The Bernina Express route
The Bernina Express is a direct train from Chur to Tirano in Italy. It crosses the beautiful canton of Graubünden from the north to the south. Chur to Tirano is the classic route, but in Summer there are more options: there is a Bernina Express from Davos and St. Moritz as well. All trains have in common that they cross the Bernina Pass and end in Tirano.
The journey from Chur takes about 4 hours. From Davos it takes 15 minutes less. The route from St. Moritz is shorter, about 2 hours, and does not include the north of Graubünden.
The Bernina Express route is an impressive piece of railway engineering: the train reaches an altitude of 2253 m, even higher than the Glacier Express, and without the help of cogwheel track. It requires lots of spiral loops, 55 tunnels and 196 bridges to accomplish this.
The landscape varies greatly, from high alpine scenery on the Bernina Pass to Mediterranean scenery in the Poschiavo valley to Tirano.
There is a connecting Bernina Express bus from Tirano to Lugano, that adds another 3 hours to the journey. It operates from April to October on a daily basis, and Thursday to Sunday during the weeks before and after that period. Details can be found in the timetable.
Section 1: Chur to Pontresina
The first section overlaps with section 4 of the Glacier Express route. The Bernina Express departs from Chur and first heads for Reichenau. There it bends to the south, towards Thusis and Tiefencastel. This Domleschg valley is know for its many ruins and castles.
The train continues south through a mostly narrow valley, crossing the spectacular curved Landwasser viaduct just before it reaches Filisur. After Filisur, several spiral loops help it gain height until it reaches the entrance of the Albula tunnel, at 1789 m. This section of the route is very interesting to explore on foot as well.
The Albula tunnel leads to the high Upper Engadine valley, where Pontresina is one of the prominent towns. This valley sits at such a high altitude that its climate is considerably different from climates in other Swiss valleys. You will not see many deciduous trees here. It's a fantastic winter sports region.
You can best sit on the right side as that will give you the best view on the Landwasser viaduct.
Section 2: Pontresina to Tirano
About 10 minutes after Pontresina, the Morteratsch glacier and the highest peaks of the canton of Graubünden will be reached. This is where the ascent up the Bernina Pass begins. The tree line will soon be crossed, and a rough high alpine landscape can be admired.
The Lago Bianco (White Lake) will come into sight, and soon after the Bernina Express will reach the small station of Ospizio Bernina. This marks the highest point of the route, at 2253 m over sea level. This is a great area to do some hiking.
The train now begins its dramatic descent of 1824 m, all the way to Tirano at 429 m. After passing the station of Alp Grüm, offering a magnificent view of the Palü glacier, the train runs through countless curves to gradually descend into the Poschiavo valley.
Once the valley floor has been reached, you'll notice that the villages, such as Poschiavo, look more Italian than Swiss. This is still Switzerland though, but people speak Italian here. The Bernina Express passes the Lago di Poschiavo (Lake of Poschiavo) and descends a bit more at the famous Brusio spiral viaduct. In some towns the train rides on the street, blocking it completely, simply because there's not enough space for a road and a railroad. About 15 minutes later, the train will cross the Italian border and arrive in Tirano.
Sit on the right side of the train if you can. That will get you slightly better views.
Section 3: Tirano to Lugano
If you would like to see more of the southern scenery, the scenic Bernina Express bus ride to Lugano (Switzerland) is recommended. Most of the route is on Italian soil. The bus takes you through the Valtelline valley, and along Lake Como and Lake Lugano.
The left side of the bus provides the best views of the lakes.
What's the best leg of the route?
All sections are beautiful in their own way. Most of the route is really worth it. If you ask us, it's only the tunnels and the area just outside Chur that is less pretty. In all that's perhaps half an hour of the total trip. If you don't have the time to do the complete Bernina Express route, just pick the section that is closest to your base town.