When I first arrived in Switzerland, one of things on my bucket-list was to go on classic train experience across the Swiss Alps. Afterall, this mountain country is known for having one of the most beautiful rail routes in the world. I finally got the chance of a lifetime come true, when we were invited by Rhaetian Railway to experience the Bernina Express!
Now, there are many other paranomic train rides in Switzerland, the closest comparison being the Glacier Express. The cost of the Bernina Express can be quite hefty: potentially costing over 200 CHF per person during peak seasons for the full-length journey (unless you have relevant rail passes, more about that below). Thus, you might be seriously wondering if this train ride is seriously worth the hype, time and money.
To answer the question, I’ve prepared a comprehensive guide including on all the important must-knows for you prior to taking the Bernina Express: including the route highlights, how to buy your tickets, comparing the First and Second-class, where to stay as well as other travel tips so that you can have the most enjoyable experience. I was doing my research before the trip and I know how messy and hard it can to piece together all these information, so this should come in handy!
So sit back, read and prepared to be amazed!
DISCLAIMER: if you don’t feel comfortable travelling during this pandemic, save this list for later. Being a travel content creator, I know what an impact the lack of travelling has on the industry. I’d made the conscious decision to travel, but of course under compliance of the respective rules within Switzerland, and with consideration of mine and especially other people’s safety.
From Glaciers to Palm Trees: The Bernina Express
The Bernina Express is a premium train journey run by the Rhaetian Railway. Running along 122km of track and negotiating through 55 tunnels, 196 bridges and viaducts, this spectacular journey takes you through the majestic wilderness of Alpine mountain peaks, crystal-clear lakes and snow-white glaciers: You will basically witness all the vast different landscapes of Switzerland in one single train ride! No wonder it is often hailed as the most scenic train ride of the world (Although its sister Glacier Express competes for the same title) and loved by tourists and locals alike.
Since 2008, the route from Thusis – Valposchiavo – Tirano has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage site, making it the pride of all Switzerland.
First-class on the Bernina Express
Riding first-class on the Bernina Express is truly a luxury experience on its own. The carriage comes with comfortable leather seats, extra spacious legroom and full glass paranomic windows, guaranteeing the best views of the outside.
I’ll share more comparisons with the second-class carriages and regional trains later on.
The Bernina Express Route
The entire journey on the Bernina Express from Chur to Campocologno takes about four and a half hours each way, making it a shorter and a more practical option for a daytrip experience than the Glacier Express, which takes 8 hours.
(IMPORTANT: From 6 November 2020 there will be extensive restrictions on public life in the Italian region of Lombardy. This means that from 6 November to 3 December 2020 the Bernina Express will only be running to and from Campocologno instead of the usual end-point of Tirano.)
Now four hours might sound long, but trust me when I say it feels like a blink of an eye on the Bernina Express, you won’t even feel the time going by because at every twist and turn you will be too busy snapping shots after beautiful shots!
If you fancy sniffing yet more southern air during summer, you also have the option to continue your journey onwards with the Bernina Express Bus. From Tirano the bus passes through the famous vineyards in the Valtellina region, along Lake Como, and ends at Lugano in Switzerland.
Click here for the map of the full route.
The Bernina Express sets off from historic Chur, the oldest settlement of Switzerland.
It then whizzes through the Albula tunnel at 1789 m before descending via several loops at Filisur.
After Filisur, the train enters the wild and romantic Albula Valley where it crosses the world-famous Landwasser Viaduct, a must-see for all train fans. This is the MOST photographed landmark of the Rhaetian Railways, and I was waiting with bated breath to see it with my own eyes!
Built in 1902, The Landwasser Viaduct is a 65m high single-track six-arched curved limestone railway: A remarkable architectural feat of its time, considering how it was built without scaffoldings and only with two cranes!
Note: The train crosses the viaduct super quickly (within 10 seconds), so no dawdling here. You gotta have those cameras READY, otherwise you might just miss it!
The train continues its upward ascent…into the might glacier world of Ospizio Bernina. At 2,250 metres above sea level, this is the highest point on the Bernina Express.
The stunning Lago Bianco (White Lake) soon comes into sight.
