We spent two glorious weeks reveling in Switzerland’s famed Alps in September.
This deep dive into Switzerland was designed around the peaks we’ve only heard about in legend. Our itinerary, all by train: St. Moritz, 1 night; Zermatt, 3; Wengen, 5; Murren, 3; Bern, 1; Geneva, 2.
Since we were in the neighborhood, we popped into Chamonix, France, for three nights to check out Mont Blanc, the tallest of all Europe’s mountains at 15,781 feet.
The Alps run 750 miles through eight countries, with some 100 peaks above 13,000 feet. While the Swiss towns are nice, the Alps are spectacular. We became intimate with three areas featuring Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and the trio of Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau. Seeing the same mountain from different views was fascinating. With the efficient (though pricey) mountain trains and cable cars, access is easy for everyone, though the altitude is tougher to adapt to for some.
Important tip: Due to unpredictable/fickle weather, give yourself ample time in each location to enjoy the peaks. During our three nights in Zermatt, the Matterhorn was clearly visible for only about five hours!
Here’s how we rank our mountain experiences:
No. 10: Plz Nair in St. Moritz
This was our first mountain top, with glimpses of the town and lakes and marmots, and seemed really high at 10,000 feet. Little did we know how quickly it would be dwarfed. Shoutout to the fabulous Badrutt’s Palace, which generously gave us a pass although we stayed only one night instead of two!
No. 9: Grindelwald-First, Berner Oberland
Grindelwald is a nice sized city when compared to Wengen or Murren, in a pretty valley beneath Eiger, Wetterhorn and Shreckhorn. It’s a bit of a trek to get here, with a train to Grindelwald, then two slow (though very scenic) cable cars going up 3.25 miles. Aside from the mountain views, First (7,110 feet) is designed for fun, with a “thrill walk” or suspension platform jutting from the mountain, and paid activities like gliders and flyers that quickly sell out.
There are numerous hikes from the top, the most popular being the 1.9 mile walk to Bachalpsee (which I did twice. See No. 5 below). It’s not quite as easy as advertised: I’m fast and it took me 45 minutes with some huffing. It’s another 15 minutes to the higher viewpoint to the next lake.
No. 8: Mannlichen in Wengen, Berner Oberland
This is an easy, short cable car ride from the center of Wengen to Mannlichen (7,687 feet), providing fabulous views of not only Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, but also the splendid Lauterbrunnen valley. We paid a little extra for the “Royal Ride” atop the cable car, which was fun, then took the half mile “Royal Walk” up to the peak.
There is a very popular and beautiful 3-mile walk from Mannlichen to Klein Scheidegg. It’s mostly downhill or level and you’re facing the big three mountains (Eiger, Monch, Jungfrau) nearly the whole way. It took us about 1 hour 45 with lots of dawdling.
No. 7: Schilthorn in Murren, Berner Oberland
This easy cable cable from the delightful town of Murren packs up to 100 people at a time; you change cars at the Birg station. Schilthorn (9,744 feet) had perhaps the best views of the mountain range, especially Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau, and more, all lined up at 360 degrees eye level. You can romp around different viewpoints and even out on the mountain ledges (where you can watch the paragliders launch).
Schilthorn was the setting for On Her Majesty’s Secret Service with George Lazenby and they milk this lame 007 for all its worth—I thought the bathroom designs were cute but that was about it. I considered the hike up here but it didn’t look that interesting. (PS: Piz Gloria is the name of the revolving restaurant.)
Birg thrill walk: this platform jutting from the mountain is really fun with more variety than the one at First, featuring a tightrope, see-through-path, and “tunnel,” all with amazing views around.
Tip: Entry was free with the Swiss Travel Pass in 2019 but will change to a 50% discount in 2020.
No. 6: Eiger Trail, Berner Oberland
There are several Eiger trails in the region. The one Eigergletscher to Alpiglen was 3.73 miles and one of the most exhilarating hikes we’ve done, all in the shadow of Eiger’s infamous North Face. About an hour into the trail, you’ll see above you in the rock metal ladders that climbers use to reach the Rotstock summit on a Via Ferrata (protected climbing route). I tried to get to the ladders but they were out of reach without some equipment. If I had known, I would have found a guide to take me over this Eiger peak!
The views were beautiful, especially as we could spot the other summits we had been to. We thought this direction was preferable as it was more downhill. It took us nearly four hours with a lot of dawdling.
No. 5: Grindelwald-First to Schynige Platte, Berner Oberland
This demanding, 10-mile ridge walk is described by some as the best day hike in Switzerland so I had to squeeze it in. From Murren, I returned to First and the Bachalpsee (again), then up to Faulhorn, the highest point at 8,800 feet. From there you can see Lake Brienz, along with the Jungfrau area peaks. The trail is extremely rocky and uneven throughout, requiring concentration even though it was mostly downhill this direction. About 3 1/2 hours in, I reached the restaurant in the middle of nowhere, desperate for some ice cream. Alas, they said it was too pricey to fly it up in the helicopter!
Magnificent views came about 90 minutes from the Schynige Platte train station, with the snowy Alps framed by gnarled karst rock, lush meadows and tall pines. Soon you could see both Lake Brienz and Lake Thun and the Interlaken area. I arrived at the train in 6 1/2 hours, clocking 13 miles. It was a very slow cogwheel back down and required a couple of changes to get home. I wouldn’t make Schynige Platte a priority with limited time but the views nearby were stellar.
