Biel/Bienne (Biel in German, Bienne in French) is the 10th largest city of Switzerland and is located on the northern edge of the canton of Bern. Famous for watchmaking, and home to Rolex, Omega and Swatch among other famous makers.
The city lies at the foot of the first mountain range of the Jura Mountains area, guarding the only practical connection to Jura in the area, and on the northeastern shores of Lake Biel (Bielersee, Lac de Bienne), sharing the eastern tip of the lake with its sister city, Nidau.
The city has more than 50,000 inhabitants and the agglomeration more than 100,000.
Biel or Bienne is a rather unusual place since its name is different depending on which side of Switzerland the people come from. Biel is the German name for this town, Bienne is for the French speaking residents. Being on a language boundary such as this means that there are several languages spoken in the area so most people can get by with a smattering of one or the other.
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History and Geography
The city itself sits snugly at the base of the Jura Mountain range which is really the only safe route in this area of tall peaks and deep valleys. It also sits on the north eastern shore of Lake Biel (also known as Bielersee or Lac de Bienne). There is also another city sitting here, Nidau, with several other administrative centers about half an hour away by car or train.
This area has been inhabited for literally centuries with Neolithic settlements being discovered all the time. Some have been entered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and there are examples of Roman roads from four hundred years BC that pass right through Biel.
It was the French Revolution that had the most impact on Biel since the French landed literally on the doorstep in the late eighteenth century. The townsfolk were all for this invasion and cheered the incoming army. There was some disruption to the area right up until the early part of the twentieth century when the labor movement provoked strikes brought on by the lowering of wages and rampant inflation. Since then things have cooled down quite substantially making it a beautiful place, with bi-lingual road signs no less, for visitors to have a great holiday.
Best time to go
June to September see the warmest months for those who like the sun. However, since this is Switzerland, many people will come for the winter sports that are within easy reach of this center. December and January are the favored months for these pastimes and there is a good likelihood of snow at this time. Rain is much like all European countries so people generally take umbrellas and light coats for those unannounced summer showers.
Getting Around in Biel
Biel has a great train system that connects to Swiss cities further afield. There are also three good highways so getting round by car is not that difficult but tourists may want to hire a taxi instead; expensive but it does save the bother of finding car parking spaces.
All the public transport facilities are clean and efficient as one would expect from the Swiss. There are trams, buses, local trains and boats that take people to picturesque points along the lake and river. Tickets are bought from machines before traveling or they can be bought from one of the many kiosks dotted around.
Biel is a lovely place to explore by foot too since it is extremely safe and clean. It is not that big either and gives tourists a chance to interact with the locals. Of course, bicycles are also on hire just about everywhere.
- Biel/Bienne station. The current railway station was built in 1923 in a neoclassical style. A special highlight is the 1st class waiting room with frescoes by Philippe Robert.
Biel/Bienne has connections to many Swiss cities. All the fast trains stopping here are called ICN as instead of the normal inter city trains, special tilting trains are used on this stretch. The most important connections are:
- One hourly ICN from Geneva airport (1h 40min) and main station (1h 30min) via Yverdon (35 min) and Neuchatel (15 min)
- One hourly ICN from Lausanne (1h) via Yverdon and Neuchatel
- One hourly ICN from Basel (55 min) via Delémont (30 min)
- Two hourly ICN from Zurich (1h 10min) via Olten (50 min) and Solothurn (15 min). One of these comes from St. Gallen (2h 30min), Winterthur (1h 50min) and Zurich airport (1h 30min) while the other one passes by Aarau (45 min)
- From Berne two RE (25 min) and two S3 (35 min) hourly
- One hourly RE (40 min) and R (55 min) from La Chaux-de-Fonds
- One hourly R from Delémont (30 min) and Saint-Ursanne (45 min)
Some more regional lines connect to surrounding villages.
Travel to Biel by car
Biel/Bienne is well connected with highways in each direction: To the east A5 starts just outside the city and connects to A1 near Solothurn, which comes from Zurich. The west A5 only continues at the end of the lake. It comes from Neuchatel and goes along the northern shore of lake Neuchatel from Yverdon where it joins A1 in direction of Lausanne. To the south A6 comes from Berne and the Bernese Highlands, while to the north A16 goes to Delémont and France.
Travel by boat to Biel
As Biel/Bienne is located at the end of Lake Biel, it can be reached by boat from other villages along the lake with a handful of trips every day. There are also special trips which come from the Lake of Neuchatel and the Lake of Murten. A third option is to take the ship along the Aare river from Solothurn. The time tables for all boat trips change by season, with no boats running along the Aare during winter. Boats still run on the lake, but with very limited trips available.
The City has a highly efficient, clean and safe public transport system. It includes trams, buses, S-Bahn (local trains) and even boats for the lake and river. Tickets must be purchased from a ticket machine before boarding or from one of the ticket selling kiosks.
It is possible to visit the main touristic sights of Biel/Bienne on foot. It’s safe and not far.
Major Attractions and Sights
Biel has three lakes within easy reach – Lake Biel, Murten and Neuchâtel. It is obvious then that there are a lot of water based pursuits on offer. There are lots of vineyards to be spotted tumbling down the hillsides and tracts of land set aside for vegetable production. This means that the place is extremely green for most of the year.
For those who like a touch of boating, try the day excursions along the three lakes or get involved with any of the watery pursuits that can be found here. Sailing, fishing or hiking up the mountains are just some of the things that the energetic can get involved in. One particularly good hiking route is the one up to the foothills of the Jura to get a panoramic view back towards the city.
People usually love to see ancient buildings and Biel has an old town with a lovely gothic church etc. It dates from the 1400s and features many fountains and antiquated signposts.