Switzerland has a reputation for outstanding public transport, and there are clearly innumerable fantastic train rides which can be taken out of Zürich. However, Geneva is surrounded on three sides by French territory, and is also the gateway for many French ski resorts. So, are the trains as good as they are further east, or are you better off with a hire car?
Why hire a car in Geneva?
French connection — Geneva is mostly surrounded by French territory, but there is only one main rail line heading out of Geneva’s Cornavin station into France, so you will find it much easier to get around in a hire car. Note — there is an additional line to Annemasse, but you will have to cross over to the Eaux-Vives station to use this (a project is under way to link the two stations).
Changes, changes — even if train services are available to a number of French ski resorts, you often have to transfer at least three times to get there. If you are carrying equipment, this is simply too much hassle.
Cost — it might be much easier to find cheap flights to Geneva compared to Zürich, but Geneva is some distance away from many major Swiss ski resorts. This can make train transfers expensive if you don’t have a discounted ticket (see below).
Walking — for walking holidays when resort transfer services are not so widely available, a car can often be a better option, although it is also just as easy to take a train, bus or cable car to the start of a walking route, and then to take similar public transport back from the end of your walk, allowing you to continue in one direction, rather than in a loop back to your car.
Why visit Geneva without a car?
Value – with a Swiss Rail Pass, you don’t have to worry about your mileage, just sit back and enjoy the view. See our Zurich page for more advice on getting the best value out of Swiss trains.
Scenic routes — heading east out of Geneva, you can enjoy great views of Lake Geneva, all the way to Montreux. From here, you can continue across to Gstaad, and then on to either Bern or Interlaken, and the route is classed as scenic virtually all the way. Heading to any of the resorts above the Rhône valley, including Diablerets, Chamonix Mont Blanc, Verbier (bus from Martigny), and Crans-Montana, will also mean taking a scenic route virtually all the way.
Lowlands – even when out heading into the Alps, you can still take the scenic route to Basel via Neuchâtel (one of my personal favourite scenic spots).
Lake Geneva — if you have an unlimited pass, any of the ferries on Lake Geneva are included in the price.
Direct trains — trains heading east to Lausanne and on to Bern and Zürich start at Geneva airport, so no change is needed. For other destinations, regular trains are available between Geneva airport and the main Cornavin station..
Scenic French routes — heading west from Geneva, venture south at Bellegarde for a range of scenic routes around Chambery. Even if you just want to get to the French ski resorts, the train will take you right up Val D’Isere to Bourg St Maurice for a mountain train transfer to Les Arcs.
Mont Blanc circuit — there are two ways of reaching Chamonix for Mont Blanc – or for just enjoying a superbly scenic train journey across two countries. The Swiss route runs clockwise around Lake Geneva before dropping south from Montreux to Martigny. From here, the Chamonix line climbs sharply up the valley before heading south west via Vallorcine. At Chamonix, you can take the mount on line to Montenvers. From Chamonix, head to La Roche sur Foron and change for a local train back to Geneva Eaux-Vives.
Resort shuttle transfers are also available as well is trains, and these will almost certainly work out better value compared to driving.
Summary — there are plenty of excellent train journeys which can be taken from Geneva, although much of the best stuff is further east, as listed on our Bern, Basel and Zürich pages. Someone who spent a long weekend traversing the rail routes around Geneva might come back saying they saw some interesting things, but they are never going to reach for the same superlatives that a visitor doing the same thing around Zürich or south of Bern might say. Maybe we are simply too spoilt for choice around Zürich, and even more so around Bern. So, when it comes to Geneva, we just revert back to the usual cliche that a hire car will give you more freedom and flexibility to enjoy the scenery at your own pace.
Is anywhere more iconic of Switzerland’s obsession with clockwork precision timed trains than Zürich’s Grand Central Station (Hauptbahnhof)? So why would anyone even consider hiring a car in Zürich?
(Read our advice below before booking Swiss Rail passes)
Why hire a car in Zürich?
Costly trains — trains in Switzerland, and particularly in and around Zürich might well be superb, but they can also be outrageously expensive. Even though car hire at Zürich airport is not cheap either, sharing a car with a group of people might work out cheaper than going by train.
Train booking hell – the trains might be great, but finding the best deal is a complete nightmare (see below). You might find it easier just to book a car!
