If you're looking for the perfect destination for a scenic rail escape, few places tick the box quite as well as Switzerland. It's one of those destinations that manages to completely live up to expectations, with landscapes just as impressive in real life as they are in the travel brochures. Alpine villages plucked straight from a postcard, timeless mountain and lake panoramas, and modern cities bursting with culture await you. And, with world-class railways treating you to a front-row view of these breathtaking landscapes, this is a country seemingly made for exploring by rail. Today, we're focusing on two of its most renowned railways, to find out why they're two of the greatest journeys the world has to offer.
The Glacier Express
It's no secret that we love the Glacier Express here at Rail Discoveries. There are few railways more iconic than this, and the journey is just about as scenic as it gets. No matter the season, the panoramic windows serve as a perfect picture frame as you're whisked past attention-grabbing landscapes. See meadows that come alive with wildflowers in the summer and are blanketed with snow come winter, as well as glaciers that have been shaped over millions of years and pine trees that spread from the sides of the track to the base of the distant mountain peaks. Even more extraordinary is when the train winds round a bend or a curved bridge, and you can peer out of the windows to see the cheery red carriages snaking around, framed by a stunning Alpine backdrop.
The views are precisely what makes this experience so spectacular, and everything about the train works to highlight this, from bright and airy carriages flooded with natural light to the handy audio guide. There are headphones available at every seat, so make sure you listen for the tell-tale chime over the train's speaker and keep an eye out of the window - it means there's a particularly scenic or interesting spot coming up! Even better, at especially beautiful points, the train slows down to ensure that everyone gets a good look, and of course, that perfect souvenir photograph. To make your time on board even more memorable, the Glacier Express offers something pretty unique - you can write and mail a postcard from the train, perfect to send to friends and family back home as an 'in the moment' account of your time on board.
This isn't a train you travel on for convenience, and it's certainly not going to get you anywhere fast - they don't call it 'the world's slowest express train' for nothing. This is one of those trains that you travel on to fall in love with the journey itself. As you wind over bridges and through tunnels, passing tiny hamlets with lone church spires rising above the trees and truly breathtaking mountain scenery, you'll wonder why anyone would discover the Swiss Alps any other way.
The Jungfrau Railway
While the Jungfrau Railway often sits side-by-side with the Glacier Express on lists of Switzerland's greatest railways, it's for a completely different reason. We often rave about the journey, but on the Jungfrau Railway, it's the destination that steals the limelight. Of course, the route itself is pretty scenic - it's Switzerland after all - taking you through quintessentially Alpine scenery of peaceful meadows and remote towns. The final portion of the journey is spent mostly in darkness, as you climb steeply through a tunnel deep inside the Eiger and the Mönch mountains, pausing on the way at observation stops to drink up the views across the valleys below. However, these stops are a mere taster - the real treat waits at the summit station, Jungfraujoch.
Famously known as the 'Top of Europe' and nestled between the peaks of the Jungfrau and Mönch, the Jungfraujoch is the highest railway station in the continent at over 11,000 feet above sea level. Few descriptions can quite prepare you for what will meet you here, as you emerge into a snow-globe world of wintry beauty, no matter the season. You could happily spend your entire time here admiring the awe-inspiring scenery from the Sphinx observatory. Reached by a lift and nestled a further 384 feet up the mountain, you'll be treated to 360° views of endlessly stretching mountain peaks and the immense Aletsch Glacier, the largest glacier in the Alps.
There's so much more to discover here, though. Those with a sweet tooth should head straight to Lindt Swiss Chocolate Heaven for an immersive look at the history and making of Swiss Chocolate. The Ice Palace is also well worth a visit, filled with a host of elaborate ice sculptures, made with ice from the nearby glacier. Then there's the Alpine Sensation, an exhibition housed in a long corridor between the Sphinx Hall and the Ice Palace that brings to life the history of the railway. Step onto a moving walkway and step back in time, as enchanting projected images and music tell of the history of tourism in the Alps and pay tribute to the miners who built the Jungfrau Railway over 100 years ago.
Before your return journey, make sure you take one final, lingering look at the unique landscapes that stretch out before you; it truly is a once-in-a-lifetime view, and one well worth committing to memory.
While certainly two of the most impressive, the Glacier Express and the Jungfrau Railway are just the beginning when it comes to exploring Switzerland by rail. From unique cog railways and speedy inner-city lines to dedicated mountain railways, taking to the tracks is without doubt the best way to take in the dramatic beauty of Switzerland. Add to that chic Alpine resort towns, mirror-like lakes, a vibrant blend of European cultures, and some of the best cheese and chocolate you'll ever try, and you'll begin to get an idea of what makes this destination quite so special.