The Gotthard Panorama Express is a combined boat and train journey from Lucerne to Lugano, 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 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, historical figure 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: Flüelen to Göschenen by train
The boat trip has come to an end. After a one 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 tunnel dates back to 1882. There is a light show inside the 15 km long tunnel. Once you reach the other end, you will enter a different world.
There is another tunnel as well: the 57 km long Gotthard Base Tunnel is the longest railway tunnel in the world. It opened in 2016 and provides a much quicker way to reach Italy and the south of Switzerland from the north. You will miss nearly all of the scenery of section 2 and 3 by taking a fast train across this tunnel, so this is not the recommended route.
The right side of the train offers a slightly better view we think.
Section 3: Göschenen to Lugano 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'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 North 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 helped the train descending to this level.
In Bellinzona in Central Ticino 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 (lowest place in Switzerland) and Locarno on the horizon. Not much later the train will reach its terminal destination Lugano in South Ticino, where you can change for Milan, continue on the Bernina Express, or stay and enjoy the wonderful area you've reached.
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.
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 via Vitznau to Brunnen from there. In Brunnen, you can take a train to Flüelen to pick up the Gotthard Panorama Express there.
It's even quicker to travel from Lucerne to Flüelen entirely by train, but then you won't see much of the lake.
Gotthard Panorama Express and Glacier Express route in one day
It is possible to combine parts of the Gotthard Panorama Express and Glacier Express in one day. The Gotthard Panorama Express stops in Göschenen. From there, a short ride in a cogwheel train gets you to Andermatt, which is a stop of the Glacier Express. The below routes can be done in one day:
- Zermatt to Lucerne: Zermatt - Andermatt (Glacier Express*), Andermatt - Göschenen (cogwheel train), Göschenen - Lucerne (Gotthard Panorama Express);
- St. Moritz to Lugano: St. Moritz - Andermatt (Glacier Express), Andermatt - Göschenen (cogwheel train), Göschenen - Lugano (Gotthard Panorama Express);
- Lugano to Zermatt: Lugano - Göschenen (Gotthard Panorama Express), Göschenen - Andermatt (cogwheel train), Andermatt - Zermatt (Glacier Express);
- Lucerne to Zermatt: Lucerne - Göschenen (Gotthard Panorama Express), Göschenen - Andermatt (cogwheel train), Andermatt - Zermatt (Glacier Express).
*) In order to reach Andermatt in time you need to take regular trains on the same route rather than the actual Glacier Express.
The timetable provides detailed schedules.
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. You can travel back on a regional train via the same route. Or you can take a fast train back, crossing the Gotthard Base Tunnel. 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.
There is an app for your phone or tablet to be used as a travel guide.