An exciting way to spend a day in Switzerland: grab a Mt Pilatus Golden Tour ticket and explore the Swiss mountains!
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You can’t go to Switzerland without going to the mountains. These aren’t just any mountains, either. These are the Alps! We were only in Switzerland for 2.5 days but you better believe one entire day was reserved for a mountain adventure.
Why Mt Pilatus?
Located near Lucerne, Mt Pilatus is a great introduction to the Swiss Alps. We were staying in Zurich, but that area is not quite the impressive mountains we wanted for our first Swiss Alps adventure. Lucerne is a short 45 min train ride from Zurich, making it a perfect day trip.
Lucerne has plenty of mountains in the area: Pilatus, Stanserhorn, Bürgenstock, Rigi to name a few. Rigi and Stanserhorn mountain access are both included free in the Swiss Travel Pass, whereas Pilatus access is a 50% discount.
We chose Mt Pilatus because:
- It’s the tallest of the four mountains.
- It’s quickly accessible from the train station where we’d be arriving in Lucerne.
- Because I’d read about the Golden Tour and fell in love with the idea!
What is the Golden Tour?
There are two mechanical modes of transportation to get to the top of Mt Pilatus: gondolas (aerial cable cars) and cogwheel train. The world’s steepest cogwheel train, to be exact. Both offer spectacular views all the way up the mountain.
The Golden Tour is the most scenic way to see Mt Pilatus and includes trip by boat, cogwheel train, and gondolas.
Gondolas depart from Kriens, a town about a 15 minute bus ride from Lucerne’s main train station. The Pilatus cogwheel train departs from Alpnachstad, a small town across the lake from Lucerne. To get to Alpnachstad from Lucerne, either take a regular train around the lake or take a ferry across the lake.
You pick which direction you want to travel. Start on the ferry, hop on the cogwheel train up the mountain, ride the gondolas down, and bus back to Lucerne.
Or, do it in reverse: bus out to Kriens, fly up the mountain on gondolas, descend via the cogwheel train, and sail back to Lucerne via ferry.
Not a fan of boats? Try the Silver Tour instead. Experience the gondolas and cogwheel train, but skip the ferry and take a regular train between Lucerne and Alpnachstad. This is also a slightly faster option. The train ride is only 20 minutes, but the ferry ride is 50-90 minutes depending on weather.
Is there a Best Route for the Golden Tour?
There is no wrong way to do this. Both routes offer great views!
If you’re arriving in Lucerne from another area, check timetables to see which direction makes most sense for you. Buses run more frequently than the ferry does, but maybe you want the extra 45 minutes when you first arrive in Lucerne to get some pictures. But be mindful of your time!
Our train from Zurich arrived in Lucerne with perfect timing for us to catch the ferry to Alpnachstad, so we hopped on and got our Lucerne photos when we arrived back in town later that afternoon.
If you want to maximize your time at the summit, the cogwheel train stays open later than the gondolas in the summer.
Caution: Check the Weather Before You Go
The thing about mountains and weather is they’re unpredictable. I’m a planner and have an itinerary for all my vacations (it’s not as bad as it sounds), but the key is to have a flexible itinerary with a backup plan.
Check the weather for Pilatus Kulm, and not just Lucerne. The weather and temperatures on the valley floor are different from the mountain peak. You can even check live web-cam views. Clouds are common in the mountains in the mornings, but often dissipate by mid-morning or midday.
Riding through a cloud in a gondola is cool, but there’s not much to see after a while. Not to mention no views at the top, which is probably at least 75% the reason why you wanted to visit the summit in the first place.
If the forecast is cloudy all day, I recommend you reserve the Mt Pilatus Golden Tour adventure for another day. Swap days on your itinerary if you can.
If it’s your last day in town and you want to do it, then go for it. Sometimes the summit is above the clouds and you have gorgeous sunny views of the tops of the clouds and mountains, even though you can’t see the valley below.
On my trip to Mt Pilatus, it was very cloudy when we arrived at the top around noon. But, as promised by the weather forecast, the clouds had moved out by the time we finished lunch, and we had a gorgeously clear afternoon of hiking and photography.
What to Expect on the Golden Tour
Sail across Lake Lucerne
Enjoy a lovely ferry ride across Lake Lucerne to Alpnachstad. Exit the Lucerne train station and the lake is directly in front of you, past all the buses. Purchase your Mt Pilatus Golden Tour ticket at the kiosks right by the lake and hop on a ferry to start your adventure.
