The Top of Europe, as you might expect, is high in the Alps mountain range that runs for 1200 km through eight alpine countries. What you might not expect though, is that it’s the viewing point for the longest glacier in the Alps, the Great Aletsch Glacier, which twists around the mountains for around 23 km.
It’s also home to the Sphinx Observation Hall (the dome you can see on the photo above) for scientific observations, a SnowFun Park, and Ice Palace.
One of the most unique experiences, the Jungfrau Ice Palace is a fairy-tale world of eerie see-through shapes, narrow snow tunnel hallways, thick snow pathways that crunch beneath your sneakers — and crisp air that wraps you like a mummy, sticks fingers under your clothes, and chills you right to the bone.
Getting to the Top of Europe
My adventure began with an 8 a.m. departure from my hotel, the Lindner Grand Hotel Beau Rivage, in Interlaken. Besides being extremely comfortable, the hotel also had the advantage of being just a block from the Interlaken Ost Train Station, the first leg of the journey.
At Lauterbrunnen — an amazing Alpine Valley with 72 waterfalls and one of Switzerland’s biggest nature conservation areas — we changed trains and continued our journey to Kleine Scheidegg for our last train transfer.
The Jungfrau Railway climbs what literally feels straight up — and through — the Alps. Total travel time to the top is just over two hours, with mountain overlooks and dark, solid rock corridors. It operates 365 days a year, so you can visit no matter what time of year you’re in Switzerland.
There are two stops of five minutes each inside two of the mountains, the Eiger and Mönch. The first station is called the Eiger Wall (Eigerwand), and the second, the Sea of Ice (Eismeer). I got out of the train car at Esimeer and found the air crisp, with the rock walls damp and frosty when I touched them. The viewing window, an arch cut into the stone, spread out above and below us like an Ice Queen’s snowy kingdom. The narrow stream gushing from above the arch, her tears melted in the sunshine.
We were at an elevation of around 9400 feet (2865 meters), or as a brochure said, “between heaven and earth.”
The train reached its final destination at Jungfraujoch, Europe’s highest altitude railway station (3454 meters a.s.l.). It was incredibly sunny with blue skies the day I visited, so I could see France’s Vosges Mountains and the Black Forest in Germany from the top of Europe!
Once you’re at the top of Europe, you’re in a winter wonderland with lots of things to do before starting your train descent back down the mountain. And when you’re ready to rest or take a nutrition break, there are two seated restaurants seating nearly 200 people (Restaurant Crystal — international cuisine along with Swiss dishes) and Restaurant Bollywood (Indian cuisine). Aletsch is a self-service restaurant with seating for 150 people.
- Construction on the Jungfrau Railway started in 1896.
- Took 3000 men and 16 years to drill.
- Completion took 9 years longer than planned, until 1912.
- It first operated as an Adhesion Railway, with cogwheel system in the final ascent.
- In 1951 the whole railway was converted to cogwheel.
The snowy aisles and hallways of the ice palace were built by mountain guides in the 1930s — now, somewhere around two million people a year wander through those same corridors, wide-eyed and open-mouthed, as they take in the sculptures and artwork that decorate the palace rooms. (Check out the Flickr slideshow!)
Those icy rooms have more in them than people and artwork, though, as you’ll find the usual cocktail bar with “chilled” glasses. You can even sip some whisky that has been barreled and aged in the -5 frosty air for three or four years at the top of Europe. If you like, you can even buy a bottle to take home to share with friends who may never get to experience the Ice Palace.
The glacier began to melt more quickly than normal early in the 1990s. Land attached to the glacier, the Moosfluh, used to move less than a cm per year. But since 1995, it has been moving at 30 cm per year, along with increasing rock falls.
Locals indicate that since 1860, when visitors began to climb up to see the glacier, it has lost around 3km in length, and 200 m in height.
Getting to the Glacier Today
Today, at the Top of Europe, you have lots of choices on how you see the glacier. If you want an extreme adventure, you can take the two-day glacier trek with a hut overnighter.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have time to give it a try.
Alternatively, it’s just a 45 minute walk from the station top to the glacier, so if the elevation doesn’t take your breath away — literally — you can experience the Aletsch as tourists did a century ago. If you’re short on breath, or time, you can use the viewing platform instead.
My 360 degree view of the Top of Europe was one of those moments you never forget. The incredibly white snow sparkling in the sunshine. The dark mountain peaks. The craggy white frosted cliffs. The smell and touch of the alpine air that filled my lungs!
That way my view from the platform of the Sphinx building and observation terrace at 3571 m, and 117 m above the Jungfraujoch — Top of Europe. The double lift was easy, and with a capacity of 1200 people per hour, there was no waiting.
There’s lots to do to fill a day at the Top of Europe, especially if you’d like to take more challenges! If you want something tame, try sliding downhill on a snow disk.
Or, if you’re more daring, try the zipline — I did. In fact, it was the easiest zipline ever, as all I had to do was drag my feet in the bit of snow that remained to stop. No worrying about getting a mechanism to slow me down or getting stuck in the middle if I slowed down too soon.
There’s some easy skiing and snowboarding, along with dogsledding, for a different experience. And, if you’d like something your friends have likely never done in the snow, put on a pair of moon boots and play a round of golf!
Great Aletsch Glacier at the Top of Europe
The Great Aletsch Glacier covers an area of 86 square km spread out over a distance of 23 km. The ice of the glacier is 900 m deep at Concordia.
If this mass of ice was melted, it could supply every single person on the Earth with a litre of water every day for 4.5 years. Now, that’s a big chunk of ice!
In 2001, the area including the Aletsch Glacier, along with Jungfrau and Bietschhorn (82,400 ha.) became a UNESCO World Heritage site, noting that it’s the largest glacier in Eurasia. Its universal values for designation include beauty (recognized in tourism and art), and contributions to our knowledge about the formation of mountains and glaciers as well as climate change.
I visited the Top of Europe as part of an International Media Trip and travel conference, hosted by Switzerland Tourism. It was an amazing trip and I can’t thank them enough for letting me experience so many amazing activities in their country.