I have always been fascinated by the diversity of Swiss cities. Each has its own character, history and sometimes its different cultural elements. In our trips across Switzerland we try to explore more about those aspects, to deepen our knowledge of the city and area, and also to enjoy its experiences. Here’s our write-up on Bern, the Federal City, aka the Capital of Switzerland!
Bern the legend: is it a Bear or Verona?
The most popular legend about the founding of Bern is that it was named by the founder, Duke of Zahringen, after the name of the first animal he hunted in the surrounding forest. And that was…….. a bear! The link becomes clear when you understand that one of the German words for ‘bear’ is ‘bären’!
However another theory states that Bern was named after the famous city of Verona, which was called “Bern” in middle high German.
Obviously the bear legend had much more public appeal such that by 1220 the Bern’s coat of arms had a bear on it. In 1513 the Bernese returned victorious from the Battle of Novara, carrying a bear which cemented the legend even more.
History of Bern: how did Bern get to become the “capital” of Switzerland?
Regardless of the legend Bern was indeed founded by the Duke of Zähringen in 1191 on a narrow loop of the Aare river. Berthold V established the city with the initial role as a military post right on the frontier between the German-speaking “Alemanni” and the French-speaking residents of Burgundy. The Zähringen era didn’t last long as with the extinction of their dynasty in 1218, Bern became a free imperial city. The city had expansion ambitions. So bit by bit it started acquiring the surrounding areas. Eventually the city turned into a bigger independent state, that joined the early Swiss Confederation in 1353, and got to lead it soon after. The history was not all rosy, as Bern managed to withstand destiny. In 1405 a disastrous fire led to the destruction of the mostly wood-build town. But the city raised from ashes and was completely rebuilt with sandstone. Since then the centre (Old Town of Bern) remained intact, and preserved its architecture, forming the well known sites that are widely visited at our times.
As in other regions of Switzerland at that era, Bern became the subject of dispute between Protestant Reformers and Roman Catholics. In 1528, the lever weights in favour of the Protestant and the city accepted their dominance. The city continued its expansion and by 18th century it ruled 52 territories, over which its leaders had considerable authority and power. Yet, the wave of the French expansion took away the entire Bernese patrician governance system in 1798. The system had a short come back between 1815 and 1831. Nevertheless, Bern didn’t loose its political significance, and became the de facto “political” capital of Switzerland or more accurately better say the “Federal city” of the Swiss Confederation in 1848.
Bern at the heart of the Swiss political & governance system
Of course Switzerland is a confederation, and the 26 cantons have each their own systems. Yet Bern being the Federal City, plays a major role in the Swiss governance system
Bern’s Federal palace hosts the national parliament with its two legislative chambers: the national Council and the Council of states, and the government or else called the Federal council. We will take you to a short virtual visit to the impressive Federal palace later, but for now here is a very brief overview of the Swiss political system.
The National Council is made of 200 members from all the cantons, selected under a proportional representation election system based on population( approximately one representative for each of 40,000 voters). On the other side, the Council of States or in other countries called the Senate, is made of 46 members: 2 representatives for each of 20 cantons, and 1 for the other 6 smaller cantons.
The members of the two chambers form the Federal Assembly and together they elect the Federal Council, which represents the executive power, and appoints the Supreme Court judges. The Federal council is made of seven members, among whom the president of the state is selected, a position that rotates among the members every year.
On top of being the Swiss Federal city (aka Capital of Switzerland), Bern is also the headquarters of the national post, telegraph, and also the railway. It has diverse industries such as machinery, manufacturing of printing products, electric equipments, chemical and pharmaceutical products and even chocolate! Its has a busy rail station, and its airport is only 10 km from city centre, while being well connected to Zurich’s international airport.
Bern’s population, around 130,000 is mainly protestant and German speaking
Things to do in Bern and what to visit
Bern has multiple diverse attractions for a visitor to spend touring for days. Mostly you can find historical attractions such as the medieval centre and the Clock tower, cultural destinations such as Bern museums and beautiful landscapes such as the Rosengarten. So when you are visiting the city, here’s our recommendation of the things to do in Bern, and the places to see in this lovely city!
