Bern is the capital of Switzerland. It was founded by Duke Berthold V von Zähringen in 1191, and formed part of the Holy Roman Empire. It later became the largest independent city state north of the Alps. It joined the Swiss Confederation in 1353, and in 1848, it became the capital of Switzerland.
It has managed to successfully retain a lot of its historic features, and its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Swiss government sits here, and the Houses of Parliament are open to visitors the majority of the time.
The town grew up around the Aare River on hilly ground, and so the city areas are on low ground along the river, and it spreads out onto higher ground. Bridges have been built across the river over the years to allow for expansion of the city.
The city center has a unique mediaeval atmosphere and contains old fountains, narrow streets, and sandstone facades. The ancient bastions and entrenchments drop steeply down to the river.
The central location of Bern offers easy access to trips throughout Switzerland; but Bern itself offers more than enough to keep a holidaymaker busy.
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Best time to go
The best weather in Bern is between April and September. Late spring brings long days and good weather. The summer temperatures in August are pleasing. The summer weather is unpredictable though, so take your warm clothes. As the temperature peaks, so does the rainfall, so be prepared. But the rain is short-lived, and you can go about your visit after a short period. From July to mid-August are their holiday periods, so some of the smaller restaurants may be closed.
Getting Around in Bern
Bern has a world-class public transportation system, with a choice of buses, trolleybuses, trams, and trains.
In the city center, on foot is the best way to see the sights close up, and for shopping and eating at the restaurants. Outside of the city center the tram is the best.
You can hire a bike for 4 hours for free, and thereafter pay a small fee per hour, from the main train station, or Zeughausgasse or Hirschengraben. You’ll need your passport or ID.
By train you can travel to the suburbs, and to other cities such as Fribourg or Biel, should you want to explore a little further.
If you have a car, be aware that free parking in the city centre is rare to find, and that the paid parking is quite expensive. If you’re visiting the city centre, it’s best to park at a ‘park and ride’ and take public transport into the centre, and walk to wherever you like from there.
If you prefer to take taxis, there are stands at the main train station, and some stands in the city centre.
Major Attractions and Sights
There are 114 Swiss heritage sites of national significance in Bern, so it’s hard to miss a couple of them. The Old Town in its entirety is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A few outside Old Town include: the Eidgenössisches Archiv für Denkmalpflege, the Kirchenfeld mansion district, the Swiss National Library, and the Historical Museum.
While strolling around, you’ll find eleven 16th century fountains. They are charming, and their colorful sculpted figures that adorn them are proof of the prosperity of the town in the Middle Ages. As recently as a hundred years ago, people gathered at them to gossip; today their crystal-clear water offers welcome refreshment to locals and visitors alike.
Be sure to visit the Zytglogge, or Clock Tower. Built around the turn of the 13th century, the animatronic technology is astounding for those times. Every hour on the hour, is displayed what the locals proudly tell you is the longest running act in show business. A few minutes before the hour, a song plays, accompanied by a jester drumming. On top of the hour, an old bearded king and some bears join in. The clock is so detailed that it also tells the day, the month, the phase of the moon, and the sign of the zodiac! You can take a free guided tour inside the tower to look at the mechanisms working from the inside. Book the tour at the tourist office.
Still in Old Town, the cathedral was begun in 1421 and is the tallest in Switzerland. The Holy Ghost Church is one of the largest Swiss Reformed churches in Switzerland.
In 2008, Old Town was given a new entrance, called the Baldachin. Reminiscent of the glass pyramid at the Louvre, the Baldachin is a steel and glass construction, featuring an undulating glass roof, through which the Holy Ghost Church and the Citizens’ Hospital can be viewed whilst keeping the aesthetics.
The Rosengarten (rose garden) is a park that offers a great view over Old Town, and is a popular place for locals to go at lunchtime.
The bear is Bern’s heraldic animal, and legend goes that von Zähringen named the town for the first bear caught there. They take pride in the bear pit (Bärengraben), which has been there since the 16th century. There are currently four bears in an open-air enclosure. The facilities have recently been upgraded, and the bears can even swim in a section of the river. In summer the opening hours are 8am to 5.30pm, and 9am to 4pm in winter.
The Gurten Hill is just outside the city. It has a park, from where you can view both the city, and the Bernese Alps. It’s popular with the locals who like to play football, do a spot of sun tanning, or barbeque. It has hiking paths, a playground, and a restaurant. Entrance is free.
Swimming in the River Aare on a hot summer day is great recreation. There are public pools along the river which are free, so you can ‘land’ at one of them to have a shower afterwards.
If you’re into gambling the Grand Casino Bern offers black jack, poker, roulette and over 300 slot machines.
Shopping in Bern
Bern boasts six kilometres of arcades, which represent the longest weather-sheltered shopping promenade in Europe. Westside shopping centre has 55 shops, restaurants, a cinema and a spa. There are other malls too, for all the regular merchandise.
