The Best Things to See and Do in Bern, Switzerland

A view across the Unesco World Heritage Centre of Bern and its Old Town, toward the Nydeggbrucke bridge across the river Aare
A view across the Unesco World Heritage Centre of Bern and its Old Town, toward the Nydeggbrucke bridge across the river Aare | © Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo
Photo of Phoebe Taplin
13 April 2021

From Einstein’s house to the Kunstmuseum via Renzo Piano‘s Zentrum Paul Klee, here is Culture Trip’s pick of the best things to see and do in Bern, Switzerland.

The capital city of Switzerland is small and compact, with a lovely atmosphere, picture-perfect cobblestone streets and beautiful views of the river Aare. The Old Town is where you will find all the main sights. Most of it is pedestrian-only and the distances are short, making it a paradise for those who like to explore towns on foot.

See the animals at Tierpark Dählhölzli

Zoo
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“More space for fewer animals” is the slogan at Tierpark Dählhölzli, Bern’s wooded animal park, which opened in 1937. Back then a visit meant peering into little wire cages at distressed exotic creatures. Today it’s about strolling beside the leafy River Aare, where the pelicans have a long, rock-studded lake; or through graceful, silver-trunked beech trees where bison roam. Not that there’s a shortage of animals – the spacious zoo cares for nearly 300 different species, from wolves and wild boar to otters and harbour seals. Bird lovers will find puffins, snowy owls and endangered Bali mynas thriving here. Add a riverside café, kids’ playground, pony rides, face-painting and a smartphone quiz, and a family day out at Dählhölzli is the wild cat’s whiskers.

Tell the time at Zytglogge

Building
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OLD TOWN-BERN-SWITZERLAND
Niels Oberson / | © Culture Trip
Zytglogge translates as “time-bell” and sure enough, every hour on the hour, a gilded figure at the top of Bern’s medieval clocktower hits the original 3,000lb bronze bell with a golden hammer. A series of bright mechanical figures start moving in anticipation of the chimes: a laughing red jester, some parading bears, a flapping gold rooster and bearded Chronos, god of time, who turns his hourglass. It’s a show that draws crowds of tourists to the cobbled square below, but you can also climb the tower. After 130 steps, at the top, there’s a close-up of the Zytglogge’s intricately crafted astrolabe and a panorama over the Bern’s Unesco-listed old city towards the distant Swiss Alps.

Relax by Moossee lake

Natural Feature
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Hop on the train at Bern’s main railway station and 10 minutes later you’re disembarking in the village of Moosseedorf. Stroll along the Badweg for five minutes, and you’ll find yourself on the shores of Moossee, a fine lake fringed with birches and a golf course. At the village end there’s a small grass-edged beach, or Strandbad, where you can pay a few coins to spend a sunny afternoon with the family, enjoying table tennis, diving towers and a raft to swim out to, and a playground with a paddling area for little kids. Then head to the parasol-shaded terrace of the seasonal café nearby for chips, salad, hefty sausages or thin, pizza-like flammkuchen topped with bacon and onion.

See the scary Kindlifresserbrunnen

Historical Landmark, Architectural Landmark
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The Kindlifresserbrunnen (Swiss German for Child Eater Fountain) is a fountain at the Kornhausplatz (Granary Place) in Bern, Switzerland
© Hector Christiaen / Alamy Stock Photo
The name means, roughly, “children-gobbler fountain”, and it certainly does what it says on the tin: a huge figure, in bottle-green medieval leggings and belted scarlet tunic, perches on an ornate column, stuffing an infant into his mouth. Sticking out of the ogre’s bag are several more, presumably about to suffer similar fates. At the foot of the column, under a circle of carved bears, four peaceful geranium-ringed fountains spout into a hexagonal trough among the tourists, trolleybuses and pavement cafés of Bern’s busy Kornhausplatz. Theories behind this mysterious 16th-century landmark abound, among them the idea that it represents the jealous older brother of Bern’s 12th-century founder Berthold V. Whatever, it’ll certainly divide opinion on your Instagram feed.

Discover the rest of Bern's quirky fountains

Architectural Landmark, Historical Landmark
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Think of them, if you like, as age-old prototypes of the water cooler in today’s offices: points where townsfolk could gather to swap gossip, get news, find out what was going on politically – oh, and have a safe, clean, potable drink. Bern is famous for being home to some very peculiar fountains, attributed to 16th-century artist Hans Gieng. Scattered around the Old Town, you will find more than 100 extravagant creations, 11 of them topped with distinctive-looking allegorical sculptures. From Justice and Moses to the biblical figure of Samson in Roman gear preparing to finish off a lion, you will easily spot them in the streets and squares of the town centre.

