Public Transport in Switzerland – A Hiker’s Perspective
Switzerland’s claim to having some of the world’s best public transport extends to connecting up its remoter areas for hikers as well! On this page, we’ll try and give a more in-depth overview of public transport in Switzerland and when it’s useful for hikers.
Coronavirus note: there were some reductions to public transport in 2020 due to the coronavirus, mainly in the spring and early summer. However, as of the time of writing this page (spring 2021), public transport services are mostly running as normal within Switzerland, though there are some capacity reductions on mountain transport. If you want to find out more, Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) have an article covering coronavirus changes to their services here.
Table of Contents
- Where can I go by public transport?
- When is public transport more practical than driving?
- Where can’t I get to by public transport?
- When does public transport run?
- How can I check the timetables?
- My route has four changes. Do I need to worry about missing the connections?
- I’m planning to get the last bus. What if it doesn’t turn up?
- Do you have any recommendations for impressive routes?
Where can I go by public transport?
Whether you’re a local or a tourist, the Swiss public transport network can probably get you to where you want to go. Swiss public transport is renowned as some of the best in the world, with regular and punctual services spread all over the country, including public transport to many far-flung corners taking you deep into the mountains.
This includes convenient routes for hikers, for example with buses going over mountain passes and chairlifts bringing you back down from mountaintops. So whether it’s a city hike you’re after or something in a remote mountain village, chances are you can get there with Swiss public transport.
When is public transport more practical than driving?
For many hiking trips in Switzerland, we’ve found that journey times by public transport and by car are fairly similar. There are a few times, though, where public transport easily wins out…
- Going from most of northern Switzerland to Ticino – this is faster by train and avoids the long queues at the Gotthard road tunnel that are a near certainty on the weekends. Getting from Bern to Valais may also be easier on the train.
- Doing one-way hikes, especially if you hike over a pass from one region into another (e.g. Gemmipass, or the Monte Lema to Monte Tamaro ridge walk).
- There are also lots of places where the cable cars will get you further up a mountain than you can get by road (though you can typically still drive to the bottom of the cable car and park there to take the cable car up).
- Some people might also prefer the trains to freeway traffic jams. The day of the week (e.g. weekends, especially Sundays) and time of year (such as Easter or other national holidays, and also school holidays) can play a big role in the traffic in and out of the mountains! For example, on a sunny Sunday afternoon you’ll probably be sitting in a heavy traffic as you drive back home towards Zurich on the A3 from the southeast (Graubunden, Chur, the Walensee). Here are some motorway routes which are traffic jam prone on good weather days.
A1: along Lake Geneva – though this one is prone to heavy traffic all year round and especially during rush-hour.
A2: as mentioned above, the Gotthard tunnel bottleneck always seems to have traffic jams. 10 km long queues on the freeway are not uncommon. North side queues are common in the morning or at the start of holidays when everyone is heading south for some sun. The reverse is true when people are coming back home.
A3: from the east towards Zurich – often choked up around Ziegelbrücke
A6: from Spiez towards Bern
Where can’t I get to by public transport?
There are also a few times and places where public transport is less practical and you’re better off by car…
- In the summer high season, some bus routes may only have five buses a day with the last bus at around 5pm, so a car gives you much more flexibility…
- Whilst the public transport network will get you to most places, there are also a few corners where there’s a road but no public transport, or where going by car is just much faster. For example, the area around the Mittelpunkt der Schweiz (center of Switzerland) monument in Obwalden doesn’t have any public transport options, but is reachable by car.
- The public transport network is also a bit more limited outside the high seasons (summer and winter). Trains typically run all year, but other types of transport tend to only run all year round if they go to a village or town. Even the ‘year round’ mountain transport might stop in the low season for a few weeks for maintenance. The SBB app and website tend to be up to date though, so you can check whether services are running before traveling. If you’re new to this, we’ve covered the most useful hiking apps in Switzerland here.
When does public transport run?
Trains and buses typically run on half-hourly or hourly timetables, although in some remote places they go less often. They’re generally on the same predictable timetable each day and/or each week.
For routes serving populated areas, services often start very early (5 or 6 am) and run through to late in the evening (around midnight), though some bus routes may only run until about 5 pm. The cable cars, gondolas etc. typically only run from 8am to 4 or 5pm. Sometimes it’s valuable to get a prompt start in the morning to give yourself time to catch the cable car back down – the Pizol 5 Lakes hike is a good example of this!
How can I check the timetables?
The main way we plan routes is through SBB’s app and website (more details here), which offer timetables and ticket purchase.
You can often buy tickets from SBB through to your final destination, though cable cars may require a separate ticket. You can also buy tickets at station ticket machines and in ticket offices in the bigger stations. You can normally buy tickets on buses too.
A word of warning: as of 2021, Switzerland is definitely not yet a cashless society, especially in the rural areas, so you’re probably best off carrying some cash around – some cable cars and funiculars sometimes only take cash, for example (same with mountain restaurants!)
My route has four changes. Do I need to worry about missing the connections?
You’ll sometimes miss connections, but punctuality and reliability of the public transport in Switzerland is very good, so it’s not normally a problem.
Also – if you have to change from one train to another train, to a bus or even to a cable car or a funicular, you’ll find that everything normally lines up, so it’s rare to be stuck waiting somewhere for more than a few minutes.
It can also be good to know what you’ll be getting on: we often call any cable-based mountain transport a cable car, but there are several different types. The smaller chairlifts and gondolas normally run continuously, so no need to rush from the train or the car park to catch them. Bigger cable cars and funiculars go less often, so it can be worth knowing their timetable to avoid having to wait around. Still, if you do have to wait for a while, there’s often a restaurant or at least a fantastic view, so just sit down and relax until the next cable car/funicular leaves 🙂
I’m planning to get the last bus. What if it doesn’t turn up?
I don’t think this has ever happened to us in Switzerland – we’ve found the buses to be impressively reliable. On the trains, SBB apparently offers compensation (taxi/hotel costs) if you miss the last connection of the day due to a late running service, though we’ve never needed to use that either!
Do you have any recommendations for impressive routes?
Funny you should ask – yes we do 🙂 Some of Switzerland’s railway routes are world famous – the Bernina Express, the Glacier Express and the line up to Jungfraujoch, for example. Many other train routes also have spectacular views, such as the Gotthard lines between Zurich and Lugano and pretty much any railway line in Graubunden or Valais. Elsewhere in Switzerland, the smaller railway lines crisscrossing the Jura mountain range can also offer very impressive views. Whilst perhaps less known, some of the mountain bus routes are also tourist attractions in their own right (e.g. Griesalp, which we’ll probably write a post about at some point :)). It can already be an adventure just getting to the start of your hike!
Finally: if you want more details on the practicalities of Swiss trains, Seat61 has more information here.