Bern’s Historic attractions
1. Wonder through Bern’s Old Town
The heart of the city that preserved its medieval look for centuries, making it worth of a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1983. The Old Town is located on a cliff on the loop of the Aare River, and is surrounded by the stunning river water from three sides. The streets are covered by coblestones and bordered by arcade sidewalks for some kilometres. Shops, cafes, restaurants, antique shops and diverse stores fill the lower levels of the buildings. The Bern tourist information center presents this area as the longest covered shopping promenade in the world, such as Kramgasse! The upper levels are occupied with apartments in one of which the infamous Albert Einstein lived some 120 years ago!
The city is filled with beautiful public fountains and old statues. Multiple pretty bridges connect the Old Town to the newer part of Bern on the right side, including the historic Untertorbrucke, a beautiful stone arch bridge, 52 metres in length, built between 1461 and 1489.
2. Watch “the show” of the Clock Tower
If you are into some little show, then just wait in front of Zytglogge, the 800-year-old Clock tower. Initially the tower represented the western city gate, now it’s probably one of the highly admired landmarks in Bern and most frequently visited.
Just 3 minutes before the hour strike, a bunch of mechanical creatures, depicting the Rooster, the Knight, the Fool and others, come out of their hiding place inside the old historic astronomical clock to put a little show that’s as entertaining as astonishing. You can visit the Clock Tower from inside only with a tour, for about CHF 20. Tours are available on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, and are provided in English, German and French. For some additional effort you can climb the 130 stone steps inside the 23 meter high tower, and you will be rewarded an observation platform that overlooks into some amazing views over Bern Old Town.
Address: Zeitglockenturm, Bim Zytglogge 1, 3011 Bern
3. Check the ancient fountains of Bern
If you get thirsty while touring Bern old town, don’t worry! There are 100 fountains scattered around the city, and the water is drinkable! These fountains are well preserved and maintained and even some of them still carry the original statues since the 16th century. You will be entertained and impressed with the themes of the statues such as the one with a bear in full armour (The Zähringerbrunnen ) that implies the power of Bern, or the Läuferbrunnen (the Runner Fountain). Others have biblical scenes such as the Simsonbrunnen, showing Samson killing a lion. Overall these fountains stood the test of time, as they replaced the old wooden ones, at an era when the city of Bern was accumulating wealth.
4. Tour the Federal Palace & get a feel of the Swiss political system
The Bundeshaus or the Federal Palace, is where the Swiss parliament and government resides. This Renaissance style landmark stands on the edge of the high ground overlooking the Aare river. The beautiful green dome that crowns the building is decorated with stained glass windows that portrays the coats of arms of Switzerland’s 26 cantons. The mosaic in the center represents the Federal coat of arms together with the the Latin motto “Unus pro omnibus, omnes pro uno“(“One for all, and all for one”)
The Bundeshaus central hall separates the two chambers of the legislative power (the National Council and Council of States as explained before). When touring the federal palace, there are many eye catchy items that you should observe. One is the huge statue of the three confederates: Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, considered as the early founders of the state after their confederation oath in 1291 on the meadow of Rutli. Another is the beautiful stained glass windows depicting Switzerland linguistic regions and their traditions.
Tip: Although the entire palace is open to visitors, try to book up to 3 days in advance as the guided tours are limited to 40 people and available at selected times( in English, German, French & Italian and last for 60 minutes). Better to bring an official ID, as you can watch the debates when Parliament is in session; but access is very restricted.
Don’t leave the area before strolling the Bundesplatz, the parliament square, which is paved with granite slabs from the Alps and hides 26 water jets, corresponding to the 26 cantons.
The area around the square is filled with shops and cafes in impressive Renaissance-style buildings. The banknote museum nearby is also worth a visit and there is a popular viewpoint you should check-the little Redoubt, with a map directing to the important sites
5. Admire the Bern Münster, the biggest landmark of Bern
Switzerland’s largest church from the late Middle Ages, and probably Bern’s most famous building, the Berner Münster is also known as the Bern Cathedral or the Cathedral of St. Vincent.
It took centuries to complete the construction of this magnificent cathedral, exactly from 1421 till 1893! Built according to the Gothic style and of sandstone, it’s said that the cathedral style influenced the architecture trend of whole of Bern.
This three-aisled, pillared basilica, contains several attractions. In its main entrance is displayed the Last Judgment, featuring stunning wood and stone sculptures. The stained glass are a feat to the eyes, ornamented with numerous religious symbols and imagery. The most standing out of which is the Dance of Death by Niklaus Manuel with its 20 scenes. A magnificent Baroque organ, with 5,404 pipes, and elegant modern stained glass stands in the south aisle.
