(This post about traveling on the Bernina Express was updated in 2019)
The Bernina Express is consistently found in lists of the most scenic train journeys around the world.
The Bernina line runs from Italy to Switzerland (or vice versa) starting/ending in the Italian town of Tirano and starting/ending in the Swiss town of Chur. It passes through some of the most picturesque scenery in Switzerland and is available for travel in both winter and summer. A train ride through the Swiss Alps is beautiful at any time of year.
We took the trip north in summer from Tirano as we were traveling to Zurich. The Bernina Express is my preferred choice of train from Italy to Zurich and a highly recommended trip.
In this article you will find:
- What is the Benina Express?
- What is the route of the Bernina Express?
- Commonly asked questions about the Bernina Express Scenic train
- Recommended accommodation in Milan/Tirano/Zurich
- My thoughts on the Bernina Express experience
What is the Bernina Express?
The Benrina Express is a 4 hour scenic train journey running both directions between Tirano in Italy and Chur in Switzerland. The route covers 144 km and includes 55 tunnels and 196 bridges. At the highest point the train is at 7392 feet above sea level. The train line is also used by standard regional trains but only the Bernina Express has the panoramic windows to enable you to fully appreciate the views!
The railway was built between 1896 and 1904 and is operated by the Rhaetian Railway. The route was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008 – the Rhaetian Railway in the Albula / Bernina Landscapes.
Part of the route of the Bernina Express is also shared with the equally famous Swiss scenic train the Glacier Express.
What is the Bernina Express route?
As we started in Tirano I will describe the route from there to Chur.
Handily there are free guides available on the train too so you can follow your route and identify where you are along the way.
Tirano to Poschiavo
Once you leave the station the train climbs up the Tirano Valley passing Lake Poschiavo.
After climbing the mountains for some time you arrive at Alp Grüm which is 2091 meters above sea level. Check out the views of the Palu Glacier.
Lake Bianco and Ospizio Bernina
Continuing its ascent up the mountains look out for the Lago Blanco (white lake) just after the train passes through the station at Ospizio Bernina the highest point of the route!
Admire the beautiful Alpine scenery. There were many cyclists and hikers at the various stops enjoying the warm summer sunshine.
The train passes near to the popular Swiss resort of St Moritz.
The Bernina Pass
The train descends from the Bernina Pass
Before crossing the Landwasser Viaduct the train passes through the Albula tunnel at 1789 m before descending via several loops at Filisur. Just after Filisur the train travels over the viaduct. This famous sight had everyone scrambling for their cameras. The Lanwasser Viaduct is certainly an amazing feat of engineering.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE – A GUIDE TO THE GOLDEN ROUND TRIP FROM LUCERNE TO MT PILATUS
Commonly asked questions about the Bernina Express Scenic Train
Where can I purchase tickets for the Bernina Express?
If you have a Swiss Travel Pass, or InterRail/Eurail Pass covering Switzerland you only have to pay the Bernina Express reservation fee. However make sure you reserve in the class corresponding to your pass.
The most comprehensive site I can recommend for booking tickets is The Man at Seat 61 who details every possible configuration and cost as well as links and excellent tips.
How can I catch the Bernina Express from Milan Italy?
If you are in Milan it is possible to travel to Tirano via the regional train Trenard service. Although I had pre-booked our tickets it is quite easy to buy your tickets on the day at Milan train station as there are regular trains on this route. Be careful to buy tickets for Tirano and not Turino which is a completely different place)
Make sure you validate your train tickets before you board the train if you purchase them on the day. If you pre-purchased and printed your tickets at home these do not need validating.
The journey to Tirano takes about 2 1/2 hours and is a beautiful trip including some lovely views of Lake Como.
The Bernina train leaves from a different station (the Rhatische Bahn) than the one you arrive at from Tirano but it is just next door and easy to locate. Walk out and look left and you will see the station for the Bernina service.
If you arrive in Tirano for a few hours to spare there are restaurants and shops to look around. We had a lovely lunch at the Margy Bar which we highly recommend!
Which is the best side of the Bernina Express train to sit on?
