Overlooking the Alps, Switzerland’s fifth largest city has been the “Bundesstadt” and de facto capital for almost 170 years. Bern has a lovely old town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, tucked away in the meanders of the River Aare. Many of the old cores were built in the 15th century and feature kilometers of arcades covered in trendy shops and restaurants.
Bern was also Einstein’s hometown in the first decade of the 20th century. The History Museum has a great exhibit on his work at the city’s patent office, and you can visit the apartment he shared with his wife and son. Another Bernese was the modern artist Paul Klee, a prominent figure in Expressionism and Surrealism. The museum designed by Renzo Piano represents him and houses nearly half of his works.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bern:
1. Old Town
One of the many things to love about Bern’s UNESCO-listed medieval centre is its unity: much of the city was taken away by a fire in 1405 and replaced by tall sandstone buildings old wooden house.
Many have arcades woven into the ground floor, a defining feature of the city.
A total of six kilometers of arcades hide shops, bars, cafes and restaurants.
One idea for a walking tour is to try to find all 11 Renaissance fountains in the center.
Each dates back to the 16th century and features a polychrome statue depicting the real personality of the city’s past, or an allegorical figure like the Goddess of Justice.
Suggested tour: Bern: 90-minute stroll through the old town
2. Zentrum Paul Klee
In the eastern suburbs of Bern, there is a remarkable modern museum that houses one of the most influential artists of the early 20th century.
Klee was born on the outskirts of Bern and studied at the city’s gymnasium.
In 1997, his daughter donated all her estate to the city, and Renzo Piano was hired to design a museum for the works.
Looking like an oscillating wave, the museum opened in 2005 and, after a later donation, now holds around 40% of Klee’s oeuvre, beginning with childhood sketches and continuing through his period of Expressionism, Cubism and Surrealism.
Klee’s paintings are presented with fixed themes in changing temporary exhibitions, so no two visits to the center are the same.
Built at the end of the 12th century as Bern’s western city gate, this tower in the old town has become the hallmark of the extraordinary clock installed in 1530. This is one of the oldest clocks in Switzerland, measuring standard time in the canton of Bern, with an amazing astronomical clock below.
Head to the Marktgasse in time for a small show when some of the earliest examples of automata come to life next to the astrolabe.
These mechanical numerals, the astronomical clock and the clock itself are all controlled by the same mechanism.
You can see it in action on the tour of the tower starting at 14:30 daily. Please book in advance due to limited availability.
Recommended Itinerary: Zytglogge – Crossing the Clock Tower
4. Bern Cathedral
Switzerland’s tallest cathedrals arose in the 15th and 16th centuries.
The single-tower spire is over 100 meters high, and unless you’re a little squeamish about heights, you shouldn’t hesitate to climb over 400 steps to admire the snow-capped Alps in the distance.
But before you do, the Last Judgment will greet you as you enter.
Not really the end of the world: this is a stunning scene on the main portal, one of the greatest collections of late Gothic sculpture in Europe.
In the tympanum you will see how the archangel Michael separates the wicked from the good, while Jesus, Mary and the apostles look down from the archangels.
Inside, you can admire a 16th-century carved choir booth and a “Dance of Death” stained glass window around the same time.
If you’re staying in Bern for more than a day, you’ll have to plan a few hours on Bern’s own hillside, the Gurten.
You can take the cable car from Aare in Waben.
It has been serving the 858-meter hill since 1899, reaching the summit in just five minutes.
Summer means hiking, miniature railroad rides for the little ones, barbecues and other good times outdoors, while winter means a toboggan run if there’s enough snow.
Mid-July is the time for Gurtenfestival and it continues to grow, having booked artists like Muse, Patti Smith and Massive Attack in recent editions.
6. Bern History Museum
Switzerland’s second largest institution in this field, the Historical Museum of Bern handles historical and ethnographic collections dating back to the Stone Age.
These are housed in a Neo-Renaissance mansion with a modern extension for temporary exhibitions.
One of the highlights of the huge and varied permanent exhibition is the trophy: there is a set of tapestries from Burgundy in the 1400s and 1500s, and the charming Königsfelden Diptych, created in Venice at the end of the 13th century for the Hungarian kings.
The comprehensive Einstein Museum is a must-see and contains a wealth of footage, photos and objects showing his time in Bern when he designed the theory of relativity.
In the Swiss capital, you must make time for the Swiss Federal Parliament.
After all, we are talking about one of the oldest democracies in the world.
The Bundestag was built in stages in the second half of the 19th century.
If you want to see the inside, you need to book in advance as tours can fill up quickly.
