Last Updated on 8th February 2021 by Sophie Nadeau
If you’re looking for an escape from reality, then you need to look no further than the most magical train ride in Switzerland, the Bernina Express. This eight-hour train ride is often cited as the most beautiful in Europe and en route, you’ll get the chance to spy ancient glaciers, alpine towns, and snow-capped peaks. Here’s a Bernina Express review, as well as tips, tricks, and practical advice for planning your visit!
There’s a reason that part of the train line the Bernina Express runs along (Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes) is designated as a UNESCO train ride and this soon becomes apparent when travelling on the train. Between frosted lakes, snow-dusted firs, and postcard-perfect settlements, an entire day soon passes by in the blink of an eye.
What is the Bernina Express?
Even if you’re an avid fan of European adventures, you’d soon be forgiven for never having heard of the Bernina Express before. Connecting Tirano in Italy to Chur in Switzerland, starting points in Switzerland include St Moritz, Chur, and Davos.
The Bernina Express endpoint is Tirano and the entire journey takes around four hours each way, making it much shorter than the Glacier Express. While the Abula line was constructed between 1898 and 1904, while the Bernina line was built from 1908 to 1910.
The two rails were merged in the 1940s by the Rhaetian Railway. Today, the Express operates with the sole purpose of operating as a sightseeing attraction and is easily one of the best things to do in Switzerland.
It’s all about the journey, not the destination
Starting in the Swiss town of Chur, which is often said to be the oldest settlement in Switzerland, the Bernina Express then snakes its way through valleys, snow-capped peaks, and past crystal clear lakes. While many might believe that hour upon hour on the train might be boring, bringing along your laptop or work to be completed would be your first mistake!
Prior to boarding the train, one review stated that every time the person in question put down their camera, the train would turn the corner and they soon found themselves resuming their previous occupation of snapping away. I can now confirm that this review is entirely accurate- everything was just that beautiful! For more tips for capturing snow photos, read my snow photo tips here!
Bernina Express Route
While you can always do a Bernina Express DIY route of sorts, the official Bernina Express route is as follows: the train departs from Chur in the early morning before snaking its way through forest and mountain passes to reach Tirano in Northern Italy.
After a break of a couple of hours, the train departs Tirano station, making its way through the town of Tirano and back along the same route before arriving back in Chur in the late afternoon. The entire journey takes an entire day to complete and you can start on either end.
Highlights of the Bernina Express
Of course, you might imagine that passing mountain upon mountain peak might become a little repetitive after a while. However, as the train winds its way over the Alps, occasionally passing through mountain tunnels, and chugging its way past countless towns, there are several highlights that are of particular note. En route, there are some 196 bridges and 55 tunnels.
En route to Italy, the train makes a quick stop off at Alp Grüm and all passengers are invited to explore the area for fifteen minutes. This impossibly high mountain pass chalet can be found at an altitude and is the last stop in the Romansch speaking area.
The station just before Alp Grüm is that os Ospizio Bernina, which is the highest point of the Glacier Express. At a staggering height of 2,253 metres above sea level, it’s not only the tallest point on the Bernina Express but also all of Eastern Switzerland.
Located in the heart of a valley, this magical village looks like it’s been plucked out of the pages of a storybook. Founded as early as 831, this town is surrounded by castle country, meaning that ancient ruins and fortified palaces can be found around nearly every turn at this point of the Bernina Express.
The Italian town of Tirano is the only official stop in Italy. Characterised by its traditional Italian architecture, highlights of the town include the Catholic Shrine of Madonna di Tirano, as well as a museum, and several smaller churches. If you choose to do the return route, then you’ll be able to spend around an hour in Tirano.
A visit to Poschiavo
When travelling by train, there are several points where you can stop off en route. While the express does indeed make its way all the way down to Italy, we opted to hop off a little earlier, with the aim of exploring the quaint town of Poschiavo for a few blissful hours before the train returned to pick us back up.
Nestled in the Valposchiavo and surrounded by impossibly high mountains, Poschiavo is the capital of this area. Home to a museum, several eateries, and characterised by its three church towers, wandering through this town feels akin to stepping back in time.
Even in winter, Poschiavo has something of a Mediterranean feel about it. And during our time in this Swiss town, we also enjoyed sampling some local cuisine at the Ristorante Mortice where we tried traditional pasta paired with lightly sparkling wine.
