Trip of a lifetime on the Bernina Express

Many believe the Bernina line to be one of the finest stretches of railway in all of Europe and even the world. Winding its way slowly through the Swiss Alps, the route dazzles passengers with views of glaciers and streams, crystalline lakes and snow-capped mountains.

Once a day, the little red Bernina Express climbs at times at an almost gravity-defying gradient towards the Bernina Pass and the continent’s highest rail crossing. Beyond lies the small Italian town of Tirano, whose palm trees and Mediterranean vibe juxtapose the route’s otherwise alpine atmosphere.

Thanks to the train’s spacious observation carriages, you can enjoy panoramic views of the passing landscape as well as of 196 viaducts and bridges, including the famous spiral viaduct at Brusio, a true marvel of Swiss engineering.

Every hour the train’s operator, Rhaetian Railway, also runs regional trains along the same route. While they don’t feature the viewing carriages of the Express, they do grant you more flexibility by allowing you to hop on and off wherever you’d like.

With around 100,000 passengers a year, this journey does not exactly fall under ‘off the beaten track’. But a ride on the Bernina Railway – a UNESCO World Heritage Site – is an unforgettable experience and should be at the top of everybody’s bucket list.

Highlights on this route

Chur

Switzerland’s oldest town, with a history of over 5000 years, boasts a picturesque old town full of winding alleys that are considered the best preserved in the country. Chur is the ideal starting point for both the Glacier Express and the Bernina Express.

Landwasser Viaduct

Perched between two tunnels high above the deep Landwasser gorge, this remarkable piece of engineering is a landmark of the Rhaetian Railway. It’s hard to believe that it was built without any scaffolding and only two cranes between 1901 and 1902. For the best views, head to the back of the train and sit on the right-hand side (direction Tirano).

Albula Railway Museum

Dive into over 100 years of railway history at the Albula Railway Museum, right next to the station in Bergün. Learn more about the construction of this spectacular railway as well as the broader social and economic impact that the railways have had.

Lago Bianco and Lago Nero

Shortly before reaching the Bernina Pass, the train skirts the edges of two beautiful yet very different lakes which mark an alpine water divide. While Lago Bianco is fed by milky glacial meltwater and flows southward into the Adriatic, a stone’s throw away the dark blue Lago Nero flows north and then eastward all the way to the Black Sea.  

Ospizio Bernina

This is the highest point of the line at 2253 m. A sense of tranquillity engulfs you as you take in the almost surreal landscape. But fret not, the Albergo Ospizio Bernina is a 10-minute walk away and the bar is always open! This area also marks the spot where German-speaking Switzerland ends and Italian becomes the dominant language.

Alp Grüm

This station, which also serves as a restaurant and hotel, provides a viewpoint over the beautiful Valposchiavo. In winter, the railway is this tiny settlement’s only connection to the outside world.

Brusio Spiral Viaduct

This arched viaduct – perhaps the most impressive structure along the route – was built to gain height quickly in a limited space. For the best photos, hang out of the window at the back of the train (right-hand side, direction Tirano).

Tirano

Pulling into Tirano, the train feels more like a city tram – passing through narrow streets and a market square, past locals drinking their morning coffee. The town’s palm trees and Mediterranean flair signal that you’ve arrived in a whole other world.

Here are our tips to create a unique alpine experience on the Bernina Express.

  1. Spend the night in Ospizio Bernina or Alp Grüm. Unwind in a mountain setting as you enjoy an evening of peaceful seclusion.
  2. Throw caution to the wind and hop on a sledge between the stations of Preda and Bergün (only in winter).
  3. Hike part of the Via Albula/Bernina trail. We recommend the 9 km (3.5 hours) section from Filisur to Bergün or the easier 4.7 km stretch from Ospizio Bernina to Alp Grüm, which offers fantastic views over the town of Poschiavo (only in summer).

Bernina Express: Chur → Tirano

Travel time: 4 hrs, 20 mins
Frequency: 1 direct connection daily (both ways)
Price: From CHF 73, one way including seat reservation

The Bernina Express runs between Chur and Tirano all year round in both directions. Seat reservations are required. The train features large panoramic windows and in summer months there are open-roof carriages attached at the end. Less expensive regional trains also run on this route. Seat reservations are not required. For more information, visit the Rhaetian Railway website.

Bart Giepmans
Written by Bart Giepmans
Bart practically grew up on a train and has been discovering Europe by rail since his childhood. Stints at the Dutch and German Railways and at Interrail have turned him into an ardent ambassador for train travel. Bart has a passion for history and Alpine trails and is commuting regularly between Utrecht and Berlin.