Thanks to the opening of the Ceneri Base Tunnel in December 2020, it now takes as little as 3 hours 17 minutes to get from Zurich’s city centre to the beating heart of Milan. Eventually, passengers will be able to travel between the two financial centres in just 2 hours 40 minutes. The direct high-speed train whips across a 216km rail route, thousands of feet below the Swiss Alps via the longest and deepest tunnel in the world – the Gotthard Base Tunnel. If you’re planning on making the trip, we’ve analysed the best options below.
Direct trains depart from Zurich Hauptbahnhof (Zurich HB), the largest train station in Switzerland, and terminate at Milano Centrale. SBB Swiss Federal Railways and Trenitalia jointly operate the direct Eurocity train service between the two cities. Most of the trains now serving the route are the newly-launched ‘Giruno’, which are quietly replacing the older Astoro (or pendolino). Sleeker and brighter, these high-speed trains offer a range of facilities and amenities designed to make the ride across the Alps as comfortable as possible.
Each seat is fitted with its own power socket, with free WiFi and signal amplifiers. Luggage can be stored overhead or in large racks by the exits, and there are purpose-built spaces for bicycles and prams too. Toilets are gender-specific, with baby-changing facilities. For families, most trains feature a ‘Family Zone’ with games, murals and extra space for younger children to stretch their legs.
Visitors can opt for 1st class or 2nd class tickets, but beyond the extra legroom there’s little difference between the two. The seat configuration in 1st class means that seats are a little wider and there is more room in the aisle. The facing solo seats work well for couples or friends travelling as a pair. Business travellers in 1st class can also reserve a workspace in the business zone, which offers work tables, sockets, reading lamps, a cloakroom and boosters for improved reception and data transfer, as well as a separate cloakroom.
All trains feature a restaurant carriage, offering a wide range of snacks, drinks and hot meals for take-away or seated service. You don’t need to book a table in advance, but on busier services it’s often worth it. Timed right, you could be tucking into a bowl of risotto or plate of Swiss cheeses overlooking the watery vistas of Lake Laguna.
It takes just twenty minutes to travel through the 57km long Gotthard Base Tunnel. This trims the journey length significantly, but it does also cut out some of the most dramatic winding scenery along the Gotthard Pass. While the views are undeniably more modest, there’s still plenty to see on the direct rail route, particularly along the Lake Zug and Lake Lucerne lakes soon after leaving Zurich, and Lake Lugano as you cross the border. Some trains also call at Como San Giovanni before reaching Milan Centrale.
With the launch of the Ceneri Base Tunnel, up to 10 direct services are expected to run per day, plus a handful of indirect services too. Currently Eurocity is running a reduced service between Zurich and Milan. We will update this section when services return to normal.
Rates and how to book tickets
Tickets can be booked up to 90 days in advance. Rates start at €29 for 2nd class and €49 for 1st class. It’s recommended to buy tickets well ahead of your trip rather than at the station, where prices can cost five times as much. For passengers travelling with a Eurail or Interrail pass valid in both Switzerland and Italy, you will still need to pay a supplement or reservation before boarding.
We recommend booking tickets through Omio, a leading European train ticket comparison website guaranteed to find the cheapest available rate. The booking process is easy and takes just a couple of minutes, and you don’t even have to create an account either. Book your tickets at Omio.com.
There are at least a dozen indirect routes between Zurich and Milan, but the most scenic alternative is along the Bernina route. Two special panoramic services run every day, at 08:32 and 13:32. With two changes and an extra five hours added to the journey, it takes considerably more effort and time than the direct route. But, it does offer blockbuster views of the Alps, climbing over 7,000 feet along glaciers, alpine gardens and raging mountains.
The Bernina Express runs between Chur in Switzerland and Tirano in Italy. This four-hour leg of the journey winds around the famous Brusio Spiral, across Lake Poschiavo and along the Landwasser Viaduct. It has repeatedly been voted one of the most scenic train journeys in the world. From Zurich HB, visitors will need to take the InterCity train to Chur, which takes just over an hour. From Tirano, it’s another regional train to Milan. This can’t be booked in advance but the route is served relatively frequently, with at least one train running every two hours.
Where to stay in Milan on a budget
Milano Centrale station is located in the northeast of the city, just north of the Giardini Park. The neighbourhood may not have the bohemian beauty of Brera or the bar-lined canals of Navigli, but for location it can’t be beaten. With an extensive network of metros, busses and trams, as well as dozens of hotels for every taste and budget, it’s an excellent base for a whistle stop tour of the city. If you’re planning a trip to Milan by rail and would like to find an affordable place to stay within walking distance of the station, we’ve selected three of the best.
The Ostello Bello Grande has won countless accolades – with good reason too. Just a two minute walk from Milano Centrale and stones-throw from the achingly hip Isola neighbourhood, the hostel couldn’t be better located. With 198 beds on offer it certainly lives up to its name, but it still manages to provide a friendly and personable service. There are thoughtful added extras too, from flowing coffee and a welcome drinks voucher, to free laptop rentals and guided tours. Inside, there are plenty of community spaces, including a terrace with hammocks, vegetable gardens and a BBQ. Guests can choose from a range of single, double and dorm rooms.
If you’re looking for a budget bolthole but prefer to stay in hotels, 43 Station Hotel is a friendly and conveniently-located option. The 66-room hotel offers a range of double rooms, as well as one junior suite. It may be a low-cost option, but the amenities a Bathrooms are equipped with rainfall showers and complimentary argan oil toiletries, and bedrooms feature smart TVs and Simmons mattresses. Despite its location, guests are guaranteed a sound night’s sleep because every single bedroom is sound-proofed.
For a mid-range option, NYX Milan is the latest addition to the fashionable NYX Hotels collection, and is a stones throw from the station. Part-hotel, part-art gallery, this chic new property was designed by Italy’s leading street artists. Each artist was commissioned to create site-specific art installations for each floor of the hotel. There are live DJ sets in the lobby, an on-site restaurant and bar which is as popular with the locals as it is with tourists, and three rooftop terraces. Guests can choose from single, doubles and suites.
Rooms from £72 per night for a private double room