The Bernina Express train route from Switzerland to Italy is one of the most spectacular train journeys anywhere in the world. The little red train winds its way through forests, meadows, gorges and mountain villages, and alongside waterfalls, lakes and glaciers on its way from Chur in Switzerland to Tirano, just over the border in Italy.
The most famous way to travel on the Bernina line is to take the Bernina Express, a panoramic train aimed at tourists. The Bernina Express travels along the route from either Chur or St Moritz to Tirano. From Tirano, you can either return back the way you came, or, in summer, take a bus from Tirano to Lugano, past Lake Como and Lake Lugano.
For my trip in May 2023 I chose to do something a bit different and take the local trains which run along the same route as the Bernina Express. I originally chose the regional trains because I couldn’t get Bernina Express reservations for the dates I wanted, but the normal regional services were absolutely brilliant.
In this post I’ll describe what it’s like to travel from Chur to Tirano on the regional train, and compare some of the pros and cons of taking the Bernina Express vs the regional trains, along with tips for your journey.
The Bernina Express route
As well as travelling through amazing landscapes, the Bernina Express route is an astonishing feat of engineering. To climb from the green meadows around Chur up to the Bernina Pass and on to Italy, the train travels through 55 tunnels and across 196 bridges.
Tunnels twist and loop back on themselves through the mountains, while viaducts stretch across Alpine ravines. It’s an unforgettable journey and an absolute must for a trip to Switzerland or northern Italy.
The full Bernina Express route from Chur to Tirano actually covers two famous lines, the Albula Line and the Bernina Line. The two lines together are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Albula Line
The Albula Line links Thusis with St Moritz, but most travellers will start their journey in Chur, a few stops further up the line. The Albula Line includes one of the Bernina Express’s most famous sights, the Landwasser Viaduct, which curves across a deep valley before the tracks plunge immediately into a tunnel.
As well as being on the Bernina Express route, the Albula Line is also on one of the other famous train routes through Switzerland, the Glacier Express.
Facts about the Albula Line
- 42 miles long
- Opened between 1896 and 1908
- Lowest point is 584m above sea level at Chur
- Highest point is 1823m at the Albula Tunnel
- 39 tunnels
- 144 bridges and viaducts
The Bernina Line
The Bernina Line runs from St Moritz in Switzerland, over the Bernina Pass, 2,253 metres (7,392 ft) up in the Alps.
The route continues through Val Poschiavo along the shore of the Lago di Poschiavo and across the Brusio spiral viaduct before crossing the Swiss/Italian border just north of Tirano.
Facts about the Bernina Line
- 38 miles long
- Opened between 1908 and 1910
- Lowest point is 429m above sea level at Tirano
- Highest point is 2253m at Ospizio Bernina
- 16 tunnels
- 52 bridges and viaducts
Taking the Bernina Express vs regional trains
The Bernina Express scenic train and the local scheduled trains run on the same tracks, to and from the same places and past the same landmarks. There are a few key differences though:
|Bernina Express||Regional train|
|Reservation needed?||Yes, book as far in advance as you can||No|
|Can use a travel pass?*||Yes, but you’ll have to pay an extra reservation fee||Yes|
|Classes available||1st, 2nd||1st, 2nd|
|Food on board||Yes, an at-seat bar service with light menu of local specialities||There may be a trolley service|
|Non-stop||Yes||No – you’ll need to change at least once, unless you catch the local train which pulls the Bernina Express|
|Opening windows for photography||No||Yes|
|Can hop off and on||Yes, but the rest of your journey would be on a regular train||Yes|
|Trains per day (Chur to Tirano)||One each way in winter, two each way in summer||21 per day in summer – roughly one an hour between 5am and 7pm|
The Bernina Express panoramic train is best for:
- getting the full Bernina Express experience
- being able to have food and drink served to you on the journey
- a group travel experience – everyone on the train is there for the same reason
- the feel of a guided tour
- a round trip including Lugano
The local/regular train is best for:
- the cheapest way to travel the route
- taking photos
- fewer people
- a clean, comfortable but more basic experience
Tips for the Bernina Express
Book your seat reservation as early as you possibly can
While you can only buy a ticket for the Bernina Express two months before your trip, seat reservations go on sale much earlier. You can book seat reservations 7 months in advance – and you should book as far ahead as you can.