Scenic drives — the trains may be excellent, but they are, as Jeremy Clarkson might say, a bit pedestrian. Hit the A3 out of Zürich, and you will soon be heading into Switzerland’s finest driving country. For many (but not all, as some of the rail routes are away from any roads) of the train routes listed below, it might be just as (or almost as, ed) secenic to take the car – and you have the usuals of exploring at your own pace and going off the beaten track.
Stelvio — of all the roads in Europe, the Stelvio pass was rated by Top Gear as the best driving experience. To enjoy this at its fullest, drive to Davos and then continue to Zernez, before going through the Ofen Pass to Sluderno. The Stelvio Pass is actually in neighbouring Italy en route S38 towards Bormio. From here, you can head back through the La Schera tunnel, or through the Bernina Pass, taking a similar route to the Bernina railway line.
There are too many outstanding rail routes which can be taken from Zürich to mention them all, so here are a few highlights:
Value train tickets — Swiss rail tickets can seem outrageously expensive, but there are numerous ways to get a better deal. Firstly, you can book in advance on some of the trunk routes, just like advance purchase tickets on British trains – although the value tickets are only on sale on selected routes, no more than 15 days in advance, and often you can only get fares on direct train services. Unfortunately, although Switzerland may have many Brunel accolites, the fares manual and website have come firmly from the stable of Brittas.
Travel passes – The best option for travelling around is to get one of the Swiss travel system passes. These provide unlimited travel on a set number of days, and this includes all mainline rail services, together with lake cruises and connecting buses. However, you will still have to pay for some mountain railways and cable cars, although you will at least get a partial discount. Note that due to currency fluctuations, the cost of even these passes has risen sharply – I last bought one in 2007 for around £100, now you will only see £5 change from £200! Note – if you have an unlimited train pass, you may find cheaper flights to Geneva or Basel instead of Zurich.
Pass discounts. At the time of writing, a 30% discount offer is available for Swiss flexi-passes, although this expires at the end of November 2011. Worth keeping an eye out for future offers (we will try and update when we hear anything).
Regional Passes – if you don’t fancy travelling around the whole country, you can get a regional pass to cover a smaller area. However, these aren’t cheap either – for example the Bernese Oberland pass comes in at a whopping £170 for 3 days travel in 7 (half price on other days) – and you still only get 50% off the Jungfrau and Schilthorn excursions. This is what happens when there is no other way of getting there – and however costly, these routes are truly priceless!
Mountain add-ons. Add a mountain railway ticket at the time of booking a Swiss Rail pass, and the cost is just about bearable – £25 for Murren or £27 for Schilthorn. The Jungfrau line doesn’t even get a mention – you will need your own Swiss bank account to pay for that one (£128 day return from Interlaken).
Jungfraujoch discount – discounts are available with most passes, and you may be able to start your ticket from Kleine Scheidegg, and get an early or late ticket to pay a lot less – potentially as little as £32, if you accept the restrictions. Either way, good luck trying to drive a car to the ‘Top of Europe!’.
Swiss transfer ticket – Another option if you’re just travelling between the airport and one destination is to get the Swiss transfer ticket, which gives you free train travel anywhere in the country on the day you arrive and on the day of your return journey. This must be bought outside the country, and currently costs £95.
Relative cost — car hire in Switzerland is more expensive than any other country in Europe, apart from Scandinavia. There are no bargain car hire deals at Zürich airport to be had, just expensive and even more expensive, and you still need to pay for petrol. So, even if you think the Swiss trains are expensive, car hire is unlikely to be much of a cheaper option, unless three or more people are travelling together.
Famous resorts — the world-famous resort of St Moritz, Davos and Klosters are within easy and stunningly scenic train ride from Zürich. Slightly lesser known is Arosa, home of the Tschuggen Grand spa resort, where stunning modern architecture meets an equally impressive alpine backdrop.
Glacier Express — Clarkson might be right about this one, it is the slowest intercity train in the world, but why would you want to go fast, when the views are so impressive at every turn? This runs from Zermatt to St Moritz, taking in the world-famous Landwasser viaduct on the way.
