Sion (German: Sitten) is the capital of the canton of Valais in Switzerland. With a population of 35,000 it is the largest city in the canton and a regional centre. The cantonal administration as well as many of the higher schools are located here.
Sion (pronounced see-ohn) is the capital of the Valais canton of Switzerland, and is a charming town in the Bernese Alps. It has two sentinels created by the glaciers that flattened the rest of the Rhône valley floor, with the mediaeval castles of Tourbillon and Valère atop them.
Sion is one of the most important pre-historic sites in Europe. The alluvial fan of Sionne, the rocky slopes above the river and, to a lesser extent, the Valeria and Tourbillon tors have been settled nearly continuously since antiquity. The oldest trace of human settlement comes from 6200 BC, providing eight thousand years of history, and making it the oldest town in Switzerland.
Sion became the capital of Valais in 580AD, and the bishop princes turned it into a place of grandeur. Today, with a population of around 30, 000, it lives like a capital; having a grand town hall, many museums and medieval churches, and surprisingly, a vibrant café culture.
Sion is at the centre of the important wine region in Switzerland. Fendant is their signature white wine. To irrigate the vines, bisses (channels) were carved out of the sides of the mountains; walking along them in the vineyards is a popular pastime for both tourists and locals alike. Their wines are little-known outside Switzerland, as the Swiss drink most of the wine themselves.
Sion is known as the most sun-kissed town in Switzerland, and is renowned for its blue skies. Its central location makes it ideal as a base for exploring the summer and winter holiday spots in the Valais side valleys.
Best time to go
This depends very much on the purpose of your visit.
If you want to go skiing or any other winter sports, then December is the best month, as it gets an average of 61mm of snow or rain over an average of 7 days.
For a summer visit, April would be the best month. This month sees Sion at its summers’ best, reminiscent of rural Spain – mild, dry, with clear skies and bright sunshine; with warm breezes, the smell of pine needles, and the chirping of cicadas.
Getting Around in Sion
The public transportation in the town is known as one of the finest and most efficient in the world.
The train is the main means of transport, with the train station situated south of the town centre. The train network has excellent connections to the major areas in Switzerland.
The buses run every hour. You can take them to visit the neighboring villages and hills and mountains, buying tickets from the drivers or at the bus stations.
You can rent a bicycle for free – simply leave a small deposit and your passport with them in lieu of money at the tourist office in Place de la Planta.
The highways are highly efficient and accessible should you have a hire car.
Taxis play a major role and are a popular way to get around town. Taxis are available at taxi stands at many places around Sion.
The train is probably the easiest way to make it into Sion. Half hourly trains arrive from Brig and Geneva passing through all major towns in Valais. Regional trains also depart half hourly in either direction. Eurocity trains on the Geneva – Milan line as well as seasonal TGV trains from Paris stop here at irregular intervals.
Sion lies on the A9 highway and has two exits (Sion-Est and Sion-Ouest) either of which can be used to access the city centre.
There are public buses running around the city, however, the frequencies are not that great and a big part of
Major Attractions and Sights
The main attractions are the buildings on top of the two mountains. The most impressive is the Notre-Dame-de-Valère, a church housed in the castle. You can take the Petit Train up the mountain, or you can walk, stopping in museums en route. The basilica is carved from the rock that you can see in the floor of the 12th Century church, with three aisles and intricately carved choir capitals, and a 16th Century carved wooden altar. The highlight is the 14th Century organ in the painted loft, which is one of the world’s oldest that is still playable. The views from the front of the castle over the Rhône valley are breath-taking. Next to the church is a museum housing Roman antiquities and medieval sculpture.
On the other mountain you find the ruins of the Chateau de Tourbillon, built in 1294 and destroyed by fire in 1788. The views from there are equally spectacular.
The Tourist Office has devised a Walk of Discovery, which gives visitors the opportunity to appreciate its wealth of sights and its historical centre of great beauty. The walk has 14 stops of interest, which you can visit at your leisure. Signs on the ground help you find them, and the Tourist Office recommends you begin at their office. The length of the walk is 2.3km, and will take you as long as you want it to.
The Town Hall in the main street was built in 1660; pop in there to see Roman inscribed stones dating from 377AD, and which embody the earliest evidence of Christianity in Switzerland.
The Bishop’s Palace is on the Place de la Planta and worth a visit. North of the Bishop’s Palace is the 12th Century Wizard’s Tower.
The Notre Dame du Glarier has a 12th Century tower, and was rebuilt in the 15th Century. It has 17th Century choir stalls, 15th Century bishops’ tombs, and reliquaries dating from between the 8th and 10th Centuries.
There is also a crucifixion scene made of stone, where the characters seem suspended in mid-air.
There is an interesting Museum of Natural History with dinosaur finds in the zoology department, and geology, botany, and mineralogy sections.
The Museum of Antiques is on the slope on the way to the Chateau de Tourbillon and features Gallo-Roman displays, and prehistoric artifacts.
