Like something straight out of a fairytale, Bern’s steepled towers rise out from among the slanted orange-topped houses that hug the winding Aare River. That imagery alone is what draws people to Switzerland’s picturesque capital, but it’s much more than just a photographer’s dream. Home to bear pits, medieval buildings and a centuries-old clock tower, Bern is not only one of the world’s most beautiful cities—it’s also one of the best preserved.
The Old Town
While the entire city boasts scenic views and well-kept neighbourhoods, the Old Town is where Bern’s charm lies. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site back in 1983, this walkable part of the city is where to find fantastic restaurants and cafes, great shopping, cobblestone streets and that famous medieval architecture.
Walking tours usually begin in front of the grand Parliament Building, which includes a water display with 26 fountains. The main plaza it sits on is anchored by major Swiss banks and five-star hotels—it’s hard to imagine how much wealth passes through the area on a daily basis!
Those who continue along the street toward the Casino suddenly find themselves at a breathtaking viewpoint that’s makes it easy to see why Bern is considered one of the best spots in Switzerland. The panoramic vista affords a fantastic look at the flowing river below, a beautiful train bridge crossing over the blue water and the huge, traditional homes.
Heading back onto the main street, it doesn’t take long to notice there are a lot of fountains—in fact there are about 100 of them. Eleven of the fountains were created by sculptor Hans Gieng in the 16th century, and are famous for their colourful depictions of things like ‘ogre eating children’, a piper and a bear wearing full armour. Incredibly, it’s perfectly safe to drink out of them.
Many of the fountains are found along a six kilometre strip of shopping arcades—one of the longest covered promenades in the world. Kramgasse (once known as ‘Market Alley’) is where to find some of the best boutiques and restaurants in Bern, and is also home to Einstein House, which is where the famous genius once worked.
When walking along Kramgasse, pay special attention to the wooden doors under the store entrances. These lead to cellars, which were once used to store the state’s massive supply of wine: in fact, there was a time where each resident was given 1.5 litres per day. No wonder they needed so much storage space!
Perhaps the most iconic spot along the entire street is the Zytglogge. The Clock Tower has quite the history, having served as a prison, guard tower and astronomical/time clock. On top of all that, it is also a stunning landmark.
Built in the 13th century, the medieval tower once marked the edge of the city, and was built up with fortifications as Bern changed over the course of hundreds of years. What is most impressive is that the original clock dial, which took years to construct, is still what makes it tick today. Don’t miss the chance to tour the inside of the tower, where you can see exactly how that fascinating piece of machinery works.
WATCH: The inside of Bern’s Clock Tower
Guided tours start around 2:30 p.m. daily during select months, and last nearly an hour. Admission is 15 CHF for adults, 10 CHF for seniors and students or 7.50 CHF for children. Group tours are also available upon request.
A short walk from the Zytglogge brings visitors to another famous landmark: the Munster. The towering cathedral is the highest point in Bern, affording great views for those who make the effort to climb the 344 stairs to the top.
The Gothic architecture is in stark contrast to the medieval buildings so common throughout the city, and there is also an incredible facade depicting the ‘Last Judgement.’
Finally, a short walk through the rest of the Old Town brings visitors to a site found few other places in the world: a bonafide bear pen. Yes, bears are everywhere in Bern—on signs, on flags, in clocks and even in a pit.
A zoo-like pen was originally built for the three resident bears, but in 2009 a much larger one was constructed which includes a swimming area, grassy hillside and trees. Bjork, Finn and Ursina are now free to roam around much to the delight of visitors, and spend their time in the old pen only when their new digs are being cleaned. Both enclosures are surrounded by view points, which means its easy to catch a glimpse of the furry trio.
While the bear park brings an end to the typical walking tour, there are still many other things to see around the city, including Zentrum Paul Klee, an architectural wonder housing the works of the famed painter. If you find yourself in Bern during the warmer months you’re in luck, as one of the most popular pastimes is taking a dip in the colourful Aare River.
The Bernese either hop in a raft, tube or simply float down the winding river, which provides a welcome respite during hot summer days. There are numerous exit points along the route, including at Marzili where there are change rooms, lockers and an outdoor pool which is free of charge. It even has an area for nude sunbathing.
Of course the Swiss are famous for their culinary prowess, so the perfect way to end a day is at one of Bern’s famed restaurants. Try Restaurant Rosengarten which is at the top of the steep hill behind the bear park, and offers one of the best views in all of Bern. With a rotating menu this place never gets old, and as a bonus it borders the gorgeous Rosegarten, a park that is home to 220 different types of roses.
Alternatively, head to the jaw dropping Kornhauskeller (The Granary), where diners are greeted by glittering chandeliers accenting the intrically painted fresco ceiling. It’s hard to find anywhere else that offers this much of a romance factor—and the food just so happens to be phenomenal.
Currency: Swiss Franc (CHF) but it is possible to pay in euros though you may get your change back in CHF.
Language: For such a small country, the Swiss speak a lot of languages. The most common is German, followed by French, Italian and Rato Roman. However, many people know at least a bit of English
Where to stay: About a five minute bus ride from the Old Town, Hotel Innere Enge is located just outside the hustle and bustle without feeling far from the action. The historic building boasts massive suites (think a hallway, sitting area, working space and huge bathroom) which are all jazz themed. The award-winning restaurant is fabulous, and musicians are regularly brought in to perform.
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Globe Guide travelled to Bern in partnership with My Switzerland and Bern Tourism. As always, hosts have no editorial influence over articles.