Located in the heart of Switzerland, lovely Lucerne is situated at the Vierwaldstättersee, or in English: Lake Lucerne. A connection from northern Switzerland to Lugano and Italy in the south has long been Europe’s desire. The Gotthard tunnel was a historic feat of engineering. Digging a tunnel underneath the mighty Alps, to connect Lucerne with Lugano was a triumph. The scenic train ride from Lucerne to Lugano on the Gotthard Panorama Express route was a highlight of my train trip to Switzerland. Read more about this scenic Swiss train ride and the Wilhelm Tell Express.
Gotthard Panorama Express
The Gotthard Panorama Express is a scenic boat and train ride operated by SBB, the Swiss railway company. The route goes from Lucerne, via boat to Flüelen, where you board the train to Bellinzona or Lugano. You can take the train in both directions and it is operated Tuesday to Sunday, once daily from mid-April to mid-October (always check before you go).
The boat from Lucerne to Flüelen is a steamboat that takes 3 hours to complete. You’ll crisscross Lake Lucerne and stop at several lakeshore villages. Once in Flüelen, the luxurious train with bright panoramic windows will pick you up and take you through the Alps and the Gotthard tunnel to southern Switzerland. Unesco World Heritage packed Bellinzona or lovely Lugano will be the end of the line.
William Tell Express
So.. what is the William Tell Express then (or Wilhelm Tell Express in German)? Basically, it is exactly the same as the Gotthard Panorama Express, only the fancy marketing name. I didn’t actually get why this name was mentioned, because while traveling on the Gotthard Panorama Express, I didn’t encounter the name often. But after reading this great article about the history of William Tell, things make perfect sense.
When you’re on the steamboat from Lucerne to Flüelen, it is nice to pay attention to the speaker. He points out several points of interest along the route (in several languages). Among them is famous Rütli where the Federation of Swiss states was born and the boat ride ends near Altsdorf, where legend has it, Wilhelm Tell shot the apple from his son’s head.
But, for ease of communication, I’ll just use the name Gotthard Express train from now on, although it is exactly the same as the William Tell Express.
Lucerne to Lugano Switzerland
Lucerne to Lugano has historically been an important route. The pass through the Alps connects not only northern Switzerland with the south, but it is also a major route from Northern Europe to Italy and further south.
During our 2-week train tour around Switzerland, we didn’t really need to go anywhere. The destination was not the objective, just riding the rails through Switzerland was most important. But I get why the rail route between Lucerne and Lugano is so important. Situated on both sides of the Alps, they seem two worlds apart.
German-speaking Lucerne with her green Alpine meadows. Cross the mountains and you’ll arrive in Italian sparkled Lugano. Both are in Switzerland and connected via the Gotthard Pass, otherwise, they would have nothing in common.
Boat Trip on Lake Lucerne to Flüelen
The boat leaves a few minutes after 11 am and the boarding was quite hectic. We arrived quite late and we couldn’t find a good spot to sit anymore. We wandered around the boat, trying to avoid the fierce sunlight on the lake.
With a last honk of the horn, the steam-powered wheels of the boat set in motion. Moving the water with large paddle wheels, we quickly moved along the shore of Lucerne. I was surprised by how fast we were moving. Soon, Lucerne was nothing but a skyline in the distance. We passed the impressive Mt. Pilatus which we just visited the day before.
We stopped at several places along the Lake Lucerne. The boat ride takes almost 3 hours and we passed major stops like the start of the Rigi Bahn to climb Mt. Rigi and we passed Rütli, where Switzerland as a nation was born.
On board the ship, there are restroom facilities and a restaurant. You can enjoy a big lunch or just enjoy the views of the lake on deck. I absolutely loved our boat ride. The weather was extremely nice, the mountains in the distance and the green hills in front of us. The water looked like a flat canvas, which we rippled apart, casting different shades of color on the water.
Gotthard Panorama Express train
As we arrived in Flüelen, there were only a handful of people left on the boat. We collected our bags and walked the few hundred meters to the train station. We were already greeted by the train operator who pointed us to the right platform. After a bit of delay, the luxurious glass-domed carriages pulled in the train station of Flüelen.
The Gotthard Panorama Express train was here! We quickly found our reserved seating and I was all giddy and excited about the train, the views and the train personnel who were extremely welcoming. We got a welcome package with a free postcard (including postage) that the train conductor would post for us.
