Switzerland City Travel + Tourism Guide: Bern (Berne)

Zytglogge, image by Jean Kugler.Bern

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Bern doesn't feel like the capital city of one of the most advanced nations on Earth. Instead, as you wander the narrow streets of the historic Old Town, dotted with cool cafes and chic boutiques, you'll find it more reminiscent of a very hip, stylish market town.

The name Bern supposedly comes from a German word for bear, and refers to an animal shot here by the town's founder. Nowadays you'll spot bears all over town, for example in the names of restaurants and towns, in the Bern flag, and of course in the famous bearpits by the river.

The Bern bear, if there was one, was killed around the 1190s by Berthold V who founded the city. Bern joined the fledgling Swiss Confederation in 1353, and later brought Aargau and Vaud with it through military might. Bern became the Swiss capital in 1848, largely because it represented a compromise between the French choice of Geneva and the German favourite Zurich.


Old Town

Bern Old Town - image by Jean Kugler.Old Town Bern's mediaeval Old Town with its jumbled red roofs and covered walkways was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It began life in the 1190s when a town was founded by Berthold the V. The location was chosen for its natural defences - the River Aare surrounds it on three sides. On the fourth side a wall and watch tower was built, that watch tower is now the clock tower.

Münster Cathedral - The Cathedral is one of the best places for gorgeous views over the Old Town. The Cathedral itself dates from the 15th century, and the spire is the tallest in Switzerland. Above the main entrance is an interesting depiction of the Last Judgement, with sinners being sent to hell and the others to heaven. At the centre are Justice, and the Wise and Foolish Virgins.

Above them, with a sword and scales is the Archangel Michael. Among the sinners being sent to hell is the Mayor of Zurich, and the Mayor of Bern is going to heaven, but it's not easy to make out. Entry to the Cathedral is free, but it's 4 SFr to go up the tower, which is open all year round but closes early on Sundays in the low season. From just behind the cathedral there's a lift which takes you down to the Matte, a couple of streets down by the river, at lower elevation than the rest of the town. The cathedral is on Münsterplatz.

Bern Old Town - image courtesy of Bern Tourismus.Zytglogge - The Clock Tower is one of the most popular sights in Bern. If you know how to read it, it shows the time, date, phases of the moon, and zodiac. The clock mechanism itself dates from 1530, the tower it stands in was part of the original West Gate of the city. Just before striking the hour, a succession of figures parade out, including seven bears, a jester and a golden cockerel. Various local myths link Albert Einstein's theory of relativity to the clock.

In one version Einstein was travelling on a tram away from the clock when he realised that if he were travelling at the speed of light, then the clock's time would have remained the same, whilst his would have continued to move. The clock is just off Kornhausplatz.

Fountains - One of the ‘main streets' of the Old Town is Marktgasse which, heading East becomes Kramgasse and Gerechtigkeitsgasse. Along this street are 11 fountains, with statues depicting historical and legendary figures. The most well known is on Kornhausplatz and is of a child-eating-giant. Others include bears, heroes and wolves.

Fountains at Bern Bundeshaus - image courtesy of Bern Tourismus.Bundeshäus - The Houses of Parliament were built in 1902. When parliament is in session, you need a passport to be allowed to watch from the public gallery. The rest of the time there are free tours leaving every hour (9am-4pm Mon-Sat). Outside are 26 fountains- one for each of the Swiss cantons. The building is on Bündesplatz, where Bündesgasse turns into Kochergasse.

Einstein Haus - The house where Einstein lived whilst developing his Special Theory of Relativity (E=MC2 and all that). There's a flat decorated in the style of 1905, and information about Einstein's life and theories. (Adults 6 SFR, concessions 4.50 SFr. Opening Times: 1/3/06 – 30/9/06 open daily 10am–5pm, 3/10/06 – 16/12/06 Tues-Fri 10am-5pm; Sat 10am-4pm, 17/12/06 – 2/1/07 closed, guided tours by appointment). Einstein-bern.ch has more information in English. The house is No. 49 Kramgasse.

