As Switzerland's federal capital and gateway to the Alps, Bern impresses visitors with its relaxed atmosphere and wide range of cultural and leisure activities. Efficient and well-organised, the city has managed to preserve its old-world charm thanks to its UNESCO-listed historic centre and its six kilometres of arcades, making it a perfect shopping destination at any time of year.
As Switzerland’s federal capital and gateway to the Alps, Berne knows how to impress first-time visitors. The city offers a relaxed and glamorous atmosphere: the narrow medieval alleyways invite you to stroll along, the open-air cafés provide refreshment after a long walk or a cool afternoon aperitif, and the numerous craft shops in the old town offer original and good quality products. But Bern is also the gateway to the Alps: from here the options for excursions and sporting activities seem almost endless! You can choose between a trip to the hilly landscapes of the Emmental, a visit to the imposing mountains of the Gantrisch Nature Park or a hike through the idyllic Oberaargau. What if it rains? Don’t worry! The city’s indoor cultural offerings are also wide and varied: the Paul Klee Centre, which houses the largest collection of Paul Klee’s works; the Albert Einstein House and Museum, which bear witness to the physicist’s stay in Bern at the beginning of the 20th century; the numerous exhibitions in the History Museum, the Art Museum, the Swiss Alpine Museum or the Museum of Communication. We chose Bern for a spring weekend, but the city is also perfect for a visit in autumn or winter, when the large open-air markets become the absolute protagonists of city life.
Arriving by train
As usual, we used public transport to get to Bern. From Lucerne, a train takes you directly to the city in just under an hour and a half, but Bern is also well connected to other major Swiss cities (such as Zurich, Basel, Geneva and Interlaken) and the major European cities. In both cases, you should always check the updated timetables and the different travel options through the SBB website or through the SBB app.
Arriving by car
Bern is of course also accessible by car through the excellent road network that connects it to Geneva, Zurich, Basel and the Bernese Oberland. But we don’t recommend arriving here by car: the historical centre has many limited traffic areas and in order to get around the city freely you will be forced to leave your car in one of the many paid car parks. Here you can find the list.
Upon arrival, the city welcomes us with a few shy rays of sunshine. However, the weather today is rather uncertain, so we expect some rain before the end of the day. The area around the central station is a huge bustle of cars, trams and people. We are a bit surprised: we had expected a quiet and relaxed Bern, not at all chaotic. But it’s Saturday morning, after all, and we’ll find a relaxed and dreamy Bern along the cobbled streets of the city centre.
Today’s programme is a long walk through the city, from the old town to the Tierpark area along the banks of the river Aare. As soon as we leave the central station, we head straight for the hotel. We chose the Goldener Schlüssel, a small hotel in the city centre, a few steps away from the famous clock tower. It is one of the oldest hotels in Bern, completely renovated in 2008. It has a friendly staff and clean, but definitely small rooms. However, the location in the centre and the restaurant make it a good choice for a weekend in the city. It’s still early to check in, but we decide to go to reception anyway to drop off our luggage and collect our Bern Tickets. All those staying at city hotels receive a card that allows free travel on public transport in the city centre. Also included are the famous Gurten funicular railway, the Marzilibahn funicular railway and the lift to the Münster Terrace (the city’s cathedral). All information can be found here. After completing the formalities at the hotel, we are ready for our city tour!
A stroll through Bern
Our walk starts right from the hotel. We take advantage of the sunny morning to stay outdoors and explore the city from the banks of the Aare river. We walk along Rathausgasse to get out of the city centre. We walk towards the Kornhausbrücke, a high viaduct that crosses the river and connects the old town with the north bank of the river. We only discover later that a little lower down, along the river, a comfortable pedestrian bridge has been built. But we, intent on observing the city, couldn’t find the right path to it in time and, all in all, it was for the best: the view from the Kornhausbrücke over the old city and the river is still one of the most beautiful images of this city weekend. Back down along the banks of the Aare, after a steep flight of steps, the city changes appearance and becomes calm and quiet. Down here, in fact, the noise of the city centre does not arrive and the silence is only interrupted by the shouts of the few daring river swimmers. In Switzerland, swimming in rivers is a popular sport, especially in towns that do not have bathing lakes.
Rosengarten, Bears park and the zoo
After less than a kilometre, we leave the banks of the river and climb a little higher, towards the Rosengarten. Originally conceived as a cemetery, the Rosengarten is now one of the city’s most beautiful parks, a perfect place to relax, socialise or have a Sunday picnic. We walk around the park, take lots of photos and continue on our way. We walk down to the river again, a little further down. Here we first cross the Nydeggbrücke, one of the bridges with the best views of the city, then the famous bear pit (Bärengraben) and the Bear Park (Bärenpark). Bern is historically linked to the bear, an animal that has always been its symbol and that you will find almost everywhere in the city. There are also many legends that link the city and its name to bears. Don’t worry, we won’t tell you all of them! What you do need to know is that since 1857 the bears have been living in what is now the Bärengraben, a hole about three and a half metres deep, certainly renovated several times over the years to improve living conditions for the bears, but still a hole. Thankfully, the protests over recent decades and the population’s changing awareness of animal rights have allowed the bears, since 2009, to have a larger and more spacious park on the banks of the river, in which the four captive bears can live, play, eat and relax. The Bärenpark is always open and visible from outside, but be warned – it’s not always easy to spot the bears! They are shy! From the Bärenpark, our route continues along the river for a few more kilometres, passing through lush forests and seamless city streets. We even meet some guys surfing the Aare River!
