It may be smaller than Zurich (the Bern population is only around 140,000), but with a laid-back charm that’s hard to resist, Bern – Switzerland’s capital – is a wonderful city to include in your Swiss travels.
Bern is a city rich in history, dating back to the 12th century, and its medieval centre is protected by UNESCO World Heritage status. The city boasts plenty in the way of fascinating architecture and intriguing buildings but it also offers plenty of green spaces, too.
If you’re wondering what to do in Bern, this guide has you covered. We cover the main Bern attractions to ensure you include the best places to visit in Bern in your itinerary.
As well as being the capital of Switzerland, Bern is also the capital of the Canton of Bern. It’s a friendly city with a mostly German-speaking population.
Ready to find out more about all the Bern things to do? Read on.
You will also find a map of all the main Bern tourist attractions mentioned in this article, our picks for the best hotels in Bern and details on how to get around Bern.
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Things to do in Bern, Switzerland
A wander around the compact Old Town is a great way to start your Bern sightseeing. Featuring cobbled streets and squares lined with red-roofed sandstone buildings, Bern Old City is easy to explore on foot.
The city was ravaged by a fire back in 1405 with the medieval wooden homes destroyed, and the Old Town as you see it today with its replacement sandstone buildings, remains largely as it has since the early 15th century.
Many of the ‘new’ sandstone buildings featured arcades with vaulted ceilings on the lower levels, and these arcades, known as Laubengange, still stand today. There are around six kilometres of these covered arcades which are now home to cafes and shops and they are synonymous with the city.
Speaking of shops, if you’d like to buy a Swiss souvenir to take home as a memento of your visit, you’ll find a vast array of shops in Bern city centre. Under the covered arcades you’ll find every kind of retail outlet from watch and jewellery stores, to chocolatiers, sports stores, galleries, boutiques and more.
On Spitalgasse, on the edge of the Old Town, department stores Loeb and Globus offer a wide variety of goods from cosmetics and clothing, to homewares and toys. There’s also a large shopping complex inside the main Bern station (Bern Hauptbahnhof).
As a general rule, most shops are open from 9am to 7pm Monday to Friday and 9am to 5pm on Saturday.
As you stroll around the Old Town you’ll notice a lot of fountains – over 100 of them! Amongst these are eleven 16th century Renaissance fountains; each portrays a well-known character from Bern’s history – be that a real-life or a fictional individual.
Particularly colourful and beautifully decorated examples are the Zähringen Fountain and Samson Fountain, both on Kramgasse; the Justice Fountain on Gerechtigkeitsgasse; and the Ogre Fountain on Granary Square.
Other highlights of the Old Town, which I cover in more detail below, are the Zytglogge, Munster and Bundeshaus. You can visit all these sights (and more) on your own but if you’d prefer to join a guided tour there are a number of options available.
Popular Bern City tours include:
- 1-hour Bern Must-See Express Tour – click here for details and prices
- 90 minute Stroll through Bern Old Town – click here for details and prices
- Instagram Highlights Tour – click here for details and prices
Zytglogge Clock Tower
The 12th-century clock tower stands tall in Marktgasse at the Western City Gate, in the Old Town. The tower houses a beautiful astronomical clock, constructed in 1530 and considered to be one of the oldest in Switzerland. The Zytglogge also boasts the largest clock face in Switzerland.
Plan to be in Marktgasse as the clock strikes the hour and you’ll be in for a treat: mechanical figures will pop out and mark the time, providing a little show for amused visitors.
If you’d like to know more about how the clock works, you might want to book a spot on the behind-the-scenes tour. This takes place daily at 14:30 and allows an up-close look into the inner workings of the clock. It’s one of the top things to do in Bern – click here to check details and prices.
The view down Kramgasse, lined with the flags of the Swiss Cantons, towards Zytglogge, is especially pretty at night when the busy day time crowds have left.
Built during the 15th and 16th century, it’s fair to say Bern Cathedral – the official name is Bern Münster – took quite a long time to build, but it was definitely worth the wait! Make sure you stop by when you visit Bern.
With its Gothic sculptures and majestic, 12-metre-high stained glass windows, Bern cathedral is guaranteed to delight. The church also features rib vaulting, flying buttresses and a stunning depiction of the Last Judgment.
The Cathedral’s spire – which was only added in 1893 – soars 100 metres into the air, making this the tallest church in Switzerland. If you’re feeling energetic, you can climb the 400 steps of the tower to the very top. It may be an effort, but you will be rewarded with amazing views over the city’s rooftops.
Beside the Cathedral is a small park area which offers great views over the river.
Bern Münster can be visited daily except Mondays.
The world famous physicist, Albert Einstein, developed his theory of relativity E=mc2 whilst living in Bern in 1905. You can visit the home of Einstein and his family at Kramgasse 49 which has been restored in the style of that period.
Einsteinhaus Bern is open year round except late December to 1 February. Entrance fees apply.
