Explore the Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt

Explore the Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt

Traveling by train is, for me, one of the best ways to travel. The comfort, no traffic jams, and a lot of times passing by gorgeous and remote areas. The Glacier Express was one dream I had for a long time, and at last I had the chance to embrace this adventure through the Swiss Alps.

A little bit about the Glacier Express route

The Glacier Express trip is a trip of about 8 hours that connects the cities of St. Moritz and Zermatt, passing through several glacier valleys. But unlike the name of the route leads to think, we won’t go through any glacier themselves. In fact, most likely you won’t even be able to see any glacier due to the fact they are so far away from the railway, but also due to Climate Change.

And don’t worry about what you’ll eat during the trip, whenever you book the ticket you have the option to order lunch and a snack. Or then you can order by the menu, which can be a bit more expensive. In any case, there is food service directly to where you’ll be sitting. There is also the option for the train snack bar, which a lot of people end up choosing from, ir you only want to eat a small snack.

Inside the Glacier Express
Inside the Glacier Express

You can do this route in both ways, however the Zermatt to St. Moritz direction is the more popular, because it gives a better view over the Landwasser Viaduct, the most known in this route. However, I did the opposite way, and I still managed to see properly this viaduct.

Some sections of this route are part of UNESCO World Heritage, like the Landwasser Viaduct (which I referred previously) and the Albula Railway.

The main route is between Zermatt and St. Moritz, though there is also the option to end in Davos as an alternative. But this section isn’t as popular as the Glacier Express, but instead as part of the Bernina Express (which also crosses part of the Glacier Express). If you have the time and you are curious, then you can do both routes with an intermediate stay either in Davos, Chur or St. Moritz.

Getting to know a bit of St. Moritz

My starting point was St. Moritz, and in my opinion it is totally worth it to spend a day or two in the city to explore it a bit before boarding into a full day train ride.

St. Moritz is one of the most popular vacation destination in the whole world. It became famous due to the mineral termal pools, that exist there for at least 3000 years, and it is also the birthplace of the alpine winter tourism. Since 1864!

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Either during summer or winter, visiting St. Moritz is always a good decision. While during summer you can enjoy the gorgeous St. Moritz lake, in winter you can cross it on foot! You can even watch horse polo on ice! I visited St. Moritz in winter, and walking on ice was a great experience! Seeing people ice skating on the lake, I even saw cars driving over it in certain parts!

Despite the differences of landscapes between winter and summer, you can visit the several museums and historical buildings all year round. The St. Moritz symbol is the Leaning Tower, a 33 meters tower that is there since at least 1139!

The Glacier Express route, section by section

The best way to describe the roube is by sections, since all of them have specific points of interest worth taking note of (and some that you really shouldn’t miss). And it will be a way to help you to prepare your trip, and understand in which side of the train you should book your tickets for, according to your goals.

Regardless of your choice, you’ll learn a lot along this route. The visit is guided through headphones, and before each point of interest you’ll hear a sound reminding you that more information will be shared. The experience is really enriching, not just for the views, but also for what you will learn both about the route as about Switzerland.

From St. Moritz to Chur

The first section of the Glacier Express route starts in St. Moritz, and obviously, it goes towards Chur. This part of the route is also part of the Bernina Express route, which starts in Italy.

This section passes through an area known by the several ruins and castles. According to the information we heard inside the Glacier Express, this is the area in the world with more castles and ruins. You can see a few from the train, and the audio information also helps to spot a few of them.

Glacier Express Route
Glacier Express Route

It is also in this part of the route where the train crosses the famous Landwasser Viaduct, and it is one of the most photographed sections of the route. Since you’ll be inside the train, you should take into consideration in which side you should sit, or else you’ll pass over the viaduct without even noticing it. If you are coming from St. Moritz, the best place is sitting facing towards the end of the train (opposite of the travel direction), on the left side of the train. And don’t worry too much about sitting facing the back of the train, in Chur the train will change direction, and from there you’ll be facing the direction of the trip. Which is most of the trip itself.

