Bern has been Switzerland’s federal capital since 1848. But what if everything you pictured a capital city to be turned out to be the complete opposite?
Many assume Zürich to be the capital of Switzerland, so the slower-paced and compact Bern is quite the surprise. Travel to Bern certainly changes perceptions on what a capital city should be, or what it is typically deemed to be. Absent are high-rises and a financial centre; bustling crowds and dense populations that fill miles of distinct districts that hug an old central, historical pocket.
Instead, Bern retains its old heritage features and packs Swiss traditions, culture and a long history in a tiny, compact space.
Switzerland’s Capital City of Bern
The Old Town of Bern was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1983 because of the preserved medieval city centre. It’s also home to the first Lindt chocolate factory, legends of bears (and real bears) and Einstein’s most famous published work. It can also tune up a gear with some more adventurous action; including following the locals who have made urban swimming an actual UNESCO listed Swiss tradition.
Bern’s placement in the very centre of the country means it holds true to its capital reign in being the heart of the country and also in being a jumping board from which to explore wider Switzerland.
Naturally, any visitor will begin exploring right in the heart of Bern – in the historical old town. It’s island like layout woven together by the bending Aare River, is best explored by foot (although trams do connect one end of the city to the other and to the outer neighbourhoods).
The Zytglogge (Clock Tower) is the darling of the city – an historical highlight and one of the most favoured ‘meeting spots’. I passed this dozens of times, emerging from side streets and arcades, or simply by circling the city as I explored. Tours take place inside the clock where you can see the history of it, and view its mechanical workings. It’s otherworldly in its old, creaking, hidden loft-like dwelling, and has large windows that open out onto the city for a closer, and more exclusive perspective.
The streets from the clock tower house a neat row of arcades that stretch over 6km, giving Bern the title as having one of the longest covered shopping promenades in all of Europe (there’s a cool guide to the stores here). The four miles of covered stores that form arching waves within the baroque buildings are not just on the surface though. More intriguing for me, were the shops underground, whose small wooden slat doors are open on the street for those who want to venture down into cave-like cool dwellings, housing all manner of boutiques, bars and cafes.
The medieval streets and narrow side alleys weave you typical old town highlights of Bern, including a smattering of churches, a Town Hall and an opulent mint and gold-topped parliament building. Ghost walks take place in the old medieval alleyways at night for an alternative look at the city’s history.
One of the best elevated viewpoints over the old city is from the Rose Garden (the entrance pathway is metres away from the bear pit). A green oasis up high, filled with over 200 types of roses, this area is an idyllic frame over the orange hues of historical brickwork and dominating Aare that feeds it. You can also climb the 222 steps of Bern Münster for a 360 panoramic viewing ledge.
The Restaurant Rosegarten is a good excuse to stop and enjoy this postcard view, as is the Altes Tramdepot craft beer brewery and restaurant at the bottom of the hill which looks out to the old town.
When you visit Bern, you’ll immediately notice why it is known as the ‘City of Bears’. Bear symbols can be found all around the city on murals, flags, fountain decorations and even on the Zytglogge. It comes from the legend that a bear was the first animal to be killed by the founder of the city from which came the tradition of always having actual bears in the city. There’s a big Bear Park on the riverbank that borders the historical old town, the first of which was documented in 1441. While this is not something I believe in, it exists and will always be a talking point of the city, although I’m glad they have a home now that is 6000 square metres and not the original small pit adjacent to it.
A fun fact is learning that Albert Einstein lived in Bern when he discovered and published his Theory of Relativity. I visited his original apartment in the very heart of the old town, since this perfectly suits my inner-geek sensibilities and I love looking around the houses of those deemed a genius. German born, Einstein came to Switzerland when he was just 16 years old and continued to study here. He lived in Bern between 1902 and 1909, publishing 32 scientific papers, one of them being the Theory of Relativity and the other being the one for which he was awarded a Noble Peace Prize.
The interactive Einstein Museum is also a noted point of interest and frequented highlight of Bern, but if you only have time for house visit, also check out the Einstein Café underneath. A coffee shop, cigar lounge and modern hangout, you can also order an Einstein beer.
Switzerland’s capital is seen as the city of water, with fountains on every avenue and street corner (there are dozens of them!). The river used to run through the city, and if you look hard enough you will still see a small flow that runs through a small channel under the main streets, Kramgasse and Gerechtigkeitgasse.