When I searched for Bernina Express tickets for the rest of 2023, I found seat reservation fees ranging from CHF 10 in December to CHF 26 in July and August for a trip from Chur to Tirano. The trains in the summer were already almost completely sold out, with only a handful of non-window seats left.
You might need to plan the rest of your holiday around it. but a trip on the Bernina Express between Switzerland and Italy is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. If you’re looking for more flexibility, or if seat reservations are already sold out for your dates, then taking the regular regional train might be a better option for you.
Don’t expect to take great photos from the train windows
The Bernina Express’s panoramic windows are amazing for experiencing the scenery but they’re not so great for photography. The windows by the seats don’t open (although there may be opening windows elsewhere on the train), and create a lot of reflections.
As an example, for the first leg of my journey from Chur to St Moritz on the Albula Line, we were sat in one of the local train’s newer coaches, with big windows that didn’t open. The view was amazing, but when I tried to get a photo of the Landwasser Viaduct, I got a picture with the reflection of my partner’s face hovering above the line.
While I haven’t been on the Bernina Express panoramic train myself (you can read about my experience on the local train below), the difficulty with taking photos is something that comes up again and again in reviews of the service. You can see it in YouTubers’ videos on the train; the carriages look amazing but you can see people’s faces and the train lights reflected in the windows.
Tips for taking the regular train from Chur to Tirano on the Albula and Bernina Lines
I used the Rhaetian Railway’s normal, scheduled regional trains for my trip from Chur to St Moritz and then from St Moritz to Tirano in May 2023. Here are my tips if you want to use the regular train rather than travelling on the Bernina Express.
You can use your rail pass
You don’t need a special ticket to travel on the Albula and Bernina Lines. You can use your Interrail or Eurail pass, Swiss Travel Pass or SBB Saver Day Pass. You can also just turn up and buy a ticket at the station or on the SBB Mobile app.
I bought SBB Saver Day Passes for both our days in Switzerland. If you put details of the journey you want to take into the SBB website or app, it’ll tell you whether a single ticket or a pass is a better choice.
For our dates the passes worked out cheaper at CHF 52 each for 2nd class tickets. The passes are valid from midnight on the day you bought them for until 5am the following day, which coming from the UK seems like an absolute bargain.
Our ticket was checked several times during the journey; one of the ticket inspectors also wanted to see our passports.
SBB tickets and passes go on sale 2 months in advance.
Get to the station early
To make the most of your trip on the Albula and Bernina railways, you’ll want to make sure you get good seats. Neither of the regional trains we took were at all busy, but we travelled in early May, outside school holidays so they may be busier during the summer or when the Alpine ski resorts are in full swing.
Getting to the station early will mean you’ve got the best chance of being able to follow my seat tips for the Bernina Line local train.
Sit on the right hand side going south, left hand side going north
I’d seen this tip online, but as the train pulled out of Thusis, I was doubting the advice as the right hand side of the train looked out at a rock face while the left hand looked at a magnificent gorge.
A few miles further on, the advice to sit on the right hand side of the train proved absolutely right though. As you approach the Landwasser Viaduct, all the interest is on the right hand side of the train, and only passengers sat on the right will get to see the curve of the viaduct and the beautiful valley below.
As you get into the Bernina Line section of the route, I’d still really recommend sitting on the right hand side. The view of Lago Bianco as the train approaches Ospizio Bernina, the highest point on the pass, was my favourite bit of the day – I couldn’t stop grinning!
When the route gets closer to Italy, you’ll pass the other major sight on the left hand side of the train, the lovely Lago di Poschiavo. Our train was quiet enough that I could move from side to side so I didn’t miss anything – another benefit of taking the regional train vs the Bernina Express, which is usually sold out.
