We had two fabulous weeks in Switzerland (in between Iceland, Italy, France and London), largely due to the helpful information and helpful folks here--thank you!
Our Swiss itinerary and nights from Sept. 4: St. Moritz, 1; Zermatt, 3; Wengen, 5; Mürren, 3; Bern, 1; Geneva, 2.
Our top highlights:
• (I know I'm not supposed to say this, Arno), but the cable car from Aiguille Du Midi at Chamonix, France, over the glacier past Mont Blanc to Helbronner was jaw-dropping stupendous.
• Walking across the Aletsch glacier from Jungfraujoch to Monchsjoch, the highest occupied hut in Switzerland at 11,975 feet, was surreal, with the crisp air, serene silence, virgin snow, icicles and crevasses.
• The 3.73-mile Eiger trail from Eigergletscher to Alpiglen in the shadow of the famed mountain was challenging and exhilarating.
• The beautiful Alps framed by gnarled karst rock, lush meadows and tall pines about 90 minutes out from Schynige Platte (en route to First) was amazing.
• Our first Swiss train experience, the Bernina Express from Tirano to St. Moritz, introduced us to the lush, green, idyllic beauty of Switzerland.
• My first Via Ferrata, from Mürren. What. A. Thrill. (Read separate post!)
• Seeing the magnificent mountains in the Jungfrau region from virtually every perspective allowed us to get to know and love them.
Here are some fresh impressions:
- Were mostly very clean, quiet, comfy, easy to use and indeed, remarkably on time. This is a surprise when you're accustomed to American subways.
- Often are very slow, stopping to let opposite trains go by as there may be only one track, or because they're operating on cogwheels! (And yet are still on time!)
- D not list every single stop…which I discovered as I eagerly headed from Mürren to my 6 hour hike from First to Schynige Platte. The digital board said Zweilutschinen, so I got off…and the station was Sandweid, BEFORE Zweilutschinen, in the middle of nowhere. It was very cold and lonely at 8 a.m. and I felt like an idiot, plus I lost 30 minutes.
- Comes and goes so you have to watch the live cams, and hope to get lucky! In Zermatt, we took one day off due to clouds, then took a chance the next day and got amazing views of the Matterhorn, Breithorn and more on the Kleine Matterhorn cable. In Wengen, the forecast for Jungfraujoch was lousy and the live cam was busted but we went to Kleine Scheidegg and asked the attendant there how it looked and he said great. So we went up and it became a sparkling clear day (a fellow traveler said it had been raining below in Interlaken that morning)!
- Thus, plan for multiple days in key locations to improve your chances of seeing the peaks.
- We bundled up for the mountaintops but were often too warm. There was almost no wind so it was delightfully comfortable, especially when the sun was out.
3. Mountain transportation
- Really slow and crowded. They cram people in like sardines in the large cable cars (100 capacity!) and some trains (like Schynige Platte). If you do get some privacy, the slow pace allows you to really enjoy the scenery.
- May or may not run on a schedule. There was precision in some places but often the cable came sooner than the listed times. At other times, you’re all crowded around waiting and waiting.
- Heading up to Murren, we were delighted by the bag handling at the Grütschalp gondola (across the road from the Lauterbrunnen train): they will load it (at no cost) on the gondola and on the train, so you next see it upon arrival in Murren (in our case, at the Hotel Eiger!).
- The Grutschalp gondola, BTW, holds 100 people and they will PACK THEM IN. Then you are all herded into the train to Murren.
4. Hospitality staff were almost all helpful, patient and knowledgeable, showing little disdain for us dumb tourists.
5. Cows everywhere! They are just adorable set against the lush green and white mountains, clanging their bells!
• I provided tips in my first live report after the Bernina and Glacier Expresses, some of which I’ll repeat here:
a. You have to push the button to open the doors!! Sticking your hand or foot will just get them smashed—doors are not motion-sensored.
b. You can get around with larger suitcases—we had two that were 26x18x11. The hardest part was getting them up/down the 3-4 steps to the carriage. The most inconvenient part was finding ramps or lifts when you’re trying to make tight transfers. (Signage can be improved at the stations to help this problem!)
c. There aren’t baggage areas in every car. We eventually took advantage of open spaces that did not block movement to lay our bags down. Carriages designed for skis or bikes were ideal.
d. We often worried about mistakenly going into 1st class cabins. Usually they are labeled very clearly outside and inside. Also, check the sign above the tracks listing the train: it will show letters and numbers: the letters are different areas on the track (A/B/C/D). The numbers are the classes. So A may be 1 and B/C may be 2. That gives you an idea of where the first class carriages will be and where you may want to board.
e. LOVED our Swiss Travel Passes. Never needed to show our passports.
