There is just something magical about travelling in Europe by train. In scenic Switzerland, going around by rail is undeniably the best way to move about.
Throw in a convenient, unlimited pass known as the Swiss Travel Pass, and it’s a no-brainer.
During a recent media trip, we had the opportunity to travel first class using the pass as we traversed across the beautiful country.
Arriving at Zurich Airport early one morning in late November, our group of six started our rail experience by taking the train into the city, a seamless journey that merely took 10 minutes.
After checking into our hotel, a 128-year-old property conveniently located at the famous Bahnhofstrasse shopping street, we set out to explore the city on foot.
Zurich is Switzerland’s biggest city, with its old town centred around both sides of the Limmat River.
The air was crisp as we took a short tram ride on the Polybahn up to Zurich University and ETH Zurich, a science and technology university.
From the grounds there, the city’s historical works of architecture spread out before us. These include Prediger Church, the twin-towered Grossmunster (a former monastery), as well as a green-spired former convent called Fraumunster.
The oldest church in the city is St Peter’s church, and few would know that it has the biggest clock face in Europe, with a diameter of 8.7m.
Yes, it’s bigger than England’s Big Ben, which has a diameter of 7m.
Our city tour included a stop at Lindenhof, a square and park within the city’s historical quarter, which offers a great overview of the Limmat and old town.
After exploring the oldest part of the city known as Schipfe street, lined with 13th to 14th-century houses and artisanal stores, we had lunch at a unique restaurant called Hiltl.
Hiltl is a fourth-generation family business that was set up in 1898 and is believed to be the oldest vegetarian restaurant in the world. Today, it offers an extensive range of buffet and ala carte dishes that includes dhal, tofu curry, tandoori, falafel, hummus and samosa.
Its Asian influence is due to the fact that in the 1950s, the family’s grandmother visited India and brought back a lot of spices.
Although we did not have time to visit, the Fifa World Football Museum, completed in 2016, is another of Zurich’s latest attractions that would appeal to sports enthusiasts.
Of snow, ice and glaciers
From Zurich, we took the train to Interlaken, arriving after a quick change at Bern.
The name of the small town means “between lakes” – in this case, Lake Thun and Lake Brienz.
First on the itinerary was Harder Kulm, known as the town’s house mountain because it is easily accessible. A 1,322m-long Harderbahn funicular took us to the top in eight minutes along a 45˚ gradien.
If it was not snowing so heavily, we would be able to see the three famous peaks of the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, as well as Lakes Thun and Brienz, from the Two Lakes Bridge.
Nonetheless, we had our first mouth-watering cheese fondue, as well another popular Swiss dish called raclette (melted cheese “omelette” served with steamed potatoes and pickles) at the restaurant there.
Before our day ended, we spent a fun afternoon back in Interlaken in a chocolate making workshop at the Funky Chocolate Club.
The next day, we were all set to go to the “Top of Europe”. At 3,454m, Jungfraujoch is popularly known as such because it houses the highest railway station in the continent.
Jungfrau means “virgin” or “maiden” while Joch means “pass”. The name Jungfrau comes from a former convent in Interlaken.
Jungfraujoch is one of Europe’s most spectacular destinations and is part of the Unesco World Heritage site known as the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch.
It takes three different trains to reach the top, the last one being the famous red Jungfraubahn we often see in photographs. The total journey spans about two hours but it is a ride that you won’t complain about.
The view is nothing short of breathtaking; snow-capped wooden houses dotting the hillsides interspersed with pine trees softly coated with snow.
It was truly a sight we couldn’t get enough of.
All trains to Jungfraujoch start from Kleine Scheidegg station. Visitors can go to Kleine Scheidegg via Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen stations. We went up via Grindelwald and came back down to Interlaken via Lauterbrunnen to take advantage of the different views.
Upon arriving, we headed to the Ice Palace, a glacier tunnel with a cavern that spans over 1,000sq m. It was an amazing experience to walk through the ice in its permanent state, although some parts of the Ice Palace are said to move up to 15cm each year.
Look out for various ice sculptures of animals along the way, including a character from the Ice Age animated movies.
History buffs would appreciate a walk through the Alpine Sensation to learn about how the Jungfrau Railway was constructed over 120 years ago.
The highlight of Jungfraujoch is undoubtedly the view from the Sphinx Terrace, located on the rocky Sphinx summit 3,571m high. On a clear day, the terrace boasts views of the Aletsch glacier – the longest glacier at 22km – and across into Italy, France (Vosges mountain range) and Germany (Black Forest).
On top of the world
From Interlaken, our next destination was the little quaint town of Zermatt, home to the Matterhorn and just over 5,600 people.
Petrol-based cars are not allowed in Zermatt, a pioneer for sustainability, and all such vehicles have to be parked at a neighbouring town called Tasch.
From Zermatt, we took the Gornergratbahn – the world’s first fully electrified cog railway and Europe’s highest open-air cog railway – to reach the summit of Gornergrat.
Our 40-minute journey took us over bridges and tunnels, as well as soothing larch and Swiss stone pine forests.
Soon, rocky ravines and mountain lakes dominated the scenery, and before we knew it, the mighty Matterhorn loomed into view in all its 4,478m of grandeur.
The landscape then changes to a calming white expanse of snow-covered slopes before we reached Gornergrat, which rises to 3,089m.
From there, the sight of the Matterhorn and the surrounding 29 peaks was simply astounding.
Literally, we felt on top of the world, with a panoramic view that includes the Monte Rosa massif mountain range (where the highest peak in the country, Dufourspitze (4,634m) dwells.
Where diplomacy and luxury meet
The last city in our itinerary was Geneva, home to a host of international organisations and luxury watches.
All tourists in Geneva are given a free Geneva Transport Card (that allows you to acces the entire public transport system) when they stay at any hotel, hostel or even campsite in the city, courtesy of Geneva Tourism.
You can also opt for the Geneva Pass, which gives you (free or discounted) access to over 40 attractions and activities, and free access to public transport.
Our tour of the city started with a boat ride across Lake Geneva. The ride took us past the landmark Jet d’Eau fountain, the centrepiece of the La Rade harbour which shoots 140m into the air.
The boat stopped near the Old Town area, where we walked to St Peter’s Cathedral, the city’s most famous church first built in the 12th century.
There, we climbed up a narrow, spiralling stairway of 157 steps to reach the top of its two towers, where a sweeping, 360° view of the city and lake awaited us.
Next up was the Marronni er de la Treille, the world’s longest bench at 120m long, built in 1767. It is situated in the Promenade de la Treille, a small green park above the Bastions Park.
Not to be missed is the Reformation Wall down below, which pays tribute to the movement’s four most influential figures – Jean Calvin, Guillaume Farel, Theodore de Beze and John Knox.
Geneva is also the birthplace of Frankenstein, the world famous novel written by British author Mary Shelley one summer in the 1800s when she was just 18 and visiting the city. A statue of Frankenstein can be found at Plaine de Plainpalais.
The next day, we visited the little village of Carouge, known as the Greenwich Village of Geneva. With its 18th century Italian architecture and design, it is a great place to find various artisans, craftsmen and designers.
One of our last stops included the Mr and Mrs Renou patisserie, well-known for its artisanal chocolates and pastries.
Indeed, that visit was a sweet way to end our stay.