More background info:
Even in the context of Switzerland
’s lavish network of mountain railways, this is one like no other. It’s a real record-breaker. Most of the line proceeds inside a tunnel through some of the Alps’ most famous mountains and ends at an elevation of nearly 3500m (11,400 feet), the highest train station in all of Europe (and ninth highest in the world). And all that for virtually no practical purpose – it’s just there because it could be built and is almost exclusively a tourist attraction. OK, it also brings in research staff to the meteorological station and observatory above the rail terminus and transports supplies for the various restaurants and shops at the peak, but first and foremost it’s a touristic luxury devoid of any practical necessity.
(literally ‘virgin’ in German) is one of a trio of picturesque mountains south of Interlaken on the border of the cantons of Bern and Valais. The other two mountains are called Eiger
(literally ‘monk’). They had long drawn visitors, and in 1811, the first successful ascent to the peak of the Jungfrau was undertaken. The Eiger was first climbed in 1858, but the infamous Eiger Nordwand
(north face – cf. also Matterhorn
), a sheer, practically vertical rock face of ca. 1650m (5400 feet) wasn’t conquered until the 1930s. It’s regarded as one of the most difficult and dangerous climbs in the world, and has claimed dozens of lives. Hence its bitter epithet “Mordwand” (literally ‘murder wall’).
The idea of a railway up these mountains was first entertained in the second half of the 19th century, during a boom period in Swiss railway construction. Several proposals were made and rejected for various reasons, until in the 1890s the plan of Adolf Guyer-Zeller was approved and construction began in 1896. The first stretch of the rail line on open land began operating already in 1898. But then came the tricky bit: driving the tunnel through the mountains.
Using both manual tools and dynamite to cut through the rock, progress was slow and there were deadly accidents claiming several workers’ lives, in particular Italians. In 1899 the tunnel station Rotstock was reached. Shortly after that, Guyer-Zeller died aged only 59, but his heirs secured the continuation of the building project. The original plan was changed, though, and it was decided not to go all the way to the peak of the Jungfrau (at 4158m/13,642 feet), but to make the Jungfraujoch at a slightly lower elevation the terminus.
In early 1912 the tunnellers reached the Jungfraujoch and a few months later, in August 1912, the first train rode the entire length of the Jungfrau Railway, 16 years after the start of its construction. The total length of the railway is 9.4 km (ca. 6 miles), and it goes from 2061m (6762 feet) above sea level at the start point at Kleine Scheidegg to 3454m (11,332 feet) at the Jungfraujoch terminus, a climb of nearly 1400m (5000 feet)!
The new railway soon became a major success, with passenger numbers far exceeding expectations. This has basically continued into the present day. Between 1912 and 2011 passenger numbers grew tenfold. Current total capacity is at around one million per annum.
To make faster and more frequent rides possible, several stops en route were discontinued, including the stop at the Eiger Nordwand, where it was possible to look down through windows in the sheer rock face towards the Berner Oberland. Today only the Eismeer (‘sea of ice’) stop is still part of the ride (see below
). That way travel time has been reduced to just 35 minutes, allowing also for a higher frequency of rides to handle the tourist numbers.
After over a century of operation, the Jungfrau Railway and the Jungfraujoch at the end of it (the “Top of Europe
”, as the advertising slogan goes) remains one of Switzerland
’s overall top attractions.
What there is to see:
When I did the Jungfrau Railway as part of my longer Switzerland
trip in August 2020 that was of course still in the first year of the Covid pandemic. So there was less tourism in general, in particular virtually no tourists from China
, for whom this railway ride seems to be an almost obligatory part of any Europe trip.
Yet even without that large part of the usual clientele coming that year, the train I got in the morning was practically full (and everybody had to wear face masks). I can barely imagine what it must be like at peak time at full capacity; I presume without a specific reservation you’d have to wait in line for a long time before getting a chance to board a train. It had actually in part been my motivation to exploit the pandemic situation with its lower tourist numbers precisely for this – just as I had done shortly before in Venice
The first two kilometres or so of the journey are in the open air, then the train enters the long tunnel inside the mountain. There is only one intermediate stop en route these days, namely at the so-called “Eismeer” (‘sea of ice’), where large panorama windows allow a good view over the glacial world to the east of the Eiger peak. So most people rush out here and snap photos before the train continues on its way.