f. This site repeatedly raves about the SBB app, and rightly so. It’s wonderful!! But you have to book your ticket before the train departs. (If you don’t, you’ll probably be saved by a nice attendant, like I was). FYI the app does not “sync” with your STP. To buy a ticket pick the half price option.
g. Attendants did not always come through to check tickets. But we witnessed travelers getting booted out of first class once (and being very obnoxious about it).
h. If you want to avoid crowds, you may want to go first class all the way.
a. Be patient. Everything will take longer than you expected. And often be more crowded than you’d like.
b. Almost always sit right for views.
c. You can have your bags transferred from Murren to be held at the Grütschalp gondola for $6 each.
d. Consider getting the Jungfrau pass if you have the time and energy to explore all the fantastic hikes and summits. I calculated I saved about $165 over four days with the pass compared to only the Swiss Travel Pass.
Comparing mountain summits:
• Plz Nair in St. Moritz: was special as our first mountain top, with glimpses of the town and lakes and marmots.
• Kleine Matterhorn in Zermatt: This is the highest cable in Europe at 12,830 feet (just beating Aiguille du Midi in France by 136 feet), with views of the Matterhorn and many other peaks. We paid extra for the Crystal Ride, which is a glass floor that turns translucent as you near the top. But there was so much to see all around us we didn’t appreciate it quite enough. The Matterhorn was lovely as we passed it, then shrouded once we were on top, where Breithorn was most prominent, with many hikers attempting to summit. (Breithorn is noted as the “easiest” Alp to summit.) The glacier views, walking on snow and admiring numerous skiers was invigorating.
• Gornergrat in Zermatt: This is a very slow cogwheel train. It was too cloudy to see much the day I went up but some say it has the best views of the Matterhorn as well as 29 of the 48 4,000-meter peaks in Switzerland.
• Jungfraujoch: gets some bad press for being too costly and commercial. But we thought it was great. No other summit allowed us to walk on and touch the pristine glacier and snow like this. Tip: Even if you don’t plan to do the hike to the Monchsjoch, go out that entrance for lovely scenery with far fewer people. Just ignore the shops at the end. (BTW, the Lindt chocolate shop does not give free samples, but you get a Thank You chocolate on your way back down on the train!)
o Be sure to acclimatize yourself for the altitude here: take your time, drink plenty of water. My husband had to slow drastically, especially on steps. I found myself panting excessively as I started the walk to the Monchsjoch hut.
• Mannlichen: Easy, short cablecar ride from Wengen to the top (we also paid extra for the Royal Ride on the top of the cable car, which was fun), then an easy “Royal Walk” to the peak, with great views of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, as well as the Lauterbrunnen valley.
o The easy 3 mile walk from Mannlichen to Kleine Scheidegg is beautiful and popular—you’re facing the big three mountains nearly the whole way. It took us about 1 hour 45 with lots of dawdling.
• Grindelwald-First: Grindelwald is a nice sized city when compared to Wengen or Murren, in a pretty valley beneath Eiger, Wetterhorn, Shreckhorn and Mettenberg. It’s a trek to get here, with a train to Grindelwald, then two slow cable cars going up 3.25 miles. Aside from the mountain views, First is designed for fun, with a “thrill walk” or suspension platform jutting from the mountain, and popular paid adrenalin activities like a glider or flyer or scooter.
o The 1.9 mile walk to Bachalpsee is not quite a walk in the park as advertised. I’m fast and it took me 45 minutes with some panting. It’s another 15 minutes to the higher viewpoint past the lake.
• Schilthorn: Easy cable car from Murren with a change in Birg. This was perhaps the best views of the mountain range, especially Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, and more, all lined up at eye level. You can romp around different viewpoints and even out on the mountain ledges (where you can watch the paragliders launch). This was the setting for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with George Lazenby and they milk that lame 007 film for all its worth—I thought the bathroom designs were cute but that was about it. I considered the hike up here but it didn’t look that interesting. (Piz Gloria is the name of the revolving restaurant.)
a. Birg thrill walk: Really fun! It’s a pathway jutting from the mountain, with a tightrope, see-through-path, and “tunnel,” all with amazing views around.
• Schynige Platte: I hiked here from First, then took the slooow cogwheel train down. The views about 90 minutes from the train station were fabulous because it combined the white Alps with the green trees and dark karst rock. Around the station are views of the beautiful glacial lakes and towns below. It’s not easy to get here so I wouldn’t make it a priority with limited time.
• We overpacked winter gear and underpacked light gear (I had to buy a tank top because I got so hot on a couple of hikes).
• Most used items: sun hats, sunglasses, hiking boots
This “first impressions” post has become quite lengthy! Hope it’s helpful and fun to read as well.
Thanks again to the MySwissalps community!