Nestled in the heart of Europe, Switzerland is a country renowned for its unparalleled beauty and cultural diversity.
Beyond its cuckoo clocks, chocolate and yodelling, Switzerland boasts a melting pot of cultures and some of the world’s most majestic natural landscapes. Whether you go in winter for snowshoeing and cross-country skiing or in summer for hiking trails proffering breathtaking vistas, Switzerland’s beauty is evergreen. The best time to visit Switzerland is truly anytime, especially when it comes to its stylish, history-seeped cities. Here are some of the best Swiss cities to visit by train.
Straddling the Aare river, Bern is far from being just any ordinary capital city. This laid-back capital is best known for its cobbled Old Town, a UNESCO World Heritage site, filled with a vast network of medieval arcades, colourful fountains and limestone buildings. Most beautiful flower city of Europe, birthplace of Toblerone chocolate and Einstein's relativity theory, Bern is bursting with beauty and history at every turn. It is also gateway to the Swiss Alps, with Interlaken and Grindelwald both just under 2 hrs away by train.
Switzerland’s second city, Geneva, is sleek, stylish and the cradle of chocolate and watch-making. Scratch beneath its seemingly flawless surface though and you’ll discover a wealth of alternative culture and art. Wander around the Quartier des Pâquis and along the Rhône where post-industrial neighbourhood bars and cafes hum with counterculture hipness. In early summer, tap into the undiscovered world of Swiss wine when the surrounding countryside vineyards host caves ouvertes for keen viticulturists. Geneva sits on the border with France and is easily reachable by train from Paris in just over 3 hrs.
As its name suggests, Interlaken lies between two lakes, Thun and Brienz, in the Bernese Oberland region. Capped on all sides by towering Alpine peaks, including Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch, it’s little wonder Interlaken is considered one of the thrill-seeking capitals of the world. For a more laid-back approach to its scenery, follow the Panoramaweg, a low-impact two-hour hiking trail, or the Pizol’s Five Lake route, a 4-5 hrs circuit. For unparalleled views of the Eiger North Face, head to Grindelwald First (2,166m), a starting point for many hiking trails. To reach it, take a 25 mins train from Interlaken to Grindelwald then a cable car up the rest of the way. Note that Grindelwald First is only accessible from April – October.
Interlaken is also a great base for exploring many of Switzerland’s prettiest peaks. Travel to Mount Schilthorn, home to the world’s longest cable car system by taking a 20 mins train from Interlaken Ost to Lauterbrunnen, then a 17 mins bus transfer to Stechelberg Schilthornbahn and cable cars via Gimmelwald, Mürren and Birg. Or visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Jungfrau-Aletsch, Europe’s highest railway station, 2 hrs from Interlaken (buy locally). Catch a train to Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald, then board the cog railway (buy locally) to Kleine Scheidegg followed by a transfer onto the Jungfrau train (buy locally).
Sitting on the edge of its eponymous lake in the heart of Switzerland, Lucerne and its picturesque views have been loved by the likes of Queen Victoria, Wagner and Goethe when the city’s popularity surged in the 19th century. Lucerne’s medieval Altstadt (Old Town) as well as its sunny plazas, lakeside promenades and candy-coloured houses in Weinmarkt Square make this city a delight to explore on foot. While Mark Twain’s description of the city’s shopping as “gimcrackery of the souvenir sort’ still stands, Lucerne’s blend of nostalgia and modernity is what makes this “city of lights” sparkle. Travel from Paris to Lucerne by train in just 4 hrs 43 mins.
Hugging the banks of Lake Geneva, Lausanne sits across three hills, with vineyard covered slopes draping its sides. The city has been home to the International Olympic Committee since 1914, which is fitting considering Lausanne’s vertiginous layout. Climb the Escaliers du Marché up to Switzerland’s largest cathedral and the city’s Gothic old town. To see Lausanne’s trendier side, head to the chi-chi lakeside neighbourhoods of Flon and Ouchy where former warehouses now host an array of bars, restaurants, clubs, shops and exhibition spaces. Travel from Geneva to Lausanne by train in 36 mins.
Car-free Zermatt has long been considered one of Switzerland’s glitziest resorts. The highlight of any visit to Zermatt is seeing the Matterhorn in all its glory, the iconic jagged peak rising 4,478m above Zermatt’s rooftops. There are many ways to enjoy Zermatt’s surrounding scenery, but going the slow way on foot is best. The area offers close to 400km of marked hiking and mountain trails, varying in degrees of difficulty.
Widely recognised as one of Europe’s most liveable cities, Zurich is culturally vibrant and beautifully positioned at the foot of the Alps where the River Zermatt meets Lake Zurich. Stroll down Spiegelgasse to visit Lenin’s former home, as well as Cabaret Voltaire where Tristan Tzara and Hans Arp launched the Dada art movement in 1916. Don’t miss a visit to Lake Zurich whose shores are dotted with picture-perfect parks and promenades. Travel from Paris to Zurich by train in just over 4 hrs.
Image credits top to bottom: Old town in Bern iStock ©omersukrugoksu, Switzerland Alps panorama at sunset from Lake Geneva iStock ©Nicolas McComber, between Augstmatthorn and Harder near Interlaken iStock ©Markus Thoenen, Lucerne Flickr Commons (cropped) ©edwin.11, downtown Lausanne iStock ©LaraIrimeeva, Zermatt village with the peak of the Matterhorn iStock ©extravagantni, streets of Zurich iStock ©AleksandarGeorgiev
The best train station restaurants
We love trains and we love to eat, so we've gone in search of Europe's finest train station restaurants.
Steve McCurry's epic train photography
Inspiring images from Steve McCurry's journeys on the Indian railways