Many visitors to Switzerland assume that its capital is the modern and dynamic Zurich, so the slower and older Bern comes as quite a surprise. A small, beautiful city with a long history – this is Bern, the capital of Switzerland, nestled almost in the middle of the country. Bern has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983.
Why go to Bern?
Leaving aside the relatively important fact that it is the capital of Switzerland, it is certainly because Bern is the perfect size for a city break – everything is within walking distance and the main sights are in the compact area of the Old Town and its surroundings. Navigating the city is easy, not only can you get everywhere thanks to the trams and buses, but many places are also walkable.
If you stay at least one night in a tourist accommodation, you will receive a Bern Ticket for unlimited public transport during your stay. With this ticket you can use all public transport free of charge, not only in the central areas of the city, but also the Marzilibähnnli and Gurtenbahn funiculars and transfers to and from Bern Airport.
How to get to Bern and where to park
Bern has its own airport, but most visitors to Switzerland fly into Zurich or Geneva. The direct train connection from Zurich Airport to Bern takes approximately 80 minutes, from Geneva Airport 2 hours. If you arrive in Bern by train, the city center is accessible on foot from the train station (or you can take the tram).
If you arrive by car, there are several covered parking houses in the city center (Bahnhof, Metro, Rathaus…), but all of them are quite expensive. We use the Nydeggbrücke bridge car park (Klösterlistutz 18-20, 3013 Bern) for visiting Bern, as it has quite reasonable prices.
Map for one day in Bern
Are you visiting Bern for the first time and would you like to see the main tourist highlights of the city? Do you want to see all the activities and attractions in Bern clearly and visually illustrated? Here is the map that accompanies my guide to Bern. As I wrote above, if we are visiting Bern, we usually park at the Nydeggbrücke, so I start my guide to Bern at this point.
The bear is the traditional symbol of both the city and the canton of Bern – it was included in the coat of arms because it was the first animal to be hunted in the surrounding forests in 1191 by the city’s founder, Duke Berchtold V. On the banks of the River Aare is the Bärenpark, where three bears have their summer home. This bear park replaced the “Bärengraben” in 2009, which was too small for the bears’ needs. But the Bärengraben is still in use – they let the bears in for feeding and it’s a nice attraction for tourists.
In front of the Altes Tramdepot restaurant you will also find a statue of Albert Einstein, who studied in Zurich but later lived in Bern, where he developed his theory of relativity.
Gastro tip: Tomáš recommends the aforementioned Altes Tramdepot: “Large terrace over the bear pit with a view of the old town, brewery inside the restaurant, excellent beer!”. I also recommend it, because I myself have nostalgic memories of this restaurant – first dinner after my husband accepted a job offer here in Switzerland. There is also a Gelateria Eiswerkstatt in the same building – recommended by 3 out of 3 of our kids 🙂.
2. Walk along the Aare River
The Aare River winds through Bern in a horseshoe bend. Its water is incredibly clean and emerald and the locals love to swim in it daily during the summer months. As Marta wrote to me – the water temperature must be at least 17 degrees, otherwise, you will get a heart attack!
Start your walk along the river at Bärenpark, cross the Dalmazibrücke bridge to the other side. From here it’s just a short walk to the valley station of the Marzilibahn funicular. The Marzilibahn was built in 1885 and connects Bundesterasse with the idyllic Bernese quarter of Marzili.
Gastro tip: Restaurant Schwellenmätteli. As Marta recommends, “it looks luxurious from the outside, but sitting above the Aare is unforgettable”.
3. The Swiss Parliament building – Bundeshaus
As the previous lines have already suggested, the Marzilibahn will bring you to another Bern landmark: Bundeshaus – the Parliament buildings. It’s a truly impressive structure – over 300 meters long in total, it consists of a central building and two wings (east and west) that house government offices and the library. Guided tours of the Parliament building are once again available from 7 May 2021. The tours take place regularly outside Parliament sessions and are available in four languages. They are free of charge and last a maximum of 60 minutes. There are 20 seats reserved for each tour. You can book online at the earliest three days before your scheduled visit.