This part of the journey had me completely spell-bound! The views of the powdery snow-white mountains were like a dream, as though plucked straight out from the movie settings of Frozen. If I stare any further an Ice palace might just appear!
The train then makes a 15 minute stop at Alp Grüm, where passengers can alight for a short break and explore the area with a magnificent view of the of the Palü glacier.
We also took the opportunity to take some photos with the classic red train!
After Alp Grüm, the train makes its dramatic descent, twisting and turning down into the Poschiavo valley and over the stunning carousel-like Brusio Circular Viaduct.
Back in the 1900s when building the tracks, the engineers faced the problem of having to bridging an enormous difference in altitude from 2253m.a.s.l at Ospizio Bernina to a low 429 m.a.s.l in Tirano. Rather than building dark tunnels, which would had obstructed all the lovely views of the surroundings, they found an ingenious solution: By building a 360-degree spiral track out in the open, down to the specified gradient of 7% (so that train does not slip on the way upwards nor slide too quickly on the way down!)
Slowly, the snowy white landscapes change and give way to the autumn colours of yellow and brown, winding through picturesque villages, rocky gorges and giving off a distinctly Mediterranean vibe.
Due to the COVID-19 restrictions, we were not able to disembark at the original end point of Tirano and stopped at Le Presse, before making a return journey back to Pontresina.
How much does the Bernina Express cost?
You’re probably sold by the pictures for now and ready to book your Bernina Express trip! But first things first: HOW MUCH do you have to to fork out?
It’s hard to give a specific figure to this question, because how much your ticket would cost very much depends on the season you are travelling, the length of your route and your class type.
Read on further for my example below on the ticket cost on a peak period, say Christmas Day, and how you can reduce the cost of you trip by combining both the regional train with the Bernina Express.
How do I order my tickets for the Bernina Express?
Take note that there are two ticket bookings : The first one for the trip itself, and the second one for the seat reservation.
Here’s the precise steps you need to follow:
Step 1: Go to the official Bernina Express Website.
Step 2: Select your point of departure/arrival, date of travel, trip type and class.
Take note that you don’t actually have to travel the full stretch from Chur to Tirano. For instance, we actually started ours from Pontresina and ended at Le Presse and back.
Step 3: Select your train time and preferred seat. The selected seat will be shown in green.
The reservation fee varies, depending on the season. The cheapest time to book the Bernina Express is from November to February.
Using my example above: the reservation fee for Christmas Day is 20CHF, on top of the ticket price of 228CHF. (Assuming a full return trip from Chur to Le Prese, without relevant rail passes )
Step 4: Enter your personal and payment details. If you have other rail passes that would cover the cost of your base ticket (e.g. GA card,Swiss Travel Pass,Eurail Pass, Half-Fare card) this is where you indicate so. The discount will be deducted off the ticket price and you would just pay the remaining amount!
AND YOU’RE DONE!
What’s the difference between the Bernina Express and the regional trains?
You don’t have to solely travel on Bernina Express to enjoy the sceneries of the Alps, as there are regular train services on the same line as well.
In fact, on our return journey back to Pontresina, we switched to the regional trains just to experience it and compare the difference. Overall, I would say that in terms of the landscapes, you are having the exact same views whether on board the Bernina Express or the regional ones. So, taking the latter is absolutely fine, especially if you are on a budget.
Comparison between 1st and 2nd class on the Bernina Express. The former is in a 2+1 seating arrangement, while the latter is in a 2+2.
Comparison between 1st and 2nd class on Regional Trains.
Nevertheless, here are some of the key differences you should take note of if you’re deciding between the Bernina Express, or the regional trains.
Seating Density and Comfort
This is the main difference accounting for the price premium. The first class seats are definitely more spacious with more elbow room and fewer passengers per car.
If you prefer a little more peace and quiet rather than to sit in a crowded carriage full of other tourists snapping away on their cameras (plus you don’t mind topping up more for it) then I would say, go with the 1st class carriage. And If you go during off-peak season, the additional difference doesn’t amount up to a lot as well.
Unlike the Bernina Express which goes directly from Chur to Tirano, the regular trains have different routes spread across the region. That means you would have to switch trains a few times in order to cover the whole route. It’s not that troublesome, really. You just need to be more mindful of the different train timings and the platforms for transfer.
