Bern, the Swiss capital is a hidden gem and not on the agenda of most visitors to Switzerland. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is where you can discover a perfectly-preserved and undeniably charming medieval city with a small town feel.
The city which is surrounded by the winding River Aare is referred to by the Swiss as “Altstadt” meaning “the Old Town” because it dates back to the 12th century and maintains the same layout today as it did when it was built.
Here in Bern you will be able to walk through quaint streets and cross bridges and feel as if you’ve been transported to another era.
This city was once the seat of power in the old Swiss Confederacy and gathering power in 1353 it declared its independence as a state and led the Swiss Confederation. These days most of the power is held in Zurich and Geneva and Bern is better known for the immaculate old town which has remained almost unchanged from the twelfth century.
There is also the addition of modern architecture such as the Zentrum Paul Klee and the Westside Shopping Centre both created by famous architects that perfectly complement the medieval style of the city in a contrast between contemporary and historic.
The icon of Bern is the bear, which can be found everywhere in the city, on fountains, buildings and statues. It is the mascot of the city and said to be where the name of the city comes from.
It is said that Duke Berchtold V von Zähringen named the city upon killing a bear by the Aare River, “Bären” which is the plural for bear has a very similar pronunciation as the name of the city. There is still a bear park in the city which draws thousands of visitors to see the famous animal that is emblazoned all over the city.
Bern offers visitors the opportunity to explore medieval streets, enjoy great shopping, discover the home of Albert Einstein, visit museums and learn about the history and culture of this fascinating city.
Here in our ultimate guide to Bern we will show you all the best things to do in the city, where to eat, what to see and where to stay.
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How to get to Bern
Bern can be visited by plane, train or by car. The easiest way to reach Bern is to fly into the small airport which connects with some European destinations.
From the airport there is a bus that will take you to the Belp S-Bahn train station, if you are going to be staying in Bern itself the Bern Ticket will include a transfer to and from the city centre.
Bern can also be accessed by train from major swiss towns and also European cities. There are plenty of direct connections to cities such as Zurich, Lucerne and Basel which all take less than an hour by train.
What to expect in Bern
Bern is situated in Switzerland but the official language is Swiss German, though this may be their language, Switzerland is an international business and financial hub and English is widely spoken.
The currency is the Euro and there are plenty of cash machines which will allow you to use your cards, and there are many ways to pay using contactless cards, thus avoiding withdrawal fees for taking out cash.
Tipping is appreciated but not necessary in Switzerland due to the high minimum wage, a “service charge” is usually factored into your bill so tipping is not expected in restaurants, if you’re feeling generous you can round up to the nearest Franc as a sign of your appreciation.
How to get around Bern
There is plenty of ways to get around the city of Bern including an excellent public transport system of buses, trams and metros that are all free with your Bern Ticket, which you can obtain from booking accommodation in any hotel or hostel.
The Bern Ticket also includes free access to the Gurten Funicular, the Minster Terrace elevator are all included in the free transportation as well as your journey to the city centre from the airport. The ticket must be activated using the Bern App with a booking number.
Renting a car is also possible but not recommended as there tends to be a lot of traffic in the Old Town and not many places to park.
The city centre is concentrated in one large walkable area which means that you can explore most of Bern by foot.
Another alternative for those who love to be active is to explore the historical centre by bicycle, there are “Velo Bern” bike rental points for bikesharing and you can sign up via the bikesharing app or using your Swisspass, a rail and transport pass available online.
The best time to visit Bern
Bern is best visited during the Spring, Summer and Autumn. During the summertime many of the local businesses close which may include restaurants, however the summer is the best and most popular time to visit the city.
The summer is not all days of sunshine though, Bern has changeable weather so it’s advisable to bring your wet weather gear and pack some layers just in case.
April to September are some of the best months to visit Bern, where you will have the best chance of good weather and warmer temperatures and avoid the cold and wet winters.
Things to do in Bern
Visit the Bears of Bern
Everywhere you go you will see the city’s icon, the bear and you can see real bears in the city at Bärenpark (Bear Park), which is one of the top tourist attractions in the city.
In the park you’ll find brown bears enjoying more freedom in the new 6,500 square metre park which replaced The Bear Pit in 2009.
At Bärenpark you can see the bears from walkways and bridges and observe them roaming in their forest and grassland habitats that make up the new home for Bern’s bears.
