Magnificent peaks tower like white citadels against the brilliant blue sky while the long frosty tongue of the Aletsch Glacier reaches out into a never-ending white valley. The view from the Jungfraujoch, which is a platform at the top of Europe, 3454m above sea level, takes my breath away. The train journey aboard the Jungfrau railway to Europe’s highest altitude railway station is a bucket list experience. Standing on the southern ridge of the mountain, gazing at the jaw-dropping scenery, I can’t help thinking that if there is a heaven, the Jungfrau region must surely be it.
Jungfraujoch World Heritage
Located in the Jungfrau-Aletsch-Bietschhorn region, the Jungfraujoch is a UNESCO World Heritage area. The Jungfrau is not the highest mountain in Switzerland but together with the Eiger and the Monch, it’s one of the most stunning Swiss mountain regions.
The amazing thing about the Jungfraujoch is that before 1912, you would have had to be a skilled mountain-climber to reach this height.
These days, thanks to Swiss innovation and engineering, ordinary travellers are able to experience the extraordinary white beauty of these incredible Jungfrau mountains by rail. It’s an experience both my husband and I still talk about, years later.
Jungfrau train 1 – Berner Oberland Railway
Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen
Getting from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch is a scenic journey and an exciting one for train buffs. You travel on three separate trains – the Berner Oberland Railway, the cogwheel Wengernalp Railway and the Jungfrau Railway.
The Berner Oberland Railway starts from Interlaken, a charming town with picture-postcard views. You can take this train from Interlaken to Lauterbrunnen or Interlaken to Grindelwald.
In itself, Interlaken is a picture-perfect Swiss town worth spending time in for its lovely views and charming atmosphere. Interlaken lies on a flat valley floor between the lakes of Brienzersee and Thunersee.
Jungfrau train 2 – Wengernalp Railway
Lauterbrunnen to Kleine Scheidegg
At Lauterbrunnen, we board the cogwheel Wengernalp Railway bound for Kleine Scheidegg. This train winds past splashing waterfalls and towering trees. We pass herds of brown-and-white con the sunny alpine slopes. The cows are wearing leather collars and brass bells that jangle delightfully.
The scenery from this Jungfrau train is delightful. For centuries, Swiss herdsmen have driven their cattle up the Jungfrau Mountain to graze and produce milk for the world’s finest cheese.
We stop at Wengen, which is a popular spot for skiing and hiking. A few hikers get off the mountain train. Carrying bulging backpacks and walking sticks, there’s little doubt that these hikers are off to tackle the Jungfrau mountain trails on foot.
The train leaves Wengen and slowly ascends along the narrow-gauge rack-and-pinion track. The snow-capped Eiger looms ahead while the green valley behind us slowly turns into a miniature Swiss alpine painting.
Jungfrau train 3 – Jungfrau Railway
Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch
We change trains at Kleine Scheidegg for our final leg, a spectacular 50-minute ascent on the red-and-yellow Jungfrau Railway.
Built by Swiss railway pioneer Adolf Guyer-Zeller, this rack-and-pinion track climbs at a steep gradient of up to 25 percent.
Guyer-Zeller spent 16 years (from 1896 to 1912) building this railway under extreme conditions. Average temperatures were -8°C and avalanches, lightning, storms and 250-kilometre-an-hour winds were the norm.
Now, the Jungfrau Railway is an international attraction and only one of the many attractions of the Jungfrau region.
”The Jungfrau Railway welcomes you on board. Next stop, Eigerwand station,” a voice announces in German, French, English, Japanese, Italian, Spanish, Korean and Chinese.
The Jungfrau railway ascends through open terrain and then plunges into the shadows of a long tunnel hewn out of rock.
At the first viewing station of Eigerwand, the floor-to-ceiling observation window provides a romantic view. Swiss chalets are distant dots in the Grindelwald Valley.
But it’s the view from Eismeer Station that provides our first glimpse of the glacier. The sea of undulating white mounds of snow and ice is breathtaking.
Soon the air begins to take on a thin frostiness and there are signs warning about the effects of the altitude.
