Great, forty-meter billboard occupies the entire wall of the hall at Zurich airport. A huge panoramic image catches everyone’s attention: Sphinx Observatory on a steep rock towering over a great snow field of Aletsch glacier. “Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe”, the yellow slogan screams. A similar banner hangs in Beijing. In 2019 Jungfrau was visited by over a million tourists. At 3,454 meters above sea level you arrive by train, by a rack railway. The journey from Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen takes about an hour. You need to change once. When we leave the green rail coach at the Kleine Scheidegg station, we step into a wild, colourful, elbowing crowd. The air is filled with cheers and sighs in several languages from all corners of the world. Here a group from Japan pushes their way in single file, over there a close group of Indian tourists protects their space, a Swiss family of five tries to get a little closer to the gate. Someone passes a suitcases over our heads…
Here we are, amid all this, with Joana’s mother and sister Kate. Fortunately, after crossing the gates and ticket pre-check, all seats are guaranteed. Ticket inspectors make sure that every seat is taken. A quick check of full cars and a green card goes up. The train sets off.
From Lauterbrunnen to Jungfraujoch
While the ride from Wengen (the best place for overnight with 179 hotels) and Lauterbrunnen or Grindelwald is rich in beautiful views of the surrounding mountains and green meadows, here you can enjoy the views only for a moment. For the most part of the journey you go through the tunnel. The only variety of the way up is a stop in the Eismeer. For 5 min. The view from the window hollowed in a rock gives a foretaste of the panorama that awaits us later. But there’s not much to enjoy.
Especially if you’re not the first at the window to take a picture. The top and last station is also an underground, rough den. Like on a London Tube Bank Station, the crowd rushes one way or the other. Loading and unloading takes ages. The unloaded crowd heads for the underground promenade – a 150m tunnel leads directly to the beginning of the sightseeing route. We select a lift to Sphinx.
150m above there is a door to another world. The pressure is clearly lower, and there is much less oxygen. Only now the body begins to be aware of the height. You need to push your way to the barriers.
But once we get there – the view is spectacular. Hectares of snow are padding the vast valley, where the Aletsch glacier begins. There’s the Jungfrau on the right and the Finsteraarhorn (the highest peak in the region) on the left, and the Mönch. The first impression is amazing. So much snow! And those black, pointed peaks above the white blanket! But then comes the sobering part… well… fine. But somehow it looked better from down there! And, indeed, the observatory built in 1937 viewed from below seems to be an abstract construction situated in a surreal, unnatural place. Being here you quickly come to the conclusion that you don’t see much from the top and it’s not so abstract at all. Sphinx itself is actually a small, four-story building with a telescope dome and three viewing platforms. Besides a watch and souvenir shop and a small bar it holds working alpine laboratories (not available for tourists). And that’s it.
On the snow
The “tourist” path, which cannot be avoided, is several points scattered among corridors. First, we get to the room with a large “bubble-nativity”, then to the ice cave, and finally we land in the complex of restaurants and shops. Like at the railway station. Only when you get out on the snow (not easy to find the way out) allows you to get some fresh air.
It’s the beginning of June and the weather is beautiful. 2,500m below was 25’C. Here it’s around 10’C. In winter temperatures drop to -35’C and the annual average is -8’C. Fresh air? Yes… only if someone came from Lauterbrunnen or worse, from Interlaken, they have a good chance to test altitude sickness on their own skin. Fortunately, we started from Wengen – my breathing is just shallow and fast, Joanna has no reaction at all.
What can you do on the snow? We didn’t take ski-touring equipment, snowshoes or crampons… so we are strolling through the highway trodden by thousands of sneakers to the Mönchsjochhütte. 2km and just 200m up is very tiring for most people. No acclimatization and breathing problems can cause some troubles. The Mönchsjochhütte is the highest-altitude serviced hut in the Swiss Alps – it offers accommodation for 90 people at an altitude of 3,650 m a.s.l. Interested? You can book through the SAC website.
Return to the train is a kind of relief. All you have to do is stand in the crowd again, pack yourself into the rail car and go down to the Kleine Scheidegg.
Once in a lifetime is enough.
Summary and our opinion of the Jungfraujoch
We have very mixed feelings. Mainly because of the high bar and expectations that were not met. Jungfraujoch is advertised as a magical place with a dramatically located viewpoint. However, no one tells you that all photos of this point were taken from a helicopter. You will not bring a nice “self-made” postcard from here. Actually, it’s hard to get a good shot here if you’re not skilled to climb in ice. Nobody mentions the crowd of people overflowing through this attraction.