The Landwasser Viaduct is part of the Albula Railway section, one of the most important sections of the route. To climb 400 meters, it goes through several spirals, tunnels and bridges. The main part of the Albula Railway is about 12 km. Which in fact, the distance between these two points is about 5 km. The reason for such length was to have a safe inclination for the train to climb those 400 meters.

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From the train we can’t notice it, but we are constantly passing in the same area. We might recognize a few views, but with so many tunnels and bridges, we get a feeling of going always in straight line.

The first section ends in Chur, where we will be stopped for about 15 minutes, then the train will change direction. Which means, if you were sitting facing the front of the train, now you’ll be facing the end of the train for the next three sections. But since the train is panoramic, it won’t make much of a difference.

From Chur to Andermatt

As soon as the train reverts its direction, we are starting the second section of the route. We will pass through from lowest point to the highest of the route, and one of the most appreciated points of interest.

From Chur to Disentis we will pass through the Rhine Valley, also known as Switzerland’s Grand Canyon. The view is stunning, and I highly recommend to be sitting on the right side of the train. Slowly the train will start climbing, until we reach Disentis.

Disentis is one of the points of interest in this section of the route, mostly because of a thousand years old monastery that is in that town. Disentis is one of those towns where they speak Romansh, one of the official languages in Switzerland.

Explore the Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt
Explore the Glacier Express from St. Moritz to Zermatt

The climb keeps going, until we reach the highest point of the route, Oberalp Pass. Here the train stops for about 10-15 minutes to engage the engine that will help with the descent to the next point. On the opposite way it is thanks to this system of pulleys that the train is pulled to climb an altitude of about 600 meters.

Oberalp Pass is one of the points of interest that most passengers enjoy, since we have a good amount of time to appreciate the landscape and get out of the train to take several photos.

A detail about the Glacier Express, you can send postcards directly from the train! You can buy postcards and stamps, and leave them at the postbox inside the train, which later will reach the final destination. Or then you can do like I did, write a postcard and forgetting to write the address…. Thankfully I did this stupidity inside the train, and I could ask them to open the postbox so that I could write the address in that postcard. Or else it would reach nowhere…

From Andermatt to Brig

This section of the route was one of the most complicated to implement, due to the ascent and the geography of that area. Between 1925 to 1982 this section of the route was closed during winter, but in 1982 they opened the Realp tunnel, which allows the Glacier Express to cross all year round.

In 2010 the old section was reopened and now it is used by a touristic steam train during the summer months, but the Glacier Express keeps using the tunnel.

Almost in Brig we pass through another valley in V shape, this time of the Rhône River, the Valley of the High Rhône. The views are gorgeous, and here it doesn’t matter in which side of the train you are sitting.

Both Andermatt as Brig (officially Brig-Glis) are two historical towns that deserve a short visit. If you decide to do the Glacier Express by section, it is possible to purchase the tickets by sections, a stop in each town will make the trip way more interesting and cultural.

From Brig to Zermatt

The last section of the Glacier Express route, or the first depending on where you start.

In this section the train will climb about 1000 meters, and in one of the steepest parts it will be pulled by a system of pulleys. It will be really easy to notice when that happens, we can hear the train engage in that system, and we can feel the train being pulled instead of its own locomotion.

Village in the middle of the Swiss Alps
Village in the middle of the Swiss Alps

In this part we will pass through some narrow areas with walls that can reach the 4000 meters highs, really impressive! The highest peaks of the Swiss Alps can be found in this area.

As soon as we end the climb we arrive at the Matter Valley, where the view is just stunning. This also means our trip is reaching its end, until the final stop of our trip, Zermatt.

Getting to know a bit of Zermatt

It is impossible not to fall in love as soon as you arrive in Zermatt. If the sky is clear, you can see the iconic Matterhorn right away!

The Matterhorn is also known as Mount Cervino, part of the mount is in Italy and the other side in Switzerland. Hence the two names, it depends on which side of the border you are, but is mostly known as Matterhorn. Even if you never heard about this mount you will recognize it from somewhere. If you don’t know exactly from where, here’s a tip, it shows up at the Toblerone boxes, in fact, the chocolate triangles are a “representation” of the Matterhorn!

