Getting Around Switzerland: Guide to Public Transportation

Swiss tram, cable car early evening on Bahnhofstrasse, Zurich, Switzerland
Andrew Merry / Getty Images

The central European country of Switzerland is connected by an extensive system of trains, trams, buses, cablecars, and ferries, which transport residents and visitors to most corners of the nation and onward to other destinations in Europe. The Swiss train system is legendary for its cleanliness, efficiency, and ease of use and is an excellent way to tour the country. Bright yellow PostBus buses connect to smaller towns and more remote areas, while trams rumble through most larger Swiss cities. Mountain destinations are reachable via a vast system of cablecars and funicular railways, while Switzerland's famous lakes are served by frequent lake ferries. Scenic trains and lake steamers round out Switzerland's comprehensive public transportation system.

How to Ride the Train in Switzerland

If you're taking the train in Switzerland, your first stop should be the Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) website. Except for a few scenic routes, SBB runs all the regional, commuter trains, and high-speed trains in the country. You can tell the difference between these based on letters used in the route number.

  • R, RE, and IR are regional trains that are slower, cheaper, and stop at all or most stations between two major hubs.
  • IC or ICN (the N is for "night") are fast trains that connect major cities but do not stop at smaller towns along the way.
  • S or S-Bahn trains are frequent commuter trains that connect cities and suburbs. If you miss an S train, there's usually another one coming soon after.
  • Cities not served by train are served by bright yellow PostBus buses. These tickets can be purchased through the SBB site, which will automatically suggest bus travel when train travel is not available.

The SBB website sells one-way or round-trip tickets between Swiss cities and other cities in Europe. They also sell City Tickets, including the train to that city, public transportation in the town, and a travel pass that typically allows access to several touristic sites.

  • To purchase a ticket or research schedule options, insert your point-to-point destinations, date, and preferred travel time. You'll be presented with a list of options and can select the train or trains that work best for you.
  • Once you've selected your route, enter your passenger information. You'll have the option to purchase a City Ticket or upgrade to First Class. While First Class coaches are usually less crowded and more spacious, Second Class coaches are clean and comfortable.
  • Here's an important detail: When SBB shows a fare, the "half-fare Travelcard" discount is applied. This is a card you must purchase. Since you probably won't be traveling with this card (see more below), you must select "No discount" in the discount cards field. Your ticket price will double as a result.
  • Complete your purchase with a credit card. You will be issued a voucher, which you can either print out or keep on your handheld device.
  • Your ticket will not show a seat reservation, as these are usually not required on domestic Swiss trains. Board a first- or second-class carriage, depending on your ticket class, and find a seat. A conductor will pass by and scan your ticket. A sign in each coach displays the next station, so you'll have plenty of time to gather luggage and exit the train when it stops.
  • Children up to 16 years of age travel free with a parent, so long as that parent has a valid ticket. But you must pick up a Swiss Family Card before traveling—it's available at every station or point of sale.
  • For travelers with disabilities, select "Barrier-free travel" from the pull-down menu labeled "Standard view" to see only trains that have wheelchair-accessible carriages.

If you buy tickets at the SBB counter or office in the train station, you'll have the option of reserving a seat in advance. Ticket agents all speak English, so if the online system is daunting, you can get all the help you need in person. There are also ticket machines in all stations.

For information about the Swiss Travel Pass and whether it's a smart option for your trip to Switzerland, read this more detailed article about train travel in Switzerland.

Getting Around Cities on Trams and Buses

For travel within Swiss cities, trams and buses are often the answer when the distances are not walkable. Basel, Bern, Bex, Geneva, Lausanne, Neuchâtel, and Zurich all have extensive electric tram systems that take commuters and visitors to most corners of the city and out into the suburbs. Some historic trams are still in operation, and these are always fun to climb aboard.

The city tram networks are complemented by a system of buses, most of them electric "trolleybuses," that serve areas where the trams don't go. Your tram or bus ticket usually works for both methods of transportation, as long as you stay within the time limit on your ticket.