Bärengraben - The Bear pits. Carrying on with the bear theme, just across the river from the East side of the Old Town are a couple of bear pits. At the time of writing there were three, who seemed content to swipe at bits of lettuce floating in their pond, laze around, play fight, and occasionally sniff each other's bums. Some people find this method of imprisonment cruel, and there are suggestions that the bear pits might not be around much longer. You can buy food to feed them from the office nearby. To get there from the Old Town, go along Gerechtigkeitsgasse, and follow it straight over the bridge when it becomes Nydeggasse. The pits are just over the bridge, to right.

Rosengarten - On the hill above the bear pits is the Rose Garden, which affords more sumptuous views of the Old Town. The garden's very pretty at the right time of year, and used to be a cemetery.

Bern Show - A multimedia display in the Tourist Office next to the bear pits. It describes itself as 'history in 3D'. Opening times are the same as the Tourist Office. The show is free, unless you wish to reserve it for a group.

Museums And Galleries

Zentrum Paul Klee - The Paul Klee Centre is dedicated to Bern-born modern artist Paul Klee (1879-1940). He belonged to no particular artistic movement, but is often mentioned in the same breath as the Blue Rider Group. The museum has thousands of examples of his work, but only the space to show a small proportion at any one time. Take tram 12 from Kornhausplatz to Zentrum Paul Klee (Adult/Concession/Child 14/12/6 SFr, 10am-5pm, closed Monday, open late Thursday).

Historisches Museum Bern - The History Museum's excellent special exhibition to celebrate 100 years since Einstein published his Theory of Relativity was still going strong in November 2007. Among the permanent exhibitions are European treasures dating back to the Stone Age, and a renowned collection of silverware. Other exhibitions cover Asia, Oceania and Native Americana. It's South of the Old Town, over the river, by Helvetiaplatz. You can take lines 3, 5, and 19 to the museum from Zytglogge/Kornhausplatz (Adult/concession 13/8 SFr, open 10am-5pm Tues-Sun, closes 8pm Weds). www.bhm.ch
The interactive Einstein exhibits are not to be missed and present a fascinating insight in to the man and his times.

Kunstmuseum Bern - The Museum of Fine Art is one of the oldest and most important art museums in Switzerland. Coverage includes Swiss painters, as well as works by Manet, Cezanne, Pissarro, Renoir, van Gogh, Pollock and Rothko. For information on temporary exhibitions, see www.kunstmuseumbern.ch. The museum is a short walk from the main railway station, on Hodlerstrasse, and accessible on tram/bus numbers 3,5,9,11 and 12 (Open 10am-5pm Weds-Sun. 10am-9pm Tues).

Other Sites

Gurten - Gurten is a hill 3km south of the city centre, with great views of Bern from the top. You take tram 9 from the railway station to the Gurtenbahn stop, and from there either hike up the ‘mountain' (about one hour), or hop on to the funicular railway to the top (return/single 9/5 SFr, kids half price). If the ride up took it out of you, despair not, there's a restaurant at the top and an adventure playground for the kids.Tierpark Dählhölzli The Zoo. Time for more bears. The zoo has over 200 types of animals, including the requisite big cats, sharks, sea lions etc, and also a vivarium, where you can see the animals in their ‘natural environment'. Open daily, adults 8 SFr, kids half price, under six years old free. Take no. 19 from the train station to Tierpark.

Swimming - What better on a sweltering summer's day in Bern than to cool off in the Aare River? The river itself moves fast and is only recommended for confident swimmers. The Marzili pools are closest. Get there by taking line 30 from Zytglogge/Kornhausplatz to Marzilistrasse. Others include Lorrainebad (Uferweg).


Bern is host to various festivals and events.


The Jazz Festival takes place from, the 2007 event is still in the planning stages.


The Berner Tanztage is a celebration of dance from throughout the world. The 2007 event will run from 6th-23rd March.
The Schweizes Frauenlauf is Europe's largest women's marathon, with 13,000 competitors. The 2007 event is scheduled for 10 June.


The Gurtenfestival is an outdoor rock and pop festival. 2007's event takes place on 19th-22nd July and expects 40-50,000 revellers.


Buskers Street Music Festival. The focus is on the emerging, the small scale, the original. Performances include music, variety shows and comedy. The 2007 event is scheduled for 9th-11th August.