The ferries have indoor and outdoor seating. Always recommend sitting outside when the weather is nice! While gliding across the lake, look for the gondolas and cogwheel train in the distance. You appreciate the steep slope of the cogwheel train better from this perspective!
Transfer at Alpnachstad
The ferry will dock in Alpnachstad, and everyone will head for the train station. Seriously, it’s a straight shot through the pedestrian tunnel under the roadway to the plaza across the street. Follow the crowd. You’re all going to Mt Pilatus.
Don’t skip the Ticket Exchange kiosk in the middle of the plaza! You have to show your Golden Tour ticket at the kiosk to receive a timed entry card before you can catch the train. Not realizing what this was, we went straight to the queue for the train and were turned back to the kiosk. Chagrined, we were now nearly at the back of the line.
While I wished we could have caught the train when we first arrived at the plaza, we waited less than a half hour for the next train to arrive. There’s a lovely café and some unique buildings for photo ops while you wait. Slow down and enjoy the little things!
Ride the World’s Steepest Cogwheel Train to Pilatus Kulm
Time for a scenic trip up the mountain! You have some say in which section of the train car you ride in and which side of the car you sit on, assuming you’re not the last one through for your group. Every car and seat has amazing views, so don’t be the jerk that holds up the train leaving because you refuse to take a middle seat.
Sit at the top by the conductor if you want to beat the crowds once you get to the station at the top.
Sit at the bottom if you want a wide open view down the mountain throughout your ride.
The side closest to the stairs gets great views of Lake Lucerne. The opposite side gets great views of Mt Pilatus and the mountains. Both sides have plenty of Swiss cows!
At the Top!
Enjoy the views while you eat lunch.
Both the Hotel Pilatus Kulm (yellow brick to the left) and Hotel Bellevue (cylindrical gray to the right) have restaurants. There is also a quick eats spot inside and a take-away grill outside during the summer months. Something for all pocketbooks.
You could also pack your lunch and eat wherever you like the view best. Just be sure to keep ahold of your trash so the wind doesn’t blow it off the mountain.
Listen to the cows.
Swiss cows roam freely about the mountain, and if you hike up or down Mt Pilatus from Alpnachstad, you can walk right up to them. You can also hear the cow bells echoing up the mountain from the observation plaza at the top!
Do some souvenir shopping.
Pro tip: do your shopping right before you leave so you don’t have to hike around with your souvenirs.
Take a hike.
To the right, past the gondola station and Hotel Bellevue, is a short path to Esel. It is a short hike, but it is like climbing a staircase. Let yourself adjust to the thinner air! Enjoy the beautiful views while you catch your breath.
To the left by the Hotel Pilatus Kulm is the Dragon’s Walk, a short loop that passes through the mountain and gives views of the other side before circling back.
Also to the left, but past the hotel, is the Flower Trail to the Tomlishorn. Wildflowers are labeled all along this path as it winds along and sometimes through the mountain.
The edge has a rail and much of the path is paved, but it does end with a very rough, rocky, and steep section right before the Tomlishorn summit.
Stunning views of snow-capped mountains (even in the summer!) and lakes on all sides are your reward, as well as bragging rights for actually reaching the 7000 ft elevation!
Once you’ve had your fill of alpine activities, head back to the panorama gallery building and get in line for the return gondola. If you’re on a tight schedule, leave yourself some buffer time for waiting in line. Gondolas operate frequently but have limited capacity. At least the line is inside and temperature controlled.
Descent via Panoramic Gondola
Feel like a dragon flying from Pilatus Kulm to Fräkmüntegg. The Dragon Ride panoramic gondola is larger than average with floor to ceiling windows for optimal views.
It is standing room only, and everyone will have their cameras out. Even if you get packed into the middle, you’ll still get good views and most people are willing to temporarily switch spots so you can take some pictures.
At Fräkmüntegg, you’ll disembark the panoramic gondola and queue up for the normal 4-person gondolas. If you have some time, Fräkmüntegg has a luge track in the summer as well as a restaurant and other activities. We sadly did not have time for the luge, but we’ve heard great things!
The 4-person gondolas showcase wonderful alpine scenery, as if you haven’t had enough of that so far today, while whisking you down the mountain in 30 minutes or less.
Be prepared to divide your group for this part of the journey if you have more than 4 people. You’ll regroup at the bottom.
From the Kriens Pilatusbahn, exit the gondola and walk 10 minutes downhill to the Kriens bus stop. A 15 minute bus ride puts you back at the Lucerne train station, where you can easily start a Lucerne adventure or catch a train back to your point of origin.