Your knowledgeable guide will bombard you with interesting facts about the Swiss federal government, its founding myth and Bern’s 150 years as the capital.
The interior is even more impressive than the dominant Neo-Renaissance exterior, complete with sculpture, stained glass and carved wood.
Up front, on the Federation Square is a popular fountain with 26 jets, each symbolizing a Swiss canton.
8. Barron Park
Cross the Aare River from the old town and you will find yourself in the company of three brown bears.
Bern has long had a soft spot for bears, an animal that was adopted as an emblem as early as the 12th century.
Bern has been keeping its own bears since at least the 16th century, and they were moved to this park across the Aare in 1857. The habitat was modernized in 2009 when a new space was opened next to the original pit.
The two enclosures are connected by a tunnel that even allows bears to swim in the river.
If you’re hesitant to keep animals in captivity, you’ll cheer for all the rooms the three residents have and how healthy they look.
9. Rose Garden
The city’s rose garden is located on high ground, close to the BärenPark, and offers a great view of Bern’s Old Town from the right bank of the Aare.
Families, friends and couples come to meet and have a picnic at the foot of Bern.
The clearing was a cemetery until 1913, when the first roses were planted in 1917. Spring and early summer are the most beautiful times, when 223 roses and 200 kinds of irises bloom.
The rose garden also has 23 species of rhododendrons that bloom in May, and a lily pond that blooms in July.
10. Museum of Fine Arts
The country’s oldest art museum opened in 1879 in a purpose-built eclectic hall.
The earliest works are from the Middle Ages, and to this day the museum has been following a large number of movements.
The collection contains 3,000 paintings and sculptures, as well as nearly 50,000 photographs, prints, drawings, and video art.
Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler has a body of work, and Expressionism is represented by Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Kandinsky, August Mack and Alexei von Jalensky.
The museum recently made news when it unexpectedly bequeathed 1,400 works by German collector Cornelius Gurlitt.
The only downside is that a lot of stuff was probably stolen by the Nazis in the 30s and 40s.
11. Tierpark Dählhölzli
Following the motto of “more space for fewer animals”, Bern Zoo is only 10 minutes away from the main railway station.
This wooded park is divided into free and paid areas: in the free enclosure next to Aare, you will find wild boar, antelope and ibex, as well as small farms with livestock such as horses and goats.
The paid section has more exotic animals but still emphasizes European species.
The tropical house has reptiles, birds and monkeys, and there is an aquarium with a coral reef ecosystem.
Outside, leopards, wolves and seals are all granted spacious enclosures.
12. Communications Museum
Right next to Helvetiaplatz is Switzerland’s only museum dedicated to communication.
It originated in a postal museum founded in 1907 and still has an exhibition on the subject, explaining the postal network, showing historic carriages and stamps.
There are also archived letters, such as real letters sent by Paul von Hindenburg.
Another exhibition deals with “media” and is filled with interactive audiovisual displays.
There is also an extensive field of telecommunications, including early telephones, telegraphs that could decipher Morse code, and vacuum tubes used to send information.
13. Einstein Haus
A nice addition to the History Museum, this little attraction houses the second-floor apartment where Einstein lived from 1903 to 1905. While working at the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property, he shared this modest residence with his wife Mileva Marić and son Hans Albert.
Einstein wrote his Annus Mirabilis paper while living here, which changed the way we understand the universe.
On the second floor, the apartments have been rebuilt in a modern architectural style, while the upper floors have more of a scientific theme.
This exhibition looks at the theories he developed in Bern and has a timeline of his life.
14. SC Bern
In a city full of art and attractions, attending a sporting event might not be the first thing that comes to your mind.
But SC Bern is no ordinary ice hockey team.
They play at PostFinance Arena and are the best supported hockey team in the world outside of the NHL. Their home can hold 17,000 people and is often sold out during the September-March season.
The standard is also the highest outside of North America, with SC Bern winning its second straight NL title in 2017 for the third time in five seasons.
Their talisman is right wing Mark Arcobello, brought in from the NHL, who had 55 points (25 goals and 30 assists) in 2016-17.
15. Swimming in the Aare River
In spring and summer, the Aare can seem a little dangerous, especially when you cross the Nydeggbrücke on your way to the BärenPark.
But south of Altstadt, it’s perfectly safe to bathe in the river.
And the ultimate way to do this is to get into the water at the recreation area in Eichholz and let yourself drift down the river to Freiban Marzili.
This bathing area also features an outdoor pool for children and women, as well as lush grassy spaces to dry in the sun.
From here you can take one of the shortest funicular railways in the world and travel more than 100 meters up the hillside to the Federal Building.
Where to Stay: Best Hotels in Bern, Switzerland
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