The Saint Théodule Church features wonderful stained glass windows, and statues including one of Théodule himself.
It is worth taking a 12 minute train ride to nearby Martigny to visit the sculpture garden in the Fondation Pierre Gianadda; on a sunny day it’s wondrous to behold.
For something completely different, how about a ride in a real fighter jet? The flights take off from Sion Airport, and fly over the Alps. For the optimal experience, they take into account your preferences with maneuvers. Although a pricey outing, it will prove to be an unforgettable one too.
For the sports fans, in summer Sion offers guided walks, mountaineering, mountain biking, lake diving, glacier trekking and mountain climbing. In winter, there are ski safaris, skiing, snowshoe walks, mountain treks, frozen waterfalls, héliski, and frozen waterfall climbing.
Sion Ski School offers both training in skiing, as well as other snow sports. It’s open from mid-December until March on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2-5pm and on Sundays from 9-12pm and then 2-5pm.
For the kids, there is the Children’s’ Snow Garden of Sion. Open from December to March, it offers them a snow slope with a snow cannon for skiing and sledging, a conveyor belt, a baby lift, and a café at the ice rink. It’s open at the same times as the ski school.
The Basilique de Valère and the Château de Tourbillon are the two most prominent sights in Sion. They stand on two neighbouring hills and can be see from far. Nevertheless they are relatively easy to walk to from the city centre and the views are breathtaking.
- Basilique de Valère. The Valère basilica, is a fortified church situated on a hill in the old town. The church (Notre-Dame de Valère) was built during the 12th and 13th centuries and obtained the rank of minor basilica at the time of the visit of Pope John Paul II in 1984.
- Château de Tourbillon. The Tourbillon castle is situated on a hill and faces the Basilique de Valère, located on the opposite hill. The castle is currently in a state of ruins following a fire in 1788
- Tour des Sorciers, Rue de la Tour 3, 1950 Sion. This building called ‘Witch tower’ used to be a guard tower in the 14th century. In later times it has been used as a prison and was specifically used for questioning under torture of alleged witches, where it got its name from.
- Cathedral of Our Lady of Sion (Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Sion). This is the cathedral of the diocese of Sion, which encompasses most of the Valais. The church building as it can be seen today was built in the 15th and 16th century in Gothic style on the foundations of older churches that have been in place since the 8th century. The Romanic tower was built earlier in the early 13th century.
- FC Sion. FC Sion is a top league Swiss soccer team located in town.
- Valaisroule. W-Su 09:00-12:15 and 13:00-18:00 from June to October. Located at the Place de la Planta and close to the railway station in Châteauneuf-Conthey. A bike can be rented for free for 4 hours with a deposit of Fr. 20. Children’s bike, trailers, children’s seats and electro bikes are available. Fr. 0.
Shopping in Sion
The Sion is the biggest shopping mall in the Valais, with more than 700 shops and eateries. Between the museums and churches are dozens of quirky little shops, for example a chocolatier on rue de Conthey and a tobacco shop on rue de Lausanne. The art galleries are sure to yield something of interest. The jewelry shops are a treat, and it’s fun to browse for that Swiss watch or clock that you can brag you bought in Switzerland, so it’s the real deal. Buying expensive things like art and jewelry makes good sense in Switzerland, as you are paying with Swiss francs, and not Euros as in all the neighboring countries.
Every Friday sees market day in the old medieval town centre, with great local produce for sale. From April till October it’s open from 8am to 2pm, and from November until the end of March from 9am to 2pm.
While Sion might seem like a bit of a backwater town to outsiders, it is actually the largest city in the region. Here you can find a couple of the very few departmental stores of the Valais as well as well stocked supermarkets. If you rented a self-catered apartment in the mountains and count on cooking anything with non-basic ingredients, this will be the place for you to stock up.
- Manor, Avenue du Midi 3. M-Th 08:30-18:30, Fr 08:30-20:00, Sa 08:00-17:00. Departmental store in the city centre. Has a section with souvenirs as well as an expensive supermarket with a good selection of local and regional products.
Eating Out in of Sion
Specialties of the Valais canton include: raclette – a fondue of melted cheese with potatoes and gherkins – a pastry with apples, onions, potatoes and cheese; brisolée – bread and butter with hot chestnuts and thin slices of smoked meat; and of course the traditional cheese fondue with pieces of bread for dipping. These specialties can be found at many restaurants on the main street. You can find quality and great deals there.
Caviar House & Prunier is popular with tourists. Around 10 tables are set up with comfortable chairs, and a blanket available for cool or cold weather. Not a cheap place to eat; wine is paired with shrimps, caviar, salmon, and smoked salmon. On weekends there’s live music from 5pm.
Brasserie du Grand-Pont serves Swiss white wine to go with its European/Asian cuisine.
Zenhäusern on the Place du Midi is only open until 7pm in winter and 8pm in summer; however it serves excellent lunch dishes and sandwiches for those on a budget. Don’t forget to pick up a few coffee truffles at their bakery.