For those who are fit enough, try to climb the 254 steps of the bell tower till its viewing platform. If you still have some breath, the view from there will take it away, with a wonderful panorama over Bern and the Swiss Alps, Even the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau are visible from here on a clear day. The tower also has the largest bell in Switzerland, weighing about 10.5 tonnes, and ringing two times a day at noon and 6pm.
The adjacent Münsterplatz, a pretty cobbled square, is very well known for hosting annually the Christmas market and is home to the Moses Fountain (1545).
In addition to religious services on Saturday and Sunday and holidays, the Bern Münster hosts several concerts and cultural events throughout the year.
Entrance is for free, and the opening times are May-early Oct: 10am to 5pm Mon to Sat; 11.30am to 5pm Sun. Other times: 12pm to 4pm Mon to Fri; 10am to 5pm Sat; 11.30am to 4pm Sun.
Bern Münster, Münsterplatz 1, Postfach 532, 3000 Bern 8.
Bern gardens, parks and animals
1. Meet the bears at Bern’s Bear Park (Bärenpark)
The legend of the foundation of Bern based on the bear animal, is expressed in multiple forms. Not only statues and coat of arms, but also the city of Bern opened its first Bear Park known as Bärenpark or Bärengraben in 1857. The original Bear pit is listed as an object of national cultural significance and is found just next to the Aare river at the end of Nydeggbruck bridge. The park was expensively enlarged in 2009 to include part of the river where the bears can swim in summer. Talking about the inhabitants of the park, you can “meet” the 4 brown bears: Byörk and Finn and their two cubs born in December 2009: Ursina and Berna. They are very cute to watch while they are playing or fighting or even having their “bear bath”.
Entry to the park is free and is open daily from 8am to 5 pm.
Address: Tierpark Bern, Tierparkweg 1, 3005 Bern.
2. Enjoy the roses at Bern’s Rose Garden (Rosengarten)
The Rose Garden is one of Bern’s most tranquil and stunning places. It’s well located on a steep hill just 10 min walk from Old Town and to the left of the Aare River. What was once a cemetery in previous centuries was turned into a public park in 1913. It now contains more than 200 kinds of roses, and another 200 types of Iris and Rhododendron species. The view over Bern old town and to the Alps and Jura is simply splendid! The garden also encompasses a stunning pond, a Pavillon and an excellent restaurant that offers good value food on its sunny terrace or inside.
Entrance to the garden is free, while a meal for two at the restaurant costs around CHF 80. The restaurant is open from early March to November.
Rosengarten, Alter Aargauerstalden 31b, 3006
3. Stroll through the Botanical Garden of university of Bern
A very diverse and beautiful colourful escape. Even if you are not that interested in plants and flowers you will be impressed. The Botanical Garden has several divisions. One-The Alpinum – that focuses on montane ecosystem with special focus on Swiss flora but also displaying endangered species from Europe, Asia and North America. The Palm House focuses on tropical plants such as coconuts, bananas and coffee. The botanical includes also spaces that cover tropical, subtropical and desert environments and vegetation.
Bern Museums, some of the biggest and finest of Switzerland!
Bern museums stand out on the list of top things to do in Bern. Here’s an extensive list.
1. Visit the Historical Museum of Bern and Einstein Museum
Just across the river Aare, a few steps from Old town, is the Historical Museum of Bern (aka Historiches Museum Bern and Musée d’Histoire de Berne). This institute is the second largest museum in Switzerland, hosted in an imposing building of 1894, designed according to the style of historic castles from the 15th century. The museum also includes the Einstein museum, which we will take you to shortly. From the Stone Age to the 20th Century, the Historical museum displays more than 500,000 items in its permanent collection, organised in eight galleries, such as “Celts & Romans”, “From the Middle Ages to the Ancien Regime”, “Bern’s Silver Treasure”, “Captured Treasure—Court Art in Bern” and “Bern and the 20th Century’” The collection includes local discoveries such as items from the burial site of a Bronze Age leader from the town of Thun near by, to world wide items such as a Bodhisattva Buddha from South Asia, a Japanese Daimyo suit of armour, Flemish tapestries from the 15th century, a Königsfelden diptych painted for the King of Hungary, and a Hawaiian feather cloak collected by Captain Cook.