Climb the rustic Chutzen tower

Natural Feature
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Half an hour’s drive or bus ride beyond Bern, through flat fields and gentle hills, are the pine-covered slopes of Chutzen hill. At the summit, climb the oak steps inside the Chutzenturm, a 45m-high tower of Douglas fir and steel, for views over the treetops, across mile upon mile of Swiss Plateau. The tower and its panoramas are halfway along the three-mile Chutzen Trail, between the nearby villages of Wahlendorf and Frienisberg, passing a couple of handy restaurants and a Cistercian abbey en route.

Check out the magical Elfenau country estate

Architectural Landmark, Natural Feature
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Anna Feodorovna, Grand Duchess of Russia, bought the estate here in the early 19th century and renamed it Elfenau to reflect the elvish magic she felt in the hilly riverside parkland. A century later, citizens voted in support of buying it as a public green space. Not far beyond the Tierpark, Elfenau can be reached in 15 minutes on bus 19; alternatively, hike a couple of miles beside the tree-lined Aare River. Reward yourself in Elfenau’s summer café with homemade mint tea, local apple juice or an unfiltered Bärner Müntschi beer from Bern’s Felsenau brewery.

Have a spiritual moment at Heilliggeistkirche

Church
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Glass canopy on Bahnhofplatz and the Church of the Holy Spirit Heiliggeistkirche, Bern, Canton Bern, Switzerland
© agefotostock / Alamy Stock Photo"
Got half an hour before your train leaves? Just arrived and want to get stuck into sightseeing? Explore this huge early-18th-century baroque church by the railway station. One of Switzerland’s biggest Protestant places of worship, the Heilliggeistkirche (or Church of the Holy Ghost) is essential viewing, designed by architect Niklaus Schiltknecht (who also worked on Bern’s unmissable Minster). Admire the tall, free-standing pulpit and 14 massive sandstone pillars that hold up the painted ceiling. With luck, you’ll catch some organ music or even one of the regular lunchtime concerts.

Experience peak Bern

Natural Feature
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Billing itself as Bern’s local mountain, the car-free Gurten is a great place to head for panoramic views over the city and the river, winding away to the distant snowy Alps. Tram 9 from Bern station quickly gets you to the bottom of the colourful Gurtenbahn funicular, which you can ride if in possession of a public-transport pass. There’s fun for all the family at the top, including an imaginative playground, year-round tobogganing and hiking trails as well as a choice of cafés.

Tour the Sensorium Rüttihubelbad

Museum
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A barefoot pathway, a hall of mirrors, a tree of smells, a singing bowl, gongs, fountains, coloured shadows… The Sensorium has 80 exhibits designed to stimulate the senses. It was artist and philosopher Hugo Kükelhaus (1900-1984), best known for designing tactile toys for toddlers, who conceived the idea of a multisensory experience. At Rüttihubelbad his theories live on in an experimental museum, in the rolling countryside half an hour’s drive east of Bern. Once the kids have finished exploring, titillate the sense of taste at the on-site restaurant, with a bowl of ice cream and gummy bears or, for parents, a glass of fine aromatic Swiss Heida Visperterminen.

Explore the Naturhistorisches Museum Bern

Museum
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South of the Aare river, amid Bern’s cluster of institutions housing exhibitions on everything from Einstein to the Alps, is the Natural History Museum. Here you’ll find hundreds of skeletons and taxidermy dioramas as well as a huge interactive biodiversity display in an impressive 1930s building. A new Wunderkammer (“cabinet of curiosities”) displays thousands of weird and wonderful creatures and animal body parts in jars, including a collection of eyes, and has windows with views into a research laboratory in the heart of the museum.

Take in the views at Bern Münster

Cathedral
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Bern city aerial panoramic view. Bern is the capital of Switzerland.
© Andrey Khrobostov / Alamy Stock Photo
Bern’s gothic cathedral, or as the locals call it, Münster, was built in the 15th century and it’s the town’s most impressive church. Its spire, soaring 100m (328ft) into the sky, is the tallest in Switzerland and, even if it’s a bit of a huff and a puff, you won’t regret scaling its steps to feast your eyes on the fabulous views over Bern, the Aare and the Alps in the snowy Bernese Oberland. Construction began on this massive edifice as early as 1421 and yet that landmark spire wasn’t finished for another 400 years, in 1893. Among its many beautiful details, look out for a portal bearing a depiction of the Last Judgement.