These are the 3 transfer points on the route:
- Tirano to Pontresina
- Pontresina to Samedan
- Samedan to Chur
Another difference (which photographers would be more concerned of) is that on some of the older regional trains, you are able to open the windows. And that’s a BIG plus! Because while you have those gigantic glass paranomic windows on Bernina Express, they are fixed and cannot be opened. That can be a bit of a nuisance especially during winter because of the glaring reflection, which ruins everything and makes it virtually impossible to get a clear shot of the beautiful sceneries outside!
See what I mean? (urgh).
I was thus MIGHTILY pleased when we switched to the regional trains and found the adjustable windows.
Some windows are locked, so you have to walk through a number of carriages and find the right ones, usually the older regional trains have them. Just beware not to stand on the seats, or stick your head and camera TOO far out!
Which route do you recommend if I want to combine both the Bernina Express and Regional trains?
If you want to reduce the cost of your trip by combining both the Bernina express and Regional trains, or you’d just want to lessen your trip time by taking a shorter route, here’s my suggestion based on our experience:
- Take the regional train from Chur to Pontresina (On the Albula line)
- Then hop on the actual Bernina Express from Pontresina to Campocologno. This is the route on the Bernina Line that I highly recommend for the Bernina Express: Reason being that the UNESCO World Heritage railway stretch and the landscapes of the Engadine and Valposchiavo actually starts from Pontresina onwards, so you might as well spend more money on where the most scenic route is!
If you do that: the price of your ticket immediately drops. Using a non-peak period of 16 Jan 2021 as an example:
You can buy the fares for regional train SBB for Chur to Pontresina from $16.80 onwards (Assuming with Super-saver ticket):
Then buy your tickets from Pontresina to Compocologno. Notice that the seat reservation for 2nd class on the Bernina Express is a mere 5CHF, and the base fare is only 57CHF. If you have a half-fare card you get 50% off, and even better with a GA, you don’t even have to pay the base fare!
Adding up the total cost: that is a mere 73.8CHF for experiencing BOTH the views on regional trains and the Bernina Express!
Which side is the best to sit on?
If you are travelling in the direction from Chur to Tirano, make sure you are seated at the RIGHT side of the train. That way you’ll get the most spectacular views of the snow white glaciers when passing through the Ospizio Bernina. Conversely, sit on the left-side on the train when heading back from Tirano towards Chur.
Unfortunately at the point of booking, you won’t be able to tell which direction the carriages are….So just book your ticket and keep your FINGERS CROSSED that the seat opposite you is empty! Me, I was like a crazy bunny bouncing from one side to another throughout the whole ride!
What are the food options on board the Bernina Express?
Unlike the Glacier Express which provides gourmet meal options, there is no dining services on the Bernina Express, only a refreshment trolley that sells snacks, coffee, tea and some souvenirs.
I don’t suggest having food on the train since the options are quite limited (and pricey). You’re better off bringing along your own food: maybe some energy bars, fruits, sandwiches and water. Another option is to hop off the train and have lunch at one of the stops afterwards.
When’s the best season for the Bernina Express?
Honestly, any season is great. We went during the off-peak season in November during autumn, where hues of burgundy and browns and orange painted the trees and brought feelings of warmth throughout the ride.
I also think travelling during the winter from December to March would be un-burr-lievably beautiful too, when the mountains and trees are all covered with snow!
No matter the season, check the weather before you set off, just to make sure that the skies are clear. There’s nothing more disappointing than reaching your dream destination and then having rain or fog destroying it all!
What should I wear or bring along on the Bernina Express?
Boots with good traction
There is a pitstop at Alp Grum where you will be alighting, and you want to make sure your footwear doesn’t slip when you’re walking outside on the snow-covered plateau.
This is a MUST to protect your eyes. It’s super glaring in the mid-afternoon especially when passing through the glaciers at Ospizio Bernina with all the reflective snow.
Don’t forget to load up on sunscreen as well, your skin will thank you later.
You’d want to be in light, comfortable clothing since you will be sitting for a long ride, but dress in layers. Think snuggly knit sweater, a scarf and a waterproof outer coat. All of these items can be layered on and taken off when needed.
