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BEST ALPINE DRIVES IN SWITZERLAND
The mountains and valleys of Switzerland are some of the most stunning in the world. You are almost certain to find beautiful views wherever you go, but we know that you want to experience an unbeatable vacation. Our list of Alpine excursions through the mountains covers the best that the country has to offer, saving you time and worry so you can just get in your Switzerland rental car and drive.
On your drive through these mountain passes, you will see some striking landmarks and sites of historical importance, as well as mountain views that will leave you speechless. Make sure that you wear comfortable clothes and shoes because you will have a few opportunities to stop and walk around some of the natural and man-made attractions that Switzerland is famous for. Whether you decide to pick one mountain pass or explore them all during your stay, you are sure to have some lasting memories of your time in the Swiss Alps.
GREAT ST. BERNARD PASS
Perhaps the most famous of the mountain passes in the European Alps, the Great St. Bernard Pass lives up to its reputation with its majestic scenery and diverting views from an elevation of 2469 meters. Take the E27 south toward Italy to get a good view of this iconic location and experience one of the most renowned attractions of the country.
The pass had long been used as a commercial trade route, starting with the Romans during the Empire's peak, though today it serves mostly as a tourist destination for motorists who want to take it slow and soak in the impressive, sometimes perilous, sights along this route once traveled by Napolean Bonaparte and his army during his march toward Italy in 1800.
Deep in the mountains is the Great St. Bernard Hospice. The hospice was founded centuries prior to Napolean's crossing, the earliest mention of the hostel occurring in 812. During the 17th century, the monks that maintained the hospice grounds began selectively breeding and training their dogs, which were said to be gifts from travelers and villagers from nearby towns. You guessed it: the resulting breed was the St. Bernard, primarily used during this time to guard the hospice, though later they were used as rescue animals. The monks still maintain the grounds and give comfort and information to travelers today.
A tunnel through the mountains that was built in 1964 allows travelers to make the journey unhindered during the winter, which is good news if you decide to visit during that time. If you choose to take the journey through the Great St. Bernard Pass, you can start your journey near Zurich and end in the Italian city of Milan. Traveling the distance between Martigny, Switzerland to Aosta, Italy via the Great St. Bernard Pass takes an hour and a half.
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THE FURKA PASS
From Gletsch to Andermatt on Route 19 in the mountains, travel northeast for 20 miles along the German-Italian language barrier of the Furka Pass for views of glaciers, craggy mountaintops, and scenic forested areas. As you drive along the pass's road, you may see the train that travels the Furka Pass chugging along through the mountainside, creating a picturesque scene for you to hold in your memory.
Because of the strong impression that this pass leaves on viewers, the filmmaker of the James Bond movie Goldfinger filmed on location in the Furka Pass, proving that the area is dramatic, indeed. Rising 2429 meters, the Furka Pass reaches just short of the elevation of the Great St. Bernard Pass, but don't let its relative height fool you. The Furka Pass is magnificent in its own right. Nearby, on the Valaisian side of the pass, you can take a short excursion to the Rhone Glacier, where every year a glacier grotto is carved anew. Travelers can actually walk through the glacier by booking a tour. Though the tunnel through the glacier is only 100 meters in length, you will want to make sure you dress warmly, because it doesn't take long for your body temperature to reach dangerous levels. Without stops, the Furka Pass takes about an hour and a half to traverse.
THE ST. GOTTHARD PASS
For stark, beautiful landscapes and soaring valley views, take Route 2, the St. Gotthard Pass Road, between Andermatt and Biasca. Since the 1300s, the tolls collected on this road have reportedly helped to keep Switzerland independent. Only since 1980 has the pass been drivable year-round; thanks to the Gotthard Road Tunnel, travelers can traverse the mountain unhindered through this 10-mile tunnel.
The tunnel passes by the "Devil's Bridge," which actually refers to two bridges that span the Schöllenen Gorge, one old and in disrepair and one new and still in use. A legend arose around the older bridge because several attempts to build a bridge across the gorge had failed. The legend goes that the River Reuss was so difficult to cross that a goatherd asked the devil to build a bridge for him. The devil agreed, but in return, he wanted to own the first soul that crossed the bridge. Thinking on his toes, the goatherd led one of his goats across the bridge in front of him, thus angering the devil, who picked up a large stone in order to destroy the bridge. A woman had come upon the scene, and knowing the devil's weakness, drew the sign of the cross on the stone so that the devil could no longer lift it.
During the summer months, the traffic in the area slows due to an influx of vacationers and sight-seers, but for most people, the leisurely pace allows for a better appreciation of the stunningly beautiful landscape. The St. Gotthard Pass is similar to the Great St. Bernard Pass, though both have characteristic features that deserve attention. The pass road stretches for about 40 miles before it comes to an end, taking about an hour and a half to complete.
THE BERNINA PASS
This pass offers travelers breathtaking views and has been in use since the Middle Ages when people would take to the markets their horse-drawn carts filled with goods to sell. It can often be treacherous, with ice and snow accumulating even in the summer, so exercise caution as you make your way on its winding roads. It is usually closed off from mid-Autumn to mid-Spring on account of the weather, so plan your trip accordingly.
The pass connects the resort town of St. Moritz in the Engadine Valley -- famous for its 300 plus days a year of sunshine, its skiing slopes, and its hiking trails -- to Val Poschiavo, a valley in the southern, Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Taking approximately 2 hours to complete its 34 miles, the drive through the Bernina Pass takes travelers past lakes and windswept terrain. By traveling from northwestern St. Moritz toward Val Paschiavo, visitors will see the Lago Bianco - "White Lake" - on their right for most of the length of the pass. This is definitely one road trip that you want to record with lots of photographs.
THE SIMPLON PASS
Stretching from Brig to the Italian town of Domodossola, the Simplon Pass gives travelers access to the Swiss neighbor to the south. It is a less perilous drive than other alpine passes, built on the contour of the mountain rather than engineered for expediency. The Simplon Pass is generally closed due to weather from December to May, leaving travelers to load their cars onto trains that still have access to the Simplon Tunnel that passes through the mountains. The roads curve gently around the mountain's topography, giving drivers some truly wondrous views of the frozen mountain slopes on the Swiss side and the verdant tree-lined valley on the Italian side.
Along the way, you will have the opportunity to capture some awe-inspiring memories with your camera, so be sure you have a full charge on your device. The Ganter Bridge, for instance, spans the Ganter Valley, 150 meters above the valley floor at its highest. As the longest spanning bridge in Switzerland, the Ganter Bridge gives travelers a look at the vastness of the deep valley below. You can also stop at the Simplon Hospice, a Swiss heritage site of national importance that was founded in the first year of the 19th century under the orders of Napolean Bonaparte. Napolean intended to use the route to cross the mountains, though because his efforts failed before reaching the pass, he never got to use it. The hospice gives travelers a chance to stretch their legs on the many hiking trails that line its grounds. All are welcome to visit the Hospice, which is run by the Augustine canons of St. Bernard. Without any stops, the drive through the pass on Route 9 takes just over an hour, the perfect amount of time for a short excursion to see these truly amazing vistas.