Section 1 (main route): Lucerne to Flüelen by boat
You will board a historical paddle steamer in Lucerne. The Alps pass by slowly while you enjoy lunch in the ship restaurant (optionally). The trip starts with views of the city of Lucerne and Mount Pilatus. A bit further on you can see Mount Rigi on your left; a beautiful area to hike.
Between Brunnen and Seelisberg, the boat will turn right into the southern end of Lake Lucerne: the Urnersee. You're getting closer to the higher peaks now, and steep forested rock walls rise up from both sides of the lake. The next destination of the trip, the snow capped peaks surrounding the Gotthard Pass, can already be seen from here.
You will pass the Tell's Chapel on your left. It marks the place where, according to the legend, Wilhelm Tell escaped from the boat of the Austrian bailiff Gessler. His escape allowed him to kill Gessler a bit later. That paved the way to the formation of the Swiss Confederation on August 1, 1291. This happened at Rütli, a meadow on the opposite side of the lake. August 1 is still the Swiss national holiday.
Nearly 3 hours after departing from Lucerne, you will reach the village of Flüelen.
Section 2 (main route): Flüelen to Göschenen by train
The boat trip has come to an end. After a 1-minute flat walk to the station, your journey continues by train. The next 2.5 hours will be full of mountain scenery and impressive railway engineering of the famous Gotthard railway.
This second section of the Gotthard Panorama Express route runs through the valley of the river Reuss. The valley floor is relatively wide in the beginning, but once you have reached the village of Amsteg, it is very narrow. It's interesting to see how the river, railroad, express way and local road all fit into the little available space.
Another challenge for the trains is that they have to gain a lot of altitude in a short distance: about 670 m in just 30 km. In order to make that possible without slow cogwheel trains, several spiral loops have been carved in the rocks in order to lengthen the railway. That becomes really obvious when you're passing the village of Wassen and its little white church three times, because of the two loops here.
Finally the train reaches the entrance of the Gotthard tunnel in the village of Göschenen, at an altitude of 1106 m.
The left side of the train offers a slightly better view we think.
Section 3 (main route): Göschenen to Lugano by train
The train continues into the tunnel, which dates back to 1882. There is a light show inside the 15 km long tunnel.
Airolo, at the other side of the tunnel, is the highest point of the route at 1141 m. You have passed the highest peaks of the Alps, and you may encounter entirely different weather here. You're now in the canton of Ticino. Language and culture are no longer German, but Italian.
The climate is considerably milder and drier here, but still there are interesting variations between northern and central Ticino: the valley floor has 3 different levels and 3 different climates.
The first section has an altitude of around 1000 m. The second section starts north of Faido with an altitude of around 700 m. Just before Giornico the train reaches the lowest level: under 400 m. It is considerably warmer here. You're now in a wine growing area, and you'll see some palm trees for sure! Several spiral loops help the train descending to this level.
In Bellinzona you can see one castle on the right and two on the left. If you get off here, you can switch trains for Locarno. The lowest point of the route at 230 m is just south of Bellinzona. A bit further you can see the Lago Maggiore (the lowest place in Switzerland) and Locarno on the horizon.
Fast trains take the 15.4 km long Ceneri Base Tunnel here, but the Gotthard Panorama Express takes the classic route to its destination Lugano, in the south of the Ticino.
The view is slightly better from the right side of the train.
What's the best leg of the route?
It's the contrast between the two climates and cultures, and between the train and boat sections, that make this trip worthwhile. We only found the last leg between Bellinzona and Lugano a bit less interesting.
A few suggestions for routes different from the main one can be found below. They can be done in any direction.
- Bus and train: skip the boat, and instead take a train from Lucerne to Küssnacht am Rigi, and then a bus along the lake via Vitznau to Brunnen. In Brunnen you can take a train to Flüelen to pick up the Gotthard Panorama Express train there.
- Train all the way: take a train from Lucerne to Arth-Goldau and board the Gotthard Panorama Express train there.
- Most variety: take a boat to Vitznau, then the cogwheel train to Mount Rigi and down to Arth-Goldau. Board the Gotthard Panorama Express train there. This trip offers even more variation than the main route, but is less convenient if you have a lot of luggage.
Gotthard Panorama Express as a day trip from one base
There are two options if you want to return to your base town after the trip.
- Travel back on a regional train via the same route.
- Take a fast train back, crossing the Ceneri and Gotthard tunnels.
It is interesting to experience the difference in travel time between the Gotthard Panorama Express on the classic route and high-speed trains (up to 250 km/h) on the new route.
Dates of operation
The Gotthard Panorama Express train and boat operates from mid-April to mid-October, on all days of the week except Mondays.
For more boat details, please see here.
Tip: check the timetable before you start your trip.