Bern Switzerland, is a wonderful city that you shouldn’t miss on a trip to the region or Europe! The Swiss capital will enthrall you with its charming streets, colorful neighborhoods and its lovely people.
Here are the top things to do and the attractions that you shouldn’t miss on your trip to Bern!
We visited Bern last in summer 2022. My wife, however, worked in Bern in 2008, and she shared some of her knowledge here as well.
⏳ Zytglogge Clock Tower
The Zytglogge is a broad, hard to miss, animated astronomical clock tower right at the center of the historical city of Bern. It’s Berns most important attraction, and that for a good reason!
You know how they say the Swiss are exact in time? Well, that’s because they were the ones to build the most exact clocks and time pieces.
This tower was the center of everything that happened in this city in the past 800 years. The tower and a wall marked the city borders and served as a western fortification and defense point. The inception of Bern came to be at the end of the 12th century.
The city grew quickly in the next 200 years, so that the Bern administration had to extend the neighborhoods beyond the tower, and so the defense tower was turned into a prison tower and a fire lookout tower.
Ironically, a massive fire burned down and turned the city to ashes in May 1405. The first thing the Bernese people rebuild was their beloved tower. Just this time it was going to serve as a clock tower.
The clock dial is built in the form of an astrolabe, an astronomical calendar. It tells the precise month, moon phase and time of sun rise and set.
The musical mechanisms comes to live every hour. Look out for the rooster crawing 3 times, a fool starting far too early, some dancing bears, a guy turning the sand clock and at last for the golden figurine of Hans von Thann hitting the bell.
You can visit and learn about the intricate and unique medieval workings of the time piece with a behind-the-scenes guide!
Fun Fact: The name, Zytglogge means literally translated time clock or time piece. The Swiss German word Zyt means time (in German it’s Zeit), and Glogge mean bell (in German Glocke). It’s also known as Zeitglockenturm in German.
🏠 Medieval Old Town
The old town of Bern is a protected UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As the city burned down in 1405, it was completely rebuilt with a local stone known as the Berner Sandstone and not in timber. Today the old town can be split into 5 major areas.
The most remarkable area is the one around the Zytglogge. The Kramgasse and Gerechtigkeitsgasse road lead from the time piece to the Aare river bridge, and that’s the oldest part of the city.
Here you can see peculiar statues right above the fresh water fountains and on buildings located on both sides of the road, left and right.
Look out for the children eating “Kinderlifresserbrunnen” fountain statue, the Zähringerbrunnen with the bear at its feet and the lady of justice fountain.
Some of these statues are rather controversial and remind us that Bern’s history is deeply rooted in racism, colonialism and that the city had an antisemitic side.
You will also notice that small boutiques, ateliers, and bars can be found underground with unusual access from the main road. Behind large street doors lie steep short staircases, that take you to medieval underground vaulted cellars.
The unique architecture is what makes Bern, simply Bern. A few of these establishments are worth a visit and some are, in fact, rather famous.
Look out for the lavish, and one of the most beautiful bars in the world, the Kornhauskeller bar. Enjoy the raw old town feel of Bern in the Café Marta, discover the cheese vaults of the Chäshütte or get lost in a movie in the Kellerkino vaulted cinema.
One of our all-time favorite corners in Bern is the neighborhood around the Nydeggkirche, located to the east of the old town, at the end of the main road coming down from the Zytglogge. Here you will find colorful buildings sitting right next to each other, little ateliers and boutiques and the bridge over the river makes for a perfect photo spot.
You can walk around Bern with a local too. This might be useful if you are looking to learn more about the history of the city.
🏊♀️ Aare River Swimming
If you intend to visit Bern in the summer, you will be surprised to know, that the turquoise clear waters of the Aare river are used as a public swimming spot.
And Swiss people are in there swimming all the time! They call it a national sport. They jump right in during lunch break or after work.
River swimming is a popular free thing to do when in Switzerland, and it can be done in other cities as well such as in Basel.
You can participate and enjoy the crystal clear and refreshing Swiss mountain waters if you know to swim.
You will need a waterproof bag to put your clothes in and some swimming trunks or a bikini. Waterproof bags can be bought in local shops in Bern or in Decathlon.
The best point to jump in is at the public pool (which is free btw), and then you just need to drift down the river and meditate in the water. Entry and exit points are marked with red sticks and staircases.
🏛 Swiss Parliament Building
It may come as a surprise to some, but Bern is the capital of Switzerland. It’s not Zürich, nor Basel or Geneva.
