I’ve been to Switzerland a couple of times for work already, yet I have never actually visited Bern, Switzerland’s capital. So when two meetings nearby showed up on my itinerary, I was looking forward to finally getting a chance to go and visiting Bern for the very first time. But to be honest, I had absolutely no idea what to expect, I didn’t even bother googling Bern before going. So to save you from making the same silly mistake, here a brief overview of what to see in Bern if you have limited time.
There is a load more to see, so take it as a teaser of Bern, not a full itinerary for a weekend in Bern for example (which I would totally recommend and would love to do if and when I get the chance).
Visiting Bern for the first time: How to get to Bern
As there are no direct flights from London to Bern (there is an airport near Bern, however it does not seem to serve many international routes), I opted for a flight to Zurich (the choice was to either fly into Zurich or Basel, however the train connection from Zurich seemed a little better).
The IC8 is a direct train from Zurich airport to Bern, which takes just 75 minutes and stops only two or three times along the way. However, as convenient as it is, it doesn’t come cheap. 56 CHF for a single ticket (that’s a whopping 42 GBP), but to be fair, I failed to check before if I could safe some money by pre-booking my ticket. Answer is probably yes, so if you are visiting Bern for the first time, learn from my mistake and check beforehand.
When booking my hotel, I opted for one that was reasonably priced but still fairly central (saying that, this sometimes is a little hit and miss, if you have absolutely no idea what exactly is central or a good area to stay). This time I must say it was very central and convenient, a short walk from the train station and ideally located for my Bern sightseeing endeavours in the evening. The hotel itself wasn’t the prettiest one ever, but it was a decent 4 star chain hotel, albeit a little worn and dated. However, I was assured that refurbishment was on-going at the time (evidence of which could be heard from around 7am in the morning when the hammering started) and come September the hotel should be all sparkly and new (with slightly better sound insulation). If I ever make it back, I will let you know.
Check in done, suitcase and work stuff dumped, off I went to explore Bern. For once, I decided to just chance it and start walking, without a map or anything. During the short walk from the station to the hotel, I already spotted a few places I wanted to see and it all looked fairly small and easy to navigate. Worst case scenario I would have to get the phone out and check maps. So no big deal really.
Visiting Bern for the first time: General info about Bern
Although Bern is Switzerland’s capital, it is only its fourth biggest city, after Zurich, Geneva and Basel. With a mere 142.000 inhabitants it feels tiny compared to London and other capitals (but then again, the whole population of Switzerland could comfortable fit into Greater London, so probably not a fair comparison).
Bern is located in the German speaking part of Switzerland, however they have their own dialect of Bernese German, which even for a native German speaker was almost impossible to understand at times (I’m trying guys, I really am. But some Swiss dialects are just too much for me to handle).
Visiting Bern for the first time: A brief sightseeing tour
Setting off from the hotel, the first sight was the ‘Stadttheater’ (the Bernese Opera House) just around the corner. From there I walked over the Kornhausbrücke, entirely mesmerized by the turquoise water of the Aare.
I certainly did not expect the river to have such a vibrant colour (compare that with the muddy brown of the River Thames – sorry London you totally lost me there for once). Reason for the turquoise colour is the ‘Gletschermilch’, the melting water of the glaciers further upstream. As the Aare continues its way through Switzerland it will eventually change colour to a darker shade of green.
The river Aare is one of the dominant features of Bern, as it meanders in a wide loop all around the old town centre with plenty of bridges connecting the different parts of Bern.
I continued my tour towards the ‘Innere Stadt’, the old town of Bern, which is actually one of the Unesco world heritage sites. The medieval buildings are all built in sandstone, giving the old town a very distinct colour and character.
I walked down the Kramgasse and Gerechtigkeitsgasse towards the old town hall from the 15th century. With its ‘Lauben’, covered shopping arcades and promenades either side of the streets, Bern’s old town very much reminded me of some of the Italian cities, Bologna for example. I can just imagine life happening on the street and in these arcades throughout the summer, with plenty of al fresco eating and drinking taking place (evidence of that could already be found and summer has barely begun).
There are also loads of little basement bars, theatres and shops along the way, like the ‘Berner Puppen-Theater’ (puppet theatre) for example, all accessible directly from the street, rather than via the main building.
