This is the story of why I went to Switzerland with my mom. It’s also a handy little Switzerland-by-train itinerary with recommendations and tips along the way.
“Isn't it hard to have your daughter so far away?” Angie, my mom’s friend from Basel, asked during our visit there.
“Sure, but it's kind of in the family. It actually began with my grandmother. She was from Basel,” my mom responded.
The story dates back to 1911, when my great-grandmother, then a young woman, fell in love with and was engaged to a young man, my great grandfather. Instead of insisting on tying the knot in Switzerland — I’m still not quite sure why — my great-grandfather set off for Argentina in hopes of finding better job opportunities and creating a new life.
Months later, my great-grandmother received word and some money for travel to join him. As an unmarried woman, she made the journey by train, then by boat from Switzerland to Argentina all on her own.
Talk about being ahead of the curve on solo female travel.
After her safe arrival in Argentina, my great-grandparents married and the rest, as they say, is history. My family story continues with my grandmother, my mother and me each leaving home for someplace far away when we were young.
For my mom, she re-established a connection to Switzerland after her parents moved the family there when she was 10. They lived in Geneva eight years, until the time she graduated from high school, whereupon she took a boat to the United States to attend university.
Wanderlust, you see, runs deep in my family.
So while Dan went off to Malaysia for a 10-day Vipassana silent meditation retreat, I hopped a train from Berlin to Switzerland with my mom so she could retrace a bit of her history. We spent ten days in Switzerland, beginning with the family roots in Basel, continuing with some of my mom’s favorite childhood spots and finishing with some new parts of the country, too. And we did it all on Switzerland's fabulous — and prompt — train network, including a few of their famous Scenic Trains.
As we explored Switzerland, here’s what we found.
Although I’d been to Switzerland before, this trip reinforced its essence: order, cleanliness, and plenty of mountains and lakes, all packaged in an often unbelievable fairytale backdrop. I was also amused to discover one of the supposed roots of the Swiss trademark promptness (which I somehow lost in the bloodline). It turns out that Calvinist churchgoers were fined for arriving late to church service. Hence, well-functioning public clocks were put in place to serve a holy purpose for the industrious.
Switzerland may also not be known for its diversity, but that such a small country has four national languages (German, French, Italian and Romanish) is remarkable. You can feel and hear the regional differences, the quick shifts from canton to canton, and in between.
But if I'm perfectly honest, when I consider our time in Switzerland, I think most often of the stunning mountain and lake landscapes, perfect flower displays, and almost wickedly well-kept alpine villages.
Note: The photos below are in chronological order of our train journey to give you a sense of our itinerary and trajectory.
Basel – Geneva – Montreux – Cheese Train – GoldenPass Classic – Lucerne – Chur – Bernina Express – Zurich
For such a small country, Switzerland features a vast rail system, including around 20,000 km worth of tracks that cut through mountains and over passes in a manner you think ought to be impossible. Not only can you get almost anywhere and everywhere in Switzerland by train, but you travel through absolutely stunning scenery as you do. There are usually frequent departures (e.g., hourly) for connections between main cities and towns, making it easy to remain flexible with your itinerary.
Finding Swiss Train Schedules: I found SBB’s website easy to use to check train schedules. The site will indicate if a specific train is expected to be busy, which proves useful in deciding which train to take and whether or not to make a reservation. I also used Eurail’s Rail Planner App for checking train times on my iPhone. This app does not require an internet connection, so it’s great for travelers who don’t happen to have mobile data (or wish to save their bandwidth for something else).
Getting Advice on Switzerland Train Itineraries: When we gave a talk on Haiti in London earlier in the year at the Destinations Show, I stopped by the Switzerland stand to ask for itinerary advice as I was worried about trying to squeeze in too much. I received advice on the spot from Switzerland Travel Centre (STC) that fortuitously flipped around my original plans. We continued the conversation on email to settle our final itinerary. STC is a sort of an all-Switzerland travel agency that advises on itineraries, books customized trips and sells Swiss train passes. STC takes care of transport logistics and accommodation, but in a way that allows customers to travel independently. Disclosure: STC kindly provided our train reservations on the GoldenPass Classic and Bernina Express, and organized our Cheese Train experience.
Storing luggage between seats: Unfortunately, we didn’t figure this trick out until the end of our journey. While some trains have storage racks at the front or end of the train wagon, many of the first class Swiss trains feature space between seats where you can slide your luggage on its side on the ground. Much easier than trying to lift it onto the racks above.
Affordable mobile data: If you have an unlocked smartphone, a mobile data plan in Switzerland is quick and easy. Swisscom offers a great deal where you pay 2Chf/day for unlimited mobile data (throttled after 2GB). Just buy a prepaid SIM card for 20Chf (you get that same amount in credit) and you're good to go. Great coverage throughout the country, too.