The Einstein Museum
(credit Einstein Museum)
This museum is dedicated to the life of Albert Einstein, one of the world’s smartest minds ever, and certainly the most famous scientist in modern times. Einstein spent some part of his life in Bern, exactly between 1903 and 1909, and he worked as a patent office clerk and after as a lecturer at the University of Bern. These are believed to be some of Einstein’s most productive years, where he published his Annus Mirabilis papers (1905) on Brownian motion, photoelectric effect, the infamous theory of relativity and the iconic E=mc2
Einstein Museum portraits different aspects of his life and exhibits over 550 original items, and numerous films and animations. Don’t get intimidated with such collection of wisdom, as some of these animations explain to the less talented as us, his complicated theories in simpler manner :).
Going through this substance you will be astonished to know that Einstein had very average school reports back as a student. Some of the letters have unbelievable historic value, such as his letter to American President Roosevelt, warning him of German’s nuclear capabilities(1939) and his 1921 Nobel prize certificate.
The Historical museum is open from 10am to 5 pm, Tuesdays to Sundays and the entry fee is CHF 18 for Adults and CHF 8 for Children(6-16 y.o). The museum is found on the Helvetiaplatz just across the River Aare from the Old Town.
2. Walk through Einsteins life at the Einstein Haus
(credit Einstein Haus)
If you are still in the mood for knowing more about this extraordinary person after visiting the Einstein museum, then you can visit Einstein’s own personal residence at that time. The residence will give you additional insights into his life and his work, especially during that period. Einstein lived between 1903-1905 at the 2nd floor apartment of this building with wife Mileva Maric (a physicist herself) and his son Hans. Some of his most brilliant work saw light here, such as the Annus Mirabilis and E = mc2.
You can walk through Einstein’s life then, and on the third floor there is an exhibition to show case Einstein’s work in plain & easy manner if you missed those of the museum.
Opening Hours of the Einstein Haus: 1 February – 20 December 2022, Monday – Sunday, 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. Closed: From 21 December 2022
Entrance fee: CHF 6 for adults, CHF 4.5 for students, CHF 3 for Children(8-15 y.o)
Address: Kramgasse 49, Bern
3. Join art lovers at Kunstmuseum, aka Museum of Fine Arts
For art lovers Kunstmuseum is your destination in Bern. Also known as the Museum of Fine Arts, Kunstmuseum carries over 4,000 masterpieces within its permanent collection, in addition to almost 50,000 drawings, prints, photos and films, making it not only Switzerland’s oldest(built in 1879) but also its finest art museum. On top of hosting works of local Swiss artists since 15th century (such as Niklaus Manuel, Albert Anker, Ferdinand Holder, Cuno Amiet), the museum also earned a significant international reputation as its collection portrays significant art pieces from the Italian Trecento to international paintings from 19th and 20th century. The collection spans diverse art schools: Impressionism, Cubism, Expressionism, and Surrealism, while especially featuring Paul Klee, Wassail Kandinsky and Pablo Picasso, on top of Monet, Paul Gaugin and Van Gogh. The museum is open Tuesday to Sunday, 10 am to 5pm (Tuesday till 9pm). Entrance Fee is CHF10 for adults and free for Children 6-16 y.o)
4. Embrace human communication at Bern Communications Museum
Bern Communication Museum is a unique exhibition of its own. Founded in 1907, this museum is not about technology and communication advancement but rather about human history of communication and how different cultures address it. Starting from the sign language & speaking, through telephraph and post, and all along to the telephone, computer and internet. The Museum offers many interactive displays, games and attractions, making it very interesting for children as much as adults. It’s open Tuesdays to Sundays, 10am to 5pm; closed Mondays. Entrance is CHF 15 for adults and 5 CHF for children.
Address of Museum of Communication: Helvetiastrasse 16, 3005 Bern. T. +41 031 357 55 55.
5. Discover Paul Klee Center
Born for a German father and Swiss mother , the painter Paul Klee is well celebrated at this outstanding centre.
Paul Klee was well know for his style that mixed and transcended different painting trends: surrealism, abstraction, cubism and expressionism. He is also famous for his unique simultaneous integration of different media into his work ( such as ink, paint, pencil, pastel etc…). His international reputation reflects through his work being exhibited also in New York’s MoMA and Guggenheim museums and in London’s Tate Modern.
Paul Klee is sometimes compared to Leonardo da Vinci, in being a well regarded theorist, especially through his Writings on Form and Design .
