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Bern – The Perfect Introduction to Switzerland

by Roberto
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The Swiss capital city, Bern is more reminiscent of a large town than a city. With its historical core and location on a curved bend of the River Aare though, the city rises above its size and deserves to be seen. One day in Bern gives the perfect itinerary to really appreciate this passive little capital.

Your Bern itinerary should easily include everything the city is known for. A city of fountains and bears set on the banks of the River Aare, its beauty will surprise you. It’s one of those rare places where I would be as happy to live as to visit. Bern is easily appreciated on a day trip from the Swiss Alps region too.

Arriving in Switzerland for our One Day in Bern

If you are arriving into Switzerland the nearest airport serving Bern airport itself. It’s a small airport, which only services a small number of international airports and is linked to the city by the S3 train and bus 160. Alternatively Bern is located some 105 kilometers from Basel and that trip roughly takes about 1 hour and 15 minutes, all going well. Bern is also 126 kilometres from Zurich airport, or 159 kilometres from Geneva, making it very convenient to access. Switzerland is in the centre of Europe, and has great links to the countries that surround it also.

Our arrival in Switzerland via Basel wasn’t perfect. We have yet to master the art of travelling light, and with the weather promising everything from cold, to rainy days, thunderstorms and sweltering hot ones, we packed for all seasons, and arrived in Switzerland with a lot more clothes than we probably should have. Or as it turned out after seven days of sun and a singular thunderstorm, far too many clothes. But hey the forecast lied to us. Of course that meant we came out on top, so it’s a small price to pay.

Taking the early flight from Dublin we touched down in Basel EuroAirport at 10:20am which we had been surprised to learn was in France. It conveniently services the two aforementioned countries, and also the city of Freiburg in Germany. The queues for the passport control were longer than one would hope, with the non-EU queue that many joined, far quicker than the EU one. Certainly something to bear in mind if flying in here.

After some drama involving our rental car we were set and on our way to Bern (see my Driving in Europe post for more on that one).


Travelling to Bern by train

Switzerland is as well serviced by train as any country in the world. To that extent many choose to travel by train. Should this be your choice and you can’t fly to Bern then the Zurich service is fastest, arriving in 1 hr 12 minutes, versus 1 hr 30 from Basel and 1 hr 45 from Geneva. Rail travel is expensive (what isn’t in Switzerland) and it is advisable to buy a Swiss Travel Pass. The fare card gives huge discounts on multiple trips. Trains serve all the major sights in any Switzerland itinerary from Lucerne to Lauterbrunnen and are the only way to reach the top of Europe at Jungfrau. Bern train station is centrally located at the end of Neuengasse.

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Where to stay in Bern

Bern is a compact city and so the best places to stay are in its heart. I always prefer standalone and boutique hotels over big chains, just for the personality they exude. Highly recomended come the Hotel Allegro Bern, the Hotel Savoy, and the Bristol. Upper-end price options such as the Hotel Bellevue Palace and the Hotel Schweizerhof will satisfy any of your demands. All of the above are located in the old town of Bern. The lower end mostly consists of Ibis and Metropoles and hostels such as the Bern Backpackers Hotel Glocke. Booking through booking.com gives the best rates and through this widget may help put my kids through college.



Booking.com


One day in Bern- or was it?

We decided to go for a lower end hotel for our stay in Bern. All went well until we reached Bern. I had added our hotel to the GPS prior to the trip but honestly didn’t pay much attention to its location at that time. So we reached Bern, circled around it and suddenly found ourselves back out in the countryside. Now this was rather unusual.

I still can’t figure out how but our hotel was EIGHT KILOMETERS outside the city of Bern. Maybe the hotel name threw me, Hotel Bern as it was known on booking.com. Or it could have been the location, Bernstrasse. But then again why would there be a Bernstrasse in Bern? Who said travel was perfect.


Ziegel Husi Hotel

As it turned out to be actually known was our hotel. Maybe I have a case for false advertising. Ziegel Husi Restaurant and Hotel is located in a very Swiss looking building on the site of a working vinegar factory, in the village of Stettlen. Luckily a smell of vinegar didn’t fill the air. The restaurant is said to be great, though we can’t attest to that. Hotel Bern isn’t too modern, but was clean and comfortable, and quite fine to spend one night in.