Mekong is a Chinese restaurant if you fancy Chinese food.
Grotto de la Fontaine serves fresh pastas, pizzas, risottos and stews.
L’Enclos de Valère is on the mountain halfway up to the castle. It is very attractive, with trellises and vines sheltering you in summer. The food is typically French, and the prices are high, but they have some fixed menus if you’re watching your francs.
Most of the traditional restaurants are located within the old town around the pedestrian area. However there are also quite a few choices outside the centre or closer to the railway station, so it pays of to have a walk around.
- Au Vieux Valais, Rue de St. Théodule 3. Restaurant in the old town serving local dishes as well as fondue.
- Brasserie du Grand-Pont, Rue du Grand-Pont 6. This restaurants has tables outside in the middle of the town centre in the pedestrian zone.
Nightlife in Sion
Sion has a vibrant nightlife, with a safe environment that caters to every age group.
Sion en Lumiere has great music and light shows, with the best DJs. If dancing is your thing, then there’s also the Diam’s Club which is a student hangout with DJs.
Café Victory serves wine, coffees, and plays jazz music.
St James Irish Tavern serves both national and international beers; it’s known for being expensive.
The White Lion Bar serves good music and drinks and is a refuge for businessmen.
The Amadeus Bar is the meeting place for young skiers and snowboarders. It’s open from 5pm till late. You can arrive for an aperitif in the early evening and enjoy soft music while you sip. Later on it gets busy and very crowded. It’s the ideal place to chat with locals, and get some ideas as to what to do the next day; there’s nothing like mingling with the locals to find hidden gems you might miss as a tourist.
The movie theatre shows all the latest blockbusters.
Of Local Interest
There are many events held in Sion and also its close neighboring towns throughout the year. Here are some of them.
January sees the Zermatt Horu Trophy Curling Tournament, one of Switzerland’s biggest open-air curling tournaments. Also the Blatten Belalp Witch Ski Race down the pistes. Begun in 1983, it has since grown to be one of the most popular winter sports events in the Valais. These two events are in neighboring towns, but are noteworthy enough to travel to.
In February is the Carnaval de Sion on the Place de la Planta.
In March is the Glacier Bike Downhill. The bikers ride on ice and snow. After the mass start at 3500m they descend down the mountain at high speed; an extreme sport indeed.
April sees the Zermatt Unplugged music festival, where International stars and singer/ songwriters make great music on the marquee stage; as well as the Allalin open downhill races in the nearby village of Saas-Fee, which are the highest races on a glacier in the world. Participants from all over Europe compete in various disciplines.
June to September sees the three month long International Festival of the Ancient Organ of Valère, which encompasses organ, choral and orchestral performances, by masters from around the world. It is centered around the ancient organ in the church.
Another three month long festival is the Tibor Varga Festival, running from July to September and featuring 15 concerts of chamber, choral and orchestral music.
The Guinness Irish Festival is in August.
In early September is the Onion Market and Festival, which has proven popular over the years.
The Sion Christmas Market in the middle of December is on the Place du Midi and has around 50 stalls of local arts and crafts and other goodies. Concerts of various genres feature in the evenings. It opens on Monday to Friday from 2-7pm, and on Saturday and Sunday from 11am-7pm.
- Venture further up the main valley into the German speaking towns of Visp and Brig.
- Take a trip to one of the nearby mountain resorts such as Crans Montana.
Already eleven Corona Infections at the Pope’s Swiss Guard
In the Vatican, seven other members of the pope’s Swiss Guard tested positive for the corona virus . This increased the number of demonstrably infected guardsmen to eleven, as the Swiss Guard announced on Thursday. All infected people had been isolated, the message said. The brightly uniformed guards protect Pope Francis and his residence.
A major corona outbreak among the guards could therefore also be dangerous for the Pope, 83 years of age belongs to the risk group. The Argentinean pope had part of his right lung removed at the age of 21 due to severe pneumonia but he is considered relatively healthy for his age.
The Catholic media platform “Vatican News” reported in early October that the guardsmen had been asked to “be careful when dealing with the Pope” because of Corona. Face mask and social distancing are required, however a young man who was interviewed about his recruit swearing in (October 4th) said that Francis had already shaken his hand.
More than 1000 new corona infections in Switzerland
The number of corona infections has skyrocketed in Switzerland. After an average of 500 new infections in the past week, the Federal Office of Public Health reported 1077 infections within 24 hours for Switzerland and Liechtenstein.
The day before there were 700 new cases.
The number was last in April at more than 1000 cases.
Switzerland counts the infections in the small Principality of Liechtenstein. However, only three new infections were reported there. Only ten of the 26 cantons and half cantons require a mask to be worn when shopping. In the past two weeks, 5.3 percent of all tests had a positive result.
