Bern Travel Guide, Switzerland

The City of Bern is the capital and political centre of Switzerland. It is well-known for its high quality of life, good cultural offering and tourist attractions. Bern is the fifth-most populous city in Switzerland. For years, Bern has been listed with Zurich and Geneva as one of the cities with the highest cost of living in the world. Bern has a relaxed atmosphere, which may be due to the Swiss capital’s legendary charm, the interplay between visionary architecture and its world-famous UNESCO-listed old town.

Bern is notably surrounded by the Aare, and sits on a peninsula formed by the meandering turns of the river. Set in the heart of Switzerland, Bern is the gateway to the Alps. Bern’s central location makes it the perfect base for overnight accommodation and for excursions throughout Switzerland.

Berne 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 Confederacy, becoming one of its eight early cantons. After conquering several rivals, Berne became the largest independent city state north of the Alps.

Since then, Bern became a large city-state of Swiss history by pursuing a policy of sovereign territorial expansion. Since the 15th century, the city was progressively rebuilt and acquired its current characteristics. 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 successfully retain the historic features, the medieval air of this city with its many fountains, sandstone facades, narrow streets and historic towers is unique. The elevated Rose Garden above the Bear Park and the platform of the 101-metre-high cathedral tower offer the best views of the old town round which the River Aare flows. The former entrenchments and bastions drop down steeply to the river.

In 1983, the historic old town in the centre of Bern became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The old town of Bern consists mainly of old houses and is known for the arcades. Bern has 6.4 km (4 miles) of arcaded walkways along streets decked out with fountains and clock-towers. The Zähringer town, founded in 1191, has been partially preserved in its original form with its characteristic arcades.

Bern is home to 114 Swiss heritage sites of national significance. It includes the entire Old Town, which is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and many sites within and around it. Some of the most notable in the Old Town include the Cathedral which was started in 1421 and is the tallest cathedral in Switzerland, the Zytglogge and Käfigturm towers, which mark two successive expansions of the Old Town, and the Holy Ghost Church, which is one of the largest Swiss Reformed churches in Switzerland. Within the Old Town, there are eleven 16th-century fountains, most attributed to Hans Gieng, that are on the list.

Outside the Old Town the heritage sites include the Bärengraben, the Gewerbeschule Bern (1937), the Eidgenössisches Archiv für Denkmalpflege, the Kirchenfeld mansion district (after 1881), the Thunplatzbrunnen, the Federal Mint building, the Federal Archives, the Swiss National Library, the Historical Museum (1894), Alpine Museum, Museum of Communication and Natural History Museum.

As the seat of the city and large parts of the cantonal and federal administration, it is the largest center of public administration in the country. Bern is the seat of Switzerland’s government. Bern is also home to international organisations and enterprises. It has gained itself a reputation as a place of research and science.

Safety, transport links, infrastructure and local attractions are the reasons why the region around the Swiss capital is the second strongest economic area in Switzerland. Bern offers an enormous variety of locations for business events all within easy walking distance, from historic vaulted cellars such as the Kornhauskeller to cultural and architectural gems such as the Zentrum Paul Klee or the ultra-modern Kursaal Bern conference centre.

Main Attractions
Bern is a city with a very cozy atmosphere, and full of history and museums. The structure of Bern’s city centre is largely medieval and has been recognised by UNESCO as a Cultural World Heritage Site. Although Bern has a very good public transport network it is best to explore the city centre on foot. It also has quite a bit of public art, all of which is marked on a walking map which is available from the tourist office in the train station for free.

The most famous sight is the Zytglogge, an elaborate medieval clock tower with moving puppets, boasts on of the longest weather-sheltered shopping promenades in Europe, in these arcades you can stroll and admire the shop windows even when it rains. It also has an impressive 15th century Gothic cathedral, the Münster, and a 15th-century town hall.

Bern is the seat of Switzerland’s government. The Houses of Parliament (Bundeshaus) rise above the city just a stone’s throw away from the railway station. The Federal Palace, built from 1857 to 1902, which houses the national parliament, government and part of the federal administration, can also be visited. The doors to the Houses of Parliament are open to visitors most of the time.