At the terminus
, most people first of all get the lift up to the “Sphinx
”, the research and weather station at the top of the ridge at an altitude of 3571m (11,782 feet). There are both indoor and outdoor observation platforms
. When I was there the weather was fine with few high clouds so the unobstructed views from the open-air platform were at their spectacular best (see below
The prescribed circuit through the complex then leads to what’s called “Alpine Sensation”, a succession of tunnels with all manner of often highly kitschy installations, murals of 19th century Alpine romanticism, sculptures and a model of the Jungfraujoch in earlier times with the original Hotel Berghaus and without the “Sphinx”.
One section focuses on the construction of the railway – and it is here that the dark element comes in, namely in the form of memorial plaques to all those workers who lost their lives here, mostly in the tunnelling accidents (see above). It’s noticeable that almost all the victims’ names are Italian. But there was also a plaque for a rather recent fatality, namely that of a Brazilian worker who had died in a deadly accident on the Jungfrau Railway in 2019.
A plaque also tells the story of the fire of October 1972 when the Hotel Berghaus fell victim to a fire blaze fanned by high winds. At the time there were only 15 people present and all managed to evacuate to the railway tunnel unscathed. The blow of the destroyed Berghaus to tourism didn’t last too long, though. After only nine days, trains began arriving again, and a new restaurant opened only three months later.
The circuit then leads to the "Eispalast
" (‘ice palace’), a loop of tunnels dug right into the glacial ice outside (see below
). At the end of this is another chance to get into the open air, namely at the “plateau
” at the western end of the complex. A special snow groomer machine keeps the plateau level and free from snowdrifts.
Back indoors, there’s a whole range of shops and restaurants catering for the masses of tourists. And then the circuit ends back at the train station inside the mountain.
All in all, this is far from a top dark-tourism hotspot, but rather a general tourism attraction with a couple of darkish touches involved. Hardly worth travelling here just for the latter. The main thing remains getting so effortlessly into high Alpine territory and enjoying the outstanding views.
in central Switzerland
, in the heart of the Swiss Alps, some 40 miles (65 km) south-east of the capital Bern and ca. 65 miles (105 km) south of Zürich
Google Maps locators:
Access and costs: quite easy to do – but at a very high cost!
Details: The actual Jungfrau Railway starts at the station Kleine Scheidegg, which you can reach by other railways (Berner Oberland Bahn) from Interlaken Ost via Grindelwald. Prices vary greatly by season and time of day, starting at around 100 CHF return per person, but going up much more (more than double that) in peak season. So it’s the equivalent of a long-distance train ticket or mid-range inner-European flight, price-wise, for just under 10 km (6 miles) of railway. But it’s spectacular and popular, so they can charge those prices. You can book online direct at jungfrau.ch or get your ticket at the Interlaken Ost train station. At busier times it’s advisable to book ahead, though, and also to make a seat reservation for a comparatively smaller extra fee.
Time required: between two to three hours and all day, depending on whether you also want to go hiking or on a glacier tour, or just make do with the views and exhibition elements.
Combinations with other dark destinations: One of the three peaks here, the Eiger, is infamous as one of the Alps’ most difficult to climb rock faces, the “Eiger Nordwand” (north face), which, like the Matterhorn, has claimed many a life of unsuccessful/unlucky mountaineers (see above). You see its ominous shape looming high on the approach to the railway tunnel and from the Kleine Scheidegg station where you change for the Jungfrau Railway.
Also from there, as well as from nearby Grindelwald, there are various mountain hiking trails. Some of these have been commodified
with plaques including QR codes that you can scan on a smartphone or tablet computer to access online material pointing out various alterations in the landscape brought about by climate change
. So that adds another, quite contemporary dark element.