Just incase the Glacier express isn’t enough, you can continue onward from St Moritz on the Bernina line into Italy and along the shores of Lake Como, terminating in either Bergamo or Milan. The flight home from here might even be slightly cheaper — or do it the other way round, so you don’t miss out on your duty-free allowance which is available on flights from Switzerland. This route takes in the amazing Brusio Spiral Viaduct.
Better connections – Compared to Geneva, Zürich airport has better connections to the Bernese Oberland and Zermatt, although Bern is closer still. Needless to say, the railway routes here are superb too, and there are many places where you can’t even take a car — see our separate Bern page for more details.
Cento Valli – A personal favourite Swiss rail route is the Cento Valli, it literally 100 valleys line between law Carno Locarno at the top of Lake Maggiore, and the Italian town of Domodossola. This can be done as part of a long circuit from Zürich — the main lines on either side are superb too, although it is actually closer to Milan. See our Milan page for other scenic rail routes in southern Switzerland and Lombardy.
Southern Germany — Zürich isn’t just Gateway to some of Switzerland’s finest scenery, there are also a whole host of scenic lines to explore in south-west Germany, especially around the Upper Donau nature park. There are also various scenic routes around Lake Constance to the North East of Zürich.
First-class trams — in Zürich, following abandoned plans to build an underground system, the trams are designed to operate at extremely high frequency, to integrate with other lines, and not to be hindered by traffic. This ‘Zurich model’ has been emulated in other cities that have since developed tram networks, with varying degrees of success. So if you have trams in your city that aren’t as good, blame it on Zurich – or at least attempts to emulate this model. Over 60% of journeys to work in Zurich are made by public transport, compared to less than 20% by car.
Even the hotels have their own trains — or at least the Dolder Grand, recently redesigned by British architect Norman Foster, has its own private train.
Lake cruises — take a cruise on Lake Zürich, another part of the integrated Swiss travel system.
Sunday shopping — Swiss law prevents Sunday trading, except for shops which are inside railway stations. Therefore, Swiss railways developed the ‘Railcity’ concept of turning their major stations into genuine destination shopping centres, featuring high-quality shops and eateries, rather than just having the overpriced convenience food and impulse shopping that most British railway stations have. Both Zürich Hauptbahnhof (Central) and Zürich airport stations are impeccably designed retail centres as well as being major interchange points.
Superb stations — whereas Zürich airport and Zürich Hauptbahnhof both impressive architectural feats in their own right, the big name station design is in Zürich’s secondary station of Stadelhofen. This is designed by the Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, who also designed the new frontage to the main station in Lucerne.
Europe’s crossrails — from Zürich you take the fast ICN tilting train to Bern, Geneva and other major cities in Switzerland, the ‘train formerly known as Cisalpino’, now just Eurocity to Milan, the German ICE train to Stuttgart, Frankfurt and beyond, and the French TGV to Paris. Express trains are also available to Liechtenstein, and on through Innsbruck towards Vienna in Austria. Few other cities in Europe offer this kind of connectivity.
Genuine airport rail hub — even if you are not heading on one of Switzerland numerous scenic routes, Zürich airport is a genuine integrated rail hub, with services to numerous other Swiss cities, and not just to the centre of Zürich itself. For example, trains to Geneva start at Zürich airport, and direct services are also available to Basel, St Gallen and Romanshorn on the edge of Lake Constance.
Outstanding Service – you may not get a repeat of this, but I have never experienced anything quite like it: Arriving at St Moritz station for a train towards Zurich via Chur, I asked in broken German if I was by the right train. The platform attendant shook his head, then took me through the wrong train, on to the tracks, and then up onto the adjacent correct train. Had he directed me through the subway, I would have missed it, as it was literally one minute before departure and these trains always leave on time. I can’t possibly imagine anything like this happening in the UK.
Conclusion — clearly, this is a long list of superlatively scenic train journeys (with a price to match) which can be taken from Zürich, a list which is expanded further still on our Bern page for central Switzerland, and our Milan page for southern Switzerland. This list might be written by a rail enthusiast, but this is undoubtedly a part of the world where anyone will appreciate these are unmissable train rides. However, petrol heads will also believe that mountain scenery that makes a great train ride makes it even better drive, and there might well be some truth in that – as long as you are driving in areas that have through roads! So even though our recommendation is still to make the best possible use of the ruthlessly efficient Swiss travel system, the driving is amazing too, especially as drivers won’t experience quite the same level of mountain restrictions as there are around Bern (see Bern page).