There are eleven Renaissance allegorical statues on public fountains in the Old Town. In the squares of the city centre colourful weekly markets present their wares. The Onion Market (Zibelemärit) which takes place on the fourth Monday in November is particularly worth visiting: visitors to the traditional market dedicated to onions start pouring into the city in the early hours.

With the History Museum, Art Museum, Swiss Alpine Museum and Communication Museum Bern offers a very varied range of exhibitions. The Zentrum Paul Klee situated on the outskirts of the city houses the most comprehensive collection of works by the artist Paul Klee.

The Rose Garden (Rosengarten), from which a scenic panoramic view of the medieval town centre can be enjoyed, is a well-kept Rosarium on a hill, converted into a park from a former cemetery in 1913. The Botanical Gardens are located along the river, as is the Dählhölzli Zoo and the old Matte district. Bears is the cities heraldic beast of Bern, A visit to the Bear Park is a must-do. Since the 16th century, the city has had a bear pit, the Bärengraben, at the far end of the Nydeggbrücke to house its heraldic animals.

Old Town of Bern
The capital of Switzerland has many charms. Its quaint old town is framed by the Aare Riverand offers spectacular views of the Alps. The Old Town stretches to the east of the train station, occupying the central high ground of a thin, finger-like peninsula. Thanks to 6 kilometres (4 miles) of arcades, the old town boasts one of the longest covered shopping promenades in Europe. The boutiques, bars and cabaret stages of the old town, some of which are located in vaulted cellars, and the small street cafes attract locals as well as a lot of tourists.

With its 6 km of limestone buildings andmedieval arcades,its Renaissance fountainswith colorful figures, and its beautiful cathedral surrounded by picturesque rooftops, Bern, founded in 1191, is truly a gem of medievalarchitecture in Europe. Bern’s well-preserved medieval townscape, the Old Town of Bern was entered onto UNESCO’s listing of World Heritage Sites in 1983.

Three long, parallel cobbled streets define the Old Town area. The most hectic shopping goes on in the western half of the Old Town, on Marktgasse and Spitalgasse in particular; the older, eastern half is slower-paced. However, not for nothing does the tourist office tout the famous arcades, lining both sides of every street in the Old Town, as being “the longest covered shopping promenade in the world”.

Thanks to its six kilometres of arcades, Bern is in effect home to one of the longest covered shopping promenades in Europe. This has its benefits not only in rainy weather, but also in high summer, when the shade is cool and pleasant. Speciality stores, boutiques, galleries and emporia filled with curiosities all make for happy window shopping. Bern’s museums, meanwhile, ensure that the city has plenty to inspire culture fans, too.

The Zytglogge clock-tower is in the centre of the Old Town, and is as much the symbol of Bern as the bear. The focal point of public transport and walking routes within the Old Town – and both the benchmark of official Bern time and the point from which all distances in the canton are measured. Its squat shape, oversized spired roof and giant, gilded clock face will imprint themselves on your memory of the city.

Bern was chosen as the Federal Capital of Switzerland in 1848. The Swiss Parliament building is a great dome separating the two chambers: the National Council and the Council of States. The Parliament was built in accordance with the plans of the Architect H. Auer. It was completed in 1902. In the central hall, under the cupola between the two assembly rooms, there are numerous symbolic depictions of Swiss history. After undergoing extensive renovations, the seat of Swiss government has been gleaming with new resplendence since May 2008. Guided tours are available.

The Parliament House also opens its doors to regular guided tours of the premises. Outside the building there is also much to see: The terrace is an inviting place to sit as you enjoy the views of the Marzili public baths, the Aare, and the Gurten, Bern’s iconic local mountain. Of interest are the Bundesplatz square, the fountain in summer, and a light show and ice rink in winter. There is also a variety of events and the typical Bernese markets Zibelemärit (onion market) and Christmas markets, etc.).

The Zytglogge is a landmark medieval tower in Bern, Switzerland. Built in the early 13th century, it has served the city as guard tower, prison, clock tower, centre of urban life and civic memorial. The Zytglogge is one of Bern’s most recognisable symbols and the oldest monument of the city, and with its 15th-century astronomical clock, a major tourist attraction. It is a heritage site of national significance, and part of the Old City of Bern, a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site.

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.