My mom and I each traveled with a 1st Class Eurail Global Pass in Switzerland (and Germany). This made it quite straightforward and easy to get around as reservations were not required for any of the regular (i.e., non-Scenic) trains we took. This provided lots of flexibility as we could decide on the fly when we wished to depart for our next destination, allowing us to shift plans as we went. For example, on my return I decided to stop off in Munich for the night to visit friends instead of heading straight to Berlin. Disclosure: Eurail kindly provided us with our Global Passes.
Note: Eurail passes are for non-European citizens and residents. If you are a European citizen then you can get a similar train pass called the Interrail Pass. You can read more about how to use that train pass and its benefits through the Interrail experiences of our friends Ivana and Gianni.
Choosing a Eurail Pass
There are endless options regarding which Eurail pass to choose. My advice is to figure out the general route you want to take and then see what the best option is for that route. For example, if you are only going to be in one country, then one of the One Country Passes might be a more economical option for you than the Global Pass (28 countries). Eurail’s customer service is very responsive, especially on social media, so just ask for advice on what type of Eurail pass best matches your desired itinerary. Note: If you have a little flexibility with your budget, I can recommend that traveling in 1st class offers noticeable luxury and comfort: bigger seats, fewer people, and occasional free wifi.
Cost benefits of a Eurail Pass
Whether a Eurail Pass is cost-effective depends on your itinerary. If you plan only to take short trains in a limited area or region, then it might be less expensive to buy tickets directly. However, if you have some longer train journeys planned or you’re traveling in a country with expensive train routes (e.g., Switzerland) then it’s likely a Eurail Pass will prove cost effective.
To get a sense of whether a Eurail Pass makes sense from a cost standpoint, go to the website of the national railways service in the countries where you wish to travel and calculate the cost of your trip. Understand that some countries offer tickets that are cheap when purchased in advance, but nearly double in price when you buy them the day before or the day of the journey. Seat61 is an excellent resource for European train travel. Note: If the cost of buying tickets directly is similar to that of a Eurail Pass, go for the pass as it saves you the hassle of waiting in railway ticket lines and provides you with additional flexibility to change your plans as you go.
Understanding when reservations are required with a Eurail Pass
Here are the two easiest ways I found to obtain this information:
Eurail Timetable: Search for the route you want to take and the timetable will tell you whether a reservation is required, recommended, or not applicable at all. I used this to research our Berlin – Basel train and decided to make a reservation after seeing it was recommended. I was glad we purchased reservations and had assigned seats, as our train was full.
Eurail Rail Planner App: When you are searching for a train schedule within the app, select the option indicating “Trains without compulsory reservations.”
Using your Eurail Pass on Switzerland’s Scenic Trains
Switzerland features a collection of what they call “Scenic Trains” that occasionally require Eurail Pass holders to make separate reservations.
Switzerland is not an inexpensive destination, especially after the government unpegged its currency, the Franc, from the Euro earlier this year. So it's possible to travel more cheaply than we did, but when you travel with your mom, she gets to call the shots on budget and comfort level. Who was I to argue?
Geneva Practical Details
Accommodation: Hotel Bel’Espérance – Run by the Salvation Army, it would be hard to beat the location of this hotel. Rooms are simple, but very clean. Hint: bring food back to the hotel and eat dinner on the rooftop terrace as you watch the sun set over Lake Geneva.
Restaurants: Pizzeria da Paolo – We stumbled upon this restaurant our first night in Geneva and it is the real Italian deal – great pizza, roasted vegetables and salads. Super busy, so make a reservation or be prepared to take a drink at the bar until a table becomes available.
Geneva Public Transport Passes: Hotels often provide guests with public transport passes, so be sure to ask about this when you check in.
Montreux Practical Details
Accommodation: Hotel du Grand Lac Excelsior – I chose this place because it mentioned “lake view” and boy, they weren’t lying (see below). From what we could tell, all rooms here face the lake (we were on the 3rd floor). It's a bit of a walk from the Montreux train station, but the views are worth it. From the hotel it's a 20 minute walk to Château de Chillon.
Montreux Card: Your hotel will likely provide you with a Montreux Card, good for public transport and a discount for the Château de Chillon.
Cheese Train Practical Details
Tickets and Reservations: You can buy your tickets for the Cheese Train (runs December to April, Thursday to Sunday) at the Montreux Train Station. The price ranges from 39Chf to 89Chf depending on whether you have a Eurail Pass or Swiss Pass. Try to book in advance as the Cheese Train can fill up quickly.
In all honesty, we first hoped to take the Chocolate Train after seeing it listed as #1 on this list of top European Train Trips, but we were too early in the season (Chocolate Train departures begin in May). Chocolate Train meet bucket list.