Their new environment is much better than the depressing Bear Pit where they lived and now visitors are also forbidden from feeding the bears. Entrance to the Bear Park is free.
See the famous Zytlogge
This historic clock tower which was built in the 13th century can be found in the centre of the Old Town and serves as a landmark for the city of Bern, however it has had a varied past and has served as a guard tower as well as a prison!
The clock tower is one of the oldest monuments in the city and was once the master clock which was used to dictate the time set on all the clocks in the city.
The clock is an astronomical clock representing the movement of the planets as well as the symbols of the zodiac, there is also a painted representation of classical deities to represent every day of the week.
There are so many fascinating details in the face of the clock and it is said to have inspired Albert Einstein’s Theory of Relativity which he developed during his time working as a clerk in the city. Tours can be organized to visit the clock tower.
Marvel at the city’s water fountains
Bern is home to so many fountains that it is known amongst the Swiss as “the city of fountains”. You can find some beautiful and more unusual fountains in the city centre including the quirky “Spiral Column (Nature’s Way)” fountain created by famous Swiss artist Méret Oppenheim.
This quirky Spiral column is constructed from aluminum and concrete and has organically grown over time due to the growth of plant, mosses and lichens which grew over the original structure creating a unique biodome in the centre of the Old Town.
So much natural material grew on the structure from the minerals and water that 880 pounds of organic material had to be removed from it so that it could remain upright!
Another quirky fountain is the 500 year-old fountain with the Kindlifresser, which means “ the Child Eater” depicting a statue of an ogre eating children from a sack.
This iconic boogieman’s existence can be explained by several theories; one explanation is that the statue represents Kronos, the Greek mythological figure that ate his own children to prevent them from inheriting the throne.
Alternatively, it could be an ogre which was used as a warning by parents to their children through generations to make sure that they behaved. Whatever the reason for its existence, this quirky statue is one of Bern’s must-sees.
Smell the Roses at Rosengarten
Bern is home to a colourful and fragrant Rose Garden which boasts over 200 species of Roses as well as other flowers.
The gardens are incredible to visit in the springtime when all the roses are in bloom and you can enjoy their heady fragrance whilst strolling in the vast gardens of the park. As a bonus, you can enjoy the stunning views of Aldstadt from the Rosengarten restaurant.
Visit the home of Albert Einstein, the physicist famed for his world-shattering Theory of Relativity which shaped our understanding of the universe. This unassuming apartment can be found in one of the well-kept historic buildings that line the streets of Bern.
Albert Einstein lived at Kramgasse No. 49 while he was working as a clerk at Bern’s patent office for a period of two short years, but it became his workplace where he developed some of his most important discoveries and theories.
The apartment has been kept to look as it did when he lived there and it is a fascinating glimpse into the ordinary life of a genius. A visit to his former home is one of the highlights of visiting Bern, the ticket costs 6 CHF per person for entry.
Enjoy the views from the Gurten
The Gurten Mountain situated in the South of the City is the best place to visit to take in the views of this gorgeous city where you can also see the snowcapped peaks of the region of Bernese Oberland beyond the city of Bern.
There are many hiking trails and it is a popular ski destination in the wintertime, with the ski lifts clattering into action and taking tourists to the slopes.
The Gurten also hosts open-air music festivals and food festivals, it is also the perfect place for astronomy enthusiasts to take in breathtaking views of the night sky.
The funicular valley station can be accessed by hopping on to Streetcar no. 9 from the main station, there is another funicular to take you to the peak or you can hike to the top in one hour, ideal for burning off all those calories from the local cuisine! The funicular ride to the Gurten is included in your Bern ticket.
Visit the Museum of Communication
Bern is home to a Museum of Communication which explores the evolution of human communication from postal delivery to the modern age of mobile phones and video games.
It was once a museum displaying artifacts from Swiss postal history since the 1800s, but later it began to incorporate different forms of communication and was renamed the “Museum of Communication” making it a fascinating exploration of how our methods and technology for communication have changed over history. A perfect way to spend a rainy day in the city.
Learn about the city’s history at the Historical Museum
Bern’s historical museum is also the Einstein museum and incredibly it is Switzerland’s second biggest museum of history! There is an incredible permanent collection which details the evolution of life in Switzerland from the Stone Age until modern times.
