South of Bern and Lucerne lies the Bernese Oberland, the grand Alpine heart of Switzerland — a spectacular region of high peaks, sheer valleys and cool lakes that makes for great hiking and world-class winter sports. Plan your trip to the Bernese Oberland with our guide to the Bernese Oberland, based on The Rough Guide to Switzerland, your travel guide for Switzerland.
What to expect when travelling to the Bernese Oberland — your Bernese Oberland travel guide
The Jungfrau region is at the heart of the Bernese Oberland, named after the highest peak, though it’s one of a number that crests 4000m.
On the approaches to the high mountains, Thunersee (Lake Thun) and Brienzersee (Lake Brienz) offer Alpine beauty to merit a stop of their own.
Between them, the bustling town of Interlaken is the main transport hub for the region, but the sheer volume of tourist traffic passing through can make it a less-than-restful place to stay.
For more peace and space, you might to head for the mountains and lakes, where stunning scenery awaits — one of the reasons you voted Switzerland one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Flanking Interlaken in the heart of the Bernese Oberland, Lake Thun (the Thunersee) and Lake Brienz (the Brienzersee) form the gateway to the region.
Poised peacefully between the big cities of the north and the high Alps further south, both lakes are well served by mainline trains that often swish along within metres of the water, plunging in and out of tunnels cut beneath mountains that ring the shoreline.
If you're into stunning train journeys, read up on the best scenic train rides in Europe. Unsurprisingly, Switzerland gets a few mentions.
Lake Thun (the Thunersee) is one of the prettiest in the country, a tranquil patch of misty blue loomed over by high shoreline mountains.
Meanwhile, the town of Thun, at the northernmost tip of the lake where the Aare flows out towards Bern, is an attractive overnight stop – much more relaxing than Interlaken.
Stretching east from Interlaken, Lake Brienz (the Brienzersee) is beautifully set in an enclosed bowl amid forested slopes, with streams tumbling down from on high.
To spend time on the lakes, book a boat day pass.
- Best for foodies: Hotel Krone, Thun. This smart hotel on the Old Town square and steps from the river, has contemporary styling and two upmarket restaurants.
- Best for couples: Zunfthaus zu Metzgern, Thun. This quiet inn dating back to 1361 has good-value rooms overlooking the square and a restaurant serving hearty Swiss fare.
- Best for luxury-lovers: Grandhotel Giessbach, Lake Brienz. Dating from 1873, this palatial four-star commands a position overlooking the Giessbach falls.
Where to stay around Lake Thun and Lake Brienz
On the southern shore of Lake Thun, huddled above and around a small bay 11km south of Thun, Spiez is a gentle little resort, dominated by its medieval waterside castle and stunning views over the lake to the surrounding high mountains.
Its attractiveness as a base lies partly in its position at a major rail junction, with lines heading off in four different directions — east to Interlaken, south to Brig and the Valais, southwest to Gstaad and Montreux, and northwest to Thun.
- Best for couples: Riviera. This lovely lakefront boutique hotel is located right by the jetty.
- Best for beauty on a budget: HI hostel. This chalet-style hostel occupies a nineteenth-century villa that was once the holiday home of the creator of Ovaltine.
Where to stay around Spiez
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Meiringen and around
The creation of meringue and the death of Sherlock Holmes are the two claims to fame of the old town of Meiringen.
Set at the heart of the Hasliberg hiking region with the attractive Aare gorge on its eastern edge, the town has long been a favourite mountain-walking resort of the English.
There's plenty of lovely scenery, notably at the Reichenbach falls, where the “fearful place” Sherlock Holmes apparently met his end can be accessed by a wonderfully ancient funicular from Willigen.
- Best for family-friendly style: Parkhotel du Sauvage. This former haunt of Conan Doyle delivers atmosphere, Art Nouveau rooms, and a bright conservatory.
- Best for hikers: Hotel Rosenlaui. A grand, in-the-middle-of-nowhere hikers’ hotel with public rooms that are a breath of elegance from a former age.
- Best for food and fitness: Hotel Victoria. This three-star hotel has smart contemporary style, with an equally stylish restaurant. It offers free entry to the Fitness and Wellness Centre in Meiringen.
Where to stay around Meiringen
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Gstaad's high-roller status makes it a village like no other. If you fancy being snubbed by the world’s richest people, come here for Christmas week, when it hosts sparkling soirées that are all but barred to ordinary mortals.
Gstaad’s main pedestrian-only street, running north–south through the village, is dubbed Promenade, and no more than five minutes’ walk end to end.
Focus of the village centre is an open area at the point cars are barred, which is used as an ice rink in winter, and the location of the prestigious Swiss Open tennis tournament in July.
Full of restored weathered-wood chalets and an abundance of jewellery shops and furriers, Gstaad is set amid lovely countryside on the Golden Pass train line.
- Best for contemporary cool: Bernerhof. This huge, modern four-star hotel has generously proportioned rooms, four restaurants, a spacious sun terrace, and an indoor pool.
- Best for couples: Gstaad Palace Hotel. This fanciful hilltop confection has underwater music in the pool, giant bedrooms and lavish dinners served on a glorious terrace.
- Best for families: Posthotel Rössli. Housed in a building dating from 1823, the Rössli is a cosy mid-range choice, full of charm and helpful staff.
Where to stay in Gstaad
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Top attractions around the Bernese Oberland
Riding up to the breathtaking 2000m Schynige Platte on a rack-and-pinion railway is the best short trip from Interlaken, and one of the finest mountain excursions in the country.
It offers perfect views of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau, while Botanischer Alpengarten close to the summit is one of the few places you're guaranteed to see a genuine living edelweiss.
