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Monday, May 13, 2024

Riding the Bernina Railway (Italy to Switzerland) - Everything You Need To Know

Bernina Express and Regular Train

We went to northern Italy for nine days and let me tell you   i t   w a s   m a g i c a l . 

We avoided (most) of the touristy places and spaces and truly had an amazing week+ exploring the mountains and lakes of northern Italy. The trip included it all - planes, trains, and automobiles and I fell in love with Italy. 

To be a bit more specific, I fell in love with parts of the country many Americans haven't spent much time in. While busy places tend to be busy for a good reason, I know I prefer natural places and quiet spaces. We skipped Lake Como, passed right on through Milan, and said "Maybe Next Time" to Venice. Instead, we set up home base on one of Italy's lesser known lakes, Lake Iseo, explored beautiful little towns and mountain lakes like Lake Garda, and took an other worldly "commuter train" into Switzerland.

Today's post is all about the latter, our wild train ride into Italy's northern neighbor and how to do it in the least touristy way possible (quiet spaces, natural places). This post is going to be a long one because I have so much to share. The first half is all about the railway, the train cars, and everything you need to know **including why you should skip the panoramic trains and ride the commuter train**. The second part is a recap of our trip. 

Let's talk about Bernina.

Bernina Express railway
The Bernina Red Train traveling over a bridge on the RhB Bernina Line

All about the Railway

Information about this train and experience is v e r y confusing. I went into a deep dive trying to differentiate between the panoramic cars vs the normal cars, how much it cost, what needed to be reserved ahead of time, could you get off at stops, etc. If you found this post, I'm assuming you are in the middle of your frustrating research project too and I am confident this post should clear it all up for you.

If you are wondering if this is something you should even devote money and brain space to, the answer is a big loud yes. This journey is so insanely beautiful and relatively cheap. The Bernina travels down a narrow gauge railway The Bernina Express is part of the Rhaetian Railway, which was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2008. It is the only train line to go up and over and cross the Alps north-south. It is truly a breathtaking journey as the trail cars travel through towns and valleys and into the mountains, passing through 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges. The scenery at the Bernina Pass is dramatic as you leave the green rolling hills behind and entire the quiet alpine wonder. While I can't vouch for the other railways, many have said that the Bernina is Europe's most scenic railway. 

May in Switzerland - Bernina Route
Snowy landscape/May in Switzerland - Bernina Route

Chur vs St. Moritz line

First off, there are two lines
Chur Line: Tirano, Italy to Chur, Switzerland - four hour journey 
St. Moritz Line: Tirano, Italy to St. Moritz, Swizterland - 2ish hour journey
While most of the general information is the same, this post is all about the St. Moritz line

The Rhaetian Railway (RhB)

The terminology of "Bernina Express" gets so confusing once you start talking about the different cars/train options so first, let's focus on the actual railway itself. The Rhaetian Railway (RhB), the railway the Bernina Express and Bernina Red Commuter Cars travel on claims to have the highest commuter railway tracks in Europe (without cog wheels) and the steepest in the world. 

Bernina Panoramic Train
The Panoramic/Bernina Express cars


Express Panoramic Trains vs Bernina Red Trains

When you hear the word "Bernina Express", what they mean is the specific modern panoramic cars. Most people collectively refer to the railway as the Bernina Express but this term is exclusive to these panoramic cars. Commuter cars, nearly identical except for shorter windows, travel the exact same railway, the Rhaetian Railway, literally hitched to the back of the panoramic cars. An easier way to think of this is the "Bernina Route" on the Rhaetian Railway where you have the option of panoramic cars or commuter cars. Exact same journey, same stops, same destinations.

The difference? They are big and while you may think the panoramic cars are worth the splurge, I am happy to tell you they are not and here is why. This section of their website does a good job of explaining but keep reading while I keep it clear.

Bernina Red Train
The 2nd class normal commuter train car

Panoramic Cars (Bernina Express Panoramic Cars)

+ Panoramic windows that extend to the ceiling
+ New and updated train cars
+ First class and second class options (first class has tables)
- These windows do not open, every photo you take will have a glare
- You cannot hop on and off the train even though it stops at all the stops, you must remain in your seat and ride the train from start to finish
- You have a seat reservation and cannot switch seats to catch the view on either side of the train
- These trains are often sold old and packed - reservations need to be made well in advance
- You have to pay two fares, for the train ride itself and for the seat reservation (book in advance)

Commuter Trains (Regular Bernina Red Trains)

+ You can open the windows, allowing for photographs without a glare
+ You can hop on and off as you like at all the stops 
+ The trains are much quieter, you can switch sides as you like to enjoy the views on either side
+ First class and second class options (first class has tables)
+ In the summer, they have open railcars
+ You only have to pay one fare (train ticket, no seat reservation)
- The trains are sometimes more outdated

I really can't think of a good reason to chose the panoramic trains over the commuter trains. If you want to get off at any of the stops (and I think you should), you need to take the commuter train. 

