Road trips in Switzerland are by their very nature rather convoluted affairs. Instead of long open roads you have twisty mountainous routes, but the reward is some of the best scenery in Europe. And one of the most spectacular scenic drives takes you over four mountain passes in one day.
The Four Passes route is certainly one for any driver’s bucket list. It’s almost like a natural roller-coaster with its switchback corners, steep gradients and four separate climbs and descents. In total the whole route is only 175km, and could easily be done in about 3½ hours straight driving. But this is a drive to enjoy. Take your time, revel in the landscape, stop to take photos, bring a picnic and relax.
Coach on Gotthard Pass © David Birri
Why not do it in style and hire a luxury car for the day? Imagine cruising over the Gotthard Pass in an Aston Martin or whizzing downhill in a Ferrari. If you want to rent something extraordinary contact any of the specialist rental agencies listed on the map below. Delivery to your hotel is normally included. Or if you don’t want to drive at all, the whole route can be done by Postbus. However you do it, remember that these are high Alpine passes so can be closed from late October to May; plan your trip for high summer.
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Meiringen © David Birri
This is a circular route so you can start anywhere and go in either direction, but we recommend beginning in the sweet town of Meiringen, near Interlaken. Famous as the birthplace of meringues and for the ‘death’ of Sherlock Holmes, this is the lowest point of the route, a mere 596m above sea level. From here it’s uphill all the way to your first pass, the Susten.
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As you climb, the green fields slowly give way to wilder forests and craggy peaks, with every bend bringing a view even prettier than the last. Past the dramatic but retreating Stein Glacier is the Susten Pass, 2224m up. This road, completed in 1945, was the first pass road to be built specifically for cars; it’s also often the last to open in spring.
Gadmen way up to Susten pass © David Birri
Now it’s rapidly downhill through countryside that couldn’t be more Swiss if it tried, complete with the odd chalet or two. Down at Wassen (916m) make sure you take the old road south, not the motorway; this is a day for slow travel, relishing every mile you are passing through. On past the Devil’s Bridge, one of the original crossing points of the fast-flowing River Reuss, then up again to Andermatt and so to the Gotthard Pass.
The Gotthard isn’t the highest Swiss pass (only 2,108m) but it’s the most famous as it was one of the first Alpine trading routes. And it’s one of the busiest, so there is a choice of roads: the new one, an even newer tunnel, or the original road down – the Via Tremola, built in the 1830s and still paved in granite cobbles. Take that for a quintessential Swiss driving experience of navigating the serpentine curves, but you’re unlikely to be alone here. Bikers, motorbikers and even a vintage horse-drawn coach all rattle their way down to Ticino.
Grimsel Pass © David Birri
At Airolo (1,141m) it’s time to start the journey back, via the lovely Val Bedretto and the Nufenen Pass. At 2,478m it is the highest road pass within Switzerland, and your ears certainly pop as you ascend through the rather barren landscape. This is the wildest and emptiest part of the route, where only a hardy few take to the road. Over the top and down into the Rhone Valley before turning north at Gletsch for the final leg.
With its dam and lake, the Grimsel Pass (2165m) is perhaps the most photogenic of the four, and the most recent: despite being an ancient trading route, this road wasn’t completed until 1986. The starkly attractive Hospiz Hotel dates from the 1930s and makes a great last pit stop. Now you’re on the home stretch, down the beautiful Hasli Valley, past the narrow Aare Gorge and back to Meiringen.
Nufenen Pass © Ticino Tourism
What a road trip! Four passes and four cantons via 4,986 metres of ascent and 4,976 metres of descent. Truly Switzerland’s best roller-coaster.
The night before
Staying overnight nearer the start of the drive means you can make an early start and be up in the mountains before everyone else. We recommend staying at the Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa Interlaken or the Palace Luzern in Lucerne, both a short drive from Meiringen.