When: December 2016
Hotel: Hotel Hauser (St. Moritz) / Holiday Hotel (Zermatt)
Why the Glacier Express: We had just come back to Germany in October 2016, so it was not possible to go back for Christmas in December. I was looking at us spending Christmas in London, but then we were invited to spend three days – including Christmas day – in Switzerland with friends, with the main attraction being riding the famed Glacier Express. It was my first Christmas away from home, so I figured that I needed to added distraction of being with friends.
The Trip: The Glacier Express is described as the world’s “slowest express train.” It runs between Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn, and St. Moritz, the glitzy ski town. In all, the journey takes eight (8) hours, passing over 291 bridges and through 91 tunnels. The most famous site it passes over is the Landwasser viaduct, while traveling through the Swiss Alps and by the UNESCO recognized Bernina countryside.
When our friends asked us to go with them, they had already been talking to a travel agent and basically had the trip mapped out. It was the first (and only) time we had booked through a travel agent, but our friends were so sweet to invite us so while I tend to prefer booking by myself, this was just easy. The package included local German tickets to St. Moritz, where we would stay the night before boarding the Glacier Express to Zermatt, as well as train tickets home. While John and I are train snobs and always go for the first class seats, but this package was with second class seats. (As we found out, literally the only difference between the two classes was maybe a couple more inches of seat space, but otherwise it may not be worth the price).
And speaking of price – Switzerland is expensive in general, and that definitely applies to the Glacier Express. It is NOT cheap, but definitely a once-in-a-lifetime trip. The trip takes place in carriages with panoramic windows to enjoy the Swiss landscapes. Our package also included a plated meal on board, which was nice (but also bring snacks because the food sold onboard is expensive!!)
We made our way from Stuttgart to Zurich, then switched trains to St. Moritz. It is not a short trip – but the gem of train travel is that you can just sit back and relax. We reached St. Moritz late in the afternoon, so we had some time to walk around before the sunset. (Just to give you an idea of prices – dinner at our hotel was $225 for four people…yikes!)
Our trip began the next morning (Christmas Eve) in St. Moritz, and went through Chur (where John and I saw the Cows Come Home fest and it was awesome!), Disentis, Andermatt, Brig, Visp and then Zermatt. You can pick any of those locations to pick up the Glacier Express or ride the whole thing, like we did.
Each stop allows for time to leave the train at least for a couple of minutes while new passengers boarded the train. Only one of the stops gave about 30 minutes in case you wanted to run inside the train station to grab some snacks or drinks to save a bit of money. (I went to the grocery store in St. Moritz to get water because it was a fraction of the cost!)
Switzerland is absolutely beautiful and the train line absolutely showcases the best of the landscape…however, there were a couple of downsides. One, the windows don’t open – which means a LOT of glare when trying to take pictures. However, here’s a little tip: head to the back of the train and there is a very bare carriage where the windows completely open. We were the only ones back there so we were able to get great pictures. Also, and this seems silly, especially in wintertime – but bring a hat or a visor. Because the carriage has panoramic windows, when the sun started beating down, it was brutal. There was no shade in the carriage and it got so hot, we were literally wearing our napkins on our head to give us some relief.
We pulled into Zermatt past sunset – but day or night, it is the cutest little ski resort town. I had been there in the summer (recap here) and was looking forward to seeing it all snow-covered with twinkly Christmas lights. I was a little sad to see it was missing the snow, but it had the Christmas lights – so I was happy. Zermatt is a car-free town at the base of the famous Matterhorn. There are adorable little electric taxis in town, but it’s not crazy big so most everything is walkable from the train station.
The next morning was Christmas…and while I was super sad I wasn’t in Michigan with my family, it was cool to wake up to the Swiss Alps. And John humored me by wearing Christmas pajamas as we opened our presents. Unlike a lot of places in Europe, Zermatt did not shut down for Christmas, and there were a lot of stores and restaurants open. We opted to do an easy hike around the Matterhorn before enjoying fondue and a traditional Swiss band for dinner. The band members were super cute – they even let me play the accordion. It was hilarious, and a fun way to end the trip before we took a regional train home the next day.
The Trip: I’ll be honest – I love riding trains, but I was super worried about spending that much time on a train (the Glacier Express, plus the trains to/from the starting cities). But I am glad we did it once. We got to see areas that aren’t accessible by car and it was a good location to spend Christmas, mainly because of everything that was still open (I had been looking at London, but the city shuts down on Christmas and Boxing Day, the 26th). It was expensive and I don’t know that I would do it again (at least not through a travel agent), but I definitely think it is something that should be experienced at least once.