I Took My Family on a Train Tour Around Switzerland and It Pushed us Out of Our Comfort Zone

8

Punk food critic Anthony Bourdain famously never ventured to Switzerland and was reportedly ‘terrified’ of the country for some unfathomable reasons. Being a fan of his, I wanted to discover why but also venture on a new and unique family break for the summer. We set ourselves the challenge of reducing our carbon footprint by forgoing a car, taking a short-haul flight if necessary and only utilising public transport. 

Switzerland was our destination choice and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Here’s why…

Getting there

We decided to start our trip in Geneva, a mere 95 minutes from most London airports. If you have Avios miles through an executive club member membership, BA gave us a ridiculous offer with miles plus £4 for a family of four return. This enabled us to snap up the flights and spend more of our budget on accommodation and experiences. However, if miles are not your thing, most carriers offer very competitive rates. The short duration of the flight is appealing with young children in tow. 

It’s worth highlighting that we had put savings aside for this trip as Switzerland can be expensive, especially when factoring in a cost of living crisis at home. Compared to other family holidays, it can work out cheaper depending on how you travel and where you stay, so do your homework.

Pre-planning and trains

Our itinerary took us from Lake Geneva to the Lauterbrunnen Valley, then off to Zermatt before taking a round trip back to Geneva to sample the lake and views of Mont Blanc before heading home. Having been at the wheel of many driving holidays in Europe, I was keen to view the scenery on this trip as the beautiful mountains and stunning vistas unfolded from our window. Therefore, travelling by train seemed like the sustainable and wisest option.

Train services in the UK can leave a lot to be desired. Travellers can be subject to multiple strikes on any given day, extortionate fares and sometimes unreliable service. It can actually be more hassle than travelling by road. Travelling on Swiss trains was akin to what you experience when you step off the plane – a breath of fresh air. On one particular train, there was also a play centre for children in the actual carriage. It also housed a small slide which was a huge surprise for both us adults and the kids. 

Watching the world go by

Watching the world go by

There are a few options to navigate, but if you are taking multiple trips as a family, then a Swiss Pass is a must. If you have young children and one of you has purchased a pass, you can sign the kids up for a Swiss family pass which means they travel for free. You also all travel for free on boats and buses, gain free access to museums and a 50% discount on some cable car journeys. It is an outlay initially, but considering how much you can save, this can be worth the expenditure when the overall benefits are considered.

First or second class?

We purchased two tickets on the advanced saver three months before our trip and coupled this with an eight-day first-class pass. As the first leg of our trip did not include multiple train changes and additional travel on cable cars, we knew this would save us money. We both opted for a first-class eight-day travel pass that set us back just over one thousand pounds sterling in total. Now, there may be audible gasps and questions about why we did not go for the second-class passes. Our primary reason is that we were informed long journeys the trains could get very busy in second class and seats can be difficult to obtain, plus we wanted quiet, guaranteed seats together and luggage space in first class. Admittedly, when we compare the two there is the small benefit of seat comfort and legroom in first class, but it’s definitely not akin to class differences on airlines. However, the additional comfort and peace and quiet we received were more than worth the price in our eyes. Some quick online calculations also showed parity with a second call pass for two versus hiring a mid-size family car with fuel for a ten-day round-trip. 

The SBB app is also worthy of mention and a great way to book your travel. It is intuitive and simplistic, plus supplies you with the relevant QR codes to travel directly to your phone. One brilliant feature which we loved was that it showed you how to navigate from different trains to the required platform, which was incredibly helpful when travelling with children and heavy luggage. Without wanting to nerd out completely on this piece of tech, for me, it is one of the best travel apps available.

Overall, having experienced Switzerland only using public transportation, I would argue that this is the only way to travel here. Another journey worth mentioning is the incredible Glacier Express. A service that boasts one of the most beautiful journeys in the world coupled with an exemplary dining experience. We sadly missed out on this trip, but it’s a reason for us to return very soon.