Visit the Einstein House

Museum
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It’s one of the city’s lesser known facts that Albert Einstein lived in Bern, and the third-floor apartment he rented from 1903 to 1905 with his spouse, Mileva, is now a museum that you’ll kick yourself if you leave town without visiting. You’ll find the “Einsteinhaus” in one of the capital’s most charming streets, Kramgasse – number 49. The apartment has been painstakingly refurbished (patterned period wallpaper, elegant tapering-legged dining furniture, a child’s crib) to present what is essentially a carbon copy of the great physicist’s home. This is where Einstein developed his famous Theory of Relativity and it goes without saying that it is one of the highlights of any trip to Bern.

Admire art at the Kunstmuseum Bern

Museum
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The Kunstmuseum in Bern is Switzerland’s oldest museum of fine arts, with a head-turning permanent collection. It houses works from the Middle Ages to the present day and presents pieces by Swiss artists from the 15th century onwards. Crowd-pleasers such as Sandro Botticelli and Édouard Manet are all present and correct, while a whole lower level of highlights from Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Piet Mondrian and more will satisfy the Cubist/Surrealist/Expressionist/abstact artist in you as you wander from wall to wall. Head upstairs for surprises by Paul Cezanne, Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh. Starry, starry days…

Learn about Switzerland at Bundeshaus

Building, Market
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Bern, Switzerland. Bundesplatz (Federal Square) and Bundeshaus (the Swiss Parliament Building)
© Sorin Colac / Alamy Stock Photo
The Bundeshaus in Bern is home to the Swiss parliament as well as the federal government. Both the exterior, with its large domed roof, and the interior are dramatic works of art and architecture. In the central hall, there are beautiful paintings that illustrate pivotal moments from Swiss history and all the government rooms are equally riveting. The building is open to the public as part of a one-hour guided tour in different languages, depending on the time of day.

See more art at Kunsthalle Bern

Museum
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Established in 1918, Kunsthalle Bern has been receiving global recognition ever since. Showcasing regional, national and international art, Kunsthalle organises new exhibitions each year, featuring either individuals or groups of around six or seven artists. Solo exhibits by contemporary artists, such as Paul Klee in 1935 and Christo in 1968, brought the gallery to the world’s attention, making it one of Switzerland’s liveliest cultural hubs.

Discover the Historical Museum

Museum
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Historical Museum in Bern, Switzerland. Seen from Bundesterrasse
© Roman Babakin / Alamy Stock Photo
The Historical Museum of Bern is Switzerland’s second-biggest history museum and its fascinating collection showcases the life of the Swiss from the Stone Age up until the 1900s. One of the highlights here is “Bern’s Silver Treasures”, where the historic silverware of the city’s rich and famous is on display. The museum also features interesting temporary exhibits that change several times a year.

Meet the bears at Barenpark

Zoo
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Bern’s relationship with its heraldic animal, the brown bear, is centuries old. The creatures have been part of the city since the 1500s – formerly in the Bear Pit, which is a famous attraction today (non-functioning, of course). To say hello to the furry citizens you’ll need to visit them in their new-fangled riverside “home”, a 6,000sq m (64,583sq ft) open-air park with hills to roam and access to water, unveiled to the public in 2009. At the moment there are bears – Finn, Björk and Ursina – in residence and you can get (safely) up close to observe them eating, sleeping and playing around.

Sample beer at Altes Tramdepot

Restaurant, Swiss, French, Asian, $$$
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Enjoying beer from the in-house brewery
© Aleksandar Karanov/Shutterstock

Easy to find near Barenpark, Altes Tramdepot is a site of gastronomic excellence and natural interest. With views of the park, Bern’s Old Town and the silvery sunlit Aare river from its beer garden and front terrace, the restaurant is an eternal “wow” among visitors to the capital. The menu is eclectic, presenting Swiss dishes, traditional French cuisine and Asian plates. But the main attraction here is the integrated brewery – notice the copper vats in the middle of the restaurant behind the bar – in which the house beer is brought to fruition.

Uncover the work of Paul Klee

Building, Museum
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Dedicated to Bern’s Paul Klee, who is regarded as one of the most important artists of the 20th century, Zentrum Paul Klee holds 40 per cent of the work he completed during his lifetime (1879-1940), which amounts to an astonishing 4,000 paintings or so. Around 120 to 150 of the works are on display at any given time, while paintings and themes change regularly. The undulating museum building is a curious work of art in itself: built by Italian super-star-chitect Renzo Piano to mimic the surrounding hilly terrain, it’s one of the most photographed buildings in town.

This is an updated version of an article originally by Chiara Assi.

These recommendations were updated on April 13, 2021 to keep your travel plans fresh.

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