Disclosure: The Cheese Train was organized and provided to us by Switzerland Travel Centre in London.
GoldenPass Classic Practical Details
GoldenPass Classic vs. Panoramic: Both of these trains take the same route. The Classic train has a rather cool, interior that harkens back to a bygone era while the Panoramic train features large, glass windows lending more visibility of the mountains around. The Cheese Train features wagons similar to the GoldenPass Classic, so if you've already take a GoldenPass Classic trip, then choose the Panoramic train for this segment.
Tickets and Reservations: While reservations were not needed for the GoldenPass Classic train that we were on, the conductor told us that during high season (summer months) reservations are essential. Even though they add extra wagons at that time, trains are often sold out for weeks in advance. We did not need reservations for the other two segments of the journey.
Food and drink: We were offered a smoked meat and cheese platter that was delicious. One would have been more than enough for the two of us. Given the high price of food in Switzerland, it's actually a pretty good deal at 19Chf. Ideally, reserve one of these meat platters at the same time as you purchase your ticket or make your seat reservation.
Disclosure: Our reservation and meal on the GoldenPass Classic was organized and provided to us by Switzerland Travel Centre in London.
Lucerne Travel: Practical Details
Accommodation: Waldstaetterhof Hotel, Lucerne – If you are looking for a place near the train station (as we were), this is a good choice. Convenient location, comfy rooms and good breakfast included in the price of the room.
Lucerne Walking Path: We followed the Lucerne Tourism Office's walking path of old town that is marked in red on their official maps. It's a great walk that took us to the ramparts above the city, as well as into all the little squares and alleys through the medieval old town. Recommended.
Eating and Drinking: There are endless eating and drinking options along the Rathausquai where you can sit outside and gaze at the river. For something different we can recommend the vegetarian curries at Kanchi Indian Restaurant.
Chur Travel: Practical Details
Accommodation: Hotel Drei Könige – This hotel serves as a convenient base for taking the Bernina Express train. It is about a 5-10 minute walk from the train station and on the edge of Chur old town. Our room was not especially large, but I believe there are other options.
Restaurants: Da Mamma offers a good and affordable lunch deal.
Bernina Express Practical Details
Bernina Express Reservations: You can use your Eurail pass for the Bernina Express, but you need to get a seat reservation in advance if you want to sit in one of the panoramic cars (both 1st and 2nd class). We highly recommend this – the views with the wide windows are just fantastic.
Round-trip journey: We took the Bernina Express from Chur to Tirano (2 hour stop) and back to Chur. The round-trip journey was ideal. It makes for a 10-hour day, but it doesn't feel that long. Also, as the light and angles are different each way it doesn't really feel as though you are repeating the same territory. If you take the train only one way, then you would take a bus from Tirano to Lugano (separate seat reservation needed).
Taking photos from the Bernina Express: While the panoramic windows offer a great view, they don't always make for the best photos because of glare and reflections. At the end of some of the panoramic cars there is a place whose windows can be adjusted and drawn. Several photographers shared the window to get clearer shots of the landscape and train.
Lunch in Tirano, Italy: It's a nice bonus that you get to have lunch in Italy as part of the Bernina Express train experience. There are several restaurants right by the train station, but they looked a little too touristy for us so we walked into old town Tirano and had a wonderful lunch at Tratoria Gagin (Piazza Cavour 7, Tirano). It was full of locals. Food was good and prices reasonable.
Zurich Travel: Practical Details
Accommodation: 25hours Hotel Zurich West: We would never have discovered Zurich West — the tech, startup, artistic, and hip part of Zurich had we not stayed at 25hours Hotel Zurich. The hotel's design and approach is just fun, from clever signage to thoughtful details in our room and in common areas. Just about everything features some sort of meaning or symbolism. After a week of cheese, smoked meats and heavy foods we also appreciated the light Israeli-inspired cuisine at the restaurant. Disclosure: Our night at 25hours Hotel Zurich West was kindly provided to us.
Exploring Zurich West: Even if you don't stay in Zurich West, it's worth taking the tram there to get a feel for “new” Zurich and to witness how a former industrial area became known for artists, creativity, and startups. Take a walk to the Viadukt and enjoy the big market hall and other shops and restaurants built under the train tracks. Then continue to the Freitag Tower, fashioned from old shipping containers, and finish your exploration with a visit to Frau Gerolds Garten. A very cool vibe.
Note: For the most part we booked the hotels above via Expedia or Booking.com just a few days before we'd arrive in a destination. Employing this approach, we found the prices cheaper than booking directly with the hotel. Tip: always check both — direct booking and online travel sites — to see which option yields the best price. Note: We took our trip in the shoulder season. If you are traveling during the high season, you ought to consider booking further in advance than we did.