The most highly regarded day trip to the Swiss Alps from Milan, Italy is via the Bernina Express. While you can visit the Alps more quickly by taking other trains, those trains are not open air, so much of your trip is spent in tunnels. If you want to SEE the Swiss Alps, the Bernina Express is the way to do it.
Though you will find lots of ads and postings about Bernina Express tours, it is quite easy to visit the Swiss Alps from Milan by yourself, with more comfort and space than with a tour.
About the Bernina Express
The following is from the Bernina Express Travel Guide:
“The Bernina Express travels high up to the towering glaciers of the mountains and deep down into the swaying palms of Italy. The fascinating journey takes you along the UNESCO World Heritage route of the RhB.”
This is the only line to cross the Swiss alps in the open air, versus traveling mostly through tunnels.
The train has both first and second class seating (more on that below), as well as bathrooms and a bar with snacks and soft drinks.
The trains also offer WiFi (though it was not working well on our train). They have a free service called “InfoT(r)ainment” where you can listen to a guided tour/facts throughout your journey on a laptop or mobile device. You will need earbuds to listen, but if you don’t have a pair, the train sells them for 2 Euros.
The Bernina Express does not offer outlets or USB plugs on the train cars, so plan accordingly. Be sure to have your devices full charged and bring an external charger as a back-up. (This is my favorite external charger.)
How to Get to the Alps Via Milan – Day Trip
From Milan, take the 6:20 a.m. train via TrenItalia to Tirano. The ticket is $11 Euros each way. This will get you to the city at about 8:30 a.m.
Then, leave the train station and walk across the square to the Bernina station. There, buy a first-class panoramic ticket to St. Moritz. I’d recommend buying first-class for the Bernina Express to St. Moritz, but doing second-class for the trip back from St. Moritz to Tirano. You can also book your ticket online. I read online that one side of the train is better than the other, but both sides have advantages part of the time. Every seat is a good seat! (We sat on the side with single seats, which was very nice.)
We did first-class for both legs, but it wasn’t necessary. This was the one excursion my husband wanted to do though, so we splurged! The Bernina Express train leaves at 10:07 a.m. and arrives in St. Moritz at 12:36 p.m. (Times valid through October 2019, check website to confirm.)
RECAP: You can easily ride the train from Milan to Tirano, then the Bernina Express in Tirano to St. Moritz, stay about two hours, then take the RhB train back to Tirano, then back to Milan the same day. (The RhB is red like the Bernina and operates out of the same station. It just doesn’t have the panoramic windows and some of the route is a bit different.) We left Milan at 6 a.m. for the train station and arrived back at the Milan train station at 7 p.m.
Bernina Express Review: What to Expect
The Bernina Express train winds up the mountain from an altitude of 429 to 2253. The views are spectacular. Words cannot do the landscape justice. You will feel like you are in the middle of a movie like Heidi or The Sound of Music. The experience was one of our favorite of our seven-day Italian vacation.
Alp Grum, which is one of the highest points at 2091, is the one stop on the 2.5-hour journey where you will be able to briefly get off the train before St. Moritz. Our stop was about 15-minutes long, which was perfect to take a few photos of the beautiful mountain and stretch your legs a bit.
TIP: Grab a Bernina Express travel guide when you get on the train. In it lists partners that if you show your train ticket, you are eligible to receive discounts/free treats.
We arrived in St. Moritz at about 12:30 p.m. and had just over two hours to walk through the charming village and eat lunch. We enjoyed a meal at Hauser Restaurant. Don’t miss trying a dessert and getting some Swiss chocolate from their dessert shop!
Benefits of First-Class on the Bernina Express
The most frequent comment I read in group reviews and on message boards about the Bernina was to book a first-class ticket to ensure you could enjoy the full extent of the mountain view. Several personal friends also advised booking first-class, one commenting how much better her family’s experience would have been if they had not been in second-class.
If you book a tour, you will be seated in a second-class train car. Groups book cars in advance. The fullness of the group determines how full your car is and if you will have restricted views. This was a big reason we chose to book the travel on our own.
First-class is definitely more expensive, but provides you with many benefits including:
More space: in the second-class cars, seats are four across, while in the first-class cars, the seats are just three across, meaning everyone has a bit more room, not only in your seat, but for your legs as well.
More comfort: The black leather seats in first class are wider and more comfortable than the seats in second-class.
Less people: Though certainly not always true, in our experience, far less people were on the first-class car than what was in the second car. This meant we could go from side to side in the car, catching the very best views and photos. I read multiple reviews of tours/people who rode in second class and complained about not being able to see well because of crowded cars. Also, because of less seats, even if the train was completely full, you would be able to see better in a first-class car because less people sit in those cars.
Train view: First-class is in the last car, which means you often get to enjoy seeing the train itself traveling through the mountain. This is a delightful view to enjoy.
We accidentally boarded into a second-class car and sat in what we thought were our seats, so got a taste of the difference. I would definitely recommend doing the way up through the Swiss Alps in first-class.
I hope this helps you if you are planning a trip to Italy and want to do a day trip to the Swiss Alps from Milan. It was one of the best experiences of our Italian vacation. You won’t regret riding The Bernina Express.
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