Bern, founded in 1191, is a laidback place with a fusion of culture, leisure and entertainment especially during spring and summer when locals and visitors alike enjoy the outdoor activities. It has also been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since the 80’s because of the well-preserved medieval old town. The Old Town (Altstadt) with its historic towers and churches, cobbled streets and fountains, is quaint and easy to stroll about by foot and gives you a sense of walking in a time capsule. On both sides of the main street you can walk under the Lauben, covered arcades that house a variety of shops, cafés and restaurants.
Starting off at the Clock Tower (Zytglogge), Bern’s most famous landmark, explore the Old Town heading towards the Bear Pit or Bärengraben (bears are temporarily not in their dens as the area is under construction), but don’t just walk on the main cobbled street Kramgasse, wander to the small parallel streets that would take you to the Gothic Cathedral of Bern known as the Münster with its portal which will leave you in awe. If you’re fit, walk up to the church tower for a superb view of the city and beyond.
On the side, there is the Münsterplatform, a small park lined with chestnut trees that overlooks part of the old town and the Aare, one of the cleanest rivers in the world. In the summertime, the locals drift or swim in the cool turquoise water. Stroll to the opposite side of the main street to bring you to the Town Hall or Rathaus, another Gothic style building with a double staircase. This is the seat of the cantonal government of Bern and they hold sessions here regularly. Closer to the Clock Tower is the Albert Einstein house where the famous physicist used to live at the turn of the 20th century.
By the Bear Pit (Bärengraben), cross the street and walk up slowly to the Rose Garden (Rosengarten). Anyone who comes to Bern for the first time ought to come here. It offers the most gorgeous view of the Old Town and parts of the city including the Gurten. Sit on the wall and relax and enjoy the scenery. Take time to smell the roses, they don’t call this place Rose Garden for nothing. Kick back and lie on the grass. There is also a nice restaurant for the hungry and thirsty.
Bern as the capital, is the seat of Switzerland’s government. The Parliament House (Bundeshaus) sits close to the center of the city and walking distance from the Hauptbahnhof, the railway station. There are guided tours when the Parliament is not in session. Across the Parliament House is the Bärenplatz, an area with an array of restaurants offering different kinds of cuisine. On certain days, shops and stalls are put up on the open area selling different sorts of food items like fruits and cheese, and fresh flowers. Traditionally, this area sells loads of onions and onion tarts on the festive occasion that occurs perennially during the last Monday of November called the Zibelemärit. Farmers from the neighboring towns bring their harvests bundled and braided and decorated with tiny dried flowers and sold to the locals and visitors.
Just further ahead, on the opposite side of the main street from the Bärenplatz, makeshift shops are set. This is the Waisenhausplatz. On Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, vendors sell clothes, bags and baskets, candles, silver jewellery, hats, antiques, small house decors, local delicacies, etc. During the Advent season, it turns into a Christmas market. Street musicians and performers are also a common site.
The Museum of Fine Arts or Kunstmuseum is a stone’s throw away from the Waisenhausplatz. It is the oldest one in Switzerland. It is no Louvre, but it houses thousands of paintings and sculptures as well as thousands and thousands of drawings, prints, photographs, videos and films. The works of the famous Swiss painters Ferdinand Hodler and Alberto Giacometti, are displayed here. There are also pieces from Monet, Picasso, Dali, among others.
If you’re an art aficionado, a visit to the Zentrum Paul Klee is also recommendable. The landscape architecture of the Center is interesting in itself, not to mention a gourmet restaurant next to it, but many of Paul Klee’s works are found here. Take Bus No. 12 to bring you to the Zentrum, the ride passing through the Old Town is pleasant and on a clear day, you can see the Bernese Alps in the distance.
Another vantage point of view of the city and its surroundings is the Gurten Hill. Every year in mid July, the 3-day Gurtenfestival takes place here. Famous bands from all over the world are featured. They even provide camping grounds for the out-of-towners. A short tram ride from the city center and a monorail going up will bring you to one of the coolest natural spot in town. Upon getting up there, walk to the left side till you get to the edge of the hill, if good weather permits, a breathtaking view of alps and rolling hills await. There is also a restaurant on the opposite side and shows the stunning city view.
Another place worth seeing is the Bern Historical Museum on Helvetiaplatz, which contains collections related to the history of Bern. Just walk across the bridge and you are there. Or chill out by the Schanze just in front of the University of Bern, accessible by lift from the train station. On summer nights, an Open Air Cinema adds funk to the place. And you may want to quickly drop in at the Kornhauskeller for a drink, or linger for a meal, but the interiors of this former granary is truly remarkable, built in the Bernese high baroque style, it gives the restaurant a unique and splendid ambience.
Bern is accessible by regional flights from several cities in Europe. It is an hour away from Zurich airport and two hours from Geneva airport. From Milan, Bern can be reached in three hours by train.
Several accommodations, depending on one’s budget, are available in the middle of the city. Bern beckons, 48 hours will give visitors enough impressions and pleasant memories of a city which, according to the German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, ‘is the most beautiful that he has even seen.
All photos from Bern’s official tourism website. For more information, visit www.bern.com.
About the author
Eva Bernhard has been living in Bern for more than 25 years. She believes that she has the bragging rights to recommend her charming home to anyone visiting Switzerland.