Highlights Of The Gotthard Panorama Express

While there is a fantastic choice of scenic rail routes across Switzerland, only the Gotthard Panorama Express combines a rail journey across the historic Gotthard route with a lake cruise. This is a gorgeous journey which connects Lucerne and Lugano - two resorts which make for a perfect summer holiday in Switzerland! You’ll discover history, charm, lakeside leisure and alpine walking trails in Lucerne. In Lugano, there’s a Mediterranean feel in the air as you stroll beside the deep blue lake and indulge in unforgettable al fresco Italian style dining.

The Gotthard Panorama Express takes you from the very heart of Switzerland, through the Gotthard mountains via slowly looping, helical tunnels and down into the warm and welcoming Ticino region. Read on to discover the history and myths behind the journey, and the wonderful sights and experiences awaiting you today. 

Enjoy Lucerne

Chapel Bridge, Lucerne

Chapel Bridge, Lucerne

Your holiday starts with a few days in Lucerne. This is one of our favourite places in Switzerland and the perfect resort for people on their first visit. Lucerne offers everything you could wish for on a Swiss holiday - a sparkling lake ringed by soaring mountains, historical painted houses in the Old Town and boutiques offering elegant chocolates. Here you can wander across the famous Chapel Bridge, enjoy a meal beside the river and visit Mount Rigi, known as the ‘Queen of Mountains’. Indeed, there are plenty of mountain excursions to be enjoyed from Lucerne. Mount Pilatus is renowned for its ‘Golden Round Tour’ … a day trip which includes travel by boat, cable car and the world’s steepest cogwheel railway! At the summit you can enjoy outstanding views. Bürgenstock offers a cliffside walk with amazing views over the lake, while the Stanserhorn is another favourite for walking and the chance to ride in an open top cable car.

Lucerne itself really does offer something for everyone! Those who enjoy being active might like to swim in the lake or embark upon the scenic Swiss Trail walking path. Culture vultures have museums and galleries aplenty and there are concerts all year round. Wherever you go, the sense of the beautiful lake is ever present. It is a pleasure to wander along the promenade and you’ll see boats criss-crossing the water all day. You might want to embark on a short pleasure cruise during your stay, or maybe wait until the day of your Gotthard Panorama Express journey, when you will travel along the full length of the water, from Lucerne to Flüelen. 

Historic lake journey

Lake Lucerne steamer calling at Treib

Lake Lucerne steamer calling at Treib

Your boat leaves from Lucerne quay just after 11am. It will be either a restored paddle steamer, or an elegant passenger motorboat; either way, you can head straight up the staircase to the upper deck as your whole journey takes place in first class. You can choose to sit in the lounge with its bar, or relax on the outside seating, soaking up the sun as you go. You may even like to order lunch on board as the galley kitchen serves a choice of recommended dishes. For two and a half hours, the boat slowly glides past pretty villages and gives you a fantastic view of the mountains. To one side of the lake there’s Mount Rigi, with the oldest cog railway in Europe leading up from Vitznau, and to the other there’s spectacular Mount Pilatus which is reached by the world's steepest cog railway from Alpnachstad.

The boat sails on into the historical heart of Switzerland, calling at Brunnen or Treib - both were meeting points for the early cantonal alliance. Beyond Brunnen is mountainous Schwyz, where the constitution is preserved in the archive. Awe-inspiring cliffs soar up from the water with views of the Fronalpstock mountain. You will sail past the Rütli Meadow where three cantons confirmed their confederation pact on 1st August 1291 – the very beginnings of Switzerland. Today, the Rütli belongs to the school children of Switzerland, who collected money in the 1990s to save the historic meadow from being sold. At the far end of the lake lies the town of Flüelen. This is the gateway to the high Alps, and a welcoming sight with its colourful flags. This is where you will change from boat to train, following in the footsteps of passengers and merchants who started making the same change from water to rail since the advent of steam boats and trains in the 19th century. 

