The Wilhelm Tell Express route
The Wilhelm Tell Express is a combined boat and train journey from Lucerne to Locarno, or vice versa. The scenic route connects the north and the south of Switzerland, which are very different in climate, culture and language.
Section 1: Lucerne to Flüelen by boat
You will board a historical paddle steamer or salon motor boat in Lucerne. The Alps pass by slowly while you enjoy your meal in the ship restaurant. The trip starts with views of the city of Lucerne, and mount Pilatus. A bit furtheron 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 snowcapped peaks surrounding the Gotthard Pass, can already be seen from here.
You will pass the Tells 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. August 1 is still the Swiss national holiday.
Nearly 3 hours after departing from Lucerne, you will reach the village of Flüelen.
Section 2: Flüelen to Göschenen by train
The boat trip has come to an end, and you'll walk to the train station in 3 minutes. There you will board the 1st class panoramic coach of the train to Locarno. The next two hours will be full of mountain scenery and impressive railway engineering of the famous Gotthard railway.
This second section of the Wilhelm Tell 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 ride across the tunnel takes about 10 minutes, and after that you will enter a different world.
Section 3: Göschenen to Locarno by train
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 are now in the canton of Ticino. Language and culture are no longer German, but Italian. The climate is considerably milder and drier here.
The train now has to descend a lot to reach the lowest point of the route at 205 m in Locarno. Again, several spiral loops help making this happen. Meanwhile, you can enjoy the little Italian-like villages pass by your panoramic window.
Optionally you can get off the train in Bellinzona, in order to change for Lugano. The Wilhelm Tell Express train continues to Locarno. Once you see Lake Maggiore, the train is minutes away from Locarno, where the palm trees make it very clear that you're in a different climate zone now.
What's the best leg of the route?
We definitely recommend to do the full Wilhelm Tell Express route. It's the contrast between the two climates and cultures, and between the train and boat sections, that make this trip worthwhile. If you don't have sufficient time, you can consider a slightly quicker alternative: skip the boat and instead take a train from Lucerne to Küssnacht am Rigi, and a bus along the lake to Brunnen from there. In Brunnen, you can take a train to Locarno via the original Wilhelm Tell Express route.