Insider’s Guide to Bern

Regal and ethereal, the city of Bern (or Berne) looks as though it jumped out from a medieval picture book; this is probably because its streets and buildings have remained mostly untouched since the 1400s. Bern is one of the great Switzerland cities. It doesn’t hurt to have the Swiss Alps as backdrop, either; their peaks retain snow even in the summer. Uniquely, the city has sights that will simultaneously entertain children and adults, from a medieval bear park to a giant clock with animated figures. Bern, the capital of Switzerland, is truly like nowhere else on earth.

one of the great sights in BerneOne of the great sights in Switzerland, the Aare River runs through the city, and much of the city’s signature architecture is on the water’s edge; in fact, it forms the water’s edge. There are many sights, both in the city center and just outside.

The medieval city center, the best preserved in Switzerland, is a maze of stone Renaissance buildings, towers, fountains, bridges, and arcade streets. It is best explored on foot. Pick up an iPod audio guide at the train station tourist office: The walking tour will help place Bern in history as a one of the great Switzerland cities. Famously, Einstein published his Theory of Relativity in Bern, and one of the best Einstein museums in the world can be found there. It’s located inside of Einstein’s one-time apartment; the museum shares the personal side of his life as well as his major achievements.

The Swiss are known for making clocks, and one of the world’s largest animated clocks, the Zytglogge clock, is found in Bern. Mechanized figures–bears, a jester, and more–ring the bells on the hour, and the square is always packed, so show up at least 20 minutes early. A five-minute walk will take you to the Münster of Bern, the most important cathedral in Bern and one of the fabulous sights in Switzerland. Make sure to visit the interior portal that features the Last Judgment; it’s composed of hundreds of painted and carved figures. The cathedral’s tower, with 250 steps, provides one of the best views in the city.

If you feel like taking a leisurely stroll, a 30-minute walk takes you to Tierpark Dählhölzli park. It is home to the famous bear park (or BärenPark), one of the oldest and most sights in Bern and sights in Switzerland. The bear is the symbol of Bern. The old bear pit, which was literally a hole in the ground that first opened in 1513, was consider inhumane in 2009 (after 500 years!), so a new bear park was built. Today, the bears can swim in an encaged portion of the Aare River or relax in the shade of their improved home.

Historic museaum, one of the great sights in BerneThe Rosengarten (Garden of Roses) is a five-minute walk from the bear park and adds to why Bern is one of the great Switzerland cities. The roses are in bloom in June and July, but spectacular views of the city can be beheld year-round. The hike up is quite steep, so wear good shoes.

The most important museums in Bern are the Bern Historical Museum and the Kunstmuseum. The former provides an entertaining introduction to Bern’s history, with hoards of artifacts on display, including ancient books, maps, suits of armor, golden wine vessels, and cooking utensils. These are some of the sights in Bern that should not be missed. The audio tour isn’t worth purchasing: Most of the information it gives is already written on the English-language plaques in front of the exhibits. The Kunstmuseum (Musuem of Fine Arts) displays an array of great art from the 14th century onward. If you’re looking for something a bit more unique, I recommend the Paul Klee Center, discussed below.

Shopping is a big deal in Bern, and, such as it is in Zurich (another one of Switzerland cities), the stores are high-end, elite, and feature extraordinary merchandise. Bern’s shopping promenade is the longest in Europe. Once you’re shopped out, I recommend visiting the Altes Tramdepot for a casual lunch and some really good Swiss beer. There’s a microbrewery inside that offers tours; the food is traditional pub food. Try to get a window seat.

Paul Kee Center in one of Switzerland citiesThere are few very important sights in Bern is just outside the city. One is the Gurten, a car free hill or small mountain with an amusement park for kids and plenty of picnic spots and hiking trails. A wooden tower at the top of the hill gets you great views of the city. Also, just outside the city is the Paul Klee Center. This art museum was designed by Architect Renzo Piano, and the strange design, which looks like waves of glass, is half the fun of visiting. Inside you’ll find over 4,000 works by the Swiss Expressionist Paul Klee, as well as temporary exhibits. Take the #12 bus from the city center to get there.

For football fans, the Stade De Suisse (Swiss Football Stadium) is a massive stadium just outside the city limits where the BSC Young Boys play.

Many travelers choose sights in Bern as a starting point for further exploration into the Swiss Alps. The Oberland ski area, which includes such legendary ski locations as Grindelwald, is close enough to spend a day skiing and then return to Bern at night. The picturesque, lakeside town of Lucerne is also just one hour by train.

Written by Mattie Bamman for

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