Bernina Express: Everything You Need to Know
Choosing a scenic train trip in Switzerland is difficult. In a country where even daily commuter trains serve up gorgeous views, it’s hard to decide which one to pick. This is where the Bernina Express comes in. It offers glaciers, mountaintops, lakes, tunnels, the famous Brusio Spiral… the list goes on. Here’s everything you need to know about this impressive train journey.
What is the Bernina Express?
The Bernina Express is one of the world’s most celebrated scenic trains. It runs between Chur or Davos in Switzerland to Tirano in Italy, and crosses the Swiss Engadin Alps. Much of the journey is on the Rhaetian Railway, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The journey, at 4 hours one way, is relatively short when you compare it to the Glacier Express – its sister train and closest competitor. Over the course of the 76 miles (122 km) you’ll cross 196 bridges and travel through 55 tunnels.
The train gets its name from the Bernina Pass, which you’ll climb slowly but surely, earning you incredible views. The descent towards Poschiavo is equally inspiring, and many take the trip solely for the famous Brusio Spiral Viaduct between Poschiavo and Tirano.
In Tirano, you can do the journey in reverse, or hop aboard a dedicated Bernina Express bus that drives you another 3 hours back to Swiss soil in Lugano.
What to expect aboard the Bernina Express
There are several trains that run the route between Chur and Tirano, but not all of these are the Bernina Express. Although the Bernina Express offers panoramic windows, the other trains offer similar facilities, follow the exact same route, and are much cheaper.
There’s no dining cart on the train, but there is a snack service available. As with most European trains, you’re also welcome to bring your own food and drinks on board.
During good weather in summer months, you can also ride in an open carriage pulled by a regular train on the Bernina line. The Bernina Express does not pull these open carriages.
When does the Bernina Express run?
The Bernina Express runs throughout the year.
The special panoramic carriages leave Chur in the morning once daily, and return from Tirano in the early afternoon. Times vary according to day and season.
If you miss the panoramic carriage, you can always board a local Rhätische Bahn train. They run regularly between the two cities.
Using your Eurail Pass on board
You can use your Eurail Pass valid in Switzerland on board the Bernina Express and regional trains. If you choose to ride the panoramic trains on the Express, you’ll only need to pay a small seat reservation fee. Check the Eurail website for the latest costs.
Local trains on the same route don’t require a reservation fee, and you can simply hop aboard at the station.
Reserving a seat in advance
Reservation is recommended if you’re traveling during peak times or wish to guarantee a seat on board the daily express trains. You can reserve your seat at a Swiss railway station or online.
To reserve your Bernina Express seat online, simply visit the Bernina Express page on the Rhaetian Railway website. Choose your journey, then reserve and pay for your seat.
Taking the bus to Lugano
In summer months the Bernina Express runs a bus from Tirano to Lugano to coincide with the arrival of the train. The bus travels along the shores of a Lake Como and takes approximately three hours. Reservation is separate to that on the train and costs 14 Swiss Francs.
Choosing a direction and seat
There’s no discernable difference whether you choose to travel Chur to Tirano, or Tirano to Chur. The only factor you need to consider is daylight. In summer, both directions travel during daylight hours. In winter, the final stretch of the northbound route will be in the dark.
For the best views you should sit on the right side of the train going north to south, and the left side in the opposite direction.
As with most scenic Swiss routes, the views are spectacular regardless of the season. Winter months offer views of a stunning wonderland with large glaciers and deep snow. In summer, the snow gives way to emerald green fields, melting glaciers, and inviting blue lakes.
In a land where incredible scenic train rides appear in ample quantities, it can be hard choosing just one to include on your next Eurail trip. But for many travelers the Bernina Express is a no-brainer, particularly if you consider how cost-effective and stunning the journey is with a Eurail Pass. And considering that your arrival in Tirano or Chur means you can continue to explore Italy or Switzerland, it’s also the perfect addition to any rail holiday.