The train is just marvelous! The huge glass domed windows give you almost 180 degrees views across the landscape. The seats were super comfortable and every now and then, the information system shared little facts about the history and the build of the Gotthard tunnel.
Throughout the route from Lucerne to Lugano by train, there are several loops in the route. You think: haven’t I seen this before? But the loops are necessary because the train has to overcome big altitude differences. One famous and exciting stretch of the Gotthard train route is around the town of Wassen.
You’ll arrive in Wassen at a normal level. Here, you’ll almost pass the famous church of Wassen from ground level. You can look up to the little church as it is situated on a hill. As the train leaves the village of Wassen, it climbs to a higher altitude in a loop, passing the town and church of Wassen for a 2nd time. Now we’re a little above the church of Wassen.
After another loop through one of the tunnels, we pass Wassen a 3rd time. This time we’re high above the church and have the best views of the town of Wassen.
The Gotthard Panorama Express route passes the Gotthard tunnel right after Wassen. Completed in 1882, the Gotthard tunnel was a stunning masterpiece of engineering. Digging from both sides, the crews met in the middle, only centimeters apart!
The 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) long Gotthard tunnel is not so interesting. As you pass it by train, it is just a long stretch of darkness. However, when you ride the Gotthard Panorama Express train through it, lights are dimmed, the train slows down and you’ll learn all kinds of information about the build from the commentary. On the walls of the tunnel, a projector shows ‘graffiti’ and images of that time. I found it fascinating!
Gotthard Panorama Express to Lugano
Once we left the darkness of the Gotthard tunnel, we arrived in a different world! Was this still the same country? The houses had different colors, their architecture was different and clearly, they used different building materials. It looked like Italy. People speak Italian Swiss here and it feels like Italy.
On the Gotthard Panorama Express train, we passed some pretty amazing waterfalls in the distance, before we arrived in Unesco World Heritage site Bellinzona. This city has 3 castles and connecting walls. The train stopped briefly here before we continued to Lugano.
Things to do in Lugano
After just 2.5 hours since Flüelen, the train arrived in Lugano. I cannot believe our ride on the Gotthard Panorama Express was over already. What took us almost all day (11 am till 4.30 pm) felt like a blink of an eye.
As we left the train station of Lugano, we could look down on the town and the lake. How exciting! We only had 1 evening and 1 full day in Lugano but here are some ideas for things to do in Lugano:
- Climb Monte Bre. This hill across from Lugano is known for its lovely nature and old mansion style houses. The view from the top is amazing.
- Monte Generoso round trip ticket by cogwheel train. Buy your ticket here.
- Climb San Salvatore. We climbed up with the cable car and walked down to Morcote. This can also be booked as a tour, find out more here.
- Take a boat tour around Lake Lugano to Morcote
- Walk from Lugano to Gandria with this lovely walking tour
- Explore the old town on foot with a local
- Self-guided foodie exploration tour of Lugano. Find out more here.
San Salvatore Lugano
On our one day in Lugano, we never made it downtown. A bit sad, but we wanted to go up and enjoy the views. We took the cable car up to San Salvatore. The funicular was really close to our hotel (and Lugano-Paradiso train station).
Once at the top, we enjoyed the 360 degrees view of Lake Lugano all the way into Italy. What stunning views! It was a bit hazy, so we couldn’t see all the tiny little houses, but that just added to the majestic view from the top!
We followed the path down the hill to the village of Carmona. As I’m terrible at walking downhill on unstable soil, it took forever. The walk is supposed to take 1 to 1.5 hours, but we managed to take almost 3 hours. After a refreshing drink, I decided to take the bus as my boyfriend continued for another 2.5 hours to Morcote.
Morcote near Lugano
The old village of Morcote is packed to the brim with charming little (art) shops and shore side restaurant. We saw little rowing boats coming in from across the lake. They have a huge botanic garden and you can take a boat back to Lugano. As the rain was coming in quickly, we took the bus back to Lugano.
All in all, a super nice day hike from Lugano with amazing views. Easily accessible from Lugano and also easy to navigate thanks to the great signage on the route.
Tips for the Gotthard Panorama Express train
Because the Gotthard Panorama Express train journey consists of a boat ride and a train ride I have some practical tips for this journey from Lucerne to Lugano.