This tip for the best side to sit on the Albula and Bernina Lines is the same for the Bernina Express. Unfortunately, when you book your Bernina Express seat reservations, they can’t tell you what direction the carriage will be facing, which is a bit annoying. Taking the regional train is the only way to (almost) guarantee that you’ll get a good view.
Sit as far back as you can on the train
Even the local trains on the Bernina and Albula Lines are surprisingly long! Sitting in a carriage at the back of the train means you can see the train in front of you as it takes on the railway’s astonishing curves and spirals. It’s a very cool sight!
Choose your carriage carefully if you want to take photos
While the regional trains are a much better option than the Bernina Express if you want to take photos of your journey, you’ll still need to choose your carriage and seat carefully. All the seating on the regional trains is unreserved – you just need to have a ticket or rail pass for the class you want to travel in.
There are several types of seating on the regional trains and a mixture of older and newer coaches. All the trains we saw on the way were made up of multiple types of carriage.
First class – newer coaches
There were a couple of first class compartments in the newer part of the train. These carriages have huge windows but unfortunately they don’t open.
If your train is being pulled by a multiple unit (like the one in the photo below) rather than a locomotive, and you’re travelling in first class, see if you can get seats right at the front. The first set of seats have a window into the driver’s cab; sometimes the driver pulls down the window blind but sometimes they leave it open, giving the passengers behind a thrilling forward view down the line. The train we took from St Moritz to Tirano was arranged like this and sure enough, when we got off at Tirano we saw that the driver had had the blind open.
First class – older coaches
These compartments have the same 2+1 configuration as the newer ones. The windows are slightly smaller than in the newer coaches, but they do open.
First class seats are wider and more comfortable than second class, but there’s no real difference in service.
Second class – newer coaches
I sat in second class in one of the newer coaches between Chur and St Moritz. The train did have the older style of carriages as well, but we thought that the newer ones with their bigger windows would give us a better view.
We realised going across the Landwasser Viaduct that the older style carriages with opening windows would have been better for taking photos, but one thing I did really like about the newer coaches was the level of information you get about the journey.
In the newer coaches, there’s a map of the Rhaetian Railways network on the table, labelled with key sights to look out for. There are also announcements made over the train’s PA system when you’re approaching one of the sights, so you don’t miss a thing – for example as we approached the Albula Tunnel there was a short announcement with a little bit of history about the tunnel and some information about the rebuilding project. It’s as close as you can get to the “guided tour” experience of the Bernina Express.
Second class – older coaches
If you’re travelling in second class, there are two big disadvantages of the older coaches vs the newer ones:
- the tables are much smaller and don’t show as much information
- no “guided tour”-style announcements are made in the older coaches
There are also two huge advantages:
- the windows open – making these coaches much better for photographers and people who want to get great pictures for social media
- on both the trains I travelled on, these coaches were at the back of the train, so we got to see the full length of the train going through all the twists and turns on the line
Apart from the windows and the tables, there was very little difference between the newer coaches and the older ones. Both types had comfortable seats, ok but not great leg room and power outlets under the seat.
The trains I travelled on from Chur to St Moritz had a special photography compartment. This second class area was in one of the newer coaches, but unlike normal second class, the windows opened.
Rather than seats, this section has a central, padded ledge that travellers can rest against. It didn’t look all that comfortable for the full 4+ hour journey. It was also positioned right behind the locomotive pulling our train, so you wouldn’t get a good view of the train itself along the line.
This coach, intended for wheelchairs, pushchairs and bikes, had theatre-style dropdown seats around the edge of the compartment and a large open space in the middle.
If you’re travelling with children, then the children’s coach might be a welcome sight. The children’s coach on the Bernina and Albula line trains has activity-friendly tables and a train-shaped slide at one end of the compartment.