All around us, passengers are pulling on warm jackets and caps.
Two and a half hours after boarding the train at Interlaken, we arrive at the Jungfraujoch. It’s a dreamy white winter wonderland of snow and ice.
Jungfraujoch Top of Europe
You could easily justify taking this trip for the Jungfrau railway experience on its own. If you’re not keen to participate in on-mountain activities, just gazing at the view of the top of Europe is reason enough to go.
The glaciers in the Alps are tempered bodies of ice that have worn down mountain ridges and deep valleys by eroding the rock underneath. This occurred because they contain water and are not frozen solid to the earth.
During the ice age, Alpine valleys froze over and were filled with huge masses of ice, at an average yearly temperature of -22°C. Deep U-shaped valleys in the high mountains, hollows or synclines in the feeder areas of the ice flows were created.
Things to do in Jungfrau
1- Visit the Ice Palace
After lunch, our first stop is the Ice Palace. The 1000 sqm ice museum is situated in a cold and slippery tunnel 20m underneath the glacier. It has a constantly evolving ice sculpture exhibition of eagles, bears, penguins and Eskimos.
The glacier moves about half a metre each year, so that means the Ice Palace’s roof has to be regularly altered.
Special equipment is used to offset the body heat produced by the 500,000 visitors each year, ensuring the temperature of the ice walls stays below -2°C.
The warmth generated by the visitors is recycled to heat the restaurants above.
2- Photograph the views
At the other end of the Ice Palace, we step out onto a plateau, where we walk among the clouds and peaks, absolutely thrilled to experience the rugged beauty of the Jungfrau Mountain Switzerland.
3- Visit the Sphinx Observation Deck
Higher up on the mountain, there is a 360-degree panoramic view from the glass-and-steel Sphinx Observation Hall and Terrace. At 3471m, the Sphinx is the highest vantage point in Europe and the terrace has the best view of the 22km Aletsch Glacier.
4- Snow Fun Park winter activities
Virgin snow blankets the mountain in every direction and far below, people look like ants against the vast snowy canvass. You can participate in fun activities like snow tubing, sledding, try the Flying Fox or go skiing or snowboarding.
We walk through a long tunnel out onto the Aletsch Glacier, where there is a hive of activity.
Queues of people wait their turn to slide downhill on round snow disks, skiers whiz past and a couple of beginners fall off their snowboards.
5- Hike to Mönchsjochhütte
Small groups of hikers disappear into the distance, trekking through the remote landscape to Mönchsjochhütte, the highest-altitude serviced hut in Switzerland. It’s a 45-minute trail hike to a hut that has amazing views of Central and Eastern Switzerland and the Valais mountains. The hut also has dormitory accommodation and is a stunning spot to watch the sunset.
6- Hike the Aletsch Glacier
Hiking Europe’s largest glacier is a two-day tour that is available to inexperienced mountain climbers who are fit and are not afraid of heights. The hike starts with a walk from the Jungfraujoch along the Jungfraufirn to the Konkordia hut. Then, on the second day, there’s a six-hour hike over the Aletsch glacier.
7- Drink Swiss chocolate
Before leaving, we stand at the large glass windows near the souvenir shop drinking hot chocolate and nibbling on a bar of Swiss chocolate, soaking in the amazing scenery. Somehow, the chocolate tastes so much better.
8- Dine at the Restaurant Crystal
By now, I’m feeling light-headed from the altitude and I’m looking forward to a spot of lunch. A table by the window at Restaurant Crystal offers sweeping views of snow and ice.
A Jungfrau travel pass from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch costs CHF 211. The ascent from Interlaken and descent from Kleine Scheidegg can be via Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen. Other Jungfraujoch tickets to consider is a ski pass and activities at the snowsports school.
Where to stay in Jungfrau
The Victoria-Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa (tel: +41 33 828 2828) has counted the emperor of Brazil and Mark Twain among its guests.
The three-star Hotel Goldey (tel: +41 33 826 44 45) is located by the river and guest rooms have some magnificent views of the Jungfrau Switzerland.