The main body of the tower is divided into the two-storey plinth, whose exterior is made of alpine limestone, and the three-storey tower shaft sheathed in sandstone. The shaft’s seemingly massive corner blocks are decorative fixtures held in place by visible iron hooks. Below the roof, the cornice spans around the still-visible bases of the former corner towerlets. The two-story attic is covered by the sweeping, red-tiled, late Gothic spire, in which two spire lights are set to the West and East. They are crowned by ornamental urns with pinecone knobs reconstructed in 1983 from 18th-century drawings. From atop the spire, the wooden pinnacle, copper-sheathed since 1930, rises an additional 15 metres into the skies, crowned with a gilded knob and a weather vane displaying a cut-out coat of arms of Bern.

Bern Cathedral
The Bern Münster Cathedral of St. Vincent is the most impressive late-Gothic building in the city and the largest and most important late medieval church in Switzerland. The three-aisled basilica without a transept towers above the roofs of the old town is the largest religious building in Switzerland. Construction started in 1421 with builders working on this masterpiece over successive generations. The steeple was only completed in 1893.

An outstanding feature is the main portal, where you can admire the depiction of the Last judgment. 344 steps above the entrance gets you to the lookout point: the 100-meter-high cathedral tower. From this highest church tower in Switzerland you may admire the magnificent view over the city and of the snow-covered mountains of the Bernese Oberland. Bern’s late Gothic Münster is unmistakeable, its feathery spire towering over the Old Town and its sonorous bells dominating the quiet city. It’s a reverential place, both for its lofty, gloomy interior and the spectacular Alpine vistas from its tower, the tallest in Switzerland.

Cultural space
Bern has many museums spread across the city. The Historical Museum, originally planned as a state museum, is located in Kirchenfeld near Helvetiaplatz. In addition to its collection, it also shows temporary exhibitions and set up the Einstein Museum in 2005, the Swiss Alpine Museum and the Kunsthalle, which hosts several individual and group exhibitions each year devoted to contemporary art indicates. Not far away are the Museum for Communication and the Natural History Museum belonging to the community with its diorama show. The Einsteinhaus is also in the old town, at Kramgasse 49. A museum has been set up in the apartment on the second floor that Albert Einstein and his first wife Mileva Marić lived in from 1903 to 1905, the annus mirabilis.

The numerous art galleries are mostly located in the old town. With the Kornfeld Gallery, Bern has an auction house for Swiss and international art. In the center on Hodlerstrasse is the art museum, which opened in 1879 and houses works from eight centuries. In the immediate vicinity is the “Progr”, Bern’s first high school and later progymnasium, which today serves as an exhibition and event venue. Far outside the city center on the A6 motorway is the Zentrum Paul Klee, which opened in June 2005 and was designed by Renzo Piano. With around 4,000 works by the painter Paul Klee, who is closely associated with Bern, it is one of the largest artist museums.

Bernisches Historisches Museum
The Berne Historical Museum is one of Switzerland’s most important cultural and historical museums and hosts a general historical collection containing approximately 500,000 objects as well as the Einstein Museum. 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.

In its permanent exhibition, the “Bernisches Historisches Museum” shows highlights from the fields of history, prehistory, early history and ethnography through a diverse, multi-media approach. The objects on display range from the Stone Age to the present, from cultures of all continents. The integrated Einstein Museum presents a powerful presentation of the life and work of Albert Einstein and places it in the context of world history. Animated films and experiments illustrate the pioneering theories of this genius. An AudioGuide in nine languages as well as an induction headset and a VideoGuide for deaf and hearing-impaired persons makes the Einstein Museum accessible to a wide audience. The temporary exhibition hall’s 1,200m2 of space are used to present innovative, changing shows that deal with historical, archaeological or ethnographic subjects on a revolving basis.

Museum of Fine Arts, Bern
The collections of the capital city’s fine arts museum, the Kunstmuseum Bern, are among the finest in the country. The innovative venue also offers a creative forum for exploring current trends in art as well as the changing world around us. The museum holds over 3,000 paintings and sculptures and approximately 48,000 drawings, prints, photographs, videos and films. Works from Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Ferdinand Hodler and Meret Oppenheim have given Bern‘s art museum a world-class reputation. Huge collection including Pablo Picasso, Ferdinand Hodler and Meret Oppenheim, and all the big names over eight centuries.

