If your trip to Europe includes stays in both Italy and Switzerland, traveling between the two countries by train is a convenient option, especially if you don't want to rent a car. While the process of getting from Italy to Switzerland, or vice versa, is mostly straightforward, there are a few things you should know before undertaking your journey.
There are essentially two main corridors for train travel between Italy and Switzerland. Almost all trains entering Switzerland from Italy begin in either Milan or Tirano, a small town on the Swiss border. Likewise, trains from Switzerland to Italy terminate in one of these two locations. The one exception is a single daily, direct train that runs between Venice, Italy and Geneva, Switzerland.
Milan is connected to the rest of Italy by high-speed or slower regional trains. If you're planning to travel from elsewhere in Italy on the same day you go from Milan to Switzerland, keep an eye on those schedules. Allow yourself at least an hour to connect in Milan, especially if you're arriving in Milan on an Intercity or Regionale train. Your train might be late reaching Milano Centrale, meaning you'll miss your connecting train to Switzerland. Not only will you have to wait several hours for the next train, but you may also have to buy a new ticket, pay a stiff change penalty, and miss out on your first choice of seats or carriages. Some of us have learned this lesson the hard way.
Travel Between Switzerland from Milan
From Milano Centrale, Milan's large, main train station, direct trains depart for the Swiss cities of Geneva, Basel, and Zurich. Routes and travel times are as follows, and we highlighted some of the major cities on these routes:
- EC 32 or 36 Milan to Geneva: 4 hours, with stops in Stresa (Lake Maggiore), Domodossola, Brig, Sion, Montreux, and Lausanne
- EC 50, 52 or 56 Milan to Basel: 4 hours, 12 minutes, with stops in Stresa (Lake Maggiore), Domodossola, Brig, Visp, Spiez, Thun, Bern, and Olten (EC 56 also stops in Liestal)
- EC 358 Milan to Basel: 4 hours, 46 minutes, with stops in Monza, Como S. Giovanni (Lake Como), Chiasso, Lugano, Bellinzona, Arth-Goldau, Rotkreuz, Lucerne, and Olten
- EC 310, 312, 314, 316, 320, 322. 324 Milan to Zurich: 3 hours, 40 minutes, with stops in Monza, Como S. Giovanni (Lake Como), Chiasso, Lugano, Bellinzona, Arth-Goldau, Rotkreuz, and Zug (EC 312 does not stop at Monza)
These trains are part of the EuroCity network, which are international trains connecting major cities across Europe. EuroCity trains run under the jurisdiction of whatever country they're in. This means you can purchase EuroCity train tickets from both the Italian (Trenitalia) and Swiss (SBB) national train services. When the train is in Italy, you are traveling with Trenitalia. When the train crosses into Switzerland, you're traveling with SBB.
EuroCity trains are labeled EC on train schedules. To function as an EC train, trains must meet specific criteria. Among them, they must be high-speed and only stop in train stations in or near major cities. They must have first- and second-class carriages, all cars must be air-conditioned, and there must be dining services aboard.
Seat reservations are required on all EuroCity trains (unless you're traveling with a Swiss Travel Pass). While second-class carriages are perfectly comfortable, first-class carriages tend to be less crowded, quieter, and they generally have cleaner bathrooms. Still, if you're traveling on a budget, you'll be perfectly comfortable in second-class train cars, especially for shorter trips.
In Milan's sprawling station, you'll be asked to show your printed, PDF, or e-ticket before you can access the train platform. Once onboard, a conductor will recheck your ticket. Once you cross into Switzerland, SBB conductors may take over and again ask to see your ticket—they may also request your passport or other official identification. If you're making the trip from Switzerland to Milan, expect more or less the same process in reverse.
If you're traveling during the day and the weather is clear, you can expect some lovely scenery. Depending on the route, you may catch glimpses of Lake Como or Lake Maggiore, the Italian and Swiss Alps, Lake Geneva, or Lake Lucerne. Trains traveling between Milan and Lucerne, Zurich, and Basel pass through the Gotthard Base Tunnel. At around 35 miles long, it is the world's longest and deepest train tunnel. Opened in 2016, it shortened travel time between Milan and points in Switzerland by up to an hour, since it goes through—rather than up and over—the Alps.
Traveling with a Swiss Travel Pass
The Swiss Travel Pass, which makes travel by train, bus, boat, and even cogwheel rail so easy and convenient in Switzerland, complicates things just a little when traveling to or from Italy. If you're going from Milan to anywhere in Switzerland and you have already purchased a Swiss Travel Pass, you only need to buy a ticket that's good as far as the first city across the Swiss border. For example, for travel from Milan to Geneva, you'd purchase a ticket as far as Brig, the first stop in Switzerland. Then just stay on the train, and when the SBB train conductor checks tickets, present your Swiss Travel Pass. If you bought second-class tickets for the Italian portion of your trip, but your Swiss Travel Pass is for first-class travel, you can change train carriages once you're in Switzerland—though it's not necessary to do so.
Likewise, holders of the Swiss Travel Pass who are leaving Switzerland bound for Italy need only purchase a ticket for the Italian portion of their trip. Seat reservations are compulsory for the Italian leg of the journey but are not required on most Swiss trains. So the trick is to reserve the Italian ticket with seat reservation in Switzerland, board the train and not have to change seats once you cross into Italy. We've found the easiest way to do this is in person at an SBB ticket office. The SBB staff person will give you a seat assignment for the Swiss leg of your journey (which you usually wouldn't need) that's valid to Milan. You'll pay a service fee of a few Swiss francs for the seat reservation within Switzerland.
Travel Between Tirano and Switzerland and Venice and Switzerland
Two other routes also connect Italy to Switzerland. The first is one of the most spectacular train rides in Europe—the Bernina Express from Tirano, Italy to St. Moritz, Switzerland. The scenic train climbs from Tirano up to the Bernina Glacier, then down into Pontresina and St. Moritz. Trains are run by the Rhaetian Railway. For more information, read our complete guide to the Bernina Express.
From Venice's Santa Lucia Station, there is one daily train to Geneva, Switzerland. The EuroCity 42 train leaves Venice at 4:18 p.m. and makes a lot of stops before arriving at Geneva at midnight. Stops are Venezia Mestre, Padova, Vicenza, Verona Porta Nuova, Peschiera Del Garda, Brescia, Milano Centrale, Gallarate, Domodossola, Brig, Sion, Montreux, and Lausanne. The seven-hour EuroCity 37 leaves Geneva at 7:39 a.m. and makes the same stops in reverse, arriving at Venice at 2:42 p.m.