Tip: I learned on this hike that the terrific Swiss trains do not list every single stop. I eagerly headed out from Mürren at 7:30, taking the train and gondola to Lauterbrunnen, where I boarded to change at Zweilutschinen. That station came up on the digital board, so I got off…and the stop was Sandweidli, BEFORE Zweilutschinen. It was in the middle of nowhere, very cold and lonely at 8 a.m. and I felt like an idiot, plus I lost 30 minutes until the next train. Later I was told this is one of the few anomalies in Switzerland: a station that doesn’t really exist.
No. 4: Aiguille Du Midi in Chamonix, France
From Chamonix, you can see the needle of Aiguille du Midi (12,604 feet), along with the gentle bump of Mont Blanc, and the Bossons glacier cascading toward town. You take the cable car to Plan De L’Aiguille, change cars, then take an elevator to the summit for a magnificent 360 degree view of not just Swiss but also French and Italian Alps, along with the Chamonix valley below. Remarkably, you can spot hikers and paragliders on the pristine glaciers, usually part of a tour. There was a long line for the glass-encased skywalk called “Into the Void” so we passed.
From Plan De L’Aiguille, there’s a nice 3.6 mile hike to the Montevers train under the mountains, mostly downhill. Unfortunately, signage is poor and I missed out on Signal Hill views, and arrived too late to go into the glacier!
Tip: Traveling to Chamonix from Switzerland is included in the Swiss Travel Pass, and the scenery from Martigny to Vallorcine is gorgeous as the narrow gauge train climbs the gorge.
No. 3: Kleine Matterhorn in Zermatt
This is the highest cable car station in Europe at 12,830 feet (just beating Aiguille du Midi in France by 136 feet), with breathtaking views of the Matterhorn and many other peaks. You have to change cars a couple of times depending on how they’re operating. We paid extra for the Crystal Ride, which is a cabin with two glass areas on the floor that turn translucent above the glacier as you near the top. But there was so much to see all around us we didn’t appreciate it quite enough.
During our three nights in Zermatt, the Matterhorn (14,692 feet) was visible for only about five hours and we lucked out! It was lovely as we passed it with clouds moving in and out, and a little lake at its foot.
At the top, the Matterhorn was mostly shrouded while Breithorn (13,661 feet) was most prominent, with many hikers winding their way up. Breithorn is noted as the “easiest” Alp to summit at just 2 1/2 hours. Also called the Glacier Paradise, Kleine Matterhorn has a nice ice cave, and offers skiing all year–we saw and met many skiers in training.
Some say the Gornergrat train in Zermatt has the best views of the Matterhorn as well as 29 of the 13,000-plus peaks in Switzerland. Unfortunately, it was too cloudy the day I went up and the cogwheel train was awfully slow.
No. 2: Jungfraujoch, Berner Oberland
This well marketed destination (“Top of Europe”) gets some bad press for being over commercialized but we thought it was splendid (just ignore the shops at the end). No other summit allowed us to interact with the pristine glacier and snow like this.
The train station, on the saddle between Monch and Jungfrau, is the highest in Europe at 11,334 feet. So be sure to acclimatize yourself for the altitude. My husband had to slow drastically, especially on steps, and I was gulping for breath during my hike.
There are 9 “tour stops” in a loop. Your first destination is the elevator up to the Sphinx viewpoint: wow. You are right in the midst of mountains and glaciers. Another popular viewpoint is the plateau at the other end of the loop. There’s also a cinema, restaurant, ice palace and snow fun offered.
The best experience is to go out the entrance to the Monchsjoch hut, which has exquisite views with far fewer people. Only a handful make the 1.25-mile hike across the Aletsch glacier to Monchsjoch, the highest occupied hut in Switzerland at 11,975 feet. Wow again. This journey was surreal, with the crisp air, serene silence, virgin snow, icicles and crevasses. It took me 51 minutes due to the altitude and incline: I made extra photo stops to let my heart rate calm down.
- Tip 1: Seat reservations are only $5 each way and worth it considering the crowds we experienced. Sit right.
- Tip 2: The train stops at the Eismeer station inside a tunnel for five minutes. They’re not explicit but you’re encouraged to pop out and take pictures of the gorgeous glaciers through panoramic windows.
- Tip 3: To our surprise and disappointment, the Lindt chocolate shop at the end does not give free samples, but you get a Thank You chocolate on your way back down on the train.
And the No. 1 Alpine mountain experience: Panoramic cable car to Helbronner, Italy, from Chamonix, France
We were enthralled by views at Aiguille Du Midi (No. 4). But when we boarded the Panoramic Mont Blanc cable car, we were in awe. The slow 3-mile ride through the Mont Blanc massive goes over the Geant and du Tacul glaciers in the White Valley, with views of Swiss, French and Italian Alps. We couldn’t crane our necks quickly enough to absorb the stupendous beauty of the untouched snow, blue ice, deep crevasses, jagged cliffs and soaring peaks. Then we realized we were seeing people down upon the glaciers, hiking in small groups, silhouetted upon the snow.
The cable car ends at the Helbronner station, where a doorway serves as the border between Italy and France (nobody asked for our passports as some have noted elsewhere). There are several viewing platforms, all featuring Mont Blanc front and center, and the town of Courmayeur, Italy, far below (you can take the rotating gondola down). Clouds came through but moved pretty quickly.
This amazing journey near the end of our travels was indisputably the top highlight of all our Alpine mountain adventures.
Here’s how the key mountains stack up:
- Mont Blanc: 15,781 feet
- Matterhorn: 14,692 feet
- Breithorn, 13,661 feet
- Jungfrau, 13,641 feet
- Monch, 13,474 feet
- Eiger, 13024 feet
- Everest, 29,030 feet