Free Travel Passes and Paid Options

Depending on the city, tram/bus tickets are sold based on a relatively complex system of zones, calculated by distance from the city center. As a tourist, most of your travel is likely to be within one or two of the most central zones. The good news is that most primary and secondary Swiss cities provide free city passes to all hotel guests, which allow for unlimited use of local public transportation and free or discounted admission to area attractions and experiences. In mountain areas, the pass often includes free ski lift and cablecar access, and in Switzerland's lakefront cities, the pass usually includes free or discounted boat transport. The pass will be given to you when you check into your accommodation and is offered in the following locations:

  • Adelboden
  • Appenzeller
  • Arosa
  • Basel
  • Bern
  • Chur
  • Davos
  • Geneva
  • Gstaad
  • Interlaken
  • Lake Thun
  • Lausanne
  • Lucerne
  • Montreux Riviera
  • Saas-Fee
  • St. Moritz and Pontresina (summer only)
  • Ticino
  • Villars

Other cities and regions sell travel cards, including local transportation, ski gondolas and mountain railway, passage on lakes and riverboats, and free or reduced admission to dozens of museums and attractions. These include:

  • Bernese Oberland
  • Jungfrau
  • Lake Geneva
  • Tell Pass (Lake Lucerne)
  • Zurich

Note that you're not obligated to purchase one of these cards, We recommend them for their ease of use, but you can also opt to buy single transport tickets and pay-as-you-go at museums.

Mountain and Lake Transportation

There are more than 10,000 named mountains in Switzerland, and hundreds of them are reached by a spiderweb-like system of cable cars, ski gondolas, funiculars, and cogwheel trains. Some transport riders up to ski slopes or viewing platforms, while others are the sole method of reaching towns like Zermatt, Rigi, and Mürren. These systems are run by local or regional authorities or are privately owned and managed. Lower departure points are often within walking distance of the nearest train station.

Among Switzerland's thousands of lakes, Geneva, Lucerne, Zurich, Lugano, and Constance (Bodensee) are among the largest. These lakes and others are served by seasonal and year-round ferries and tour boats. Some boats, like select routes in Zurich, are part of the public transportation system and are included in local travel passes. Others are run by regional or private entities and can be used either as a way of getting from one lakefront city or town to another or simply enjoyed as a scenic boat ride.

Car Rentals in Switzerland

We strongly recommend sticking with public transportation when visiting Switzerland. And the country's new "Swisstainable" initiative encourages visitors to keep their travels as green as possible. However, if you wish to hire a rental car, you'll find Swiss roads are well-maintained, clearly marked, and, except for some nerve-jangling mountain passes, easy to drive. All major rental car companies have desks in major Swiss airports and cities.

If you rent a car in Switzerland, it will have a toll sticker, called the motorway vignette, which grants access to the Swiss national road network. You cannot legally drive a car in Switzerland unless it has this vignette affixed; if you rent a car outside of Switzerland and plan to cross the border into the country, check the following with your rental agency first:

  • Notify them that you will be driving into Switzerland. Some companies don't allow certain makes and models of cars to cross European borders, and a few don't permit any of their vehicles to enter Switzerland.
  • Ask if they can sell you a Swiss motorway vignette. If they can't, you can buy one at a gas station near the Swiss border in Austria, France, Germany, or Italy, or you can buy one at the border crossing—choose the tollbooth lane for cars with no vignette.

Bikes and Scooters in Switzerland

Switzerland is one of the best-suited countries in the world for exploring by bike or e-bike. A nationwide system of bike paths, the majority of them paved, make it possible to travel by bike across all or part of the country—you'll seldom have to share the road with vehicular traffic. SwitzerlandMobility has a complete guide to bike trails in Switzerland, including information about where to rent bikes and e-bikes.

In Basel, St. Gallen, Winterthur, and Zurich, e-scooter share programs, similar to bike share programs in other cities, allow you to download an app, add your credit card information, and then scan a QR code to hop on an available electric scooter and go. The apps will tell you the location of the nearest available scooters, which you just leave parked on the sidewalk when you're done with them.