Bern Coronavirus Cases Covid-19 Outbreak
Although Berne (German: Bern) is the seat of most of the institutions of the Swiss confederation, this is only a small to medium sized city with a population of about 130,000 in the city proper and roughly 350,000 in the urban agglomeration. It sits on a peninsula formed by the meandering turns of the river Aare. The remarkable design coherence of Berne’s old town has earned it a place on the UNESCO World Heritage List. It has 6.4 km (4 miles) of arcaded walkways along streets decked out with fountains and clock-towers.
There are Tourist Information Centres outside the main railway station, and in the Old Tram Depot next to the Bear Pit.
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.
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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.
Bern was founded in 1191 by Duke Berthold V von Zähringen and was part of the Holy Roman Empire. It was made a free imperial city by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II in 1218 after Berthold died without an heir.
In 1353 Berne joined the Swiss confederation. After conquering several rivals, Berne became the largest independent city state north of the Alps. It was occupied by French troops in 1798 during the French Revolutionary Wars, and was stripped of a large part of its territory. The city became the Swiss capital in 1848.
Bern was one of the eight host cities in the 2008 European Football Championships.
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
Situated in the middle of Switzerland, Berne is easy to reach from all parts of the country.
Fly to Berne
- Bern-Belp Airport (10 km south of the city, off Hwy 8 west of river Aare). This airport is a small affair. Skywork used to be the main operator, with twin-prop flights to London City, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Berlin-Tegel, Munich and Vienna, plus summer holiday destinations around the Med; however, it declared bankruptcy in August 2018.
To reach the city take Bus 334 or 160 to Belp railway station (10 mins). Frequent S-bahn local trains connect Belp to Bern’s main station, 40 min altogether. The bus runs every 30 minutes between 05:10 and 23:10, with the first and last buses of the day running directly to Bern railway station. The transfer is free if you have booked accommodation in Bern, just show your confirmation letter; otherwise Fr. 7 each way.
A taxi to the city is about 40 Fr and takes 20 mins.
For better choice of flights, fly into Geneva , Zurich or Basel then take the train to Bern.
Travel by train to Bern
Berne is at the hub of the Swiss Federal Railway network. Express (InterCity) trains connect twice per hour to Geneva, Basel and Zurich as well as Zürich and Geneva airports. Hourly express trains connect to most other cities, including Interlaken, Brig, and Lucerne.
Bern Railway Station. In a mall surrounded by cafes and other shops. The info kiosk and main bank of ticket machines are at the back, beneath the big departures board.
For timetables and connections see Swiss Federal Railway. For best travel deals see the Swiss Travel Planner – walk-up full fare tickets are expensive.
Travel to Bern by car
Bern is easily reachable with the national motorway network from all directions and has several exits from motorways A1, A12 and A6.
Eurolines and Flixbus connect Bern to several European cities by bus.
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.
Berne has an excellent public transportation system, with frequent local city services provided by trams, trolleybuses and buses, together with an S-Bahn rail system for longer journeys into the surrounding suburbs. Tickets are valid for all modes of transport within a given zone and time. The suburbs of Berne, Biel and Solothurn form a common public transport network named “Libero-Tarifverbund”. Tickets can be purchased as single ticket, saver ticket with six rides, day pass as well as weekly, monthly or yearly passes.
Tickets can be bought at vending machines at most stops, or with a smartphone using the SBB mobile app. They are valid for all modes of public transport within the zones they encompass. A ticket valid in the central urban zones (101, 102) for 60 minutes costs Fr. 4.60 (May 2016).
Since June 2014, all hotel accommodations in Bern include the “Bern-Ticket”, which allows the free use of public transport within the city (zones 100 and 101) for the duration of the stay, including the Gurten funicular and transfer from and to the airport.
The city centre of Berne is easily accessible by foot. The relatively small old town and the area around the main train station is best explored by walking.
By tram and bus
The bus and tram lines operated by Bernmobil are complemented with yellow Postauto bus lines connecting to the suburbs. Almost all lines are linked together at the main train station, and operate at intervals between 5 to 30 minutes.
- Bernmobil. Operator of the local tram and bus services, and provides timetables and other information on its web site or by telephone.
Berne’s S-Bahn rail system will take you to many places in the suburbs and to nearby cities like Biel, Thun, Fribourg or Solothurn.
- S-Bahn Bern. Web site in German only.
By car or motorbike
Like in most Swiss cities, parking space is rare and expensive. There are several paid parking stations, including at the main train station. As the city centre is quite small and all of the major attractions are within walking distance, it’s a good choice to park in a “park and ride” and take public transport to the centre of town. Using the car in the old town is very difficult and not recommended.
Motorbikers will find free dedicated parking spaces in several places around the perimeter of the old town, including near Waisenhausplatz and at the main train station.
Berne is a bike-friendly city, and most thoroughfares include dedicated bike lanes. There are a few challenging spots where bike traffic interweaves with motor traffic, but motorists are used to sharing the road with bikers and will normally pay attention. Because of the city’s topography, some stamina may be required, or an electric bike.