In high summer (usually July and August), you can travel in the ultimate panoramic coach, a completely open air carriage. You might need to wrap up a bit, but experiencing the journey with nothing between you and the scenery would be an amazing adventure.
Change at St Moritz
The journey planning websites and apps told us to change at Samedan and again at Pontresina, but it’s worth bearing in mind that they’re trying to show you the fastest journey, not the best experience.
Our train from Chur was going to St Moritz, and the second train started at St Moritz, so we decided to change there instead. This ended up being a great decision; we had around 45 minutes to stretch our legs, have a look at Lake St Moritz, get a sandwich from the convenience store at the station and still be nice and early to get a good seat for the next part of the journey.
Consider breaking up your journey
If you’re travelling on the regional train, why not make the most of the flexibility by breaking up your journey at one of the interesting and beautiful stations en route?
If you have a pass like the Eurail or Interrail pass, or a Swiss Travel Pass or Saver Day Pass, you can hop on and off as much as you like – you could even spread the journey over a few days by staying overnight in one of the towns and villages along the Albula or Bernina Line.
Options for stops along the Albula Line include:
- Filisur, where you can take a 3.5 hour hike to see the Landwasser Viaduct from the valley below
- Bergün, where you can go sledging in the winter or visit the Albula Railway Museum all year round
- St Moritz, where you can explore the legendary town. In summer, you can relax by the lake or enjoy some of the watersports on offer. In winter, you can go skiing or try a bobsled run. From St Moritz you can also take a scenic ride on one of the Rhaetian Railway’s other lines from St Moritz to Davos – also included in your Interrail, Eurail or Swiss railway pass.
Good places to break up your journey on the Bernina Line include:
- Punt Muragl Staz, where you can take the Muottas-Muragl-Bahn funicular railway up to Muottas Muragl, 2,454m up for amazing views over the Upper Engadine valley
- Pontresina, a picturesque Alpine village with historic houses, elegant Belle Epoque hotels and a family-friendly spa
- Bernina Diavolezza, where you can ride a cable car up to the top of the Diavolezza mountain. When I rode on the Bernina railway in early May 2023 there were still skiers and snowboarders on the mountain slopes at Bernina Diavolezza.
- Alp Grüm, where there are great views of the Palü Glacier and Lago Palu from the station platform. There’s a restaurant and hotel in the station building so Alp Grüm could be a good place to stop for lunch – it was my original plan but both the hotel and restaurant were closed until the week after my visit.
- Poschiavo, which is still in Switzerland but feels very Italian with grand palazzos
- Miralago, on the banks of the beautiful Lago di Poschiavo
Buy a guidebook
Since the local train doesn’t include the same level of on-board information as the panoramic train, we bought a guidebook from the SBB shop at Chur station. It cost CHF 15 but the information inside and route maps was really interesting and useful – and still less than the cost of a Bernina Express reservation.
Upgrade to 1st class if you need to
Both of our trains were quiet enough for us to get the seats we wanted and to be able to move across the carriage when the view was on the other side.
Since we were using tickets in the SBB Mobile app, if we had found that second class was too busy to get a good view, we would have used the app to buy a point to point first class upgrade for a section of the journey. To give you an idea of prices, a point to point first class update for St Moritz to Tirano would have cost us around CHF 23 each.
Take drinks and snacks
There was a trolley service for drinks and light snacks on our train from Chur to St Moritz, but no catering at all on the train from St Moritz to Tirano. At Chur, there are a few shops and bakeries on the concourse that runs between the platforms.
At St Moritz there’s a convenience store right on the platform which sells surprisingly decent sandwiches and also has a small bakery and coffee machine.
Is the Bernina Express worth it?
Travelling along the route of the Bernina Express is absolutely worth it, but which type of train you should take will depend on what you want to get out of it.
The local trains were the best choice for me because it gave us flexibility, I wanted to be able to take photos and the normal carriages were clean and comfortable.
If you want the full Bernina Express experience, and to feel immersed in the landscape along with other people who are there for the same reason, then the panoramic train may be worth it for you.