The impressive collection is unmissable and a trip to the museum is highly-recommended, it’s also ideal for all members of the family and if you happen to be caught out with rain on your holiday, this is the perfect plan to make the most of your time in Bern. Entrance fee is 13 CHF per person, with cheaper admission for families and children.
City of culture
Bern has a vibrant cultural scene which goes on all year round. You can find some great markets and music and art festivals including a night at the Museums where you can visit museums until 1 or 2 am, this event is held annually in March.
Or if you visit from March to May don’t miss Bern’s International Jazz Festival which has been running annually since 1976 when Jazz legends such as B.B King and Dizzy Gillespie wowed crowds with their performances.
For music lovers, the month of August is host to Bern’s Busker’s Street Music festival where the streets come alive with music from many different street performers.
Finally, Christmastime brings amazing Christmas Markets where you can enjoy eating German sausages, drinking warm Gluhwein and listen to local carols which will bring the Christmas Spirit to life.
Take in the views from the Gothic Tower
Bern Münster Cathedral is an imposing Gothic Tower which stands out against the city’s skyline. You can ascend the tower to enjoy some wonderful panoramas over the city and beyond into the Bernese Oberland.
What to eat in Bern (traditional dishes)
Gooey melted cheese flavoured with champagne and herbs plucked from the surrounding mountains to submerge your bread cubes into, this is an iconic Swiss dish that must be savoured. For the verb best Fondue check out the Charming Chalet Schanze situated in the Gross Chanze, an elevator ride away from the main station.
Here you enjoy the stunning alpine views from a cosy chalet serving up traditional fondue and raclette with a mug of warm mulled wine. Enjoy regional specialities with cheese sourced from the local cheesemaker Christophe Bruni who also runs a market stall in Aldstadt.
Another popular place to try the Fondue is Lötschberg, a Bernese restaurant serving up fondues with gimmicky names such as “fondue in a cable-car” in the wintertime or “fondue in a gondola” in the summertime and is a cheaper option for those on a shoestring budget.
This dish consists of oozing melted Raclette cheese served on jacket potatoes with additional garnishes such as gherkins. Some of the best raclettes can be found at Chalet Schanze.
This dish is basically macaroni and cheese for alpine herdsmen. This filling dish is a cheese and cream gratin served with potatoes and onions and a helping of stewed apple on the side. Try Mazot Bern restaurant for great traditional alpine dishes including this classic.
This piping hot cake is made of potatoes and fried in hot fat or butter hails back to the peasant origins of Swiss cuisine and apine breakfast. Simple and delicious, this is the ultimate in Swiss street food and is often served as an accompaniment to Leberspiesschen, which is grilled calf’s liver wrapped in bacon.
Le Mazot do a great Rosti, however, Bistro Memory is another great restaurant to sample this Bernese classic.
Switzerland is renowned for its amazing milk that comes from alpine cows grazing on the grasses of the mountains, for this reason there are two world famous products that come from Switzerland: cheese and chocolate.
The most famous cheese around the world hails from near Bern, in Emmental and is named Emmentaler.
Another famous cheese is Gruyère, but there are so many different types of cheese that a trip to Switzerland would not be complete without savouring the different types on offer. Try a cheese platter from Klösterli Weincafe for a selection of cheeses.
Another Swiss product that is loved across the world is Swiss chocolate which became famous in the 19th century. Chocolate was brought over to Europe from the Americas in the 16th century and techniques for chocolate making brought Swiss chocolate into the forefront of production and quality.
The technique of fondant chocolate was developed by Rodolphe Lindt and chocolate began to be exported from Switzerland all over the world, if you stand on Nydegg Bridge you will see the inscription of “Fabrique de Chocolat W. Lin…” on one of the buildings across the river, this was the factory of Rudolf Lindt who was considered one of the forefathers of western chocolate.
Chocolate lovers should pay a visit to Casa Nobile where you can bring home an incredible swiss souvenir or melt-in-your-mouth chocolate.
Where to stay in Bern
For five-star luxury book yourself a room in The Bellevue Palace. The palatial hotel dates back to the 19th century and the rooms are huge and opulent with sumptuous furnishings and gorgeous views, without being outdated.
Rooms are equipped with wifi and flat screens and with an upgrade you can even get views of the Alps as well as enjoy a living area in your room.