Prices for the Gotthard Panorama Express
The flat rate of a one-way adult ticket for this scenic boat and train ride is CHF 75 (2nd class) or CHF 150 (1st class) per person. This consist of the boat ride, the train journey, and the booking fee.
This is a lot of money and my top tip is to research any discount tickets or options. For example the half fare card of the Swiss railway. (Which, duh, cuts the price in half). Or opt for the Swiss pass (travel 100% free) or Interrail or Eurail tickets where you only need to pay half price for the boat ticket.
For everyone traveling on the railway journey (from Flüelen to Lugano, or a part of this) mandatory reservation cost is needed. If you can’t purchase online, you must pay to the personnel aboard the train.
Seasonal discount tickets and discounts for children, elderly, groups and students apply. Always research the best option for your situation.
Where to sit on the Gotthard Panorama Express?
If you take a scenic train ride like this, you want to have the best views possible! Have no fear, the train has glass domed windows, so there isn’t really a wrong side to sit.
As we left Flüelen for Lugano, we sat on the right side of the train (driving direction) and we had the best views. We passed the Wassen Church 3 times, so you’re bound to sit on the best side at least once. The other viaducts and overpasses were on the right of the train, so we got excellent views here.
The different waterfalls are mostly located on your left, so there is plenty to see on that side too. Of course, when you travel from Lugano to Flüelen, everything is vice versa.
Where to sit on the boat?
Well, this was tricky. We arrived very late (still on time) but the boarding was already in progress for quite some time. As it was busy, all good spots (in the shade) were already taken.
So my top tip for the boat ride: be there early so you can find a good spot to sit.
But have no fear, after the first half hour, the boat has docked a couple of times already and many people leave the boat early. This allows you to walk around more freely and choose a spot that you like best.
Interact with others
The Gotthard Panorama Express is a tourist journey. We sat in first class and everyone on the boat and the train were tourists. Now, it can be fun to make new friends, but we enjoyed very much to interact with the personnel on the train.
Each carriage has a sort of tour guide that alerts you of major landmarks you’re passing, either by pointing them out outside or help you find them on the map. They will make sure you’ll have a good journey aboard the train and help with anything you might need (within reason).
Our train crew was very valuable as he had an abundance of knowledge about the build of the Gotthard tunnel and it was very easy to interact with him as he’d been around the world.
Short on time? Best of both worlds
If you’re very short on time and want to get as much scenic Swiss train travel in your itinerary as humanly possible, you can take the Gotthard Panorama Express and switch halfway for the Glacier Express. If you board the train in Flüelen, you can get off at Göschenen, take a cogwheel train to Andermatt and ride the Glacier Express to St. Moritz (or to Zermatt, depending on the direction you’re going).
Use all the information that is available
The Gotthard Panorama Express is not a time to doze off and catch up on some sleep while you travel from Lucerne to Lugano. Both aboard the steamboat as the train, you’ll find all kinds of information available.
The boat is an original paddle steamboat, you can find information about the mechanism and the operation at different places of the boat. It is fun to watch and learn.
Aboard the train, you’ll get a nice printed booklet, but there is also a commentary on the train. You can also download the Gotthard Panorama Express App on your smartphone (from Apple store here and Android here.)
Check the schedule
Unfortunately, (but logically) the Gotthard panorama boat and train don’t run year round. A few days in Spring and then the schedule starts the second half of April till mid-October (roughly). Always check locally what times and dates are applicable.
The Gotthard Panorama Express runs only once per day, Tuesday to Sunday. Miss the boat (or the train), then you have to go another day.
So, can you not travel by train from Lucerne to Lugano in winter? Or at other times of the day? Of course, you can! There are trains that run frequently between Lucerne and Lugano. Either direct or via Arth-Goldau. They are even faster (approximately 2 hours) and go through the Gotthard Base Tunnel.
But, no boat, no panoramic windows, no train steward or commentary. The Gotthard Panorama Express is not the fastest or cheapest way to travel from Lucerne to Lugano. But it is the most scenic way and in my opinion, not to be missed if you like history, culture and beautiful landscapes.
Have you traveled through the Gotthard Tunnel? By car or by train? What do you think of the combination of a boat ride and train journey through Switzerland? Feel free to leave a comment in the section below.
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All images are made by either myself or my boyfriend, unless stated otherwise.