In a country full of railway superlatives, there is one which manages to stand out: the line that clambers up to the highest rail crossing in Europe without cogs. In other words a normal train line – no rack railway or cog technology – that goes up to 2253 metres above sea level and down again. Hop on board the Bernina Line.
From glitzy St. Moritz up over the Bernina Pass and down into Italy, the Bernina Line is one of the most spectacular train journeys in Switzerland. It opened in 1910, six years after the equally dramatic Albula Line, which links St. Moritz and Chur further north. Together these two Unesco-protected lines form part of the Rhaetian Railway. It is possible to do both lines in one (long) day from St. Moritz but it involves a lot of double-backing so it's better to choose one or the other.
The Bernina Line runs for 61km past snow-capped peaks and creaking glaciers to its highest point at Ospizio Bernina, 2253m up and the watershed between the Rivers Danube and Po. Then it's endlessly downhill and over the border to Tirano in Italy, at a mere 429m. There are no rack sections or cogwheels used, but instead tight s-bends cope with gradients of up to 7%.
Highlights come thick and fast along the way. First is the Morteratsch glacier, which once used to come right down to the stop that bears its name but sadly has since retreated. Then past the lakes the dot the Bernina Pass itself and down to Alp Grüm, with its magnificent grandstand view of mountains and glaciers. And just before Tirano, the 360° spiral viaduct at Brusio, one of the wonders of Swiss rail engineering.
The line is open all year round, despite the high altitudes, and is served by both panoramic tourist trains, known as the Bernina Express, as well as local ones. Sometimes one train will have Express carriages at one end (which need a reservation) and local ones at the other (which don't).
Related: Hiking in St. Moritz
St. Moritz to Tirano takes about 2.5 hours in a direct train. All Swiss train passes are valid to Tirano, even though it is in Italy.
In summer there is often an open-air carriage at the back of the train. Perfect for blowing out the cobwebs and taking amazing photographs.
Advance reservations are obligatory for the Bernina Express trains but not on the local trains running along the same route.