The collection comprises art from the Italian Trecento (Duccio, Fra Angelico), Swiss art since the 15th century (Niklaus Manuel, Albert Anker, Ferdinand Hodler, Cuno Amiet), international painting from the 19th and early 20th centuries (Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, Blauer Reiter, Surrealism), with particular focus on Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso. Both national art trends (Meret Oppenheim, Franz Gertsch, Markus Raetz) and international ones from Jackson Pollock to the present are also represented.

Einstein House
Albert Einstein lived in a flat at the Kramgasse 49, the site of the Einsteinhaus, from 1903 to 1905, the year in which the Annus Mirabilis papers were published. 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.

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.) The Albert Einstein House bears testimony to the physics genius’ stay in Bern at the start of the 20th century and may ideally be combined with a visit to the Einstein Museum.

Zentrum Paul Klee
The Zentrum Paul Klee, which opened in 2005, is dedicated to the person, life and work of Paul Klee (1879–1940). It houses the worldwide largest collection of Klee’s works. Paul Klee is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most important artists. Klee was celebrated for his “child’s view” of the world and his work is so accessible and fun, eg his wacky glove-puppets.

With about 4,000 paintings (40% of his oeuvre) by the famous painter Paul Klee, the Zentrum Paul Klee houses the largest collection of its kind. The unusual building has a wave-like structure and was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. Apart from art exhibitions, the Zentrum Paul Klee also offers a platform for music, theatre, dance and literature. Klee’s works are shown in a regularly changing, rotating selection of 120 to 150 works, always with changing themes.

The Centre is a modern building formed of three waves. The museum building was built by Italian architect Renzo Piano, a winner of several awards. He created a green island from which three hills of steel and glass arise. These contain exhibition space, a music and event hall, a children’s museum as well as meeting and seminar rooms. The ground floor is a rotating exhibition drawn from some of Klee’s 4000 works. The Kindermuseum Creaviva is home to living creativity. Through expression of one’s own ideas, the techniques and themes of the great art masters emerge in a ‘learning by doing and experiencing’ process.

Apart from the most comprehensive Klee collection in the world, the Zentrum Paul Klee designed by Renzo Piano offers an auditorium for musical and theatre presentations as well as 5 other seminar and banquet rooms for 300 people. The offer is supplemented by a gourmet restaurant, cafeteria, a children’s museum Creaviva and a shop. A short walk across the adjacent park brings you to Klee’s grave.

Swiss Alpine Museum
The Swiss Alpine Museum is a museum dedicated to the nature and culture of the Swiss Alps. The Museum displays exhibits concerning the geology, tectonics, glaciology, meteorology, flora, fauna, cartography, agriculture, folklore, settlement, alpinism, tourism, winter sports, endangerment and protection of or in the Alps, as well as visual art relating to the Alps. Its collection, which is registered as a cultural property of national significance, contains some 20,000 objects, 160,000 photographs, 600 prints and 180 paintings by artists such as Ferdinand Hodler, and the world’s largest collection of raised-relief maps.

Natural space
In summer the River Aare provides an opportunity for the ultimate bathing experience; swimmers allow themselves to drift along in the clean Aare while enjoying a view of the Houses of Parliament. Autumn is when the Region of Bern shows off its many-coloured aspects: deep-blue lakes, magnificent mountain scenery, culinary highlights, and traditions to experience and enjoy.

Bern Bear Park
The Bern bear pit is an attraction that is known far beyond the borders of Switzerland. Since 1513 bears have been at home in Bern; until 1857 in the town itself, then in the bear pit, and since 2009 in the new and spacious bear park. Bear Pit run as an outstation of the city’s Dählhölzli Zoo, since 2009 the bears of Bern also have a modern 6,000 square meters park at their disposal.

The site on the banks of the Aare stretches from the former bear pit opposite the Old Town to the river, the bear pit has a tunnel through to a bosky enclosure along the steep river bank, around which the bears can roam and swim.. The Bear Pit has been listed as a federal cultural asset of national significance, remains at the bears’ disposal. Guests can go on a tour of the old bear pit as well as the new bear park. They get to see the new park with its green hilly terrain, which includes caves and the “Bear Bath” in the Aare River. The park always open, but the bears hibernate Nov-Mar.

