You might discover the Saint Gotthard pass like many do; informed by your GPS to go up and over the mountains due to traffic at the Gotthard Tunnel. Many are pleasantly surprised at the excellent road conditions and stunning alpine views. The old route may not take much longer than the tunnel unless you linger at the many view spots.
Delays at the tunnel, especially during tourist season, are quite frequent. The 17-kilometer tunnel offers just a single lane for driving each way. The remedy for this, if you can stomach the hairpin turns, is to take the road over the pass—highly recommended in summer. There's actually lots to see and even some interesting places to stay, including the San Gottardo Hospice, or Ospizio San Gottardo.
With its high elevation, the pass won't be open in winter, but it's a great place to escape the heat in summer. Follow the current weather and forecast for the pass as you travel in Italy.
Gotthard Pass Facts
Gotthard pass (Passo San Gottardo in Italian), elevation 2106 meters, is situated 66 kilometers south-east of the approximate center of Switzerland and 93 kilometers south-east of Bern, a direct link between Zurich and Lugano. Once thought to be home to the highest peaks in the Alps, the pass wasn't attractive to the Romans who lived in its shadow, mostly because of the turbulent Reuss river and the steep Schöllenen Gorge, impassible conditions that were only solved in 13th century with the construction of a bridge in typical medieval style and name: Devil's Bridge. Elevation at the pass is 2106 meters.
In 1882 trains traveled through the pass via the Wassen and the Gotthard Rail Tunnels. The first road over the pass was opened in 1830. By 1980, a car tunnel, the third longest road tunnel in the world, was opened.
The 57 km long Gotthard Rail Base Tunnel was completed in 2016. It was built to lower train times between Zurich and Milan and increase capacity. It is now the world's longest and deepest rail tunnel. One of the Scenic Train Routes in Switzerland is The William Tell Express, a boat and panoramic train ride taking you from Lake Lucerne to Bellinzona and on to either Lugano or Lucarno in the Ticino region, passing through the Gotthard Rail Base Tunnel.
Driving: Vistas and Things to Do
Heading north out of Airolo you'll find the Pian Secco Belvedere viewpoint. Here you can get out, stretch, get food, have a picnic, take pictures, and rest a bit if you are feeling queasy from the hairpin turns.
As the road flattens out at the top of the pass, signs will direct you to the National Gotthard Museum, which will teach you the history of the pass and the efforts taken to make it more easily traveled over the years.
You'll notice many lakes in the tree-free granite around the Gotthard area. Hiking is popular in the Gotthard region. The Five Lakes hike is a circular hike that starts and ends at the Gotthard hospice.
You can also relive a little of the history of the pass by taking a trip in a horse-drawn mail coach from Andermatt rail station aboard the Gotthard post coach.
If you've got a bike, preferably a mountain bike, and lust after rides on historic roads, the pristine cobble-stoned Tremola should be just the ticket. You can bike on both sides of the pass.
Places to Stay
There are several places to stay in Airolo ranging from B&B's to European hotels.
At the summit, you'll find the Ospizio San Gottardo, originally built in 1237 and renovated to provide comfortable hotel accommodations and restaurants. The hotel offers eleven double rooms, 2 single rooms, and a 5-bedroom. All rooms have a shower and toilet.