The Wilhelm Tell connection

Tell's Chapel, on the Swiss Trail

Tell's Chapel, on the Swiss Trail

Wilhelm Tell is a famous figure - Switzerland's national hero - but do you know his story? Legend has it that Wilhelm Tell was a bowman living near Lake Lucerne when the Habsburg King of Austria seized the original 3 Swiss cantons in the early 14th century. The occupying Governor Gessler was a cruel tyrant, imprisoning innumerable Swiss and humiliating others by forcing them to bow to a cap on a pole, saying it represented the King. One day, Tell refused to bow to the cap and was arrested with his son. Gessler decided to punish Tell by demanding he prove his marksmanship by hitting an apple placed on his son’s head. Tell notched two arrows and successfully hit the apple without harming his son. When asked what the second arrow was for, Tell replied that if he had killed his son, he would have then loosed the second arrow at Gessler. He was arrested but while crossing the lake with guardsmen a storm brewed up and Tell managed to escape the prison boat. He joined the rebellion and assassinated Gessler, which prompted the Swiss peasants to tear down the prisons and defeat the occupiers. All were then deemed free men by the cantonal leaders.

Back to the present, and you can look out during your cruise to see Tell’s Rock - the site where the hero escaped his captors. A chapel was built here in 1880, featuring frescos depicting the scenes from the legend. Close by is the Schiller Stone. Although the Tell legend existed in various forms over the centuries, it was Schiller who crystallised it in a epic drama in 1804. The Schiller Stone inscription reads 'To him who sang Tell's glory'.

Join the historic Gotthard Railway

Flüelen, where the Gotthard Panorama Express boat and train meet

Flüelen, where the Gotthard Panorama Express boat and train meet

Your boat glides towards the end of the lake and you will spy the historic town of Flüelen, with its colourful flags waving in the breeze and magnificent mountain backdrop. The Gotthard Panorama Express panoramic train is waiting to greet you in Flüelen, just steps from the quay where the boat docks. For centuries, the only way to travel north-south through central Europe was to cross the mountains on foot. The Gotthard Pass was one of the shortest routes through the mountains but very hazardous through the Schöllenen Canyon. Around 1220 the ‘Teufelsbrücke’ (Devil’s Bridge) was built across the canyon, with the rushing River Reuss far below. This made the Gotthard route more accessible and it gained importance for travellers and merchants. In 1831 a proper road was opened, allowing stagecoaches to operate three times a week, although the journey from Lucerne to Lugano would take around 23 hours. In 1872, construction work for the 15km Gotthard rail tunnel began and ten years later, the world’s longest tunnel of its time opened – the very tunnel through which you will travel today!

These days, the Lucerne-Lugano journey on this historic lake and rail route takes five and half hours. A new Gotthard tunnel opened in 2016 allowing travellers in hurry to take a train from Lucerne to Lugano in just 1 hour 40 minutes, They will of course miss all the delights of the fabulous lake cruise and the amazing scenery on the 19th century rail route which you will enjoy today! 

Highlights of the Gotthard rail journey

Gotthard Panorama Express and Wassen Church

Gotthard Panorama Express and Wassen Church

Board the train in Flüelen and settle back in your comfortable, first class seat. You’ll be struck by the huge panoramic windows - perfect for absorbing yourself in the mountain landscapes through which you’ll travel. This is going to be a magical two and a half hour journey! The train offers travel guides so that you can learn about the highlights of the journey. There is also an at-seat catering service, including local specialities such as a Ticino cold platter, Pastefrolle shortbread from the Bedretto Valley and beer from the San Gottardo brewery.

The village of Erstfeld marks the beginning of the long climb to the Gotthard Pass, with its gradients of up to 26%. Then comes one of the loveliest parts of the route, around Wassen, where the track meanders gently up the gorge. In order to make the steep ascent in the restricted space, it curves round in a gradual double loop. Keep an eye through your window - you’ll enjoy three different views of the pretty Wassen Church: from below, then up close and then from above. An ever more dramatic alpine landscape unfolds, and then the Gotthard Tunnel itself. The train slows down in the tunnel, with sound effects and projected film so that you can appreciate the awesome engineering achievement of the Gotthard pioneers.