The centre displays about 4,000 works by Klee, including the famous Dame mit Sonnenschirm (“Woman with Parasol”), In den Häusern von St. Germain (“Houses of St Germain”) and Tod und Feuer (“Death and Fire”).
The Paul Klee Center (opened in 2005) is a work of art on its own. It was designed by the famous Italian architect Renzo Piano, who designed also the Pompidou centre in Paris and the Shard skyscraper in London. The center is built in the form of three hill rolls or waves with a huge 150 m long glass facade.
The Paul Klee Center is open Tuesdays to Sundays 10am to 5pm; closed Mondays.
Adults fee: CHF20; seniors: CHF18; students: CHF10; children (6-16 years old) CHF 7.
6. Examin Dioramas at Bern’s Natural History Museum
The Bern Natural History Museum is considered part of the University of Bern, and includes very interesting collection of Dioramas. The most famous of which is Barry, the Great St. Bernard rescue dog, who lived between 1800-1814 and saved 40 lives. Other dioramas include those of big game such as tigers, Rhinos, pandas, and snow leopards.
The museum is an entertaining outing as much as educational activity for the whole family. You must see the Stones of the Earth, which display alpine minerals and crystals mined in the Swiss Alps. Additionally the museum has the biggest collection of animal skeletons in whole of Switzerland. There are many exhibitions such as “C’est la Vie” and “Beetles & Co”, “Fin Feet”, Wings which are devoted to the evolution and gives insights into the world of invertebrates.
The museum opens Monday: 2pm – 5pm. Tues, Thurs Fri: 9am to 5pm. Weds: 9am to 6pm. Sat, Sun:10 am to 5pm.
Entrance fee is CHF 10 for adults and 2 CHF for children.
Discover more of Bern museums?
If you are into weapons, The Swiss Rifle Museum enjoys an extensive collection of ancient and new weapons, including some weapons used anciently by the Swiss army. Also it has a section of medals and memorabilia devoted to the sport of shooting in Switzerland. So if you are a weapon’s enthusiast and have couple of hours on your hand, don’t hesitate to visit this small but interesting museum. You might even get a personal tour from curator of the museum!
Additionally there is The Swiss Alpine Museum but it can seem too minor for some visitors. It definitely displays a nice collection of mountain paintings, but the whole area doesn’t seem well attended.
Day trips from Bern, where to go?
If you have ticked your list of things to do in Bern, then a day trip from Bern would be your next endouver.
Here the list is endless and deserves a dedicated article on its own! But just as a quick overview of what you can reach in a day visit from Bern. The beautiful Grindelwald is just an hour away by car. It’s frequented both in the warm season for its amazing views as well as winter. It’s the home to the Eiger, the Monch and the Jungfrau. The Jungfraujoch, railway takes to the highest railway station in Europe, such a stunning observation station at 3,571 meters!
You can also head to the famous Interlaken between the two lakes of Thun and Brienz (link to article). Such an amazing region and each of the 3 towns and two lakes are worth dedicated visits.
Fribourg and Gruyères are less than one hour away, and here you can discover the beauty of medieval towns and castles and the tastiness of Swiss Gruyère cheese!
Where to stay in Bern?
What’s particular about Bern is that most of its attractions and things to do in Bern are concentrated in the loop surrounded by the Aare River, or just across the bridge from Old Town. So your choice of where to stay is very extended, so here’s some of the highly rated hotels in Bern that can fit different budgets.
- Hotel Schweizerhof Bern located just across the main station, adjacent to the Parliament building, and close to the top attractions of the Old Town. This world class hotel is famous for its SPA and rooftop, where you can spot the alps.
- Hotel Belle Epoque is a boutique hotel unique in character. Located just at the edge of the old town and near the Bear Park
- The historic grand hotel BELLEVUE PALACE Bern just over the river and enjoys wonderful mountain views.
- Swissotel Kursaal Bern located in the city centre, with an amazing view of the Alps and the historic, Old Town – just across the bridge
- The Bristol is a boutique hotel, right in the centre of Bern with a modern & stylish touch
- Hotel Alpenblick, stylish and located in an old elegant building close to the Rose Garden in the Old Town.
- Hotel Jardin Bern got its name from overlooking a garden in a calm neighborhood, close to the centre
- Hotel Savoy Bern is a good choice for business travellers as its near the main train station, and has technology-equipped rooms.