Bernina Express Switzerland
Passing through Switzerland on the Bernina Line

First Class vs Second Class

Whether you pick the Panoramic or Regular Red train, you have the option of first or second class for each. There is an upcharge for first class and while I didn't ride first class, I think the glance into the trains showed more comfortable seats and a bigger table.

Trains showing the normal commuter train option and the PE (panoramic) option

2024 Pricing
2024 Red Train Pricing


You have to be very clear when getting tickets and the RhB tries to help. If you google Bernina Express, you will be directed to the website with the panoramic cars and seat reservations. If you google Rhetian Railway Commuter Rail, you are directed to the website that offers the normal trains and an option to buy tickets "without seat reservations".  I went onto the commuter website, and entered my destinations and I bought a one way ticket from Tirano, Italy, to St. Moritz, Switzerland and a second ticket for the reverse direction. The time schedule shows the trains leaving about every hour. You want the route without changes, and the first train out is 7:41 from Tirano. After that, the trains come by about every hour. If you get off at one of the stops, you can catch the next train through about every hour. I highly suggest you take a screenshot of the time table and keep it saved on your phone. 

Bernina Red Commuter Train
Bernina Red Commuter Train

By taking the commuter rail, we weren't committed to any specific start time and could catch the next train whenever we arrived to the station. This truly allowed us a much less stressful start to our trip as we drove the twisting mountain roads, navigated parking, and found the train station. 

Buy your tickets in advance here and show the QR code on your phone. You can also get tickets right at the station but getting them on your phone is the easiest option. You do not need to book in advance for the commuter train and do not need to reserve a seat. You do need to book a seat reservation well in advance if you are taking the PE cars. 

May 2024 Departures

– From Tirano, 07:41, 09:00, 09:41, 11:00, 11:41, 13:00, 13:41, 15:00, 15:41, 17:00 and 17.41

– From St.Moritz, 08:48, 09:48, 10:48, 11:48, 12:48, 13:48, 14:48, 15:48, and 16:48.

Enjoying the amazing scenery

Other useful facts

  • Despite the name Bernina Express, the trains are slow, the Bernina 'Express' takes 2.5 hours to traverse 61 km, about 38 miles, or about 17 mph
  • The train operates year round and in both directions - while you could do this trip there and back in one day (Tirano to St. Moritz) I recommend breaking up the journey. 
  • On the schedule, the panoramic trains are marked by PE
  • Parking (Tirano) - there is a large (free!) lot by the bus station that allows overnight parking 
  • Bring food on board. I can't speak to the PE trains but the commuter red trains don't have food. If you are on the commuter red train, you can get off one of the stops with a restaurant for lunch (season pending) and hop back on in an hour or two. 

Stops along the Tirano to St. Moritz route
Stops along the Tirano to St. Moritz route

Where we stopped

  • Diavolezza - Tram to the summit of the ski mountain
  • Morteratsch - Hiking trail to the Morteratsch Glacier 
  • St. Moritz - walk around the lake, have lunch, see the Olympic history
You have to read the schedule clearly as some lines do not stop at all the stations, and some are request only. Both  of these stops were "request stops". There was a button on the train we pushed when this station was next to let the train know we wanted to get off. To get back on, the train just stops if it sees you at the station.

Beautiful valley in Switzerland

Our Trip 

A ride on the RhB will surely be a trip to remember. You start in the sleepy little town of Italy, waiving to passerby's as the train passes through the quiet town and starts to head north. The train starts to climb and the rich green fields start to turn into white snowy landscapes. It feels like you are in a different world as the towns fade away and you travel through the snowy desolate mountains of the Alps in Switzerland. The change of scenery is so dramatic as the little red train spiraling through. Please know that photos won't do this part of the world justice and while I hope this post inspires you, it is something you should see for yourself. 

Second class Bernina Red Train
Second class Bernina Red Train

We planned to take the train up to St Moritz, with one stop along the way at the ski resort before spending the night in Switzerland. If we had more time (and didn't have a toddler) we could have stretched the journey out and added more stops or even a day to ski. Instead, we planned one stop along the route at Bernina to take the ski tram to the top of the mountain for a snack and to enjoy the views. The next morning, we were going to reverse the journey and head straight back to Tirano. We ended up adding a stop on the way home after seeing how beautiful the little area of Morteratsch was on our ride up.

Stopping in St. Moritz off the Bernina
Stopping in St. Moritz off the Bernina

Our first stop of the train wasn't until about an hour into the journey and we were in awe from the start to the finish. We were like kids on Christmas morning, giddy as the slow moving trained passed over bridges and popped in and out of tunnels, switching from side to side to take in the gorgeous view. There were about 10 other people in our train car, meaning we had plenty of room to enjoy the view on both sides of the train.

