How to get around in Switzerland: from sky-high mountain rides to state-of-the-art railways

Nowhere does the saying “the journey is the destination” ring truer than in Switzerland.

With valleys deep and mountains high, get ready for rides of a lifetime – from hairpin-bend road trips to trains chugging high into the snowy wilds of the Alps and and heavenly boat journeys across piercing blue lakes. Travel in Switzerland isn’t only beautiful – it’s also environmentally sound. The eco-minded Swiss have nailed rail travel like no other nation, and climate-neutral boats, solar-powered cable cars, electric buses and car-free towns and resorts further boost its sustainable credentials. Thanks to plentiful charging stations, the entire country is drivable by electric car.

Journeys in Switzerland aren’t just about getting from A to B – they are travel moments you’ll be raving about for years to come. Here’s how to get around this tremendously scenic country.

Be wowed by the Swiss scenery when traveling by train

You’ve got to hand it to the Swiss – their trains really are the dream: efficient, slickly modern, eco-friendly and with views that keep you glued to the window for the duration of the journey. 

Most major cities, including Bern, Geneva, Zurich and Basel, are connected by rail with daily services. Tickets do not need to be bought in advance, and they can be purchased at stations on the day of travel or on the official Swiss Railways website. That said, look out for sizable discounts when booking “supersaver” tickets ahead of travel.

Take the train to best admire the jaw-dropping​​​​​ views across Switzerland © PangJee_S / Shutterstock

Ride the panoramic trains for the best views

Primarily geared towards tourists, these panoramic trains often have cars with extra large (and remarkably well polished) windows that emphasize the incredible scenery and let you get some great photos. They all require reservations, with tickets usually sold for a specific leg on the routes rather than the full journey.

  • Glacier Express: The “wow” never leaves your lips on this legendary Alpine train journey between Zermatt and St Moritz. The Brig–Zermatt Alpine leg makes for pretty powerful viewing, as does the area between Disentis/Mustér and Brig.
  • GoldenPass Line: Skirting the shores of some of Switzerland’s most ravishing lakes, this route links Lucerne to Montreux. The journey is in three legs, and you must change trains twice. Regular trains, without panoramic windows, work the whole route hourly.
  • Bernina Express: This route negotiates 55 tunnels and 196 bridges as it travels the Alpine valley of Engadine one way from Chur to Tirano in four hours, hitting its high point at 2253m (7392ft) above sea level. Between May and October, you can continue from Tirano to Lugano by bus.
  • Mont Blanc/St Bernard Expresses: Go from Martigny to Chamonix, France, or over the sensationally wild St Bernard Pass.
  • Voralpen Express: Glide between Lake Constance and Lake Lucerne, through St Gallen, Rapperswil and Romanshorn on this route.
  • Gotthard Panorama Express: This rail-boat combo starts with a wonderful 2.5-hour cruise across Lake Lucerne to Flüelen, from where a train winds its way through ravines and past mountains to Bellinzona or Lugano.

Tip for saving francs on scenic train journeys: Regularly scheduled services, which often ply the same routes as the tourist trains, can be just as enjoyable and significantly less expensive.

Mini driving on snow lined road in Switzerland
Winter tires are required when driving the snowy mountain roads of Switzerland © Matt Munro / Lonely Planet

Driving in Switzerland is a breeze 

Skirting lakes and vineyards and twisting up and over passes in the high Alps, Switzerland’s roads are beautiful on a cinematic scale, and the country has plenty of drives that are too darned scenic to rush.

The headline road trip is the 1600km (994-mile) Grand Tour of Switzerland, an epic, efficiently signposted lap of the country that links 12 UNESCO World Heritage Sites and shows off the Alpine nation from its most flattering angles. And the environmental clincher? It’s entirely drivable by electric car.

You’ll find car rental companies at airports and in cities and towns. Many now rent out electric cars, too. The minimum rental age is usually 25 but falls to 20 at some local firms. You always need a credit card. In winter, rental cars are usually equipped with winter tires.

Switzerland’s roads are well signposted and maintained, but you should always check conditions before heading up into the Alps, especially in winter. The highest passes are only open from June to October and, depending on the weather, you may need to use a tunnel instead. 

Tip for driving on freeways in Switzerland: You’ll need to pay an annual one-time charge of Sfr40 to use Swiss freeways and semi-freeways, identified by green signs. This is available as an E-vignette online or as a Vignette (sticker) at the border, at Swiss gas stations, post offices and at Swiss tourist offices abroad. The sticker must be displayed on the windshield. 