For things further afield, see also under Switzerland
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The Jungfrau Railway is of course 99% a non-dark tourism attraction, and a top-notch one at that. The views from the observation platform are indeed second to none, short of the views only mountaineers get from even higher mountain summits after serious climbing efforts. But for regular tourists, safely transported up in comfort and without any exertion, this is pretty much unbeatable.
The view north from the open-air observation platform at the “Sphinx” takes in the Bernese Highlands (Berner Oberland) all the way to Interlaken. The view north-east is of the peak of the Mönch mountain. Looking south-west you see the summit of the Jungfrau. But the highlight, the “coup de théàtre”, as it were, is the view south-east across the upper reaches of the Aletsch Glacier, the Alps’ longest.
In addition to the views, the open-air platform also comes with an entertainment element in the form of the fearless Alpine choughs, a cheeky bird species, in fact the species nesting at the highest altitude of any birds on Earth, who readily get close to the tourists to pick up treats held out to them by visitors.
Below the “Sphinx” is a whole entertainment complex including the garishly lit “Alpine Sensation” tunnels
with some exhibition
elements (see above
) and a “Glacier Wonderland
” of tunnels dug into the glacier ice and adorned with various ice sculptures, mostly animals (bears, wolves, eagles, etc.). Of course there is also a high level of commercialization
in the form of restaurants
to squeeze even more tourist dollars out of visitors. Wares on offer include all the Swiss clichés: chocolate, watches and pocket knives. OK, there’s no cheese shop, but what you can purchase here (for a pretty penny) is Swiss single malt whisky (make in Interlaken, not up here).
Beyond the Jungfraujoch itself, you can also go mountain hiking, e.g. to the large Mönchsjoch Hut. There are also guided tours across the glacier (with safety ropes). Skiing and snowboarding are yet other options for those who can and like to do those sorts of thing.
The Berner Oberland to the north of the Jungfrau also boasts yet more Alpine railway lines such as the historic Schynige Platte Railway, along with various cable cars, and the views to be had are all-round glorious, if from less snowy heights than the Jungfraujoch.
A special attraction is also the Trümmelbach Falls, a glacial meltwater-fed cascade of water inside a mountain, made accessible by another train, or rather funicular, inside a mountain tunnel and from the upper stop you can use walkways at various heights, connected by stairs, for viewing the gushing waters up close from different angles and perspectives.
The best base from where to do all this is the town of Interlaken, which has been an Alpine tourism hub since the advent of modern tourism. It’s a pleasant enough place for a few nights. Incongruously, perhaps, it is also the curry capital of Switzerland with about a dozen or so Indian restaurants catering for visitors (and locals) craving a spicy break from the usual cheese fondue, raclette and rösti of Swiss cuisine.
- Jungfrau 01 - train at the foot of the Eiger North Face
- Jungfrau 02 - view up towards the Jungfraujoch
- Jungfrau 03 - close to the rock face
- Jungfrau 05 - stop en route at the Sea of Ice
- Jungfrau 06 - Sphinx observatory and open-air viewing platform
- Jungfrau 07 - view deep into the Aletsch Glacier
- Jungfrau 08 - view down the other side towards Interlaken
- Jungfrau 09 - view towards Mönch and Eiger
- Jungfrau 10 - Alpine chough blowing in the wind
- Jungfrau 11 - string of hikers en route to the Mönchsjochhütte
- Jungfrau 12 - getting close to large crevasses
- Jungfrau 13 - blue-lit travellator
- Jungfrau 14 - Swiss kitsch
- Jungfrau 15 - historical part
- Jungfrau 16 - and here comes the dark-tourism bit
- Jungfrau 17 - mostly Italian names
- Jungfrau 18 - a more recent one from Brazil
- Jungfrau 19 - inside the mountain
- Jungfrau 20 - passage inside the glacier
- Jungfrau 21 - it is slippery
- Jungfrau 22 - ice dogs
- Jungfrau 23 - ice bear
- Jungfrau 24 - Pistenbully on the plateau
- Jungfrau 25 - looking back towards the Jungfraujoch
- Jungfrau 26 - commericialism
- Jungfrau 27 - railway station inside the mountain
- Jungfrau 28 - Jungfraubahn