The local branch of the Swiss-wide bike sharing Publibike charges CHF 3 for the first 30 minutes. The formerly free local bike-share “Bern Rollt” has been terminated.
Several taxi companies operate in Berne, including Nova Taxi (+41 31 331 33 13), Bären Taxi (+41 31 371 11 11) and Taxi Bern (+41 31 333 88 88). Taxis can be booked by phone, or at the main train station.
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.
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.
- Berne Historical Museum, Helvetiaplatz 5. Tu-Su 10:00-17:00. Large historic museum, combining under one roof one of the country’s most important ethnographic collections together with the Bernese historical collections from prehistory to the present day. Adult Fr. 13; Fr. 18 including Einsteinhaus.
- Bundeshaus (Federal Palace of Switzerland; Curia Confoederationis Helveticae), Bundesplatz 3. Inaugurated in 1902, the Swiss Parliament building is a great dome separating the two chambers: the National Council and the Council of States. Free guided tour when Parliament is not in session (German Tu-Sa, English only Sa 14:00, book online). In session there are 25 spaces in the spectators’ gallery, no advance booking. For either, you need your passport. Free.
- Zytglogge. It has been a guard tower, and a prison for women convicted of having sex with priests, but since the 15th century, it’s been a clock tower with an elaborate astronomical clock. Hourly throughout the day, it puts on a great display of early animatronics. The show starts a few minutes before the hour with a little song and some drumming by a jester on top. On the hour, bears and an old bearded king get into the act. As well as the time, the clock shows the month, day, sign of the zodiac and phase of the moon. There are guided tours inside the tower that will let you have a look at the clockwork while the show is displayed outside. It can be booked at the tourist office and is definitely worth it if you love mechanics. Free.
- Einsteinhaus, Kramgasse 49 , ✉ email@example.com. Feb-Dec 10:00–17:00, closed Jan. Suppose a Bern Tram passed you at the speed of light, with Einstein peering out the window. While your own watch ticked on, his would appear stationary, and the tram’s mass and dimensions would distort. Most of us would just shrug at this and await the next tram. But Einstein realised that the same occurred if you were aboard the tram looking back at the tourist standing at the tram-stop. There could be no absolute reference point: all was relative. He also inferred an equivalence of acceleration and gravity, and of mass and energy, that totally rewrote the laws of what till then was a Newtonian universe.
Einstein rented this flat 1903-05 with his first wife Mileva, during his years working at the Swiss patent office. (The day job helped, as many inventors were exploring telecomms, and the problem of synchronising processes many miles apart.) Their son Hans Albert was born here in 1904; their illegitimate daughter Lieserl (b. 1902) was given up for adoption and her fate is unknown. But above all Einstein’s special and general theories of relativity were born in this flat, which now displays photos and original documents from his life, work, and speeches. His writing desk overlooks the bustling street: trams rumble by, and the clock-tower tick-tocks, with a Swiss regularity that we now know to be deceptive. Adult Fr. 6, concessions Fr. 4.50.
- Invasion of Berne – successful!. As you explore, you may notice these small graffiti mosaics, in the style of Taito’s “Space Invaders”. There are some 29 in Bern, the work of an “Unidentified Free Artist”. They’ve appeared on the walls, bridges and roofs of many cities around the world, including Basel, Geneva and Lausanne. And still they come: “Game Not Over”. Consider buying a map and doing the space invader tour – though in midsummer 2018 the Invader’s online shop is closed.
- Kunstmuseum (Museum of Fine Arts), Hodlerstrasse 12. Tu 10:00-21:00, W-Su 10:00-17:00, closed M. Huge collection including Pablo Picasso, Ferdinand Hodler and Meret Oppenheim, and all the big names over eight centuries. Adult Fr. 10 permanent collection.
- Swiss Alpine Museum (Alpines Museum), Helvetiaplatz 4. Tu-Su 10:00-17:00. A museum describing all aspects of the Swiss mountains: geology & tectonics, glaciers, weather, wildlife, agriculture & settlement, and alpinism and winter sports. With a large collection of artwork, e.g. paintings by Ferdinand Hodler. Adult Fr. 16.
- Zentrum Paul Klee, Monument im Fruchtland 3 (Trolleybus 12 to the end of the line). Tu-Su 10:00–17:00. The Centre is a modern building formed of three waves. The ground floor is a rotating exhibition drawn from some of Klee’s 4000 works – to Oct 2018 this is “Cosmos Klee”. Downstairs are other artists – to Oct 2018 this is Etal Adnam. Klee was celebrated for his “child’s view” of the world and his work is so accessible and fun, eg his wacky glove-puppets. A short walk across the adjacent park brings you to his grave. The Centre is included on the “Berne card” so you’ll recoup the Fr. 20 straight away. Adult Fr. 20, students Fr. 10, children 6-16 Fr. 7, families (1 adult + children 6-16) Fr. 27, families (2 adults + children 6-16) Fr. 40.