It presents itself as a budget offering to stay near Bern too, that is to say if €140 can be considered budget. But then again Switzerland was never going to be a budget trip. Surrounded by rolling green hills the area was beautiful, and like much of Switzerland the village was punctuated by attractive chalets.

Free parking in the hotel allowed me to ditch the car in favour of public transportation, and the hotel was very close to a train station linking to the heart of Bern. A fifteen minute trip and the city was at our mercy. The train into the city costs Fr 4.60, which equated to €4.10. There isn’t much difference in the exchange with Euro.


Exchange rates to Swiss Franc

$1 = Fr 0.92

€1 = Fr 1.08

£1 = Fr 1.09.


Our Bern in One Day Itinerary

They say problems usually come in threes, so what did Bern have in store for us. I had no reason to be apprehensive, as from the minute we disembarked the train station, I knew this was a city I was going to love. And fall in love with Bern I did. Its historical core, cobbled pedestrianized streets and relaxed atmosphere appealed so much to me. Flags hang from windows down many streets, with a notable great feeling of pride in their city from the locals. Being Swiss, absolutely everywhere is spotless.

We started our tour down Aarbergasse, which runs right to the heart of the city. Trams and buses run up and down here, ringing bells at oblivious tourists, marveling at the city. Yes I was one. The arcaded street sides provide shelter from the elements and the transport, and play host to the usual suspects of high street shopping. Needless to say I lost Beata in there for some time.


Bern History

Known locally as Berne, the city centre is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. Founded in 1191 by the Zahringer family who ruled much of the area from Burgundy, before becoming a part of the Holy Roman Empire. It finally became part of the Swiss Confederation in 1353. The city grew in size becoming the largest Swiss city north of the Alps, and expanded its territory.

These territorial advance was halted by occupying French troops in 1798, during the French Revolutionary Wars, and much of its territories were stripped. It later regained control of the Bernese Oberland and Bernese Jura. In 1848 Bern was made the Swiss capital and has remained so since. Not the most interesting of histories but that doesn’t detract from the city’s historical core. At present Bern has a population of 140,000, making it the fourth most populous of Switzerland’s cities.


Your Bern Itinerary- A Walking Tour

Part of appeal about Bern lies in walking its streets and marveling at the buildings of the old town. Many of the current buildings date back centuries, a fire in 1405 destroyed the wooden buildings at the time, and they were replaced by half timbered and sandstone houses in the following centuries. The streets are a cacophony of colour from the flags. The roofs of the city’s houses are a delight to see, many have cute dormer windows, and those houses form a maze when looked on from above. 

Bern’s Streets
Bern Streets
Bern Streets
Bern Streets
Bern’s Streets

Street Fountains of Bern

The Bernese love their street fountains. Besides the fact that water is palatable everywhere in Switzerland and the fountains on the street are the perfect place to refill your water bottles, they serve a more artistic purpose in Bern. A series of fountains dots the old town with most of them dating from the 16th century and nearly all the work of Hans Gleng. Its an impressive array of work, as the columns represent Moses, Justice, Samson, a piper, and inevitably a Bear which is the symbol of Bern. Of the one hundred odd fountains in Bern eleven are like this.

  • Bern Fountains
  • Bern Fountains
  • Bern Fountains
  • Bern Fountains
  • Bern Fountains
  • Bern Fountains
  • Bern Fountains

Regular drinking fountain

Towers

I cannot go anywhere without paying some towers a visit and Bern was to be no exception. Mind you it’s hard to miss them if you walk down the main thoroughfare. Firstly, you will come across the Kafigturm, a clock and bell tower from 1644. Prior to this it served as a prison and a gatehouse on the walls of Bern’s medieval city, but was rebuilt in its present baroque form. It is possible to visit the interior.

Kafigturm
The Kafigturm is the first elegant tower we meet

Zytglogge

The accolade of best tower easily belongs to the Zytglogge though. This tower dates back 800 years and to sum up has been a guard tower, prison for women who had relations with priests, clock tower and more recently a symbol of Bern. This is owed in part to its many changes, certainly the most significant being the addition of its 15th century astronomical clock. It’s one of the finest I’ve seen. Besides the attractive clocks on the east and west facades, the tower has so many interesting features.