Buses serve remote mountain regions

If you are in no hurry, Switzerland’s bright yellow postal buses can be a fun way to reach the remote mountain regions. The country’s PostBus service is synchronized with train arrivals, and bus stops are handily located right next to railway stations.

Prices are comparable to train fares. Swiss national travel passes are valid, but a few tourist-oriented Alpine routes levy a surcharge. Tickets are purchased from the driver, though on some scenic routes over the Alps (for instance the Lugano to St Moritz run) reservations are necessary.

A cable car dangles high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley in Switzerland
Visit Switzerland’s highest points by cable car, mountain railway or funicular © Pete Seaward / Lonely Planet

Take a mountain railway, cable car or funicular ride

What a way to commute! The cable cars, funiculars, cogwheel railways and gondolas that climb up to the country’s highest Alpine reaches  are an absolute joy to experience and a highlight of traveling in Switzerland (as long as you have a head for heights!). 

True marvels of engineering, the mountain gondolas graze treetops, rail-bound funiculars shimmy precariously close to rock faces, and cable cars wobble across valleys (don’t worry – they are safe and subject to regular checks), before all emerge at a spectacularly snowy summit or glacier. It’s worth checking out what money-saving passes are available locally because they often work out cheaper than individual tickets and costs can quickly mount up in a country with so much vertical.

Tip for taking cable cars: A word of warning: always check what time the last cable car goes down the mountain unless you fancy a very long trek down. In mountain resorts in winter, it’s as early as 4pm when the light starts to fade. 

Boat travel is a slow but wonderful way to cross Switzerland’s lakes

Switzerland is a landlocked country, but boats ply the country’s large lakes, serviced by steamers operated by Swiss Federal Railways or private companies for which national travel passes are valid.

Passenger boats run on Lake Geneva, Constance, Lucerne, Lugano, Neuchâtel, Biel, Murten, Thun, Brienz and Zug. Traveling by boat is a slow and delightfully scenic way to get around.

Tip for seeing Switzerland from the water: Check out SwitzerlandMobility for a detailed overview of regional and national canoe routes on lakes and rivers – from Bodensee (Lake Constance) in the country’s north to Italian-flavoured Ticino in the south. 

A red Bernina Express train travels along a lakeshore in Switzerland
A Swiss Travel Pass gives you unlimited travel plus other discounts for a set period © Alessandro Lai / Getty Images

Consider investing in a Swiss Travel Pass

Though travel in Switzerland is efficient and convenient, it can also be expensive, and visitors planning to use intercity routes should consider investing in a Swiss Travel Pass. With this transport pass, you’re allowed unlimited travel by train (including premium panorama trains), bus and boat, as well as local public transportation in cities, free entry to 500 museums and discounts of up to 50% on mountain excursions.

Tip for families: Children under 16 travel free of charge with the complimentary Swiss Family Card when accompanied by at least one parent (holding a Swiss Travel System ticket).

Mountain bikers stop for a break at a picturesque lookout over the Swiss Alps, in the Portes du Soleil region.
Cut our carbon footprint by cycling for some of your trip along well-signed routes © ELEPHOTOS / Shutterstock

Experience Switzerland up close by bicycle

Whether you’re looking to crawl up hills on a road bike, tear down trails on a mountain bike or simply want a gentle pedal through orchards and vineyards hugging the shores of a shimmering lake, Switzerland is brilliantly set up for cyclists. Many cities have free or inexpensive bike-rental schemes, and bicycle and e-bike rental is usually available at train stations.

There are many well-signed and highly scenic cycle routes heading along rivers and lakeshores in Switzerland, perfect for two-wheel adventures. For details on national, regional and local routes, rental (including e-bike rental), bike-friendly accommodations, guides and maps, check SwitzerlandMobility.

Tip for traveling by train with a bike: Bikes can be taken on slower trains, and sometimes even on InterCity (IC) or EuroCity (EC) trains, when there’s room in the luggage carriage. Advance booking is sometimes necessary.

Accessible transportation is good in Switzerland

Switzerland ranks among the world’s most easily navigable countries for travelers with physical disabilities. Most train stations have a mobile lift for boarding trains, and city buses are equipped with ramps. The majority of modern hotels also have wheelchair access (although budget accommodations tend not to have elevators).

Switzerland Tourism has excellent information on barrier-free travel, including details on airport arrangements, assisted rail travel and disabled parking, or get in touch with Procap, an authority on barrier-free travel in Switzerland. The SBB has helpful pages on accessible travel, including details on tickets, booking assistance and journey planning.

Ready to plan your trip to Switzerland? Here are your next steps:

This article was first published Aug 23, 2021 and updated May 24, 2024.

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