Tram Cable Car at Diavolezza
Tram Cable Car at Diavolezza

Viewing platform at the top of Diavolezza
Viewing platform at the top of Diavolezza

Viewing platform at the top of Diavolezza
Restaurant at the top of Diavolezza

Taking the tram at Diavolezza

Diavolezza, about halfway through our journey, was the planned stop for the trip. We read it was a must, to get off at the ski resort and take the tram to the top of the resort to get an amazing view at the viewing platform of the Swiss Alps at 2,973 meters (9,753 feet). I was curious about the name and logo and according to legend, unwary hunters would "follow a beautiful, flame-haired mountain nymph only to disappear forever" and the resort was named after the she devil.

My first introduction to the cost of Switzerland was at the ticket booth for the tram. It was the most expensive ten minute ride I've ever taken but to be fair, the views were worth every cent. The tram/cable car comes about every 20 minutes. We got out at the ski lodge to see a crown of snow capped mountains all around us. This part of the railway felt like we were in a different world, so quiet and devoid of life at times. The top of the tram felt like the top of the world and Whitney had a blast playing in the snow. There is a restaurant at the top and a gift shop so this makes a great little stop along the route for an expensive lunch and an insane view. 

We caught a train two hours later and continued our journey to the famous little Lake Town of St. Moritz. We decided to spend the night in the area to break up the long travel day. We spent a few hours walking around St Moritz, a famous luxury ski town which hosted the Winter Olympics twice. We walked for an hour around town, finally coming across the playground I had saved to discover it was covered in FEET of snow. We had a very expensive late lunch/early dinner at a burger joint where burger and fries cost about $30 and a kids chicken tenders almost $20.

We ended up taking the train one more stop to our hotel just outside St Moritz in a small village called Celerina. It was a ghost town in between seasons when the ski mountains close and the mountain bikers wait for the snow to melt. Our hotel was quiet, with one family and a few workers staying at the lodge. It was truly a ghost town where even the little grocery stores closed at 6:30. 

Morteratsch Stop along the Bernina
Morteratsch Stop along the Bernina 

Morteratsch Stop along the Bernina
Following the hiking path to the Morteratsch Glacier

Morteratsch Glacier Hike
Morteratsch Glacier Hike

One of the Morteratsch Waterfalls
One of the Morteratsch Waterfalls

Morteratsch Area
Morteratsch area

Morteratsch Area
Morteratsch Area

Glacier Hike at Morteratsch

We stayed in that evening and relaxed. In the morning, we had breakfast at the hotel and jumped on the first train back south to Italy. We planned a stop at Morteratsch after passing it on the train and seeing a quiet little hiking area with a playground. It turned out to be a well known hiking spot, famous for it's hiking and cross country skiing trail following the timeline over the years of a receding glacier. 

The hike to the glacier is popular in the warmer months, and pretty quiet during the week early in the spring. There was still a substantial amount of snow on the ground and only sneakers on our feet. It's a family friendly hike, following a flat well marked route for a total distance of 6 km (3.7 miles) out and back/round trip. We were not prepared so instead, we hiked out for a little while where we could catch a glimpse of the glacier before our sneakers got too wet. 

The signage in the area was wildly helpful, offering different time frames (instead of distances) for hikes and paths in the area. The glacier hike was clearly marked and easy to follow, with 16 markers along the way depicting the glaciers expansive reach in the past. It's a sad hike of sorts as you grapple with the effects of climate change, seeing the glaciers mark at the beginning of the trail in the late 1800s compared to its current position nearly 3.3 miles down the trail. 

I would have loved to continue to the end of even better, traversed the path on cross country skis. Traveling with a toddler is knowing when to quit, especially if you are ahead and that's what we did. After hiking for about 20 minutes, we stopped at the playground for Whitney before venturing through the tiny little village to see what else was in the area. We found waterfalls and empty picnic area, a closed hotel and restaurant prepping for the upcoming summer season. We were the only ones in the village and there was something so calming and peaceful after a busy few days in Europe. I am sure this is a magical stop in the summer and we daydreamed of a trip back in the true summer season. 

Bernina Red Commuter Train
Bernina Red Commuter Train

Final Thoughts

A ride on the RhB railway is something to remember. If you read through forums, people say this has been one of their favorite travel journeys to date. It truly feels magical as you ride this famous little red train through the Alps. It was worth every second of planning, worth every swiss franc spent as we crossed the border. This is a great adventure for kids, with the ability to hop on and off. It's a wonderful journey for adults who want to see the Swiss Alps by railway, with options to get out for lunch or embark on epic hiking journeys. I can't recommend this train enough and I truly hope this post was helpful as you plan your trip on the Bernina railway. 

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