Bern Travel Guide
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
Book your individual trip, stress-free with local travel experts
The giant canton of Bern takes in a swathe of diverse countryside from Alpine peaks to rolling farmland. The north of the canton is focused around Bern itself, Switzerland’s low-key and attractive federal capital. Plan your trip to Bern with our guide to Bern, based on The Rough Guide to Switzerland , your travel guide for Switzerland.
At the fulcrum of Swiss history, Bern has often dominated the fortunes of the country’s populated west-central heartland, or Mittelland. This arc of territory stretching from Lake Geneva to Zürich has always held Switzerland’s most fertile country, densest population and greatest wealth.
Every Swiss values his or her home canton above all the others, but the Bernese draw on a particularly deep wellspring of nationalistic pride.
They’re famous for their slow, deliberate manner, reflected in the lethargic, sing-song Bernese dialect of Swiss German that you’ll doubtless overhear.
Of all Swiss cities, Bern (Berne in French) is perhaps the most immediately charming. Crammed onto a steep-sided peninsula in a crook of the fast-flowing River Aare, its quiet, cobbled lanes are lined with sandstone arcaded buildings straddling the pavement.
The hills all around, and the steep banks of the river, are still wooded. Views over the Old Town’s clustered roofs, with the Alps on the horizon, are breathtaking. Coming from Zürich or Geneva , it’s hard to remember that tiny Bern – once voted Europe’s most floral city – is the nation’s capital.
Despite its political pre-eminence, Bern has a population under 140,000 and retains a small town’s easy approach to life. Traffic is kept out of the Old Town and you could spend days just wandering the streets and alleyways, café-hopping and – if it’s warm – joining the locals for a plunge into the river.
The medieval street plan, with its arcades, towers and street fountains, persuaded UNESCO to name Bern a World Heritage Site.
In a competition for the world’s most beautiful and relaxing capital city, it’s hard to think what could knock Bern into second place. Indeed, Bern is one of the reasons you voted Switzerland one of the most beautiful countries in the world .
Bern also happens to feature in our run-down of top things to do in Switzerland this summer .
Wandering Bern’s UNESCO-protected Old Town can be a magical experience: few cities in Europe are so visibly wedded to their distant past, with architecture and a street plan essentially unchange since medieval times.
Travelling with kids? Book a family-friendly walking tour to create a higlight of your Bern vacation.
Bern’s late Gothic Münster is unmistakeable, its feathery spire – the highest in Switzerland – 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.
Housed in an eye-catching Renzo Piano building, the superb museum Zentrum Paul Klee holds the world’s largest collection of the famous Swiss artist. With a steel roof that undulates in three graceful waves, or “hills”, the northern “hill” is dedicated to Klee the teacher and musician.
Below this is a children’s museum, and a subterranean concert hall, while the southern “hill” focuses on Klee the researcher and mathematician.
Just outside 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.
As you probably guessed, this is the home region of Switzerland’s best-known cheese.
Situated at an altitude of 976m, this end-of-the-road hamlet is sliced through by the rushing, tumbling Emme mountain torrent.
This is the place to get the single best meringue in Switzerland, and also the trailhead for many wilderness hikes, principally the tough path through the mountains to the 2350m Brienzer Rothorn (7hr).
The Old Town stretches to the east of the train station, occupying the central high ground of a thin, finger-like peninsula.
Three long, parallel cobbled streets (which all change their names along their length) define the Old Town area: Aarbergergasse–Zeughausgasse–Rathausgasse–Postgasse is the northernmost; Spitalgasse–Marktgasse–Kramgasse–Gerechtigkeitsgasse is in the centre; Schauplatzgasse–Amthausgasse–Münstergasse–Junkerngasse is to the south.
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”.
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.
The BärenPark (Bear Park) is to the east, where three shaggy brown bears are housed in a steep hillside area with a riverside pool at the bottom. The park was created in 2009, but bears were kept at this site from the early sixteenth century in the small Bärengraben (Bear Pits).
Bern's main museums are clustered around Helvetiaplatz to the south.
Bern’s accommodation is good value: it’s easy to choose an inexpensive hotel and still find yourself in a tasteful, tranquil room overlooking historic cobbled streets, with only voices and church bells as background.
Standards, even within historic buildings, are high – the only drawback is the need to book ahead.
Bern’s compact Old Town groans with eating possibilities; vegetarians and vegans are particularly well catered for.
The busy Bärenplatz is lined with cafés and restaurants, but many of the best places are tucked away in the cobbled lanes, offering alfresco dining during the summer and firelit warmth in winter.
Bern’s nightlife is surprisingly vibrant. For nightlife listings try Agenda, the Thurs supplement of the Berner Zeitung newspaper, available free from many cinemas.
Bern’s centre is small enough that you can easily walk everywhere: the stroll from the station to the BärenPark is only around 20min and takes in the length of the Old Town on the way.
Walking is the only way to get a sense of the atmosphere of the arcades – and it’s the principal delight of Bern travel.
Bern’s network of buses and trams is comprehensive. Pretty much all lines run through Bahnhofplatz but Bern’s most useful bus line is the electric bus #12 (every 6min).
Aside from trams along Marktgasse, this is also the only public transport running through the Old Town. From the train station (direction Zentrum Paul Klee), the bus heads to the Zytglogge, then on down picturesque Kramgasse and Gerechtigkeitsgasse, and across the Nydeggbrücke to the BärenPark, terminating in the eastern suburbs at the Zentrum Paul Klee gallery.
The station has the usual paid bike-rental facilities (daily 8.30am–7pm) and there is also the Velo Bern bike sharing scheme with over 200 stations across the city.
Bern’s taxis are vying to be the most expensive in Europe — they’re about twice as pricey as London’s. There are public ranks at the train station, Casinoplatz and Waisenhausplatz. One company to try is Bären.
It’s just a short day-trip from Bern to discover the finest Baroque city in the country. Solothurn's compact but atmospheric Old Town is crammed with an odd architectural mix of Swiss-German sturdiness and Italianate excess dating from the town’s heyday in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.
Explore Switzerland’s best-kept secret, a genial, bilingual university town with a fine tradition of fondues. Its splendid medieval Old Town is set on a forested peninsula in a meander of the River Sarine, with steep, cobbled streets, bedecked with wrought-iron lamp standards and ornate inn signs.
On a pleasant road 19km northeast of Bern through Krauchthal village, the picturesque old town of Burgdorf is built on a prominence above the Emme. Meander up into the Old Town to explore an atmospheric quarter characterized by steep cobbled streets. At the top is the mighty Schloss Burgdorf.
Lützelflüh, a charming village at the heart of the Emmental, was home to the novelist Gotthelf from 1831 to 1854. His life and works are celebrated in a museum housed in the former rectory where he lived with his family at Rainbergliweg. On the outskirts of the village you’ll pass the Kulturmühle, an old mill from 1821 that has been turned into a cultural centre.
If you're into the idea of exploring further afield, read up on the best outdoor experiences in Switzerland .
Whatever kind of trip you're looking for, The Rough Guide to Switzerland and our run-down of things not to miss in Switzerland will help you plan — think of them as your personal travel guide to Switzerland.
Not a fan of planning? Consider booking a hassle-free tailor-made trip to Switzerland, with customisable itineraries covering everything from unforgettable highlights of Switzerland , to touring the Grand Circle .
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