After the tunnel and arriving at Airolo, you are suddenly in a totally different part of Switzerland, with Italian signposts and a more Mediterranean feel to the countryside. There is a series of 19th century spiral tunnels through the mountains that transport you slowly down the Leventina Valley: a 650m descent is achieved within half an hour. There are also scenic waterfalls to enjoy, while the vines, flowers, and Italian style buildings give this Swiss valley the evocative appeal of its neighbour. The train calls at Bellinzona, famed for its medieval castles built by the Dukes of Milan which are protected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

Lovely Lugano

Lugano lakeside promenade with Monte San Salvatore

Lugano lakeside promenade with Monte San Salvatore

Not much further on from Bellinzona is your destination: Lugano. You will arrive at 16.40, just in time to check in and enjoy a walk along the promenade before dinner. This stylish resort has a real Mediterranean feel and boasts impressive architecture and elegant parks. Of course, the main attraction is the beautiful lake of the same name, which forms a border with Italy. From the lakeside promenade, you can gaze out over the stunning view, with the sparkling water at your feet and the lush green mountains beyond.

While you are on holiday here, you will surely want to take a cruise on the lake. You can enjoy a smooth ride from Lugano over to one of the unbelievably charming villages for a splendid lunch, or even cross into Italian waters. The mountains are also waiting to welcome you, with funicular journeys taking you to the summit of Monte Brè at one end of town, or Monte San Salvatore at the other. You’ll be rewarded with simply beautiful views, and the chance to follow a walking trail, or simply sit with a cool drink and relax in this picturesque setting. Lugano itself is a wonderful place to spend a few days. There’s shopping - from stylish boutiques to tempting delicatessens with fantastic cold meats, cheeses, and olives. You may like to relax in the lakeside Parco Ciani with its subtropical flowers, palm trees, statues and lawns, or to lose yourself in the art museum (Paul Klee is particularly associated with the region). There are historic churches and frescos, and plenty of piazzas in which to enjoy an elegant Italian-style meal for which the Ticino region is known. La Dolce Vita in Switzerland!

Good to know

Gotthard Panorama Express 1st class carriage

Gotthard Panorama Express 1st class carriage

  • The Lucerne/Lugano holiday combination gives you the chance to experience two quite different regions of Switzerland in the same holiday. You can compare two different lakes, two mountain ranges and contrast the central and southern Europe atmospheres. You’ll even hear German spoken in Lucerne and Italian in Lugano.
  • The Gotthard Panorama Express journey is a real pleasure and takes most of a day, so be sure to plan enough days before and after to give yourself enough time to explore each resort. Don’t worry about the journey back to Zurich airport - we can book you on the fast train via the new tunnel, which now takes just over 2 hours.
  • The Gotthard Panorama Express train operates Tuesdays-Sundays from mid-April to mid-October. At other times, you can still enjoy the rail route on a standard train, with some extra changes. The boats operate year round.
  • Included in your holiday is the Half Fare Card which gives you 50% discount on boat, rail and bus travel, plus discounts for mountain transport. The Lucerne Visitor Card and the Ticino Ticket will be provided by your hotel, with local discounts for excursions and entry to attractions.
  • If you prefer to stay in Lugano first and Lucerne second, it is no problem for us to organise your holiday this way round.

  • If you are staying solely in Lugano, you can enjoy the rail section of the Gotthard Panorama Express as a day trip through the mountains to Alpnachstad.  

Read more about Gotthard Panorama Express holidays

We can incorporate a journey on the Gotthard Panorama Express into a number of holidays in Switzerland, whether it is a simple two centre stay, or part of a longer Grand Tour around the country. Here are some examples of popular holidays, but please speak to our expert team on 0800 619 1200 if you would like to create your own tailor made itinerary. 

Another view of Wassen Church on the route of the Gotthard Panorama Express

From £1216pp

8 day Gotthard Panorama Express holiday

Classic Lucerne/Lugano combination

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From £1836pp

12 day Sunny Lakes & Dramatic Mountains

Gotthard Panorama Express and more!

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Change from lake to train at Flüelen on the Gotthard Panorama Express

From £2145pp

17 day Grand Tour of Switzerland

An amazing tour including 5 scenic rail journeys

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