Baths on the Aare
A bath is a must for tourists in Bern in summer. And not just for them: the people of Bern also rave about swimming. No wonder: access to the city’s public outdoor pools is free. The spectrum ranges from the alternative Lorrainebad to the Marzilibad with its sports pool. Above all, however, the people of Bern rave about the river. A dip in the Aare is recommended for all good swimmers who are not overly sensitive to cold.

Popular swimming routes are located between Camping Eichholz and the Marzilibad as well as between the Altenbergsteg and the Lorrainebad. The section Schwachenmätteli – Lorrainebad runs under the Nydegg and Untertor bridges. Due to possible turbulence, it is only recommended for experienced swimmers accompanied by experienced locals. The same applies to the Bremgarten loop.

Marzili Lido
The most popular open air bathing spot in Bern. If you visit the city in summer, visit to the “most beautiful river baths in Europe” with a view of the Swiss Parliament House and minster. As with all other public baths in the town of Bern, the Marzilibad is completely free. The Marzili (also known as the Marzer) has a paddling pool for younger guests and a sports pool with 8 x 50m lanes, a non-swimmer pool and a diving pool with 1m and 3m diving platforms. There are also 10,000 square metres of open space for relaxing in.

Since 1899, the Gurtenbahn funicular railway has climbed the 858m mountain, Berne’s home mountain has plenty to offer to visitors, hikers and families from near and far. Traffic-free Gurten is reached on a ride in the red carriages of the funicular railway, departing from Waben, in just a few minutes. And impressive views over and around the Aare and city of Berne, as well as Mittelland and Jura as far as the Alps are viewed from the observation tower up here.

Used as a golf course until 1959, the Gurten fields now offer free access and plenty of barbecue spots. Families appreciate the electric cars, miniature railway with steam locomotives and cog-wheel sections, climbing frame, frisbee and bowling. In winter there is a toboggan run to the Grünenboden middle station and a miniature ski lift on the Gurten fields.

Rose Garden
The Rose Garden is a large park with a wonderful view of the Old Town and Aare Loop. The park is home to 220 different types of roses, 200 types of irises and moor beds with 28 different types of rhododendrons. The Rose Garden is a mecca for flower lovers and a great place to unwind. It features a restaurant in a prime location and a wonderful view of Bern.

From 1765 to 1877 the Rose Garden served as a cemetery. Since 1913 the Rose Garden has been a public park resplendent with the rich beauty of flowers and a pond. From 1956 to 1962 the park was redesigned, introducing rhododendrons and azaleas as well as an iris garden. A pavilion and reading garden provide a place to relax. The restaurant Rosengarten is a great place to while away the time, and it offers a view of the rows of houses in the Old Town.

Surrounding area
Take the time for a visit to the central part of the canton of Bern. At Gürben Valley and the Schwarzenburgerland, gentle hills, which mark the end of the pre-Alpine region, blend into the Laupenamt and Seeland plain, bordered in the north by the Jura range, next to Lake Bienne and the Oberaargau region. The prosperity of the villages flows into the cities with their massive protective walls, arcades, romantic alleyways and fountains topped with statues, which stand as silent witnesses to a colourful past.

The eastern city limits of Bern rises the Bantiger mountain (947m); behind it stretches the Emmental, the valley (tal) of the River Emme. It’s a quintessentially Swiss landscape of peaceful, vibrantly green hills dotted with happily munching brown cows, sleepy rustic hamlets and isolated timber-built dairies.

A slight haze tints quiet rivers with subtle pastel hues. Impressively vast roofs shelter prosperous Emmental farmhouses. Or a stroll through Bern along six kilometres of arcades lining the streets of the old city. Busy market stalls liven up squares, and pubs and restaurants with plenty of character serve wholesome food under ancient arched ceilings, while small theatres in cellars below the arcades offer stimulating entertainment.

Time seems to stand still in the medieval towns of the surrounding Schweizer Mittelland. The Alpine foothills, the Jura range, the Emmental and the Gurnigel-Gantrisch are renowned for their winter sports, and Gstaad, the Bernese Oberland and Jungfrau ski regions are close by.