We sat on the right-hand side of the train going north which is apparently not the side to be on. However it is impossible to tell when booking your seat reservation which way round the carriage will be. We found that although the train was full leaving Tirano people did alight at the various stations and we eventually had both sides of the carriage free so were able to move from one side to the other.
Officially the best views are on the left if you are heading north and on the right if you are heading south.
I would highly recommend when reserving your seats you are very clear where you are sitting. We had a very unpleasant experience with a Dutch gentleman who insisted my niece’s window seat was his. He even assaulted her in the process of trying to remove her from the seat. It was only when I was able to show our reservations with our window sea reservations clearly shown that he accepted his own seat and sat down. Luckily there were 2 free seats further down the train and he moved on but it was a very unpleasant experience for both my niece and myself.
If you would prefer to have 2 seats (facing each other) and not the 4/4 seat configuration this is only available in the 1st class carriages. We travelled 2nd class and found it perfectly comfortable (once the unpleasant man had moved anyway).
What services are available on the train?
There is a refreshment trolley selling prosecco, tea, coffee, various snacks and souvenirs. It comes through the carriage offering an at-seat service.
Should I take the Bernina Express in winter or summer?
If you have a choice I would recommend doing it at both times of year! In winter the frozen lakes and snow-covered mountains will be incredibly beautiful whilst in spring/summer the green fields and flower filled alpine meadows will be a joy. The only tip I would say is that in winter it gets dark early so book an early train to ensure you see everything.
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE – A GUIDE TO THE SWISS TRAIN JOURNEY TO THE TOP OF EUROPE
RECOMMENDED ACCOMMODATION IN MILAN/TIRANO AND ZURICH
If you are heading to Tirano from Milan I would highly recommend staying at a hotel near to Milan train station. We stayed at the Glam Hotel when we were in Milan (after traveling from Venice and Verona) and this provided easy access to the train station for our ongoing travel. The Hotel Glam Milano a 4 star property with modern rooms, air conditioning and free WiFi as well as a fantastic view of Milan train station.
Although we caught the train from Tirano the same afternoon it is possible to stay in Tirano and enjoy Italian hospitality for one more evening!
I am lucky to have family in the Zurich area but there are lots of beautiful hotels to choose from in this Swiss city,
BERNINA EXPRESS REVIEW
I would highly recommend booking seats on the Bernina Express. It is certainly one of the most scenic train journeys I have taken with Alpine meadows, the Swiss Alps, lakes, quaint Swiss towns and villages, viaducts, valleys and more to keep you enthralled throughout the trip.
I would love to take the trip in winter to see the mountains and valleys deep in snow.
If you are taking the Bernina Express train from Italy to Switzerland or vice versa please ask any questions or leave comments below.
Have a fantastic trip!
If you are considering a trip around Switzerland by train definitely include this trip – for other ideas check out Janet’s post – A Grand Train Tour of Switzerland.
USEFUL INFORMATION ABOUT SWITZERLAND
Geography – Switzerland is made up of 26 cantons
Population – 8.3 million
Largest city – Zurich
Currency – Swiss Franc
Languages – French, Swiss German, Italian and Rhaeto-Romantsch though English is widely spoken
Capital – Bern
Famous for – scenery, watches, Swiss Army knives, cheese fondue, cuckoo clocks and chocolate
Drive – on the right!
Slow Train to Switzerland: One Tour, Two Trips, 150 Years and a World of Change Apart by Diccon Bewes (2014-10-28)
CLICK HERE TO READ MORE – BEST BOOKS TO READ BEFORE YOU VISIT SWITZERLAND
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Tracy has lived and worked in 7 countries on 4 continents and travelled to over 50 more. A qualified school teacher with an interest in history, reading, photography, nature and wildlife she is always planning her next trip (preferably by train)
With a lifetime of travel experience, and a network of friends all over the world, she is also able to share genuine insider guides, recommended best book lists and train journey inspiration to help you travel authentically to some of the most beautiful places on earth.
Come and join me as I travel the world one country (and train journey) at a time!