There are many ways to get from Switzerland to Italy by train, probably the most spectacular and beautiful route however is along the Albula and Bernina railway lines through Graubünden. Since I often suggest this route in the forum I thought to write a short article on this route with a few pictures from along the way, explaining where to change trains and where to include possible stopovers to enjoy the fantastic nature. The pictures have been taken on several visits to the area during the last years.
If you want to travel the whole route from Zürich to Milan in one go it will take you about nine hours which is considerably longer than via the direct route along the Gotthard line that will only take you about 3h30 on one of the direct EuroCity (EC) trains or about 4h if you are an Interrail or Eurail traveller wanting to avoid reservations (which are compulsory when taking an EC train to Italy). Even though the detour through Graubünden takes more than double the time it is really worth it and you are rewarded with great landscape views and a ride along spectacular railway lines.
Leg 1: Zürich – Chur
Your best choice on this leg are the hourly fast InterCity (IC) trains operated by SBB. They provide a direct connection to the RegioExpress trains from Chur to St Moritz. These IC trains also stop in Sargans which is practical if you are coming from Germany or Austria as you have good connections here. Especially the overnight trains to Beograd, Zagreb, Graz, Wien and Budapest are a good option in case you want to save on accomodation costs in expensive Switzerland. If possible, take a seat on the left hand side of the train to enjoy the views of Zürichsee and Walensee before you reach Chur, the capital of Graubünden, oldest city of Switzerland and itself worth a visit. The connection to the RegioExpress from Chur to St Moritz usually is a convenient cross-platform interchange: The IC arrives on platform 9 and you just have to hop on the RegioExpress already waiting opposite on platform 10. Although the connection time is just six minutes this is easily enough.
Leg 2: Chur – Samedan
You have to entered the realm of Rhätische Bahn (RhB), the narrow gauge railway that operates the railway network of Graubünden. InterRail and Eurail passes are fully valid and no reservations are required except for travel on the touristic Glacier Express (GEX) and Bernina Express (BEX) trains. To prevent any confusion: On the complete routes of both GEX and BEX there are also regular Regio and RegioExpress trains operating for which you do not need a reservation. In my opinion the regular trains are totally fine so no need to spend that extra money for travelling on GEX and BEX. It is hard to tell whether the right or left hand side seats are better in terms of views during the trip but I would tend to sit on the right hand side. Prepare yourself for some dizzying stretches of line as the train makes its way from Chur at 953 metres a. s. l. to Albula Tunnel at 1820 metres. The most stunning parts are from Thusis to Tiefencastel and then from Filisur up to Preda. Also, just before Filisur you cross Landwasser Viaduct, probably the most iconic landmark of the whole RhB network. After the stop in Preda the train then rattles through the darkness of Albula Tunnel before emerging in the Engadin and shortly afterwards arrives in Samedan. From here you could continue the short remaining bit of line to St Moritz, however if you want to head directly to Milan you have to change in Samedan for a train to Pontresina.
Leg 3: Samedan – Pontresina
This connection is again provided as cross-platform interchange, usually from platform 2 to platform 3. Even though the connection time is really short (three minutes) you do not have to worry as the train usually waits in case of a delay. The trip itself is not that spectacular and quite short but saves you an hour of time compared to going to St Moritz and taking the train to Tirano there. So unless you really want to travel the complete Bernina Railway I recommend taking this shortcut.
Leg 4: Pontresina – Tirano
The Regio from Samedan arrives at platform 1, to get to platform 4 and your Regio to Tirano you have to use the subway. It is just a short distance and in case of a delay the train would also wait a bit – again, no need to worry. After leaving Pontresina the train soon passes through Morteratsch, where you can find a really nice campsite as well start hiking to Morteratsch Glacier which would take about one hour. Then, the steep climb towards the Bernina pass and the summit station of Ospizio Bernina at about 2250 metres starts. There is no preferred side of the train to sit as the tracks constantly keep on twisting and turning. There’s plenty to see definitely! Finally the train reaches the summit and runs along the shores of Lej Nair (the black lake) and Lago Bianco (the white lake), stopping at Ospizio Bernina. Afterwards, the much longer descent down to the Valposchiavo and Tirano, the terminal station in Italy begins. Catch a glimpse of Piz Palü and the Valposchiavo while passing through Alp Grüm station. After the longest and most spectacular part of the descent lies behind you reach Poschiavo, the small capital of this part of Graubünden. Then you cross the famous circular viaduct of Brusio before the trip finally ends in Tirano where you usually have enough time for a short lunch until the last train will take you to Milano.
Leg 5: Tirano – Milano
All local and regional trains in Lombardia region around Milano are now operated by Trenord, InterRail and Eurail tickets are now finally officially accepted – there have been some issues when operation of services was handed over from Trenitalia. The Trenord station in Tirano is across the RhB station but as connection times are usually quite long you won’t be in a hurry anyway. If you have a bit of time left the small city of Tirano is definitely worth a visit. Trains to Milano run every two hours, just take a seat and enjoy the last part of your trip.
Of course it is possible to travel in the opposite direction as well, the different changes of trains work similarly smooth. You can find these schedules among many others here.
Zürich HB 07:37 – 08:52 Chur
Chur 08:58 – 10:45 Samedan
Samedan 10:48 – 10:55 Pontresina
Pontresina 11:04 – 13:00 Tirano
Tirano 13:08 – 15:40 Milano Centrale
There is a youth hostel directly at the station in Pontresina and another one in St Moritz. However, for a unique experience, stay overnight either at Ospizio Bernina or Alp Grüm. If you are travelling with a tent, Camping Morteratsch is highly recommended. Another campsite is located in Filisur. If you are into hiking, the trail from Filisur to Davos through Zügen gorge is really nice but of course there are lots of other possibilites available in Graubünden. If you just want to relax for one or two hours while travelling from Zürich to Milano I would suggest to leave the train at Ospizio Bernina and then hike down to the next station at Alp Grüm or Bernina Diavolezza respectively. If you are travelling with big luggage just stay around Ospizio Bernina station which is equally beautiful.
Hopefully you enjoyed the trip along Albula and Bernina Railway from Zurich to Milano and maybe are convinced to include this route into your own rail trip. For any questions, please use our friendly railcc forum.
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Update: April 2018