We have been to the intermediate the Kleine Scheidegg station several times before and it had never struck us. But if you are to catch the train to the Jungfraujoch, you must be prepared for the crowds… like at a London Tube station.
A friend summarized it this way: The Swiss cram all tourists into this one, undoubtedly unusual, place. They’ll charge sky-high money for tickets and mediocre coffee, and they stay out of this place because in this way they have the whole Alps to themselves. And I think there is something to it, because you can meet hardly any Swiss under the Jungfrau.
The view of the Jungfraujoch from the trail next to Mürren
Alternative: There are three places in the area that we liked much more:
From the Kleine Scheidegg you can go below the north wall of the Eiger, bypassing all Grindelwald from above – the views and impressions are truly brilliant. And if you have a little more time, you can take an easy route to the Männlichen before.
The trail from First to the Faulhorn – First is advertised by the the Jungfrau Region as “Top of Adventure”. And, in fact, getting there on a gondola leaves a better impression on you. At the top, you have the Cliff Walk, and after just 4 km, the Faulhorn will serve you one of the best panoramas in the Swiss Alps.
The Schilthorn and Mürren – at the end of the Lauterbrunnen valley you can take the cable car and enter the restaurant famous from a James Bond movie. The views are not much worse, there are fewer people, and from the intermediate station in Mürren you have some great scenic routes.
But the most important is… Aletsch Glacier originates from Jungfrau, but it is not spectacular in this place in any way. Just… a lot of snow in a flat valley. And you certainly cannot appreciate the fact that this glacier is 23 km long. It can be admired in all its glory only 25km further south, on the “other side of the mountains”. Climbing (or riding up) the Eggishorn will leave you with a completely different experience. And only from this peak you can assess and admire the size of the longest glacier in the Alps. Another place where you can also enjoy a good view of Aletsch is Bettmeralp.
Jungfraujoch practical info and tips for your trip
However, if you do decide to go for it, then… here’s a handful of practical information about the most expensive attraction in Switzerland:
Avoid altitude sickness - the day before your trip sleep somewhere higher - Wengen, Mürren or even at the Kleine Scheidegg (hotels on Booking.com).
The price of a return ticket from Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen to Jungfraujoch is CHF 214 (you must buy a two-way ticket from Kleine Scheidegg - Jungfraujoch - Kleine Scheidegg). No cable car ticket is more expensive in Switzerland… and in whole Europe.... but...
Cheaper tickets can be bought for the morning ride up, starting from CHF 135 – details of the “Good morning” offer on the Jungfrau – Train Tickets website. You can order tickets online or buy them at the ticket office.
The journey by train in both directions takes approx. 3 hours
It is worth going there in the early morning to spend a little more time to walk on the snow.
If you have the opportunity – spend the night in Wengen (Booking.com for hotels) or at least the day before climb higher in the mountains to acclimatize, plus it is a wonderful place for photos and views.
Get ready for a big temperature change - if in Wengen the temperature is around 15°C at the Jungfraujoch level you can expect temperature lower by at least 10°C (it is 2200m altitude difference).
If the sun is shining, you absolutely need to bring sunglasses, otherwise you won’t last two hours on the snow.
It is best to buy tickets the same day because the weather at the top can be changeable and capricious. It is best to check for the clouds on a webcam
And the overall forecast is the best on MeteoBlue
Boots suitable for snow will also be useful
For young children you should take ear drops to prevent numbness of the tympanic membrane – the pressure up in the mountains is so low that small children might get severe ear pain
Check more spots in the area or... explore Switzerland with your camera:
Accommodation and hotels in the area of Wengen, Lauterbrunnen and Grindelwald
The Jungfrau region is the most crowded area of Switzerland in terms of tourism. Demand does not translate into supply. Hotels need to be booked well in advance and the prices are not low anyway. The most graceful place for a trip to Jungfrau is Wengen (179 hotels on Booking.com), because it has a fairly good hotel base and is quite picturesque, by the way. Grindelwald (339 hotels on Booking.com) is more convenient for people traveling by car. It is also a better starting point if you plan to hike in the mountains and stay there for more than two days. Lauterbrunnen will be boring. Mürren is better (33 hotels) because it can be a starting point for some nice trips.