Zyglogge, Bern
The attractive painted face of the Zyglogge Clock Tower

A large figure of Chronos, the Greek figure of time, strikes the bell with a hammer on the hour. The astronomical clocks displays far more than just the time. It is said that the astronomical clock here was what influenced Einstein to think outside the box. But is it the main draw? No. At ten to the hour crowds gather on the streets below, as we did, to watch the 16th century mechanism, when the dance of bears and a jesters begins. We are all a sucker for a good show. Its an early form of mechanics, and perhaps the influence for cuckoo clocks.

Zyglogge, Bern
Crowds awaiting the bellworks
The astronomical clock

Limited opening hours mean there only one tour every day of the Zytglogge at 2:30pm and tckets can be booked through the official website or on get your guide.


Interesting Buildings to see on a Day in Bern

Being Switzerland there is no shortage of interesting and seriously cute buildings in Bern. This was part of the reason that I enjoyed walking around. As I was only visiting for a day, I limited my time to the streets mostly, and appreciated the city for its aesthetics rather than its depth. Much of the best architecture cannot be visited though such as the Hollanderturm, Parliament Building or the Town Hall of 1406, to name but a few.

The Hollanderturm, is a tower dating from the 13th century but with a distinctly beautiful 17th century upper floor. Bern Town Hall is distinguished by its elegant double stairs, with a balcony for politicians to make speeches from. The building appeared somewhat Venetian to me. I popped in the open door, but was politely told it wasn’t open to the public. It does open for tours on four occasions each year, which are detailed on the website, so if you are lucky enough to be in town, it would be an interesting one to see the interior of.

Hollanderturm
Hollanderturm has a very beautiful top floor
Bern Town Hall
Bern Town Hall

Bern Munster

As the city’s cathedaral, Bern Munster is the tallest in the country. Construction began in 1421 but the tower was only completed in 1893. To think I thought progress on the Sagrada Familia was slow. The Munster is a pleasant church without being mind-blowing. Entrance is from the west and I advise taking time to pause and study the central portal. Featuring sculptures from Edhard Kung it depicts the Last Judgement, with the righteous separated from the wicked, who inevitably end up in hell. It’s a beautiful work of art and took its artist 20 years between 1460 and 1480 to complete.

Bern Munster
Bern Munster
Last Judgement on the west portal of Bern Munster

Entry into the Munster is refreshingly free and you are free to walk around the interior. Photography however is not permitted in the interior. As cathedrals go it wasn’t the most spectacular I’ve seen, perhaps owing to the protestant iconoclasm of the protestant reformation in the 16th century. Many paintings and altars were removed and destroyed. In conclusion, what has survived is the high altar and choir, the organ, and thankfully the stain glass windows, which are quite fine, with some dating to the 15th century.


Bell Tower

Having saved my energies from the two previous towers I had encountered the tower at Bern Munster was firmly in my sights. The steeple at 110 metres is the tallest in Switzerland, and 254 steps await before you reach the top. There are a few floors where you can stop to catch your breath, and you can bet I did. The tower does have a cover charge of Fr 5, which I thought quite reasonable, and from the top the views out over the town are beautiful. Those previously mentioned Bernese rooftops are a pleasure to look over and the River Aare is a beauty. In the distance the snow covered Alps were a sneak preview of what awaited us in the coming days.

There is some interesting artwork on the bell tower, and the route up presents many glimpses of the churches flying buttresses. The descent from the tower takes a different route, bringing you by Munster’s bells. They include the largest in Switzerland, the ten tonne Grosse Glocke from 1611. You don’t want to be here when these bells ring at 12 and 6 daily, but I did see earmuffs provided if you do.


River Aare Views

Whilst the views from the bell tower of the Munster are great, to really want to appreciate the River Aare you need to walk around the circumference of the city. A good place to start is the Parliament Building, from where the Aare is backed by the Swiss Alps. However my two favourites were the Kirchenfeldbrucke, which is to the south of the city, and the Kornhausbrucke to the north. Here we can really see just how turquoise are those waters. The waters are fed from glaciers up in the alps and the dissolving of minerals in the process results in its stunning appearance.

Standing on the Kirchenfeldbrucke I was amazed, as to one side the parliament rises from the river, and to the other the Munster. I could have easily stood there all day long taking it all in. If I can suggest one place to find in Bern, in summary, this is it.