To beat the crowds, pre-book a trip to the Schynige Platte.
A breathtaking U-shaped cleft, the high, craggy walls of the Lauterbrunnen valley are doused by spectacularly high waterfalls such as the Trümmelbach, and the Staubbach falls.
At nearly 300m, these are the highest falls in Switzerland, and gush over a sheer cliff like a lacy decoration on the rugged precipice.
This lofty summit with James Bond connections is reached via an unforgettably dramatic cable car ride up to Birg.
On arrival, the “thrill walk” guides you along a series of hair-raising, glass-floored, cliff-edge walkways, and then to the Schilthorn summit itself (2970m).
Here you can enjoy the exceptional views and sip cocktails in the revolving summit restaurant, as featured in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
This car-free mountain resort offers superb skiing and fine hiking.
Perched on a tranquil southwest-facing meadow, it's retained a small village vibe despite hosting big ski events, and its outlook means it enjoys unrivalled valley sunsets.
Switzerland’s most popular (and expensive) mountain railway excursion is touted under the shoutline “Top of Europe”. For once, though, the reality justifies the hype.
From Kleine Scheidegg trains tunnel through the Eiger to emerge at the Jungfraujoch, just below the Jungfrau summit. This is the highest train station in Europe, and offers an unforgettable experience of the mountains that's sure to be a highlight of your Bernese Oberland vacation.
Beat the crowds by booking your train trip to Jungfraujoch in advance.
Set astride the River Aare on the lake which bears its name, Thun is easily the largest and most vibrant urban centre in the Bernese Oberland.
It’s a town rather than a resort, beautifully ranged above Lake Thun, with a fine castle offering outstanding views towards the High Alps.
The sheer-sided Aareschlucht (Aare gorge) is threaded through by a path that snakes for 1.4km, linking the two entrances.
A series of tunnels and walkways take visitors through the spectacular feature, which narrows to only a metre in one part.
To explore this majestic natural feature along with charming villages and Lake Brienz, book a private full-day tour of the gorge and surrounding area.
Great day tours and excursions in the Bernese Oberland
Car-free Mürren (1650m) is an eyrie of a village set on an elevated shelf of pasture which has managed to retain its endearing desert-island atmosphere despite a long and illustrious history of winter sports.
At any time of year, the views of snowy peaks across the valley are dazzling.
Ballenberg Open-Air Museum (Freilichtmuseum)
With two separate entrances, the West nearest Brienz and the East near Brienzwiler, the Ballenberg Open-Air Museum is a huge area of parkland which serves as a showcase for Swiss architecture and crafts.
Its thirteen areas contain examples of traditional houses from different parts of Switzerland, transported here piece by piece from their original settings and reassembled.
Long a centre for mountaineering, the picturesque, chalet-strewn village of Kandersteg (1200m) was for centuries the trailhead for travellers crossing the high mountain passes into Canton Valais.
The main reason to visit is to explore the countryside. Kandersteg is also a fine place to learn how to ski. Beginners can test out their techniques on the least daunting of slopes in the company of other beginners, without a trace of big-resort swagger.
A family ski resort, Château d’Oex is a quiet place in a spectacular location. The wide, sloping valley bowl in which it sits generates exactly the right kinds of thermal air currents for hot-air ballooning.
Every January, the town hosts the annual Hot-Air Ballooning Week, when eighty-plus colourful giants catch the thermals to float over the hills and valleys. The town’s ballooning history is explored in the Espace Ballon.
Sports and activities in the Bernese Oberland
Walks and activities around Mürren
Hiking trails abound around Mürren, and some of the best trails can be accessed via the Allmendhubel funicular.
For something more daring, try the Klettersteig Via Ferrata, a 2.2km trail across steep limestone cliffs navigated by use of ladders and zipwires.
Walks around Wengen and Grindelwald
Even simple excursions such as down to Wengwald below the village can reveal flower-strewn meadows, romantic footpaths and stunning views out over the great chasm of the Lauterbrunnen valley.
Alternatively, catch the cable car from Wengen to the beautiful plateau of Männlichen, from where another cable car descends to Grindelwald, giving access to more hiking areas.
Sports and activities around Gstaad
There’s plenty of hiking in the four main valleys surrounding Gstaad. On the eastern side of Gstaad looms the Wispile (1911m), served by a cable car, with trails of about two and a half hours leading back to Gstaad.
Gstaad’s Alpinzentrum offers a host of adventure activities from igloo building, sledding and snowshoeing in winter through to rafting, canoeing and canyoning in summer.
If you're into adventure, read up on the best outdoor activities in Switzerland. Female travellers might also want to discover a host of exhilarating women-only adventure activities to enjoy in Switzerland.
How to get around the Bernese Oberland
Bernese Oberland Regional Pass
The Bernese Oberland Regional Pass has a vast area of validity, extending west to east from Gstaad to Meiringen, north as far as Lucerne and Bern, and south as far as Brig in the Valais.
It includes boats and trains between Thun, Interlaken and Brienz, as well as trains, buses, funiculars and cable cars serving Schynige Platte, Lauterbrunnen, Mürren, Stechelberg, Wengen, Grindelwald, First, Kleine Scheidegg and Kandersteg.
There are many different passes available, and discounts for children and those with a Swiss Travel Pass. For ease, buy your Swiss Travel Pass in advance.
Or, if you're not a fan of planning, you could book a hassle-free tailor-made trip to Switzerland, with customisable itineraries curated by local experts covering everything from unforgettable highlights of Switzerland, to touring the Grand Circle.
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