The hotel is a short two-minute walk from the shopping district of Marktgasse and only six-minutes by foot to the Einsteinhaus Museum. Amenities include a restaurant with a terrace to enjoy the views, a cigar lounge, bar, spa and fitness room. Prices start at 353 CHF per night.
This elegant hotel dates is situated in the upmarket shopping district of Bahnhofstrasse, just across from the main train station. Its central location means that it is a short stroll to the main attractions in the centre of Bern.
The rooms are contemporary and equipped with all the amenities you could require, an upgraded room is equipped with free standing bathtubs, living areas or rainfall showers.
The hotel has a cigar lounge, two relaxed and stylish bars including one bar with amazing panoramic views of the city, spa complete with an indoor pool and hot tubs, hammam, fitness room and a sauna. Prices for a room start at 330 CHF per night.
This chic, relaxed B&B is set in a 19th century building just a few minutes from the main train station in Bern and boasts only seven rooms, bathrooms are shared.
The hotel has a TV lounge and small library and breakfast is available every morning made from locally sourced seasonal produce.
All of this comes at an affordable price in Switzerland starting from only 133 CHF per night, making it an excellent hotel offering great value!
For those on a shoestring budget this hostel is the perfect solution. Situated in the centre and only a short stroll to the Zytglogge Tower, the hostel offers en-suite and dorm rooms with shared bathrooms.
There are laundry facilities and films shown in a communal lounge nightly and is the ideal way to save your money to spend on the more important things in Bern, sightseeing and eating! Prices start from 98 CHF per night.
At the bottom of the Gurten Mountain, you will find this chic hostel that was converted from an old hospital. It is only 9 minutes’ walk from Weissenbühl tram station and offers wooden bunks and shared bathrooms as well as some private rooms, some of the rooms even offer mountain views.
The hostel offers a complimentary shuttle service and continental breakfast and is equipped with a kitchen where you can prepare your meals, a garden where you can sit outdoors as well as a bistro. Parking is also available for a fee. The price per night starts from 80 CHF for a bunk bed.
Tours to do in Bern
This two to three hour self-guided tour will take you through the streets of Bern to dine like a local. Explore the culinary scene at your own pace and dine at four different restaurants hand-picked by local foodies.
These lesser-known restaurants will serve up authentic Swiss cuisine and you can avoid the tourist traps and learn about the local culinary scene. The price of 107 CHF per person includes a drink and snack at each of the four restaurants.
A local guide will take you on a journey through Bern in an hour and a half to visit the oldest art museum in Switzerland whilst regaling you with tales of the city and the Swiss culture.
With groups no larger than 8 people, this small tour will give you new insight into the city and its artistic heritage. Prices start from 54 CHF per person.
This private walking tour with a local guide is a great way to get to know the city, Lokafyer, the experienced guide will tell you about the city, share tips and give you the insider lowdown on where to visit and eat like a local.
As it is a private tour, it can be customised to your needs and desires. Price starts from 38 CHF per person.
Day trips from Bern
This half-day tour with a private guide will whisk you from the city of Bern to Lucerne where you can view the wooden “Chapel Bridge”, walk the historic streets and enjoy a boat cruise on the Lucerne lake surrounded by the breathtaking nature of the Swiss mountains.
On this tour you will learn about Lucerne and its history and enjoy the comfort of a private car for the price of 105 CHF.
Explore the beauty of the Matterhorn region with its stunning glaciers and snow covered mountains on this full day tour from Bern.
Enjoy some of the most spectacular views of the surrounding nature of the alps from Mount Gornergrat, which you will visit by cogwheel train.
Finally, you can explore the alpine village of Zermatt before returning to your hotel. All transport fees and guide are included in the price of 228 CHF per person.
Recommended tours in Bern
- Zermatt & Matterhorn area – small group tour – starts from Bern
- 1 Hour Private Walk of Bern
- Bern Like a Local: Customized Private Tour
- Taste my Swiss City Bern – Selfguided Food Tour Classy
- Schilthorn – 007-James Bond world – with private tour guide – starts from Bern
- Jungfraujoch 45 Min. helicopter ride from Airport Bern
- Private Photo Session with a Local Photographer in Bern
- Bern city – small group tour with local guide
- Micro Adventure: Staying in the tree tent