Verdict – no (strong)
Prices quoted correct as of November 2011, subject to changes and currency volatility.
Note about booking Swiss Trains
Unfortunately, the Swiss Travel system website is notoriously complex to use. If you can find a reasonable deal using one of the passes above, then that might be your best bet. but if you just want a transfer to a resort, or between the main cities, an advance purchase ticket may be better value. These are only available upto 15 days before travel, and you may have to book two separate tickets to get the best deal.
For example, to travel between Zurich and St Moritz, you will change trains at Chur. It may be cheaper to book separate Zurich-Chur and Chur-St Moritz legs. In the case of Zermatt, you will change at Brig.
Here are a few sample journeys, based on the cheapest advance ticket(s) we could find:
You cannot book these supersaver tickets through the Swiss Travel System, you will have to go direct to Swiss Railways (same organisation, different booking options). Then select home > tickets Switzerland (right hand side) > Offers Tickets Switzerland > Travel for less in Switzerland > Supersaver ticket – and be prepared for lots of frustration re-entering details. Remember that dates are like 20.11.2011, no slashes, and you will need to keep un-checking the half-fare box, otherwise be ready for an unpleasant surcharge once you get on board. It took me several attempts to get it to accept St Moritz, sometimes it doesn’t like ‘Zurich’, so you have to paste in ‘Zürich’ – basically, everything they can do to make the site user unfriendly, they have done – which is totally at odds with the system itself!
Happy hunting – and either way, however much you pay, it will be worth it!
The Swiss capital is often overlooked by people who just want to change trains and head for the ski resorts, but this is a great shame as this tightly packed UNESCO world Heritage city has so much to offer. Having said that, this is of course the capital or Switzerland, so public transport is naturally outstanding, even if it is unlikely you will need it. What about the surrounding area?
There are very few reasons to hire a car in Bern, unless you are on a business trip to multiple suburban locations, or are visiting family, and sticking to the Swiss Lowlands.
Swiss bank account — when you see the prices of the train up to the world-famous Jungfraujoch top of Europe, you may well wish that you had your own Swiss bank account, because this is the most expensive railway in the world on a mile for mile basis. However, even if you wanted to drive, you just can’t — this, together with several other places in the Bernese Oberland, is simply unreachable on four wheels.
Share and save – depending on where you are going, it may be cheaper to travel together in a group, and save on train costs. However, Swiss Travel Centre often have discounted offers on their passes, including some 2 for 1 offers, so check these out before booking a hire car. Remember that car hire in Bern is expensive too, as is petrol!
Still good for driving — even if some of the results in the Jungfrau region are off-limits for cars, there are still plenty of great places to go driving, especially during summer. Drive to resorts such as Gstaad, or continue to Les Diablerets, which is much easier to get to by car, compared to the very circuitous train ride from Bern.
Scenery – just because the area around Bern is famous for some stunningly scenic train ride doesn’t mean that you can’t go for an (almost) equally scenic drive too. Photographers may well prefer the freedom of a hire car.
No airport station – unlike Geneva and Zurich airports, there is no station at Bern-Belp airport. To reach the local train network, you will have to go by bus, and these are infrequent, so you may end up needing a (very expensive) taxi.
Bern City - many people might just want to change here on their way to ski resorts, but this is a great shame, as in my opinion it is by far and away the finest of the major Swiss cities. Bern is a must for shoppers with its mile of covered arcades, whilst it is equally pleasurable to just wander around the historic city centre. For great views of the Alps behind, climb the tower of the Bern Munster.
Double Bond Heaven – James Bond fans will want to head straight to the Piz Gloria revolving restaurant, immortalised in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. However, this is just one side of the absolutely stunning way Swiss engineers have tamed the mountains in the Jungfrau region. Nearby is the…
Jungfraujoch Top of Europe experience, which features a spiralling rack and pinion railway which has been blasted through the mountain side. You arrive in a huge cavernous space which very much resembles a Bond villain’s lair, before being lifted up to an open-air view platform, which offers a stunning vista of the Altech glacier. To reach these attractions, take the train to Interlaken Ost (East) first. Heading to Piz Gloria will take you through Lauterbrunnen, and then up a steep cliff to the car free village of Murren, from where the cable car continues to the top of a mountain. To reach Jungfraujoch, you can also head via Lauterbrunnen, from where you can take a train via another car free village of Wengen; or you can go via Grindelwald. Either way, this is one particular part of Bond’s world where the Aston stays in the garage.