After about three kilometres we arrive at the zoo, the Tierpark. We are personally against the exploitation of animals for entertainment or leisure purposes, so we decide not to visit the zoo, despite the fact that it is considered one of the city’s main attractions. However, whether we like it or not, the footpath runs alongside some of the animal shelters, which can be seen from outside even without paying the entrance fee. We make the encounter with friendly pelicans, adorable baby goats and a large family of wild boars.
The old town: Federal Palace, Zytglogge, Cathedral
But Bern’s real strength lies in its historic centre, which has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983 because of its unchanged charm and excellent state of preservation. With its imposing sandstone buildings, narrow streets and six kilometers of arcades, walking through this part of the city has a special charm. We spent part of Saturday afternoon and half a day on Sunday visiting the old town, taking advantage of a guided tour organised by the tourist office. We recommend it if you want to discover some hidden sides of the city or learn about its ancient history. Here is all the information about the tour and how to book it. Our tour starts from the central station, where we are given a quick overview of the city and its history: founded in 1191 on a narrow peninsula surrounded by the river Aare, the city was enlarged several times over the centuries, encompassing ever larger areas. But in 1405 a violent fire destroyed the old wooden houses and killed over a hundred people. After that event, the city ordered the houses to be rebuilt in sandstone, the same sandstone that still dominates the landscape of the city centre today. The more than six kilometers of world-famous arcades were also built after the fire of 1405 in order to provide local craftsmen with an indoor working space. Today, the arcades allow citizens and tourists to stroll through the centre, regardless of the weather. The first stop on our guided tour of the city is the Federal Palace which, with its green and gold dome, strongly characterises the capital’s skyline. The building is the heart of Swiss democracy: the parliament meets here and a number of government bodies and the federal administration are based here. The idea of a federal building in Bern arose after the Civil War of 1847. After that, a federal constitution was quickly drafted and, in the summer of 1848, federal Switzerland as we know it today was born. The Federal Palace is therefore intended to be a symbol of the newfound unity and peace. The Federal Council commissioned a Swiss architect (Hans Wilhelm Auer) to build it. In order to further strengthen the symbolic value of the project, he chose to use 30 varieties of stone from 13 cantons and employed only Swiss workers. For those who wish to learn more, it is of course also possible to visit the palace inside on guided tours. You can find all the information and timetables here.
There is a large square in front of the Federal Palace. Until 2003, this area was used as a car park. In 2004, however, it was completely renovated. Today, the square is the nerve centre of the city’s social and political life: many markets are held here and enliven city life, as well as many political events that take place here, right in front of the government building. The square is also characterised by 26 fountains with water features, one for each Swiss canton: water spurts out of the stone slabs up to seven meters high, delighting young and old alike. You can see it active from spring to autumn, but not of course on market days or during political events.
From Federal Square we move on to the true heart of the city: the Zytglogge, the clock tower, an imposing building with an old astronomical clock that is still working. Here we see a curious spectacle: at the stroke of every hour, small mechanical figures come to life and put on their show, including bears, jesters, a golden rooster and Kronos, God of time. From the Zytglogge, our visit continues through the elegant streets of the centre towards the Cathedral which, with its bell tower, the tallest in Switzerland, dominates the surrounding landscape and stands out in the city skyline. At the time of our visit, the building was undergoing renovation and consequently partially covered by scaffolding. We decided to take only a brief tour of the interior, but did not climb the 312 steps to the top of the bell tower, which is said to offer a magnificent view over the rooftops of the city, the river, the surrounding countryside and the Bernese Oberland peaks. It will be for our next visit to the city. We don’t miss out on a coffee outside on the cathedral terrace. The Münster-Plattform is the perfect meeting place for the citizens of Bern. The former cathedral cemetery, with its chestnut trees and greenery, is now a magnificent urban park where you can stop for a relaxing break, a picnic or a beer with friends. From here, the view of the Aare river, the Alps and the Matte district of Bern is magnificent. We were already in the city centre and therefore we could reach the terrace on foot, but if you are in the lower part of the city or if, on the contrary, you want to go down from the terrace to the Matte district, don’t worry: you can use the Senkeltram, an external lift that connects the terrace with the Badgasse below. It costs CHF 1.20, but use of the lift is included in the Bern ticket, if you have one.
Tired, hungry and thirsty, it’s almost time to catch the train home. So we buy a sandwich for lunch, fill our water bottles at one of the many city fountains and head for the central station, where a train is waiting to take us home.
The exhibition "Queer - Diversity is in our nature"
With our Bern tickets, we escape the rain by visiting the Natural History Museum to see the exhibition “Queer – Diversity is in our nature”. This is an interesting trip into sex, sexuality and gender identity in the human and animal worlds, in an attempt to try and answer the question we perhaps hear all too often: what is natural and what is not? Well, if you visit the exhibition you will come away with one certainty: when it comes to the animal kingdom and human biology, almost everything is natural! In nature there are organisms with one, two and many sexes – sometimes simultaneously. In addition, science is discovering new variations in sex and gender every day, which, as we now know, is not only physical, but above all mental. In short, we recommend a visit! You have until 19/03/2023, but be warned: unfortunately the exhibition is only available in German and French. You can find all the information here.
In Switzerland swimming in the rivers is a very popular sport. It works like this: you undress, put on your swimsuit, put your clothes in special waterproof bags (available in sporting goods stores and supermarkets) and, with the bag over your shoulder, you dive into the water to swim or just let yourself be carried away by the current! Would you like to try it too? What matters is to be a good swimmer, choose areas where swimming is officially allowed and check in advance the points of entry and exit from the water.
Water flows almost everywhere in Bern. There are more than 100 public fountains in the city and all of them spout fresh, drinkable water that is accessible to everyone free of charge. So bring a water bottle with you! What’s more, each fountain has its own charm. You won’t be able to stop photographing them and observing the colors and strange figures that are represented!