In fine weather, the terraces offer a magnificent view of the Alps, and in front of the parliament building on the Bundesplatz during hot summer days, not only children will appreciate the water jets. And from mid-October to the end of November, you can enjoy a light show on the facade of the palace called “Rendez-vous Bundesplatz“.
Gastro tip: Bára recommends the Entrecôte Fédérale restaurant directly opposite the palace. If you’re lucky, you might even meet members of the Swiss government, as they often come here for lunch.
From the Bundesplatz, it takes less than 5 minutes to reach Kornhausplatz, where you will see an interesting 16th-century fountain sculpture. There are over 100 fountains in Bern itself (with drinking water flowing from them), but I dare say this is probably the most popular – it depicts a statue of a man eating small children.
A stone’s throw from Kindlifrsserbrunnen is probably the city’s biggest landmark – the Zytglogge astronomical clock. The astronomical clock was installed here in 1530. While you stand in front of it and wait for the parade of little bears to appear on the hour, or take photos, be careful as buses and trolleybuses pass through the streets of the Old Town.
6. Covered arcades
6 kilometers of covered arcades dating back to the 15th century. In these arcades, you will find a mix of charming boutiques, restaurants, wine bars, and international brand shops, making Bern one of the longest-covered shopping promenades in Europe.
7. Münster Cathedral
I definitely recommend not to miss a visit to the beautiful Gothic cathedral of Münster. And you can also climb the 300 steps to the tower (entrance fee 5 francs), where the views are just incredible.
Gastro tip: Mája recommends the Einstein au Jardin café on Münsterplatform. I recommend it too – I had a coffee and a croissant here when I finally celebrated my birthday on my own for the first time in 11 years.
8. Town Hall – Rathaus
The Town Hall, where the cantonal and municipal parliaments meet, was built in the early 15th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (as part of the Old Town) and a Swiss monument of national importance. Many of the rooms can be rented by the public when they are not used by the cantonal and municipal authorities.
Our walk through the city took us back to the Nydegbrücke. If you’re not tired yet, you can walk about 400 meters further uphill to Rosengarten Park. Believe me, you won’t regret the effort. It is one of the most beautiful parks in Bern and offers a unique view of the rooftops of the historic Old Town, Münster Cathedral and the bend of the Aare River. In spring you will be enchanted by the cherry blossoms (hello Instagram 🙂 ), in summer about 250 species of flowering roses. You will also find a large children’s playground.
Gastro tip: Kateřina recommends Restaurant Rosengarten – “Rosengarten is great, you just need a reservation (or sit on the wall or lawn)”.
10. Botanical Garden
If you still have energy left and would like to admire the diverse flora, I recommend a visit to the botanical garden. It was opened in 1860 and you will find approximately 5,500 different species of plants from all over the world. The entrance is free.
Day Trips from Bern – Exploration outside of the city
Not far from Bern is Gurten Hill – the park at the top is the perfect place to enjoy a quiet day out with your children, family, or friends. From the center of Bern, you can get there by tram 9 (Gurtenbahn stop). The Gurtenbahn funicular runs every 15 minutes. A return ticket for an adult costs 11 francs. The Libero-Abo for zone 101, as well as the Halb-fare Card and Junior Card, are valid here. The 100,000-square-metre park offers plenty of activities for visitors young and old: a miniature railway, a playground, a giant marble run, a toboggan run, a children’s paddling pool with water jets, a lookout tower, and a restaurant.
Day trips from Bern to the surrounding areas, such as the Emmental Valley, are easily accessible thanks to the extensive train network.
Canton of Bern
Recently I was browsing Pinterest and clicked on articles and blogs of “travelers” who wrote about Switzerland. So one of them gave me a bit of a shock when it said, “Bern is the capital of the canton of BERNER OBERLAND”. I would like to refute this misinformation and introduce you to the Canton of Bern. As you can see: Oberland is just a part of the Canton of Bern, along with the regions of Bern-Mittelland, Berner Jura, Seeland, and Emmental Oberaargau.