Past the town hall I continued down to the ‘Nydeggbrücke’, which revealed more magnificent views of the Aare meandering through Bern. Across the bridge you get to the ‘Bärengraben’ (bear pit) on the right, which I completely missed that evening. I did see the ‘Altes Tramdepot’ (old tram depot) behind, which nowadays houses a restaurant and which looked quite inviting with its large beer garden and great views across the river and old town, however it was a little too early to think about dinner, so I walked on without giving it much thought (or even crossing the road… little did I know).
Luckily the next day after our meetings we had an hour to kill before my train back to Zurich, so my client took me there for a coffee and for me to see the bears (note to self: maybe do at least skim the Wikipedia article next time you head to a new city to avoid such mishaps next time round).
The bear is the heraldic animal of the coat of arms of Bern and they have kept live bears in the ‘Bärengraben’ since the 1440s. Nowadays they are no longer kept in the actual pit, instead the ‘Bärenpark’, a nice new enclosure, was created along the bank of the river, giving them a more natural and diverse habitat. A total of four bears is currently kept there, however I only spotted two of them, then spent the rest of the time enjoying a quick coffee and the views from the beer garden of the ‘Altes Tramdepot’. They have their own little brewery here, which I was told does a decent and apparently ‘woman friendly’ (as in sweet and light and not so bitter) beer. However I did not try it, so I can’t comment (and even if I did try, I probably couldn’t comment… as I’ve mentioned before, I am just not into beer at all).
On I went, a short walk to the ‘Untertorbrücke’ (lower gate bridge), the oldest of the Bernese bridges dating back to the 15th century. Across the bridge and back into the old town again, walking back towards the town hall, then across to the ‘Münster’, the 15th century gothic cathedral, sitting proud in the Bernese skyline.
Behind the Münster is the ‘Münsterplattform’, a little park with cafes, men playing boules and more stunning views of the Aare and its valley. There is also an elevator here, leading down to the valley.
Once I’ve enjoyed enough views of the Münster and the Aare (and avoided the massive groups of Asian tourists armed with selfie sticks) I crossed the ‘Münsterplatz’ and went on through more of Bern’s ‘Gassen’ (small streets). All looking very pretty with flags hissed either side of the road (not sure if this is a permanent feature or if they were preparing for a special event, I forgot to ask someone).
When walking through the old town you will come across plenty of public fountains with renaissance statues on top (11 in total). Whilst I have seen quite a few of them (not sure how many, I didn’t actually count them), I have somehow managed to miss all but two when taking photos… silly me.
The best-known one is the ‘Kindlifresserbrunnen’ (child eater fountain… and nope, no photo of that one).
Walking on, I eventually came past the ‘Bundeshaus’ (central building of the Swiss parliament) and the ‘Schweizerische Nationalbank’ (Swiss national bank).
By now dark clouds were closing in and rain was imminent, so before I had a chance to snap a photo, the fountain on the ‘Bundesplatz’ was shut down (that’ll teach me trying to get a decent shot and therefore taking too long to find the perfect angle).
I walked on, but didn’t get far before my tour came to a sudden halt, when the light drizzle of rain eventually changed into a full grown thunderstorm with heavy rain and hail. So instead of more walking I dashed into the next available restaurant for dinner (and most importantly to stay dry).
The rain eventually stopped and after dinner I took one last detour back towards the hotel, however with big puddles of water everywhere and dusk eventually setting in, I opted for an earlyish night instead.
Visiting Bern for the first time: Things I didn’t manage to see
Unfortunately the ‘Zygtglogge’ (time bell) was under construction and therefore completely covered by scaffolding. If you are heading there, maybe you have more luck than I had. As it is meant to be yet another one of Bern’s significant buildings.
Actually Bern houses a total of 114 Swiss Heritage Sites of National Significance, so I am sure there is still loads more to see. And who knows, maybe I make it back here one day with more time (and better prepared).
I didn’t get a chance to see any of the museums or the rose garden. Let alone explore the shops, arcades and churches of the old town centre.
I hope you enjoyed my walk through Bern.
Have you been? How did you like it?