The view from Gurten Hill
- Bear Pit (Bärengraben & BärenPark), Grosser Murisalder 6 (Foot of old town at Nydeggasse Bridge; trolleybus #12 towards Zentrum Paul Klee). Always open, but the bears hibernate Nov-Mar. Run as an outstation of the city’s Dählhölzli Zoo, the bear pit has a tunnel through to a bosky enclosure along the steep river bank, around which the bears can roam and swim. There are three: Finn (b 2020) is Daddy Bear, Björk (b 2020) is Mummy Bear, and Ursina (b 2020) is their daughter. Björk has been sterilised so there will be no more cubs: “More space for fewer animals” is the zoo’s motto. These are Eurasian brown bears, Ursus arctos arctos, with a round head and yellow-brown fur; they remain common in the wild in Central & East Europe.
A second smaller pit is bare of bears but describes the history of the pits. Next to this is the Old Tram Depot, see “Eat”. Free.
- Tierpark Dählhölzli (Zoo), Tierparkweg 1 (Bus 19 from main station to Tierpark). Mar-Oct 08:30–19:00, Nov-Feb 09:00–17:00. Berne’s zoo is along the Aare river, with many outdoor enclosures that incorporate the river. Adult Fr. 10, child 6-15 Fr. 6.
- Gurten. The Gurten is a lovely hill just outside the city. It features a park and great view over the city on one side and a nice panorama of the Bernese alps on the other. The park is visited heavily by locals to play ball, to barbecue or to just lie in the sun. Tourists are not an unusual sight, though this little attraction is missed by most of the many that visit the city. Hiking paths lead in all directions and you will almost certainly stumble across some cows when walking around. A wooden look-out tower allows an even better panorama than that you would already have. If you get hungry or thirsty, a good budget restaurant service and self-service provides you with all you need. Families with children should not miss the cool playground. The Gurten can be easily reached with tram number 9 from the railway station in Berne in direction Wabern. Exit the tram at station Gurtenbahn and walk a few steps up the hill. Then take the Gurtenbahn, a panorama train that will bring you on top in just 5 minutes, round-trip tickets are Fr. 9 for adults or Fr. 4.50 for children (BernCard is valid), departure usually every 20 minutes depending on daytime. A club called up-town features various cultural events on weekends and once a year in summer national, European and a few international music stars (among others Alanis Morissette, Skin, Moloko and Jimmy Cliff in 2020) visit it for the Gurtenfestival, an open-air music festival. Gurten is a must see for everybody visiting the city for longer than a day. Free.
- Rosengarten. Little park with a splendid view over the old town. Situated close to the bear pits (follow the path that goes up the hill opposite the bear-pit-roundabout. Quite popular (and populated) during lunchtime. The Rosengarten can be easily reached by bus number 12 from the railway station in Berne in direction Zentrum Paul Klee.
- Watch football soccer at BSC Young Boys, who play in the Swiss Super League, the top tier of Swiss football. They play at Stade de Suisse, capacity 32,000, 1 km north of city centre.
- SC Bern. The SCB is Berne’s ice-hockey team. The stadium is the second largest in Europe and is regularly sold out, producing an impressive atmosphere in the arena. It is also mentionable that the SC Bern boasts the highest average attendance outside the NHL. To get there, just take Tram Nr. 9 towards Guisanplatz and get off at the terminal stop.
- Swimming in the river Aare. On hot summer days, let yourself drift for a few kilometres in the river Aare. Good (and safe) stretches are between the Kornhausbridge and the public pool of the Lorraine (old fashioned swimming pool just next to the river) and between the Eichholz and the public pool of the Marzili. Other stretches such as swimming the bend around the old town (starting at the “Englische Anlagen” to the Lorraine) or the “Bremgartenschlaufe” are only to be done by good swimmers accompanied by experienced locals. Entrance to public pools is free of charge. This makes it a good idea to choose a swim that ends at a public pool so you can have a shower afterwards.
- Gurtenfestival. In July the Gurten hill is host for an open air festival with many national and international music acts. During these four days you will find a party crowd of up to 25,000 people on the hill day and night. 1-day pass: Fr. 75, 2 days: Fr. 115, 3 days: Fr. 155, 4 days: Fr. 195.
- International Jazzfestival Bern. A jazz festival with international reputation is held in Berne every year since 1976.
- Buskers Bern. Since a few years the annual street musician festival is taking place in the picturesque old town streets. You don’t need to buy a ticket but are encouraged to buy a festival pin or give donations to the musicians which come from all around the world.
Berne is home to the prestigious University of Berne which enrolls 17,431 students (2020). In addition, the city has the University of Applied Science also known as Berner Fachhochschule. There are also many vocational schools and offices of the Goethe Institute and the Alliance-Francaise (German and French cultural institutes).
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.
