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Bern has been Switzerland’s capital city since 1848. But what if everything you pictured as a federal capital turned out to be the complete opposite?
Many assume modern Zürich to be the Capital of Switzerland, so the slower-paced and older Capital of 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.
Except that doesn’t take away the things to do in Bern that make it stand out as a central Switzerland attraction. You can visit the Swiss capital on a culture trip, yet pack in some high adventure to go with it.
The old city of Bern retains its heritage features and packs Swiss traditions and a long history into a tiny, compact space.
But where is Bern? Located 95 kilometres southwest of Zurich, it might not immediately be on a travellers’ radar. However, Bern’s placement in the very centre of the country means it holds right to its capital reign in being the heart of the country and also in being a jumping board from which to explore wider Switzerland.
Travelling in 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. When you visit Bern, you 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.
Naturally, any visitor will begin exploring right in the heart of Bern’s historic old city. Its island-like layout is woven together by the bending Aare River and is best explored by foot (although trams do connect one end of the town to the other and the outer neighbourhoods).
Things to Do in Bern, Switzerland – The Historical Archive
Compact as it may be, there are plenty of things to see in Bern, with the old centre being where the timeworn treasures are. The Zytglogge (Clock Tower) is the darling of the city – a historical highlight and one of the most favoured ‘meeting spots’. I passed this icon dozens of times, emerging from side streets and arcades, or by circling the city as I explored.
Tours take place in the clock where you can view its history in a small museum layout and view its mechanical workings. Bern’s clock is 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 great guide to the stores here). The four miles of hidden 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 neat 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.
What to Do in Bern – Climb Higher
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 the dominating river in Bern that feeds it. You can also climb the 222 steps of Bern Münster for a 360 panoramic viewing ledge.
The Restaurant Rosegarten is an excellent 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.
See the Bern Bears – The Famous City Symbol
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 that came the tradition of always having actual bears in the city.
There’s a big Bear Park on the riverbank that borders the historic old town – the first 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.
Visit Albert Einstein’s City
A fun fact is learning that Albert Einstein lived in Bern when he discovered and published his Theory of Relativity. I visited his 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 a house visit, also check out the Einstein Café underneath. A coffee shop, cigar lounge and modern hangout, you can also order an Einstein beer.
Understand Why Bern is the City of Water
Switzerland’s capital is known 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 town, 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.
Adventure Activities in Bern
Swim in the Aare River
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. The river in Bern is so unique that this treasured activity of ‘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. No city guide to Bern is complete without a mention of this, and no trip here is whole without trying it.
This activity is a local favourite, with people using the Bern river float as a means to get home, or as a leisure activity that never gets too old, every sunny weekend.
Walk along the riverbank for 15 minutes or more to ensure you’ll spend a reasonable 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 to grab hold of one on the red bars). Yet, floating down currents of clear water in a myriad of sparkling blues was a highlight of my time in the city, adding adrenalin to my historical exploration.
To 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.
Go to Gurten Peak
If the Aare river 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 nearly two years, 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 excellent, especially as the 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.
Bern Day Trips – Exploration Outside of the City
Even if you only have a weekend city break planned 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. At Bern train station, look for a train heading to Burgdorf (less than 20 minutes away). On arrival you can hire an e-bike and spend the day taking on some scenic miles through the Emmental Valley, famed for its cheese with the holes.
The Emmental Valley is 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 path also crisscrossed with part of the newly opened ‘Cheese Route’ – a circuit of 21 historical and culinary attraction points. Here, 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. 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. At the same time, you dine on all manner of Emmental cheese-laden dishes to views of the surrounding meadows. On-site are the four cheese dairies from past 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.
Travel to Bern Guide – Extra Things to Know
Brimming with history, culture and adventure, small enough to explore in-depth in a short 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. This capital breaks the European capital persona mould.
How to Get to Bern, Switzerland
Bern has an airport, but should you be flying into Zurich (the more popular route), the direct train connection from Zurich airport to Bern is around 90 minutes.
Travelling in Bern with the Bern Ticket / Bern City Card
Ideal for Bern travel in and around the city, the Bern Ticket – complimentary when you stay at least one night in one of the hotels or tourism accommodations. It also 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.
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