At Beck Glatz Confiseur you can buy the Mandelbärli, or almond bear, which is a great Bern souvenir, and a speciality of the confectioner.
Bucherer is a world renowned jeweller founded in 1888. This traditional company specialises in the finest watches, clocks and jewellery.
On the Bundesplatz you’ll find the vegetable, fruit and flower markets, on Tuesdays and Saturdays, and daily in summer. On the first Saturday of the month there is a craft market in front of the cathedral.
Eating Out in Bern
If you’re on a budget, the Beaulieu on Erlachstrasse is recommended; it’s a traditional restaurant that offers classic Bernese and Swiss cuisine at great prices. Its proximity to the university means it’s popular with the students, and is also popular with the local working population. If you prefer local to a tourist trap, this is the place to go and rub shoulders with the Bernese.
Equally good value is to be found at Suan Long, underneath the main train station. With fast service and a big variety of Chinese dishes, together with a wide vegetarian selection, this is the ideal eatery; especially if you’re waiting for a train.
For middle-of-the-road costs, try the Kornhaus, on the Kornhausplatz. This beautiful restaurant, as you can probably deduce, is in an old granary. It serves mostly Italian food, and your eyes will be wandering all around the restaurant, as it is covered with frescos of traditional Swiss scenes and historical events.
Also in the medium range is the Restaurant Muesmatt, on Freiestrasse. It was built in 1891 to service the steel workers at the Von Roll steelworks in Bern. The Von Roll buildings were converted into university lecture halls, and the brownstone houses around it now house students. This eatery offers fresh local organic produce, and has an outside terrace you can sit on, with great old oak trees offering shade. They serve the local Burgdorfer beer, and wifi is available.
If you prefer a scenic meal, try the Casino Restaurant on Herrengasse. It’s on the Aare River, and offers great views of the river and the mountains. The recommended dish is the pasta with mushrooms, and there’s a range of meat and fish dishes too.
If you’re in the mood to splurge, the place to be seen at is the Bellevue Palace, on the Kochergasse. It’s pricey, but if you go whilst parliament is in session, you might just come across the Swiss president eating his lunch there.
Also in the high price range is the Restaurant Rosengarten, which offers great views of the city.
Nightlife in Bern
You absolutely have to try the Bern Pub Crawl! It happens on the first Friday of the month, and it’s free. Well, except for your drinks. Bern has a vibrant bar scene, and there’s no better way to get around to seeing the local bars, and making friends in fun places. Every hour, the group moves on to a new bar. You’ll meet both locals, and international travelers like yourself, and have a ball. Google them for details.
The Liquid Club is a high-tech venue. From where you’re sitting in the lounge, you look down through the glass floor onto the dance floor, which has a revolving stage in the centre of it. The club is used alternately as a disco, a reading room, a concert hall, and a theatre. Its clientele is trendy and chic.
Le ciel opened its doors in 2010, with Bob Sinclair as the DJ. DJs from the VIP ROOM Paris and Mansion Miami have also played there. The 250 square meter dance floor hosts mainly house and RnB, with a mix of party hits thrown in. A great place for partying.
Next to the clock tower you’ll find Du Théâtre, nicknamed the DüDü by the locals, is a trendy club that has both a bar and a lounge. The lounge has comfortable leather chairs and sofas, a fireplace and a glass roof. Famous DJs offer the latest in music; whether you’re sipping cocktails in the lounge or partying to the music, a good time can be had by all.
The Bern Theatre, known as Stadttheater Bern, is an opera house and theatre that has seen many great performances. If you would enjoy an evening of high European culture, check their itinerary to see what is on while you’re in the city.
Of Local Interest
March sees Museums Night, which heralds the coming of spring. Bern’s museum’s doors stay open until the early hours of the morning and thousands stream through the doors. It’s a novel experience.
From March to May is the Bern Jazz Festival – drawing visitors from all over Switzerland as well as abroad, to the capital. It’s one of the most important traditional jazz events, and has been running since 1976.
May sees the Grand Prix – Switzerland’s largest racing event, and a top-notch spectacle with this historic town as a picturesque backdrop.
In June, you can enjoy the Bern Dance Festival; devoted to all types of dance. There are workshops, discussions, performances and exhibitions.
July hosts the Gurtenfestival, which is held on top of Gurten Hill. It goes on for four days, and features artists from the international music scene; tens of thousands attend, so it’s quite a party, both day and night.
In August is the Buskers Bern Street Festival. It is held on the streets of the Old Town at around 20 stops. The street musicians play mostly cabaret. It’s free, but you are encouraged to give donations to the musicians from all over the world; or at least to buy a festival pin.
In the second week of November the Queersicht is held, which is a gay and lesbian film festival.
The 4th Monday in November brings the Onion Market to the squares of the city centre. People start pouring in in the early morning hours, and by the end of it the squares are strewn with confetti. The stall holders display their wares, which include onion tarts, and onions plaited together. It’s a colorful celebration, and worth going to see.