cogwheel action, and at the top, you’ll be rewarded with the beautiful Oberalp Lake.

In the summer months, you will see many people around – it is a popular spot for road trippers or motorcyclists but it is also popular amongst hikers. Many start their hike to the source of the Rhine River, Lake Toma, from here.

So, do not be surprised to see the many people here in the summer months.

Glacier Express in October
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The next stop – Disentis – is at 1130 meters of altitude, and the descent will be peaceful through some tunnels and with the view of the gorgeous valley on the right.

In the winter, the Oberalp Lake might be frozen and covered in snow. So, you will not see much of it, however, this is one of the most beautiful parts of the ride.

Oberalppass in Switzerland in winter
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Hungry? You’re halfway through your journey and it’s time for lunch. You can order a dish on the train, or enjoy your own food and snacks.

FROM DISENTIS TO CHUR

When you arrive at Disentis, you’ll get 10 minutes to walk a bit on the platform. The next leg of the journey takes 1 hour and 20 minutes.

The Glacier Express now makes its way down the wide and lush Rhine Valley.

Rheinschlucht via Glacier Express
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The famous Rhine Gorge is the part between Ilanz and Reichenau, where the river carved deep into white rocks during thousands of years. The views are truly fantastic! The train runs at the bottom, along the river, and you can admire the steep sides of the valley around you. It’s called the “Swiss Grand Canyon” for a reason! 

Rhine Gorge in Switzerland
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This part – from Ilanz to Reichenau – is one of my favorite parts of the trip. While the Glacier Express rides along the Rhine Gorge for quite a long time, these few minutes are really amazing.

At the pretty village of Reichenau, with its picturesque church and castle on a hill, the Glacier Express continues straight until Chur.

FROM CHUR TO TIEFENCASTEL

The town of Chur is at 585 meters of altitude, the lowest point of the ride. It is also the largest town of the route, the capital of Graubünden canton, and one of the oldest settlements in all of Switzerland. 

Chur is a terminus, so you will pass again by Reichenau on the way out – and of course, you change direction. 

The Chur-St Moritz line is part of Glacier Express and also of the Bernina Express route. So, technically, you could spend the night in Chur, and hop on the Bernina Express route another day to see the last part until St. Moritz and much more.

It takes almost 1 hour until the next stop: during this time, you’ll pass through Domleschg Valley and see lots of ruins and castles. 

ALBULA LINE

The Glacier Express now enters the Albula Valley and the Albula Line starts.

The Albula Line is considered a masterpiece in terms of railway engineering and routing. The RhB opened the spectacular section of track between Thusis and St. Moritz in 1903. The Albula/Bernina railway line is listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site and the route itself covers 122 kilometers from Thusis to Tirano, passing 196 bridges, 55 tunnels, and 20 towns along the way. 

However, since we only go to St. Moritz (the route from Thusis to Tirano is part of the Bernina Express) it is a 62-kilometer line. 

This is what you will see for the next hour: bridges, gorges, tunnels, and more.

Albula Line near Bergün
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Here is where my favorite part of the Glacier Expres starts. From Thusis onwards it becomes spectacular.

FROM TIEFENCASTEL TO FILISUR

This leg of the journey – from Tiefencastle to Filisur – takes just 10 minutes.

Just before Filisur, there is the Landwasser Viadukt, often used for postcards and ads of the Glacier Express. It is truly epic: the railway runs along the edge of a mountain, goes into a short tunnel, and suddenly it’s there!

The viaduct takes the train straight into a tunnel. It is 136 meters long, supported by 6 arches that are 65 meters high.

Glacier Express, Landwasserviadukt bei Filius, Graubünden / Picture Credit: Swiss Travel Pass AG
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Swiss Travel Pass AG
  • This part of the train ride is truly magical – whether you do it in summer, fall, winter, or spring. This is one of the best parts of the whole ride. This part just lasts a few minutes so make sure to not be occupied with something else during the time. Keep your eyes open and enjoy the window views!

The Glacier Express stops in Filisur to allow passengers to go to the ski resort of Davos (with a local train). If you go to St.Moritz, stay on the train and enjoy some more amazing views!

FROM FILISUR TO SAMEDAN

It is time to gain some height. Along the Albula line, the Glacier Express makes some spiral loops. After a full circle in a tunnel, you’ll be at the famous “photo spot on Albula line”: from this point, you can see from below the viaduct that the train will cross in a few minutes, after another spiral loop.

Albula Pass
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Albula Pass in fall
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Train ride, Albula Line
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However, you have to be attentive – the train is quite fast and it seems that the whole ride – from Thusis to Samedan – is over before you can blink with your eyes.

Shortly after, the train enters the 5,8-km-long Albula tunnel, before arriving at Samedan.

