Switzerland’s capital, Bern, is often overlooked on a European itinerary, but it is a city with plenty to offer the visitor. Located in the Swiss Mittelland (middle land) region, Bern is within easy reach of many of Switzerland’s more popular destinations but warrants at least of couple of days to discover this historic city which was added to UNESCO’s world heritage list in 1983.
I'm fortunate to have visited Bern numerous times as my husband's aunt lives in the city. I always love returning and wandering the attractive Altstadt (old town) which, although is always a hive of activity, is never too overwhelming. Despite its role as Switzerland's capital city, Bern retains a small town friendliness.
Founded way back in 1191, the city was built to offer protection on three sides with the River Aare providing protection on the fourth. In 1405 most of the city was destroyed by fire. Rebuilding started almost immediately in sandstone and many of these buildings still remain.
If you're lucky enough to be visiting this beautiful city, here are my recommendations for what you should plan to see and do.
Things to do in Bern, Switzerland
The clock tower (pictured above), which still stands today, was the city’s first gate and is one of the most important landmarks in Bern. More than 800 years later, you can still watch the clockwork figures perform every hour, and admire the intricate clock face which was added in 1530.
It's also possible to take a tour through the clock tower - officially known as Zytglogge. Click here to check prices.
East of the clock tower, you find yourself in the Altstadt (old town) and wandering the Laubengange, consisting of nearly six kilometres of covered arcades. It is the longest covered shopping promenade in Europe and houses cafes, restaurants, souvenir shops, boutiques, galleries and more. It’s easy to while away a few hours window shopping or enjoying a coffee whilst you decide which Swiss watch to buy!
As you wander around the Laubengange, you will also come across a fountain or two. In fact, there are over 100 fountains in the old town erected over the centuries to commemorate significant historical events. They make a colourful addition to the cobblestone streets. One of the more bizarre fountains features an ogre enjoying a meal of wriggling children!
A leisurely ten minute walk towards the River Aare and over Nydeggbrucke (Nydegg bridge) takes you to the home of Bern’s symbol, the brown bear. The Barengraben, is home to a number of Pyrenean brown bears.
Legend has it that the city’s founder killed a bear on the Aare peninsula whilst the city was being built, and the bear was adopted as the city’s symbol. The bear features on Bern’s Coat of Arms and, rightly, or wrongly, these days, serves as a tourist attraction.
For years, the bears were housed in a large concrete pit, but the new, larger bear park, extending right down to the shores of the Aare, was opened in October 2009. The new, 6000m2 site, features a large grass area, two small forests, three caves and a pool parallel to the Aare which enables the bears to enjoy the closest thing to a real bear’s life.
It’s worth taking the time to stop and take in the views as you cross back over the Nydeggbrucke. The Aare winds its way in a U-shape around the city, and from the bridge you can really appreciate the city’s medieval history and architecture.
Below you, the rushing blue-green waters of the Aare thunder by. Guided dinghy and rafting tours let you discover the city from the water in summer whilst Aare Marzili Lido serves as a popular swimming and meeting place.
Back in the old town, head for the Berner Munster (cathedral) for more great views. Building started in 1421 and today the Munster is the largest sacred building in Switzerland. A climb up the 100 metre tower gives you great views of the city from above. Be sure to also check out the cathedral's 12 metre-high stained glass windows.
Just around the corner you can visit Einstein’s house where the physicist lived when he developed the theory of relativity.
Whilst in the old town, don’t miss the thrice-weekly market. Stalls brimming with flowers, fresh fruit and vegetables and Swiss specialties abound. The first market took place in Bern during the Middle Ages, and today they remain as popular as ever.
For those looking for some serious retail therapy, Bern has plenty to offer. Bahnhofplatz, a modern shopping centre inside Bern’s main railway station, was completed in time for the city’s hosting of the 2008 European Football Championships, at a cost of 100 million Swiss Francs.
Just across the street, you’ll find the popular Loeb department store, and endless clothing and shoe shops, sports and book stores, and souvenir shops many of which are housed in the city's famous covered arcades.
The city centre also boasts a casino for those who have a little cash to spare.
A great way to see the main sights of Bern whilst learning about the city's history is to take a guided tour. You can choose from a 90-minute stroll through the Old Town (click here for prices), or a 2-hour city walking tour (check prices here).
Like most European cities, Bern offers an excellent public transport system, and being Swiss, it is clean, efficient and on time.
A pleasant half day can be spent at Gurten, a large park set high on a hill overlooking the city. An easy tram ride from the centre of Bern, and then a ten minute funicular ride up the hillside, takes you to the popular park.
Situated 864 metres above sea level, Gurten Park offers not only spectacular views over the city, a café and restaurant, but the park is also a favourite amongst families with an excellent adventure playground and miniature train rides for the children, and plenty of room to run around.
Day trips from Bern
With its central location, Bern makes a great base for day trips. Lucerne is only an hour and a half away, and the popular holiday town of Interlaken is the starting point for many magnificent trips into the alps, including the Jungfrau and Schilthorn.
Just an hour from Bern, Interlaken is also the meeting point of two of Switzerland’s most spectacular lakes, Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. With water sports and lake cruises on offer, and quaint Swiss villages to explore, this is the perfect destination for a relaxing day trip. I also highly recommend a visit to nearby Lauterbrunnen.
Where is Bern?
Bern is situated in Switzerland's Mittelland. It is 150 kilometres from Zurich and 183 kilometres from Geneva.
How to get to Bern
If you won't have a car when visiting the city, Bern can be easily reached via train. A major rail hub in central Europe, the city has frequent daily connections to destinations both within Switzerland and throughout Europe.
Where to Stay in Bern
Now that you have decided to spend a few days in Bern, where will you stay? Bern offers something for everyone, from camping grounds to hostels, apartments to hotels. In 2013 I spent a couple of nights at Hotel La Pergola - you can read my review here and click here for to check current prices.
Wherever you choose to stay, you’ll be treated to a friendly, compact city, bursting with history but still boasting the necessities of modern day living. Make sure you add the capital to your Swiss itinerary – you won’t be disappointed.
Have you visited the Swiss capital of Bern? What were your favourite things to see and do?
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