Zermatt — with the newly built Lotchberg Base Tunnel, Bern is the ideal gateway to Zermatt and the imposing Matterhorn which sits behind it, with one simple change at Visp. Although you can drive to Zermatt, why would you want to, when the trains are so good? Also, what is the point in picking up a hire car and then paying again to take it on the auto-train through the Lotchberg tunnel? Zermatt itself is also car free, although electric vehicles are permitted. You can only get as close as the parking garage on the edge of the resort in a hire car, so why bother?
Crans-Montana — the famous resort of Crans-Montana can also be reached by changing Visp and then again Sierre – although this time, you could get there in a car if you really wanted to!
Leukerbad, as the name suggests is a spa resort sitting right underneath the southern wedge of the Alpine plateau. This time you will have to get there by bus (from Visp), or better still – hike there from Kandersteg on the other side!
Lake Steamers – the Swiss lakes offer numerous opportunities to simply sit back, and relax as the super scenery skims by. There are often included as part of any Swiss pass or local train package. A natural base to enjoy the lakes is unsurprisingly Interlaken, although many travellers prefer to head there for adventure sports.
Climb — the Alps offer a breathtaking backdrop to any part of the city, but for the most spectacular advantage point, climb up the tower in Bern’s Munster, and enjoy not just great views of the mountains behind, but also a stunning view of the historic city itself.
Look the other way — it is easy to lavish attention on the Bernese Oberland, and other resorts in the Alps, but it is also worth an excursion to the bilingual city of Biel / Bienne, and continuing along the lake to Neuchâtel and Yverdon (see Basel page).
Integrated walking and cycling — as you would expect, there are numerous walking and cycling trails all over central Switzerland, and these are always clearly signposted with estimated times. These paths always start and finish near some sort of public transport stop, and many of them will take you over to the next valley, so it is much easier to coordinate with public transport, than to drive somewhere and restrict yourself to having to return to the same spot.
Interlaken — Switzerland’s answer to New Zealand’s Queenstown offers any number of high adrenaline activities, or alternatively you can take it easy on one of the lake steamers on either Lake Thun (board at Interlaken West station) or Lake Brienz (Interlaken Ost).
Beatenbucht — this lovely village on the northern side of Lake Thun has what must surely be the most scenic swimming pool in Europe, with the trio of Jungfrau, Monch and Eiger as a backdrop. Even a location such as this is easily reachable by bus from Interlaken.
Summer downhill — in Switzerland, the fun doesn’t stop when the snow melts, in fact it is even easier to appreciate downhill runs, either on a mountain bike or by picking up one of the scooters (trottibikes), which are available for hire at various cable car or mountain railway base stations. Either way, let the cable or train take the strain, and enjoy the downhill run.
Paul Klee Art Museum – back to Bern itself, the Paul Klee Museum features three delightfully sweeping vaults and, just like any art museum should be, is just as much an attraction because of the building as it is because of the contents.
Limited flights – the range of flights to Bern is extremely limited, so you are much more likely to arrive into Zurich or Geneva airports in the first place. As these airports have stations onsite, you can easily connect onto the local trains in the Bernese Oberland via Bern Hbf. You may also get half price transfers using the Swiss Transfer Ticket.
Verdict — of all the cities featured in Car Or No Car .com, Bern stands out as by far and away the strongest recommendation not to get one. This should be pretty obvious, considering that this is where you come for the best of the best of mountain railways, cable cars and lake cruisers, all integrated into one seamless (if expensive) system.
Considering the sheer expense of hiring a car in Bern, together with the fact that some of the most exciting places to visit are off-limits to vehicle traffic anyway, this really should be a no-brainer.
The only other places where we could recommend not getting a car in even stronger terms would have to be destinations like Hong Kong, whose airport has no car rental facilities (Avis have an office downtown if you really insist), or Bermuda, where local regulations do not permit tourists to hire a car.
Verdict — absolute no!
Personal note – I usually like to visit new destinations, but having first visited Interlaken in 2001, I have been back many times since. I have never even considered getting a hire car to visit this part of Switzerland.