The best time to take the Bernina Express
Thanks to its location in the East of Switzerland, Chur takes a little longer to get to than many of the other cities and towns that typically form the beaten tourist track of Switzerland. Situated around an hour and a half train ride away from Zurich, the Express runs all year ’round.
With this being said, you’ll want to time your visit to what you personally want to see and experience. Whereas the summer offers the chance to enjoy views of green pastures and the crystal clear lakes at their very best, winter is a frozen wonderland just waiting to be admired.
I personally took the train in the winter (as is likely evident from the photos) and am glad to have done so. Though the summer season is enjoyable and offers perks like larger open windows from which to snap photos, there’s something so surreal in getting up close and personal to sun-dappled spots caked in snow.
It’s also only in the winter when the panoramic windows can be enjoyed at their fullest potential. In summer, these massive floor-to-ceiling windows create a kind of greenhouse effect, rendering the carriages in question almost unbearably hot. If you do plan a visit during the winter, then I highly recommend paying the extra fee to receive a panoramic window seat- you can thank me later!
Tips for visiting the Bernina Express & Bernina Express FAQs
Though it may seem relaxing (and indeed it is), bear in mind that the trip from Switzerland to Italy and back again is still a full’s day worth of travel. This means an early start and late finish, particularly if you factor in a little extra time for exploring Chur following the train ride.
As such, you’ll want to rest as much as possible the night before, and perhaps not plan something too strenuous the next day! Consider staying in Chur the night before (check for the best accommodation deals here) so that you don’t have to rush to the Express starting point the next morning.
You should also know that when purchasing your Bernina Express tickets, you actually have to pay two different fees. While the first part of the ticket is your simple fare which goes from A to B, the next part costs 14CHF and is mandatory for a seat reservation on the iconic Swiss train.
What to wear on the Bernina Express
I’d recommend wearing comfortable clothing as you’ll be sat down all day, as well as suitable shoes for wandering around the towns. When visiting Alp Grüm, don’t make the mistake I did and be sure to wear non-slip shoes! Layers are best as although outside
Whether you’re visiting in summer or winter, you’ll want to pack a pair of sunglasses as the sunshine can be pretty strong! While coffee on the train is what you’d expect to pay in the rest of Switzerland (4 Swiss Francs), it’s not of the highest quality and the rest of the food is a little on the pricey side. Pack a picnic to eat en route, or purchase some snacks beforehand.
Which side is best on the Bernina Express?
If you want to see the most spectacular views, then be sure to sit on the right-hand side of the train when travelling from North to South. This way, you’ll have iconic sights such as one of the largest glaciers, as well as the best view of Alp Grüm and the best view of the nine archway Brusio spiral viaduct. Conversely, when travelling from Tirano towards Chur, be sure to sit on the left-hand side of the train!
Bernina Express tickets, tours & options
If you’re looking to book the Bernina Express for yourself, then you should know that there are a number of ticket options available. Official Bernina Express tickets can be purchased here, though there are also a plethora of tours you may want to book instead, particularly if you’re staying in Italy and enjoy guided tours.
Bernina Red Train: Return Day-Ticket
For those who are seeking to go on the Bernina Express on a budget, this route encompasses the rail track from Tirano to St Moritz and then back again from St Moritz to Tirano. Beautiful and well-reviewed, this DIY tour of sorts allows you to disembark from your journey at any station in order to explore and hop on the next train when you’re ready to continue your journey. Check prices and availability here.
From Milan: Bernina Express Train & St. Moritz Full–Day Tour
If you would prefer to have all of the details, such as getting to and from the Bernina Express taken care for you, then you’ll probably want to book this excursion from Milan (Milano) in Italy. Included in the day trip is a trip to Tirano, an experienced guide, and a pre-booked ticket for the Bernina Express red train. Check prices and availability here.
Lake Como, St. Moritz and Bernina Express Day Trip
For those who are short of time and wish to experience the Bernina Express alongside several of Italy’s other most famous destinations (Lake Como and St Mortiz), then this is the ticket for you. Not only will you be able to ride on the world-famous Bernina Express, but you’ll also take a cruise on Lake Como and enjoy a walking tour of St Mortiz. Check prices and availability here.