Bern to Wengen

The stunning Lauterbrunnen Valley

The stunning Lauterbrunnen Valley

As the first day was also coupled with a flight and wanting to avoid exhausted children, the first train journey of just over an hour took us to the Swiss capital, Bern. We stayed in the reasonably priced four-star Hotel Bristol and our room accommodated all four of us comfortably. It is a stone’s throw from the train station and Bern’s parliament building where the children took immeasurable joy by darting in and out of the square’s fountains. Situated in the UNESCO-recognised old town area, we also took the opportunity to marvel at the astrological wonder that is the Zytglogge (clock tower) and take a stroll down to the town’s infamous bear pit (sadly, no bears today). We did, however, manage to traverse a bridge directly over the city’s Alpine blue river Aaer and watch a swimmer causally floating downstream. It is a common occurrence for the city’s inhabitants to take a dip in the summer months, but be mindful that it’s a fast-flowing river and reading up on the safety rules first is essential.

Lauterbunnen and Jungfrau

Lauterbunnen and Jungfrau

We set off early the next day in order to make the most of our time in Lauterbrunnen, but more specifically the town of Wengen. The train journey took us across the Interlaken area and we were stunned by the beauty of the mountains on the other side of the shoreline, snowy peaks reflecting in the azure waters of Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. Vineyards cling to the valley slopes and when the sun is shining, watching them pass you by from a train window is food for the soul. Despite almost messing up our journey by getting off at Interlaken West instead of East for our connection, the journey was simple enough to navigate. Nothing prepares you for when you start to roll into Lauterbrunnen; the cliffs begin to dwarf you and waterfalls cascade from the peaks into thin air. One more change onto a cog train took us up to Wengen. I wasn’t prepared for the view, much like other travellers, as their unified gasps would attest.

Breathtaking scenery 

Opting for an Airbnb this time, we stayed in the beautiful Chalet Rose Penthouse serviced by Alpine Holiday Services. Check-in was quick and informative, plus a minibus drives you to your residence through the constricted winding streets; a welcome service when you have little ones and luggage. One important point to note is that being physically active is to your advantage in these mountain villages. There are steep hills and pathways to traverse as soon as you exit your front door. Very young children, those with poor fitness or the frail might find this incredibly challenging so again, a bit of research on your desired location is always recommended.

The view of the Lauterbrunnen valley upon arriving at the chalet is one I will never forget and for me, possibly one of the most beautiful places on Earth. An inspiration for famous writers such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and artists alike, helicopters ferried skydivers high above our chalet, whilst paragliders jostled in the air currents for prime views of the valley’s waterfalls. The Jungfrau mountain towers over the valley’s end like an overbearing landlord, whilst cascading 270 meters down into the valley, the Schmadribachfall is equally a sight to behold. I was expecting it to have an effect on the adults, but our children also marvelled at the view in front of them.

Hiking in Wengen

Hiking in Wengen

Cable cars and hiking

We were sadly not blessed with amazing weather, but one day when the sun came out, we hiked around the town and its outskirts. Our children managed a 40-minute hike comfortably with breaks. You simply cannot stay here without exploring the old traditional farms and guest houses. The sound of the mountain breezes intermingling with cowbells in the distance keeps you company wherever you turn. We had been warned that the weather is changeable so we packed warm weather clothing for our trip to Mannlichen. The ‘royal view’ we had been informed about was incredible, allowing you to see into Grindelwald on the opposing valley sides, but also astounding views of the Eiger. 

We also decided to take the royal experience on the cable car up for an additional five Francs each. Standing on top of a moving cable car might not be to everyone’s liking, but it seemed to cure my wife’s fear of heights and the kids seemed to equate it to a fairground ride. A large barrier protects you from a certain demise, but it’s not for the faint of heart. When we reached Mannlichen, the temperature had dropped considerably so were glad of those layers which helped us reach the royal view comfortably and the phenomenal views with the Eiger a formidable sight behind us. The Trummelbach Falls is also breathtaking and worth a visit, taking you inside a mountain to witness ten cascading waterfalls as they crash into the depths below. You will get wet and there are a lot of stairs, so being physically fit is advised as well as children being aged over three.