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Considering that Zermatt is known as a ski resort, of course ski is one of the main activities. You’ll see countless people with ski gear, ski stores, and of course, ski lifts! And this is one of the tips for things to visit, going up one of the ski lifts, and who knows, maybe even crossing the border to the Italian side?

One of the activities I enjoyed the most was letting myself getting lost in the town, it is really cute and cosy. There are countless perspectives and corners to photograph, and some of them with the Matterhorn as a background, while others just by the cozy characteristics of the town. If you have the time, you should also visit the Matterhorn Museum, but be aware of the schedules, since it can close quite early during winter…

Since I wasn’t prepared with hiking gear and winter boots, I missed the chance to venture through the many trails that there are around Zermatt. In fact, I even tried one, but the path was completely frozen, and I fell twice, until I gave up. At some point I noticed they were laying pine bark on the trail to make it less slippery, but honestly I think that made it even more dangerous. Pine bark on the top of ice is perfect to slide… So if you are planning some trails, wear boots with chains or grips for the snow. I highly recommend it!

Matterhorn seen from Zermatt
Matterhorn seen from Zermatt

And still on the theme of hikes, the most known, which I didn’t have the chance to do (due to the reasons mentioned above). The trail of the five lakes! In three of them you can see the reflection of the Matterhorn, it is perfect for photography. And of course, it is highly photographed. It won’t be that original, but the views are amazing. The weather factor is also really important here, part of the fun fades away if the Matterhorn is covered in clouds, but according to what I read, the hike seems to be really impressive regardless of the weather.

How to buy tickets for the Glacier Express?

There are several options to buy the ticket for the Glacier Express. The most common is by simply going to their website and buy a ticket for the whole route, from St. Moritz to Zermatt or vice versa. But there are other options, as I will mention below.

Save money on the Glacier Express ticket

I would say that most people who want to do the Glacier Express, will end up using other trains in Switzerland. Switzerland is the country with the best railway network in the whole world, and also the country where more people use the train. Which reasons in favor of the trains being a viable way to explore the country.

If your goal is to travel more in the country by train, then consider buying an Inter Rail ticket. There are several options, from several countries, several days, or just one country (which might be the best option if you are traveling just to Switzerland, like I did). The inter-rail ticket allows you to use the Glacier Express, however you still need to book the seat, and that will cost between 20 and 40 euros (the price might change). Considering how expensive the trains in Switzerland are, the Inter Rail pass will pay off. You’ll be able to use it in all trains for free, unless you need to reserve a seat, just hop on and use the pass (following the rules).

Glacier Express stop in Andermatt
Glacier Express stop in Andermatt

What a lot of people don’t know is that the inter-rail pass isn’t just for young people, it is for people of all ages. The price will change, of course, but it still pays off.

Purchasing the ticket by sections

If you have the time, then you can buy several tickets for the different sections of the route. This way you can even plan your trip in a better way, in which side you’ll sit in each section, etc. You will be able to visit all the towns I mentioned before as well. You can book the ticket directly through the site, for each section, and you can also use the inter rail discount through the website.

Using a travel agency

If you don’t want to have all this hassle, you can use any travel agency to take care of your trip according to your taste. Here the price will vary, you might have to pay a few to the agency, but the agency might also have discounts for the Glacier Express and the final price might end up cheaper. If you are traveling during high season, then a travel agency is something to take into consideration, because Zermatt and St. Moritz can be packed with tourists, and finding accommodation at a reasonable price can be a massive headache. I only stayed in Zermatt one night because I couldn’t find accommodation at a reasonable price for more than one night.

This trip is a great opportunity to visit a bit of Switzerland’s inner side through the slowest express train in the world. A trip I highly recommend, and that I loved. The only thing I regret was not staying longer both in St. Moritz and Zermatt, but it was an experience that I will definitely remember.

By Gil Sousa

Portuguese expat in Cork, traveler and food enthusiastic.

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