The Bernina Express is a scenic train ride through the Swiss Alps. Along with its "sister" ride, the Glacier Express (also in Switzerland), it is widely regarded as one of the most unforgettable train journeys in the world. It forms part of the Abula/Bernina line of the Rhaetian Railway, a scenic route through the Alps which, because of its history, engineering innovation, and the stunning landscape through which it passes, has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2008.
The Bernina Express begins – or ends, depending on which way you're going – in Tirano, Italy, just a few kilometers from the Swiss border. From there it climbs into the Alps, passing mirror-like lakes, quaint villages, snow-covered mountains, and glaciers on its two-hour journey to St. Moritz, Switzerland. The tunnels, viaducts, and station buildings of the Bernina line include marvels of engineering and contribute to the excitement of a journey aboard this panoramic train.
History of the Bernina Express
As tourism to the Swiss Alps began to increase in the late 1800s, the Bernina line was conceived as a way to transport even more tourists to the Engadine Valley, the Alpine region that includes St. Moritz, Pontresina, the Morteratsch glacier, and the Bernina Pass, the 2,253 meter-passage (7,392 feet) between the towering mountain peaks. Construction on the line began in 1906 and finished in 1910.
Because of elevation changes, narrow ridges along which to lay track, and distances to span between mountain faces, the construction of the Bernina line presented new engineering challenges that required daring and innovative solutions. As a result, the route soon became famous for its steep grades, high elevation crossings, tunnels that run through and along the side of mountains and viaducts, or flyovers that cross valleys and gaps.
Originally intended only for summer travel, by 1913, the Bernina line extended service into winter months, as wintertime travel to the Alps began to boom. It became part of Rhaetian Railways in 1943. Although standard trains also run on the Bernina line, it is best known for the cheerful red Bernina Express trains, which run all the way to Chur, nearly 90 miles (140 km) from Tirano. In naming it a World Heritage Site, UNESCO recognized the Albula/Bernina lines for their "outstanding technical, architectural, and environmental ensemble that embodies architectural and civil engineering achievements, in harmony with the landscapes through which they pass."
Highlights of the Bernina Express
While the entire length of the Bernina Express is an exceptionally scenic ride through Alpine landscape, there are a few extraordinary highlights along the way.
- Brusio Viaduct. From the town center of Tirano, Italy, the train quickly starts climbing and within a few minutes, crosses the border into Switzerland. Soon after, it reaches the astounding Brusio Viaduct, a spiral, arched bridge that foments an elevation change that would have otherwise been too steep for a straight-running track.
- Miralago. From Brusio, the scenery gets more dramatic as the train winds past glass-like Miralago, with the mirror images of surrounding mountains reflected in its calm water.
- Poschiavo Valley. The climb above the Poschiavo Valley ushers in the stunning Alpine scenery for which the Bernina Express is famous. The village of Poschiavo gets tinier and tinier as the train switchbacks up the Cavagliasco viaducts into high mountain terrain.
- Alp Grüm. This mountain hamlet, which in the wintertime is reachable only by train, marks the one stop the Bernina Express makes on its journey to the Engadine Valley. Located just south of the Bernina Pass, Alp Grüm, at 2,091 meters (nearly 6,900 feet) above sea level, offers great views of the Palü Glacier and the Poschiavo Valley. In wintertime, the landscape is buried in snow. For those who want to stop for a meal or even an overnight, there's the simple, rustic Alp Grüm hotel and restaurant at the station.
- Lago Bianco. The train nest passes this high-altitude reservoir – frozen solid in wintertime – before it arrives at Ospizio Bernina, the highest point on the Bernina Line, at 2,250 meters (7,380 feet) above sea level and at the high point of the Bernina Pass.
- Morteratsch Glacier. Although it's quickly receding as a result of climate change, the largest glacier in the Bernina Range is still an impressive sight. In wintertime, it's the setting for the Diavolezza ski area and in the summertime, the area is great for hiking.
From the glacier, the rail line descends into the Engadine Valley, first stopping in cozy Pontresina and then in the ski and spa haven of St. Moritz.
Bernina Express Essentials
Tickets for the Bernina Express can be purchased from the Rhaetian Railways website. Prices for a one-way, second-class ticket from Tirano to St. Moritz are priced from 32 euros. First class tickets start at around 56 euros.
Some other tips for riding the Bernina Express:
- It's possible to catch a morning train in Tirano, spend a few hours in St. Moritz, then come back on a later train.
- If the Bernina Express train is not available at the time you wish to travel, the normal RhB trains follow the same track–they just make more frequent stops so the journey takes longer. Be sure to request panoramic seats, for a surcharge of 4 euros per passenger.
- The right side of the train offers the best views.
- There is no food service on the Bernina Express unless you book a meal in advance. There's coffee/tea service for first class passengers.
- If you spend the night at Tirano before or after your train ride, Hotel Bernina is a friendly and convenient three-star property right across the street from the station. In Pontresina, Grand Hotel Kronenhof offers old-world poshness, while in St. Moritz, the legendary Kulm Hotel is credited with having opened up Switzerland to winter tourism in the late 1800s.