The Matterhorn and the Moon

The Matterhorn and the Moon

Zermatt and the Matterhorn

We next took ourselves off to the popular ski resort of Zermatt. This was the trickiest of our travels with five different trains to catch from Wengen. My only criticism of the SBB app was that we had five minutes to catch one connection from Visp which saw us run downstairs and make it just in time to jump on the Matterhorn Gotthard Bahn. These narrow gauge and cog trains also possess huge windows allowing the landscape to rush unopposed inside the train cabin. This was one train journey where we were glad of first class with all of the second class carriages filled to burst. Our carriage was equally full but we all managed to get a seat together and our luggage was stowed safely. Possibly one of my favourite trips, the train hugs the Vispa River through imposing canyons and mountains with plentiful ‘wow’ moments until you reach Zermatt.

Zermatt from the clouds

Zermatt from the clouds

Arriving in the town, the Matterhorn dominated the skyline with the Vispa River creating a cacophony wherever you are. What we loved most was that the town was completely car-free. Little electric taxis and the free red and green bus line are the only means of transport within the town and it certainly adds to the charm and Zermatt’s green credentials.

For the accommodation choice, we again opted for self-catering but this time in serviced apartments with a pool and breakfast included. We stayed in the stunning Colosseo apartments. The wonderful Dorothea answered our many questions before arrival and also ensured we had transport ready as soon as we arrived at the station. The rooms themselves were chalet style with remarkably huge ensuite bathrooms which ensured adults and kids alike could have their own space. The inside/outside pool was a welcome addition and the spa area was akin to that of a five-star hotel with a sauna, steam and a gym. We hope to return in the winter months to experience our room with the huge log burner roaring away.

Paragliding in Paradise

Paragliding in Zermatt

Paragliding in Zermatt

Zermatt is laden with experiences for the adventurous. My paragliding flight with Fly Zermatt is one event that will stay rent-free in my mind for a very long time. My wife booked the scenic experience for me as a gift and one vernacular train and cable car later, I was strapped to my excellent pilot Stu who ensured that any nerves I had dissipated very quickly. A few moments after the safety briefing, we were soaring three thousand metres above the mountains, the wind and clouds parting to reveal an inescapable stunning view of the valley and Zermatt below. It felt as though I was reclining in a comfortable bean bag as Stu guided us perfectly around the mountains. He also threw in a couple of acrobatic stunts which gave me a welcome adrenaline buzz for the morning! A few high-profile K-pop stars and Hilary Swank are among their customers, so if it was good enough for them…

The Matterhorn Glacier Paradise was also a highlight and one not to be missed with kids. It’s advisable to take warm clothing, gloves and hats as it was -5 Centigrade when we reached the summit of the ‘Little Matterhorn’ 3,800 metres up. The weather can also change in an instant so be prepared. Multiple cable cars take you there over stunning scenery and traversing over the Brighthorn glacier was simply breathtaking. It was hard to fathom and explain to our children that something of this magnitude might not be here if global warming continues to increase.

The Glacier Paradise itself features ski and snowboard runs all year round, a viewing platform where you can see the Matterhorn and across the Italian Alps, plus the highlight for the kids which was the Glacier Paradise. For the claustrophobic out there, I would avoid this as a small lift takes you down inside the glacier. My wife and I did find ourselves struggling for air at some points due to the altitude and being inside the glacier. That notwithstanding, we recovered quickly and the ice sculptures were adored by the children with the whole place creating a magical spectacle. I did have to explain multiple times to my youngest that Elsa from Disney’s Frozen didn’t live there, although she didn’t seem to mind.

Boating in Geneva

Boating in Geneva

A change in altitude and attitude

Finally, we stayed in Geneva for a few days to decompress and explore. When we recounted the trip, our children were unanimous in saying it was the best holiday they had ever had. We’re not the first family to experience travelling through Switzerland and certainly not the last, but when the majority of us think of summer holidays it’s synonymous with heading off to the nearest resort or beach. I can equally emphasise that this time is all about downing tools and enjoying the sunshine with the children. 

Packing thermals and coats for a summer holiday seems at odds with the premise but getting out of our holiday comfort zone has made us all the better for it. The children have broadened their horizons for one; my son wants to try paragliding whilst my youngest daughter loved staring out of the train windows as opposed to playing on her tablet. Taking a plethora of trains to explore a country would also not normally be within our remit, but I would gladly give up reliance on a car when travelling after this break. It’s also made us realise that most importantly of all, you don’t need sand between your toes to find moments of tranquillity. You can find them simply by exploring new territory with your loved ones.

Source : Hello