  • I do not enjoy the rides in the tunnel because there is not much to see, but this part – from Filisur to Preda – is one of the most scenic train rides you can have. 

FROM SAMEDAN TO ST.MORITZ

You’re almost there! You are now in the Engadin Valley, one of my favorite fall destinations in Switzerland.

In just 15 minutes you will be in St. Moritz. The Glacier Express climbs steadily these last meters until it reaches 1822 meters above sea level. One last tunnel and you’ll be at your destination.

Window views in Glacier Express via Davos
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This is a beautiful ride though not as spectacular ad the part from Thusis to Filisur.

ST.MORITZ

St.Moritz – the end or start point of the Glacier Express. This includes several lakes (including Lake Silser and Silvaplana) just in front of Zermatt as well as mountain peaks that offer impressive views.

St Moritz in winter
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For the longest time, I avoided St. Moritz because of its reputation being a place for the “rich and beautiful”. But now, that I visited myself I highly suggest staying here for a day or two.

St. Moritz for many years was a place I tried to avoid – thinking it was a boring place for the rich only. But I was wrong. St.Moritz is stunning. Not the village center itself but the scenery in Engadin and St.Moritz is one of the best in all of Switzerland. I recommend staying here at least 2 nights, exploring the area and also doing the Bernina Express train ride to see more stunning parts of Valposchiavo.

ALTERNATIVELY: FROM FILISUR TO DAVOS

If you want to get to Davos, change in Filisur and hop on a regional train (Rhaetische Bahn) to Davos. It is just a 25-minute train ride but you will not be disappointed. The views are great. You will see more viaducts, more tunnels, more rivers, and gorges.

Davos itself is not the most impressive travel destination but the train ride is quite pretty!

DOWNSIDES OF GLACIER EXPRESS

The Glacier Express is a phenomenal way to get from Zermatt to St. Moritz or the other way around. It will allow you to see some of the most spectacular sceneries in Switzerland. However, there are a few aspects I have issues with and I am here to talk openly about it.

Window Views from Glacier Express
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Price: Apart from the ticket price, there is a reservation fee which is…high! There is no other way to put it. Even with a Swiss Travel Pass or Eurorail, you have to pay that fee. It is just too high if you ask me. During shoulder season it is around 37CHF and during the summer months, it is 47CHF. 

Long Train Ride and No Option to Get Out: If you are fine to pay the price you should know that you cannot get out. No, it is not a prison but there is also not a hop-on and hop-on option. Yes, there are a few 10-minute stops along the way to stretch your legs but you cannot get out to see certain places for more than just a few minutes.

This is unfortunate because I love to get out at certain places.

There are some places you might want to spend an hour – for example at Oberalp Lake. You might want to do a short walk along the Rhine Gorge. You might want to get out at the Filisur hike to Landwasser Viadukt viewpoint. You might want to get out in Brig and take a bus to the Aletsch Glacier. You might want to explore the cute village of Andermatt.

You see, there are a few places/activities you would like to do along the way.

ALTERNATIVES TO GLACIER EXPRESS

As mentioned, the Glacier Express has some major downsides. So, what is the alternative? Is there an alternative to Glacier Express? 

I have some good news for you: You can do the Glacier Express on the cheap. How? Okay, it is not 100% the same but there is a cheaper and maybe better alternative for you.

Instead of taking the famous Glacier Express, you can take just local trains. These local trains do not require a reservation and you can get out whenever you want to if you have a Swiss Travel Pass/certain ticket. There is no need to worry about losing your reservation and paying twice for it. 

You can get out at a stop or two (depending on how much time you have) and do some walking and hiking. 

What are the local trains like? They are great! They do not have huge panoramic windows but apart from it, the local trains are as good as the Glacier Express. Some of the pictures I took were from local trains (because you can open windows).

However, there is no direct train connection from Zermatt to St. Moritz which means you have to change trains a couple of times (from Zermatt to Visp, from Visp to Andermatt, from Andermatt to Disentis, from Disentis to Reichenau -Tamins and from Reichenau-Tamins to St.Moritz-  you will not need to go all the way to CHur as that part is also not so scenic but change in Reichenau-Tamins already). 

So, if you need to get all the way from Zermatt to St.Moritz the direct Glacier Express might be the best choice.

TIP: There is a faster train ride from Zermatt to St.Moritz – but it goes via Zurich and you will kip some of the best places, so I definitely recommend doing the Glacier Express route even if you take the local trains.

CONCLUSION: GLACIER EXPRESS TRAIN RIDE

As you can see, the Glacier Express is an incredible experience.

In just a day, you get to see all the wonderful sceneries of Switzerland: valleys and peaks, rivers and gorges, towns and forests, and vineyards and pastures. Thanks to the huge windows, even if you are sitting by the corridor, you’ll still enjoy the stunning views.

It might have its flaws but it is an overall great experience.

 

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