River Aare Bern
Aare with the Swiss Parliament
Kornhausbrucke
Kornhausbrucke view
River Aare and Bern Munster
River Aare and Bern Munster

From here, keep those gorgeous views coming with a visit to the Munsterplattform, a viewing deck in the shadow of the Munster. Any visit to Bern should continue down Gerechtigkeitsgasse (probably the longest word I’ve ever typed in a blog), as this aesthetic street leads to more wonderful bridge views at the Nydeggbrucke. It also leads to one of Bern’s top attractions, and in doing so provides us with the answer of where Bern got its name.

  • River Aare
  • River Aare
  • River Aare
  • River Aare

Bernese rooftops
Bernese rooftops

Bear Park of Bern

Bern has always had a relationship with bears, even since its founding days. It’s the city’s symbol, and can be found everywhere you look. Legend or not, the city is said to have gotten its name from its bears. Nowadays, the bears can be found in the city’s Bear Park, located just beyond the Nydeggbrucke. The Bear Park winds down to the river and in this idyllic surroundings, the local population of bears, which now numbers three, walk, laze and swim. We only caught brief glimpses through the vegetation. It’s an interesting feature of what is a above all, a very interesting city.

One of Bern’s three bears taking a stroll

Rosen Garden

Within minutes of the Bears is the Rosen Garden. The park is Bern’s most famous. It ascends above the city giving prime views over the Munster and bend of the River Aare. The park features over 400 varieties of roses, and springtime displays of cherry blossoms. Not bad for what used to be the city’s cemetery. A bench featuring a statue of Albert Einstein has become the most sought after selfie location in the city.


Museums- Things to do in Bern on a wet day

If you want to add culture to your Bern itinerary, then the huge number of Bern museums will be right up your street. Better still they are nearly all located in the one area. Crossing over the scenic Kirchenfeldbrucke. The first here is the Kunsthalle, an art museum. Right next to it is the Alpine Museum of Switzerland, which has exhibits on the Alps. Also here are the Museum of Communication and the Natural History Museum, if that’s your thing.

The best of Bern’s museums is the Einstein House. Albert Einstein lived in this flat from 1903 to 1905 and developed his theory of relativity here. The interior is decorated in period furniture and contains documents from his time spent in the city. 1905 was Einstein’s extraordinary year. Did Bern inspire him? It’s a distinct possibility.


Where to eat during a day in Bern?

Our mantra for Switzerland when it came to food, was to keep it simple, save, and keep the cost down. So street food was the order of the day in Bern. Our lunch was a modest sandwich from a stall on Neuengasse. At Fr 6.50 each it fell easily in our budget. Our plan had been to eat from the supermarkets Migros and Coop, once a day and then have a restaurant meal, but this fit in perfectly. Plus I’m generally happy with street food.

For dinner we made the upgrade to pizza. All in all not to healthy. There are many open air restaurants around the city centre, but with our energy levels dwindling from the early flight, we settled on Da Vinci. It’s an Italian restaurant on Spitalgasse. So we shared a pizza with a beer, water and coffee and escaped with a bill of only Fr 34, which quite frankly I thought was winning in Switzerland. The stories I had heard before of Switzerland being one of the most expensive countries in the world, led me to believe I would be declaring bankruptcy at the end of this trip.


Conclusion

Would i recommend a visit to Bern? I guess the best compliment I can pay it, is to say I would happily live there. One day was hardly enough time to give this beautiful city, and I suspect I’ll be back to dig deeper.

For travel tips and suggestions on how to save on your Swiss trip, venture over to my Saving Money in Switzerland blog.

Looking for ideas for day trips after Bern? Then look no further than Lauterbrunnen.

The magnificent Grindelwald was the highlight of our Swiss Alps trip. Read my travel guide here.


Travel Insurance

Now more than ever is the time to consider adding travel insurance for your trip. The travel industry is very fragile, and cancellations, business closes and lockdowns are indeed a distinct possibility. Protect yourself against them with World Nomads travel insurance. World Nomads offer a no obligation quote, and now protect domestic trips too.


If you enjoyed the blog, I would appreciate a share or a pin. Happy travels to those for whom Bern Switzerland awaits.

John

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