A good book
Beautiful as it is throughout the journey, I’m sure at some point the scenery will get repetitive and you’ll get bored. Plus there’s no WiFi on board. That would then be the best time to catch up on a good read.
Are dogs allowed onboard?
Yes, your furry four-legged friend is on the Bernina Express and don’t require a seat reservation. Dogs pay half the price of a 2nd class ticket.
Recommended Places to Stay
For our second night in Pontresina we stayed at mountain pass and ski resort Berghaus Diavolezza, and we really loved our experience. Call me biased, but nothing says autumn bliss like staying in a cosy wooden cabin at the top of a mountain—not even Pumpkin Spice Latte!
Situated 3,000 metres above ski level at the top of Mt Diavolezza, Berghaus Diavolezza is an off-the-grid mountain escape, offering fine views of the highest peaks in the Eastern Alps: Piz Morteratsch, Piz Bernina and Piz Palü.
It’s also a popular amongst ski fans and alpine fanatics who wish to linger longer overnight, after the last cable car comes down and the sun sets.
TIP: If you live near Zurich or St Gallen and are thinking of doubling your Bernina Express train journey with a mountain experience, then this is the place I highly recommend for a daytrip option!
From the Bernina Express, you can hop off at the stop Bernina Diavolezza, then take the cable-car up to the top of Diavolezza.
There are different options for accommodation, from group rooms (16-beds or 6-beds bunkers) for large groups, 2 & 4 bedrooms, to classic Double rooms. Starting from 80CHF/night, the price of your stay includes ticket for the return cable car, a 4-course dinner (excluding drinks), room and breakfast.
We stayed in the Double Classic room. It’s a cute little cabin room with wooden furnishings giving it an extra cosy, rustic touch. It’s minimalistic, nothing fancy, but it had everything that we needed for our stay!
Around evening time, we went for a relaxing hot soak in the bubbling jaccuzi.
High in the mountains, the sky glows in beautiful hues of pink and orange during sunset.
Watching this colourful display of nature, I can safely say that this was one of the most unforgettable experience I’d had in Switzerland. All modern touches were invisible. Water, mountains and the starry sky…just simple pleasures to experience.
Note: You can use the jacuzzi would having to stay at the hotel, advanced reservation is recommended.
The next morning we rose early to catch the sunrise. Here’s the calming view that greeted us when we opened the bedroom curtains:
All meals are served at the chalet’s terrace restaurant.
If you’re craving for something hot and cheesy, here you can get the traditional Swiss meals like soups, rösti, steak, fondue and raclettte. The 4-course dinner (excluding beverages) is included in the cost of your stay, and it’s super worth it!
The food were all really good and decently priced, except for that one item that was CRAZY exorbitant…water.
You cannot order tap water (it’s undrinkable), and it costs a whooping 8CHF (that’s $11 SGD) for A JUG! The me 1.5 years ago would rather endure thirst than spend 10 TIMES as much on water, but I think i’d since grown used to Swiss prices and learnt to close both eyes when footing the bill. That’s still Switzerland for you, sometimes!
After such a lengthy post, the key question: IS THE BERNINA EXPRESS WORTH IT?
The annoying answer is… IT DEPENDS! Personally, I feel that trains are such an intrinsic part of Switzerland’s culture and identity, and honestly there’s no better way to fully experience the beauty of the Swiss Alps than through train travel. If your budget permits, then why not splurge it on a wonderful once-in-a-lifetime experience on the Bernina Express?
However, if you’re a more budget conscious traveller, you don’t have to burn a hole in your pocket, as there are still plenty of other options and cost-saving tricks! Like i’d mentioned earlier, boarding on first-class is a luxury treat but not a MUST, the views are the same regardless. You could also time your booking during the off-season where reservation fees are lower, and combine it with other Swiss travel passes.
Finally, doing parts of the Bernina Express route on regional trains can give you more bang for the buck, and they are no less beautiful!
I hope you enjoyed this detailed review of the Bernina Express and overnight stay at the Berghaus Diavolezza! For Part 1 of our trip, check out my review of our staycation at the elegant Hotel Saratz in Pontresina.
If you are considering to take the Bernina Express this coming winter and have other questions that are not addressed, share with me by leaving comments below, so that I can expand on this post and make it more comprehensive!
Have a fantastic trip!