But the most central water point is the Aare River, a U-shaped playground for locals who float down its fast currents that hug the historical centre. So much so that this treasured ‘urban swimming’ is officially on the UNESCO list of Swiss traditions. So while you can slowly wander the UNESCO Heritage Old City, you are not fully inducted into Bernese life until you have taken a float down the fast-flowing aqua beauty of the River Aare that curves through it. This is a local favourite, with people using the river float as a means to get home, or as a leisure activity that never gets too old, each and every sunny weekend.
Walk along the riverbank for 15 minutes or more to ensure you’ll spend a good amount of time in the water, find a spot to jump in and away you go. It’s a cold start and a heart-racing journey, especially getting out (where you have to get over to one side in order to grab hold of one on the red bars), but floating down currents of clear water in a myriad of sparking blues was a highlight of my time in the city, adding adrenalin to my historical exploration.
To really fit in with the locals, be sure to take your dry bag featuring Bärnhard the Bear that is available at the local tourism office. A stop at the infamous Gelateria di Berna before or after all the fun is also a right of passage – it’s the best-loved gelato in town.
If this adventure isn’t enough, then head to Gurten Peak – a short tram ride outside of the centre of the city.
A Toboggan is always a good idea, especially the one up above Bern. Open now for just over one year, this mountain toboggan whirls for 500m down an overall drop of 55m on one side of Gurten peak. Not only do you get to bring out the child in you (I went on this three times and would have continued if it had not been for closing time) but on a clear day you’ll get to see an incredible panoramic view of Bern in all its glory.
The restaurant nestled up here – Gurtners – is great especially as time approaches sundown, with its boutique style and stunning peak setting. Newly renovated and re-opened in March 2017, you can indulge in its self-proclaimed ‘good food made with love’ while chilling at altitude.
Exploration Outside of Bern
Even if you only have a long weekend or a few short days in Bern, the regional train network means further exploration is close at hand. Rolling green valleys and emerald meadows mark the diversity of the wider Bern region, and like any city, there’s always more than the history within. So I got on a train to Burgdorf (less than 20 minutes away), grabbed an e-bike and spent the day taking on some scenic miles through the Emmental Valley, famed for its cheese with the holes.
The Emmental Valley is actually situated in the middle of Bern and Luzern, but Burgdorf (which itself was once a part of Bern) is a starting point of the cycling trails. Not only was this a gentle cycle on panoramic views and curving paths ways through valleys, but a chance to sample part of the Herzroute that runs across the country.
This also criss-crossed with part of the newly opened ‘Cheese Route’ (a circuit of 21 historical and culinary attraction points) where I got to stop in some pretty spots in the Emmental Valley and take in some views of the hills scattered with traditional farmhouses and with distant views of the mighty Alps (because I always need a view of my favourite mountains). Emmental also has over 1100km of marked walking trails if you wish to ‘cheese farmhouse hop’ your way around.
We naturally stopped at the Emmentaler Showdairy for lunch. Glass windows allow you to peer into the working production rooms from two levels, while you dine on all manner of Emmental cheese laden dishes to views of the surrounding meadows. On site are the four cheese dairies from bygone centuries, where you can learn about how cheese dairy-farming and production in Switzerland has changed over the years by visiting the first dairies from 1741 and 1900, the village dairy from 1954 and now the modern one.
Brimming with history, culture and adventure; small enough to explore in-depth in a shot amount of time; and nestled right in the middle of Switzerland from which to explore the country in every direction, there’s no excuse not to visit Bern – a capital that breaks the European capital persona mould.
Travel to Bern. Things to Know:
How to Get to Bern
Bern has its own airport, but should you be flying in to Zurich, the direct train connection from Zurich airport to Bern station is around 90 minutes.
The Bern Ticket
The Bern Ticket – complimentary when you stay at least one night in one of the hotels or tourism accommodations – grants you free access to all public transportation the central city zones, the Marzilibähnnli and Gurtenbahn funicular railways, and transfers to and from Bern Airport.
If you are a museum dweller, you can purchase a separate Museum Card, priced at 28 Francs for 24 hours and 48 Francs for 48 hours, giving you free access to all museums and collections in the city.
Where to Stay in Bern
I stayed in Hotel Allegro, a 4* property just across the river from the Old Town and less than five minutes walk to the clock tower (although it’s also connected by the tram).
Getting Around Bern
Day trips to areas like the Emmental Valley are easily accessible due to the great train network system. Day Saver Tickets mean you can flexible with timings going to and from Bern to nearby stations.
For more information on Bern including city tours and excursions, visit the comprehensive tourism website.
I was invited by Bern Tourism and Switzerland Tourism to uncover the city of Bern in my style – seeking out cultural and historical highlights, while highlighting the accessible adventure activities in and around the city (in conjunction with Emmental Tourism). All opinions remain my own, in changing the perceptions of an underated European capital.