Theoretically, Switzerland is known as the Swiss confederation. The cantons (regions) established as an alliance to defend themselves against the neighboring Habsburg Monarchy in Austria, who had a claim to their Swiss ancestral territories and that’s the Swiss confederation.
The Swiss nation was only formed in 1848 and that’s when the Swiss chose Bern as their capital city. Soon enough they erected the parliament building, which is better known as the Bundeshaus.
Located right next to that is the historical Swiss national bank, responsible for the monetary policy of the country. Swiss Frank notes are issues here.
The main square, called Bundesplatz, has a water game and families usually hangout here with their kids in the summer to cool off.
TIP: You can join a free guided English tour of the parliament building on Saturdays.
⛪️ Münster Cathedral
The cathedral of Bern, also known as the Berner Münster, is an evangelical church, and it’s the tallest one in Switzerland.
The humble cathedral in the old city of Bern is a peaceful place and its highlight are the intriguing stained-glass windows.
For 5 Swiss Francs you can climb the spiral staircase to the tower for a stunning view of the city but brace yourself because there are over 300 steps to the top!
🏠 Albert Einstein House Museum
Albert Einstein lived for two years in the city center of Bern. The small rental apartment inspired him to develop his theory of relativity.
Today, the apartment in the second floor and the area in the third floor have been turned into a small museum.
The former living quarters can be experienced in the same way as the Einstein family experienced it during their time in Bern.
You can visit the Einstein Museum for about CHF 7 From February to December (they are closed from end of December to 1st of February).
🚞 Gurtenbahn Funicular
The Gurtenbahn is a funicular located outside the old town of Bern. It takes you to the mountain known as Gurten and from there you get some epic views of the city.
At the top of the funicular, you can take a walk across the green Swiss pastures. The Bernese Oberland alps with snow capped mountains can be seen from there, making this a fantastic photo spot.
The funicular ride is part of the public network of Bern. Your local accommodation in Bern gives you a free public transport Bern ticket for your stay, so you can use the funicular without any extra costs.
🐻 Bear Pit
The city of Bern’s symbol and name giver are the bears.
During Medieval periods it was common to see traders and performers moving from one city to another in Central Europe with European brown bears.
The elite would acquire bears as a way to show the world that they could afford it. Big predators such as tigers and lions had been popular royal pets in Southern Europe since the antique and the bear was the central European version of opulence and richness.
The rulers of Bern, however, took it to another level, with the bear pit near the Käfigturm tower in the Bern old town (which is called the bear square, Bärenplatz, now). The idea was that the bears would keep out intruders.
This is how the city of Bern became the city of bears. It’s on the city banner, it’s in the name (Bern is a short version and comes from the German word Bären) and it was on the coins. It’s the cities symbol.
Now they have a bear pit called Bärengraben located across the Nydeggbrücke bridge on the other side of town.
You can see the bears in a large area for free, making this a great activity for families.
✨ More attractions:
- Museum of Fine Arts (Kunstmuseum) – with art pieces from Paul Klee and Pablo Picasso
- Zentrum Paul Klee – THE art museum for all Paul Klee fans. Here you will find over 4000 art pieces.
- Hammam and Spa Oktogon – Top spa in the city
- Rose Garden – A park to relax and chill
🧀 Local Food Specialties
Bern is known for various specialties, especially in the food space. Look out for the following Berner must-tries:
Chocolate has along standing tradition in Bern and a visit to the city is incomplete without trying some of the best cocoa in the world.
Chocolatiers such as Läderach and Nobile Cioccolateria are located right in the arcades in the old town. Here you get to taste variations of chocolate bars pralines, and a chocolate tasting session will sharpen your sweet and bitter chocolate taste buds.
Look out for a specialty from Bern known as Ragusa. This hazelnut chocolate bar was created during WW2 when cocoa turned into a commodity.
Ovomaltine, the cacao-based powder drink, was created by a pharmacist in the 20th century in Bern. This chocolaty health beverage is super popular in the German-speaking countries. You can buy variations of Ovomaltine in one of the many grocery store sin town.
Theodor Tobler the inventor of the world famous Toblerone chocolate bar was from Bern. The factory behind the train station was the production power house at the beginning of the 1900.
You surely can’t come to Switzerland without enjoying some of the best cheese in the world!
Head to the family run “zur Chäshütte” in the old town for a cheese tasting session or a full-fledged gourmet Swiss cheese fondue.
Fun Fact: Chäshütte is Swiss German for Cheese hut!