As with most other cities in Switzerland, store opening and closing hours in Berne are strictly regulated. All stores, including grocers, close by 18:30 or 19:00 from Monday to Friday, except on Thursdays when they remain open until 21:00. Aldi supermarkets are an exception, closing at 20:00 during the week. On Saturdays everything must close by 17:00. On Sundays, all stores are closed, except for those in the main railway station, which are open 7 days a week until about 22:00, and which include Migros and Coop supermarkets.
Rathausgasse and the streets parallel to it have any number of cute shops with an amazing range of handicraft and luxury goods. This is not the normal range of Swiss souvenir stuff, but really interesting things. There are a couple of worthy examples below, but the real pleasure is in spending a few hours (or days) exploring the arcades and vitrines.
- Yamatuti, Aarbergergasse 16-18. M-W F 10:00–18:30, Th 10:00–21:00, Sa 10:00–17:00. Unique toys and kitsch collectibles pack the walls of this cramped space.
- Krompholz Music, Effingerstrasse 51, 3008 Bern (Visit website for which tram lines to take and the stops.) , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Monday – Saturday 10:00–17:00. The thing that makes this shop special is its huge collection of sheet music and English language music instruction materials. Pretty good CD section with lots of Swiss artists, both pop and folk.
There are several used book stores that carry cheap books in German, English and French:
- Bücherbergwerk Monbijou, Monbijoustrasse 16 (on the street through which tram line 9 descends from Hirschengraben near the main station, in the basement of the building marked SWICA). Tu-F 10:00–17:00 and Sa 11:00–15:00. The used bookstore of the Swiss Workers’ Aid Society.
- Bücher-Brockenhaus Bern, Rathausgasse 34 (in the old city between the Zytglogge and the Rathaus). Tu-F 14:00–18:30, Sa 09:00–12:00, 14:00–16:00.
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.
Eating in Berne (or almost anywhere in Switzerland for that matter) can be an expensive proposition for foreign tourists. Be sure to “shop around” before deciding on a restaurant as many of them cater to foreign tourists (especially those serving traditional Swiss food) and have inflated their prices accordingly. Most Bernese natives prefer Italian, Asian, or other non-local cuisine so finding a traditional Swiss restaurant with acceptable prices can often be a daunting experience. Be patient and you will persevere without breaking the bank.
- Suan Long, Rail City, underneath main station, Bern. Low-priced Chinese meals, wide variety of dishes, including good vegetarian selection. Quick service and ideal if you’re waiting for a train. Especially recommended if you enjoy spicy food! Fr. 17-25.
- Beaulieu, Erlachstrasse 3 , fax: . M-Th 08:00–11:30, F 08:00–00:30, Sa 10:00–22:00. Old-fashioned restaurant serving traditional Swiss and Bernese cuisine at very affordable prices. Popular among students due to its situation close to the university; equally popular among the local workers. Definitely not a tourist restaurant—go here if you want to meet the Bernese among themselves.
- Sous le Pont , ✉ email@example.com. Tu-F 11:30–14:30 and 18:00–00:00, Sa 19:00–00:00, Su 10:00–16:00. A nice restaurant in the Reitschule complex which serves excellent dishes.
- Wäbere, Gerechtigkeitsgasse 68 , fax: . Monday – Saturday 11:00–23:00. Excellent soups, a good rendering of Swiss standards, such as cheese fondue, and an decent number of veggie choices. Many items available in half portions. Fr. 14-24.
- Old Tram Depot (Altes Tramdepot), Grosser Muristalden (across bridge at east side of city centre, next to bear pit). 11:00-23:00. The trams used to terminate here: nowadays it’s a trolleybus route. Good, hearty Swiss food. Range of dishes from budget price rösti to higher-priced meat specialities. On-site brewery with traditional beers available. Bench seating with great atmosphere. Fr. 20-40.
- Café Fédéral, Bärenplatz 31. Stylish, modern atmosphere and international cuisine. Situated in front of the Bundeshaus, its popularity among politicians during the “Session” is legendary. Specializes in entrecôtes (a kind of steak), but has other dishes, including vegetarian ones.
- Casino Restaurant, Herrengasse 25 , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. At the shore of Aare river, with a view over the river and mountains on the South. Dishes include excellent pasta with mushrooms, fish, and meats, served throughout the day. . Fr. 25-45 a main dish.
- Kornhaus, Kornhausplatz 18 , fax: . The room alone is worth a stop at this fabulously appointed mostly Italian restaurant. As one might guess from the name, the building was built for grain storage, but now features fresco paintings of traditional Swiss scenes, events from local history, and related characters. Fr. 26-45 for the main dish. Fr. 9-14 for appetizers..
- Schmiedstube, Schmiedenplatz 5. Monday – Saturday 08:30–23:30. German, French, Italian, English and Spanish spoken. This traditional Swiss restaurant is well known for its typical dishes, such as Röschti, Cordon Bleu, Älplermakkaronen. It’s 90 m (300 ft) from the clock tower “Zytglogge”.
- Schwellenmätteli, Dalmaziquai 11 , ✉ email@example.com. Terrace open M-Su 08:00–00:00. A very nice restaurant at the side of the river Aare with a nice view on the Cathedral. Fr. 20-40 for a main dish.