The Bern Onion Market has been taking place on the fourth Monday of November since longer ago than anyone cares to remember. Farmers bring 50 tons of onions and garlic into the city to sell, but these days it's as much about the street parties and carnival atmosphere as anything else. Revellers attempt to stuff confetti inside your clothes and there is all-day wine and beer drinking at the street side stalls.

Tourist Offices

The Tourist Office where the Bern Show is located is just by the bear pits, and opens 9am-6pm June-September, and 10am-4pm March-May & October, and only Fri-Sun 11am-4pm over the winter months.

Another Tourist Office is located in the SBB railway station and is open 9am-8.30pm daily Jun-Sep and 9am-6.30pm Mon-Sat, 10-5pm Sun Oct-May (Tel: 031 328 1212).
Image of AltStadt and Fountains in Bundesplatz courtesy of the official website of Bern Tourism www.berninfo.com

Getting There


Bern-Belp airport has direct flights to most major European cities. There is a shuttle bus which is timed to coincide with flight arrivals & departures. It leaves from the railway station, takes about 20 minutes, and costs 15 SFr. There are also direct and speedy rail connections to the larger intercontinental airports at Geneva and Zurich.


Bern railway station is about 1km West of the Old Town centre. Regular services go to almost every where in Switzerland, and European destinations including the Cisalpino service from Milan (4 hours).


There are postbus services to other larger towns in Switzerland and outlying villages. The local bus service is usful to reach the outlying Paul Klee Center - take bus #12.

Getting around

The centre is not very big. All of the sights in the Old Town are within easy walking distance of each other, and this is probably the best way to enjoy them.

Buses & Trams

There are buses and trams, which operate in a joint, integrated system. The railway station is the main hub.

If you look on the front of the ticket machine where you get on, you can find most stops from a list, and by the name of the stop either a number or the letters KS. KS stands for ‘Kurzstrecke', (a short journey), the numbers represent the number of zones. Just choose the corresponding ticket. A kurzstrecke ticket is 1.90 SFr, the next one up is 3.20 SFr. A day ticket costs 12 SFr. Moonliner night buses operate Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights departing from the main square outside Bern station.


You can hire bikes, including children's bikes, and also skateboards and electric bikes, thanks to an initiative called Bern Rollt (Bern rolls). Get your wheels by the station or on Zeughausgasse. You'll need to show ID and leave a deposit of 20 SFr. The only slight drawback of this admirable scheme is that you will be carrying a (not too garish) McDonald's advert around all day.

Car Hire

Car hire is available at the airports and in the major cities.

City Skyline, Bern.

Bern City Skyline

Clock Tower, Bern.

Zytglogge Clock Tower Bern


Featured Hotels

Alexander Hotel - 3 Star, pleasant hotel located near the Swiss Trade Fair and Basel Congress Centers.
Business Hotel Waldhorn - spotlessly clean, good breakfasts and free internet access for guests in the lobby. Jump on tram #9 to get to the Stade de Suisse.

Book Accommodation in Bern

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There are plenty of places to eat in the Old Town, though prices tend to be high. For cheaper meals head towards the station and the cafes and restuarants of Barenplatz and Waisenhausplatz. The Altes Tramdepot next to the Barengraben is a converted tram depot with high ceilings, good views down to the river and it brews its own beer. The cafe next door to the Historisches Museum has sandwiches, soups, beer and good coffee.

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Central Bern can get pretty lively as the weekend with young drinkers, can in hand, milling in the Old Town and in the station complex. The anarchic Reithalle is worth a visit to escape the drunken Saturday night fever street scene. The Reithalle is surrounded by people in various stages of narcotic oblivion outside but it's peaceful and quiet inside. There's a cinema, bar/cafe and concert venue. Look out for the huge grafitti daubed on the walls near the railway bridge just west of Lorrainbrucke.

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Internet Cafes

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BSC Young Boys logo.Football Teams

Berner Sport Club Young Boys to give them their full name were founded in 1898. The club's glory days were in the 1950s when the team in yellow and black twice won the Swiss Cup and won four consecutive Swiss titles from 1957-60.

BSC Young Boys play their home games at the Stade de Suisse, a stadium built after the previous ground on the site, the Wankdorf Stadium, was demolished in 2001 and looking more like a hypermarket than a football stadium. The former Wankdorf Stadium was famous as the venue of the 1954 World Cup final.

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