You can also buy cheese there to take back home in your checked baggage! Look out for the Berner Alpkäse, produced in the surrounding areas, Gruyère cheese and the Emmental from the nearby Emmental valley.
The Ingwerer is a ginger-based liqueur invention by Philip Jenzer, a local Berner. Ingwer is the German word for ginger but this drink has an added -er to the name.
The harder you shake the drink in the bottle, the stronger the shots will turn out. It’s a fun party and Après Ski drink, which can be found all around Switzerland.
A bottle of this Swiss ginger liqueur makes for a perfect gift for family and friends back home. You can buy it in a local Coop or Migros grocery shop.
More Food Specialties
- Mandelbärli – A bear-shaped cake with a filling.
- Zibelemärit – a traditional onion market held on a Monday in November. In this fair and market you will find different onion braid variations and onion food specialties such as onion soup, onion tart, onion Flammkuchen etc.
- Berner Platte – A dish consisting of traditional local sausages and meats with Sauerkraut and cooked green beans.
- The train station is situated right at the center of the old town. Everything is at a walking distance. The Käferturm is about 5 minutes from the railway station and the Zytglogge is 10 minutes walking distance.
- You can walk down to the river or hire a cycle to tour along the Aare river.
- Bern has plenty of public seating space. If you are on a budget, grab a sandwich from a local Coop or Migros store and enjoy your meal with the city ambiance on a bench.
- A major place to hang out is the Bärenplatz in front of the Käferturm. Here you will find a daily local market with Swiss and Italian food specialties, a flea market and a public large-sized mill and chess game.
- Bern is a save city at night.
🚙 Day Trips from Bern
We made Bern our base for a few days and traveled to nearby locations for full-day trips.
Here are some of the most spectacular must-see places that you can add to your bucket list:
- Lauterbrunnen valley – with Mürren and Wengen in the mountains.
- Grindelwald – the gateway to the Jungfraujoch, top of Europe experience.
- Interlaken – beautiful city between two lakes.
- Neuchâtel – French-speaking capital on the lake.
- Solothurn – cute town at the river.
- Emmental valley – for all cheese and mountain lovers.
Bern is for you if you like Medieval European cities such as Rothenburg ob der Tauber or Innsbruck. The Swiss city has its charms, and it’s worth at least a day if you are just in the corner of Switzerland. It’s also one of the most expensive places in Switzerland, so consider spending a higher budget in Bern compared to the rest of Switzerland.
Bern is located in the German side of Switzerland, so locals speak Swiss-German. In fact, the Swiss German in Bern is one of the most difficult ones to understand for those who speak German. A few locals might understand French, but it’s not spoken commonly. Tourist places speak English.
Yes, one day in Bern might be enough if you are just strolling around the old town and enjoying local specialties. However, if you have come to visit a museum such as the Zentrum Paul Klee, you should add another day or two, to your itinerary.
If you are coming by train or taxi, I recommend that you take a hotel in the city center (if your wallet allows it) because you will be closer to all the main sights. Yet, staying in the city center is always costlier and Bern is already an expensive city to be in. Luckily, the tourism board has set up free ways to get around Bern via public transport. If you book a hotel in Bern, you pay a local tax for your stay and with that comes a free public transport ticket for your journey in Bern. This comes handy because the public transport network is spot on, so you can stay in a hotel outside the main old town. You will have to stay a bit outside the old town if you come by car because car parking is a commodity in Bern. All hotels have parking fees of at least CHF 20 per day, but that’s still cheaper than keeping your car in one of the public car parks and garages. Last time we visited Bern, we stayed in the Novotel Bern Expo, which was easily accessible from the highway and close enough to the old town.
Bern has a small airport just outside the city. You can get a flight to Bern from major cities in Europe such as Berlin, Amsterdam, and Madrid. If you are planning to fly in from the US or Asia, I recommend that you fly into Zürich, the countries largest international airport. Basel and Geneva have slightly bigger airports too, compared to Bern, so that’s another option. You can get to Bern from Zürich within 2 hours via train or car and from Basel it’s one hour, from Geneva it’s also 2 hours via car or train.
The best pictures are taken at the Untertorbrücke bridge, which is right below the Nydeggbrücke bridge. The blue river snakes around the tall sandstone buildings and the red roofs pop out in your pictures. The city has placed two red metal chairs on the bridge for photo shoots. To take photos of the city from an altitude, walk up the cathedral tower steps or take the funicular up the Gurten peak.