A UNESCO World Heritage site and home to Switzerland’s political seat, Bern is a small, quaint city just in front of the Alps. The medieval streets are lined with tall, brown-roofed buildings in a labyrinthine maze across the city, with a small waterscape by the river Aare. Although it is not as big and certainly not as cosmopolitan as Zürich or Geneva, Bern has an old-world charm all of its own. Explore the best of Bern with our handy guide to the 10 top attractions.
Bern’s bear park is home to the symbolic Bernese bear, also appearing on Bern’s flag. The legendary bear pit has now been exchanged for a park where the bears have more space to roam, play, and fish as they like (the bear pit is also theirs to use now). You can go on tours to see both the old bear pit and the new park, as well as see the bears bathing by the Aare.
Opening hours: circuit open all hours; keepers available 8 a.m. – 5 p.m.
With unparalleled views of the city, Bern’s famous Rose Garden is a draw for travelers, botanists, horticulturalists and plant lovers. Originally a cemetery, the rose garden became a public park in 1913. It underwent changes in the latter half of the 20th century to also include rhododendrons and irises. It is now one of the loveliest places in Bern to relax and unwind (perhaps in their pavilion or the reading garden).
The Zytglogge is Bern’s clock tower. It has held several functions over the centuries, including as a prison and a guard tower. It is now one of the city’s most important heritage sights. Its clock is a 15th-century astronomical clock depicting various zodiac symbols. The sun and the moon are shown to be orbiting the various zodiac symbols. The artist Viktor Surbek also painted a fresco in 1930 which frames the large dial.
Tours available daily (1 Apr – 31 Oct; 26 – 31 Dec) at 2.30 p.m.
The Gothic cathedral, or Münster, was built in the 15th century. Its spire is the tallest in Switzerland (100m) and it is worth walking up the steps to get a fabulous view over Bern, the Aare as well as the Alps in the Bernese Oberland. The construction of this massive edifice started in 1421 and the spire was only finished 400 years later, in 1893. There’s also a portal with a depiction of The Last Judgement.
Opening hours: Mon – Sat 10 a.m. – 5 p.m.; Sun 11.30 a.m. – 5 p.m.
Quite close to the Zytglogge is the Einstein-Haus, where Albert Einstein lived from 1903 to 1905. The apartment, located on the second floor, is shown in an exhibition-style: the furnishings are still from the early 1900s, and there are photos and various texts also exhibited. During his time here he wrote the Annus Mirabilis, which made a large contribution to the foundation of modern physics and is considered one of its defining documents (they were published in 1905).
The Bundeshaus (Swiss Parliament building) is the seat of the Swiss government (the Federal Council) and the parliament (which has both the national and the cantonal councils). The building was decorated by 38 Swiss artists; the central hall and the chambers all show symbolic images of Swiss history. There’s also a Parliament square which is a lovely place to sit and read and is also home to the traditional market that occurs weekly.
The Aare river becomes the centerpiece of Bern in the summer, where crowds flock to swim on hot days. If you prefer to relax rather than swim in the river, there are handrails to hold on to. The Marzili river-pool is a favorite among locals: just further away from Bern, it’s possible to jump into the pool of the Marzilibad and then flow down along with the back into the city.
The Museum of Communication is off the beaten track, and yet an unusual and well-executed museum. It’s very interactive in the way it focuses on interpersonal communication: body language, new medias and the relation to technology and culture are all covered. All of the signage shown is in English. There’s also a stamp exhibition which is linked to their showing of the history of post. This is a great museum to visit with kids, who will have fun speaking on the antique telephones and exploring the other interactive exhibits.
Swiss hospitality also extends to beautiful and well-maintained spas with a variety of luxurious spa treatments. First off is the Oktogon Hammam, which, as its name implies, follows the hammam tradition. There are stream rooms, showering, and you’re also able to scrub and soak. Extra massages can be booked. Solbad Schönbuhl nearby has various indoor and outdoor baths as well as fountains, a sauna park and bubble jets; and like the Oktogon Hammam you can book other treatments as well.
Switzerland’s oldest art museum is Bern’s Kunstmuseum (Museum of Fine Arts), which houses works by the likes of Picasso, Van Gogh, Klee and Oppenheimer. It has a large permanent collection of over 3000 paintings and over 48,000 drawings and prints, but it also has temporary themed exhibitions. Overall, there are about 800 years’ worth of artwork displayed in its beautifully-kept hallways and rooms.