- Bellevue Palace, Kochergasse 3-5 , fax: . Stylish hotel and restaurant; has its price. Go there when the Parliament is in session, and you may very well see the president of Switzerland having lunch.
- Restaurant Rosengarten, Alter Aargauerstalden 31b. Upscale Swiss restaurant with amazing view over the city
- Kursaal-Bern (Meridiano), Kornhausstrasse 3. Tu-F 11:30–14:00, 18:00–00:00. Sa 18:00–24:00. Sunday & Monday closed. The Meridiano is famous far beyond the borders of Bern for its welcoming hospitality. And for its innovative cuisine – prepared to perfection by Chef de Cuisine Markus Arnold and his team. The restaurant has been awarded 16 Gault-millau points and one Michelin star. Guests are offered fine views extending over Bern and the surrounding scenic countryside. Fr. 20-76.
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.
Many Bernese will tell you that nightlife in Berne is not exactly what you might call stunning, but they’re probably comparing it to Zurich or Paris. There are quite a few good spots to hang out.
For a drink or two, there’s a wide choice of bars all over town. However, you might be disappointed with most central options as they tend to be annoyingly conventional, though there are an ample number of exceptions:
- Du Nord, Lorrainestrasse 2 (across Lorraine Bridge from the city centre).
- Café Kairo, Dammweg 43, 3013 Bern. Another nice choice in the same area as Du Nord.
- Cuba, Kornhausplatz 14. With Latin-influenced Cuba Bar next door.
Most of the towns cooler bars are around the main clubbing venues though. In the ancient Matte neighborhood, which is well worth a daytime visit too, you’ll find nightlife options for almost every taste.
- Dampfzentrale, Marzilistrasse 47. In this former electricity facility you’ll find an excellent restaurant and bar, along with lots of cultural pearls. They specialize in urban, jazzy, electronic music and dance performances. Definitely a gem!
- PROGR_centre for cultural production, Waisenhausplatz 30/ Speichergasse 4. Close to the Reithalle and even closer to the city centre, you will find the PROGR. More than 100 artists, dancers, actors and musician have their studios here. It’s large courtyard with the CaféBar Turnhalle is a real oasis. From September to June, they offer a cultural program with exhibitions of experimental and contemporary art, theatre, performance, lectures and regular concerts on Sunday nights (jazz- connected, world women voices).
- Reitschule, Neubrückstrasse 8. Next to the central train station is Berne’s most important centre for alternative culture. The huge brick building is visible from far, easy to recognize by its abundant graffiti art on the façade and roof. Reitschule has the status of an autonomous cultural centre, which means in firm language that it’s a no-police zone. This of course gives it a bit of an anarchist touch, a touch of “anything goes”. And indeed, anything does go: Reitschule features a theatre, a cinema, a women’s room and two concert/dancing venues, all dedicated entirely to alternative culture. Concerts included rjd2, Metalheadz and DJ Babu. The centre as a whole is a unique experience and a must-see for anyone who has an interest in contemporary urban culture.
- Wasserwerk Club. This is one of Berne’s traditional clubbing and concert venues for urban music. It actually features two parts: Sportwerk The very welcoming, smaller “Sportwerk”, which is open all week and free of charge, offers drinks, music, pool, snooker, darts, table soccer and flipper games as well as sport events on TV in a laid back, greenish atmosphere. The bigger part of the club, the actual “Wasserwerk” is open on weekends and features excellent djs and live concerts.
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.
Stay safe in Bern
Bern is a very safe place with nearly no violent crime. However, as it is the capital of Switzerland, it sees political demonstrations every few weeks on a variety of subjects, occasionally leading to police intervention.
The central railway station often hosts drunks and vagrants at night, which is a nuisance but in general not dangerous.
There has been a slight increase in violence from young people. Try to avoid groups of drunk teenagers that look suspicious and you should be fine.
While police officers in Bern will happily help you out if you are in trouble or need information, they are also known for approaching “suspicious” persons in order to check their papers. This procedure is annoying, but legal as you will probably have a hard time proving you were not acting suspicious. Carry a photocopy of your passport and your onward ticket with you, stay calm and polite and you won’t have much trouble.
Embassies & Consulates in Bern
- Finland, Weltpoststrasse 4, 3015 Bern , fax: , ✉ firstname.lastname@example.org. Monday to Friday 09:00–12:00.
- The Netherlands, Seftigenstrasse 7 , ✉ email@example.com. Mo-Fr 8.30AM-12.30AM/1.30PM-5PM.
Berne is an ideal gateway to the Bernese Highlands. You can make day trips to beautiful locations like Spiez, Thun, Interlaken, Grindelwald and all the way up the Jungfrau to Jungfraujoch. Other pleasant day trips are to Biel, Fribourg and Gstaad.
Geneva, Basel and Zurich can easily be done as day-trips but deserve a longer stay.
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