Address: Kramgasse 49
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If you’re interested in politics, you will enjoy a visit to Bundeshaus, the Swiss Federal Assembly. Built during the 19th century, the imposing Neo-Renaissance building draws the eye with its green domed roof and 300-metre-long facade.
At the entrance to the Parliament building – also called the Federal Palace – on the Bundesplatz (Parliament Square), 26 fountains, representing the 26 cantons of Switzerland, spurt water seven metres into the air.
If you want to take a peek inside Bundeshaus, where you can see, amongst other things, a large sculpture of the founding fathers of Switzerland and paintings illustrating important Swiss historical events, you will need to book a tour. You will be led by a well-informed guide who will provide you with fascinating insights into the Swiss Government.
Address: Bundesplatz 3
Bern’s Old Town is built inside a bend in the turquoise River Aare, which, at 288 kilometres in length, is the longest river within Switzerland.
The river surrounds Bern on three sides, and the clear waters are considered to be an integral part of the city. Residents of Bern believe that a swim in the Aare is akin to a Swiss tradition, and visitors are enticed to jump in and enjoy the experience for themselves – but maybe not in winter!
Another activity popular with both visitors and residents of Bern, river rafting is always an option if you’re looking for some adventure.
Numerous bridges cross the river, including the Nydegg bridge (Nydeggbrucke), which you’ll need to cross if you plan on visiting the Bear Park or Rose Garden. (Read more about these below.)
Bern has an affinity with the brown bear, which explains why the creature is the emblem of the city (and has been since the 12th century). The brown bear is so symbolic to the city that it even features on the coat of arms which is found on the flags of both the city and canton of Bern.
Even today, Bern has three resident brown bears living in the purpose-built Bern Bear Park (Bärengraben) near the Old Town – just across the River Aare. If you are visiting Bern with children, they’ll love watching the bears at play.
Formerly housed in a large concrete pit, the bears now enjoy a peaceful life in their two comfy and spacious forest-like enclosures (linked by a tunnel) which cover 6,000 square metres. They can often be found dipping their paws in their very own part of the river!
The Bear Park is open daily from 9.30am and is one of the best free things to do in Bern.
The Rose Garden
Situated close to the Bear Park, the Rose Garden (Rosengarten) provides a scenic setting, ripe for contemplation and reflection, as well as wonderful views across the river to the Old Town.
Visit in spring and witness the flowers as they begin to flourish – there are over 200 species of roses, as well as cherry blossoms and iris to marvel at. As summer dawns, the garden erupts into full bloom – a riot of colour that’s a feast for the eyes. There’s a pretty pond too, laden with waterlilies.
The Rose Garden in Bern is always open and is free to enter. It can be reached via a short but steep path from the Bear Park.
Address: Alter Aargauerstalden 31b
Have more than one day in Bern? You might like to also visit:
Hamman and Spa Oktogon
If you have more time in Bern and would like a bit of relaxation, why not indulge in a bathing experience like no other at Bern Hamman and Spa Oktogon?
This Turkish bath and spa is based on ritualistic and ancient traditions where the body is warmed and cleansed, providing a sense of calm and well-being. The building itself is pretty impressive from the outside too, with a unique octagonal shape, but it’s inside where the magic happens.
Lie back, relax and enjoy.
Address: Weihergasse 3, 3005 Bern
Get a dose of Alpine air as you head to the slopes of Gurten, Bern’s own mountain, where Gurten Park, and its parkland awaits.
Board the funicular railway at the River Aare (Waben tram stop) for the five-minute journey climbing 858 metres to the summit from where you’ll get great views over Bern.
Gurten Park is a popular spot in both summer and winter.
During the warmer months, visitors can enjoy hiking, relaxing in the great outdoors, a toboggan run (March to October), and picnicking. There’s also a huge playground – complete with its own mini Swiss train the kids can ride – making a visit to Gurten one of the best things to do in Bern if you are travelling with kids.
During the winter months, sledding and skiing are two popular activities at Gurten.
There are also two restaurants at Gurten.
Address: Gurtenkulm, 3084 Köniz
To reach Gurten, take the #9 tram in the direction of Wabern, and get off at the Gurtenbahn stop. The Gurtenbahn funicular departs every 15 minutes from 7.00am.
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Bern Historical Museum and Einstein Museum
There’s lots to see at the Bern Historical Museum; in fact, there are over 500,000 exhibits to peruse. There are many highlights, including tapestries that date back to the 1400s and a very special wedding gift – a gem-set diptych – presented to the King of Hungary in the 13th century.
The Bern Museum also provides a home for the Einstein Museum. Visitors can discover how the great man worked and learn more about his life and family. You will find authentic photographs and footage showcasing how Einstein formulated his famous theory of relativity.
Address: Helvetiaplatz 5.
Bern, Switzerland – Map of attractions
Click on the map above to make it larger.
Christmas in Bern
If you find yourself in Bern in winter, try and time your visit to coincide with the Bern Christmas Markets. Numerous Christmas markets are held in the city and they add a really magical feeling to the city.
As well as stalls selling Christmas ornaments, homemade products and food, you can also go skating on the ice rink and admire a giant Christmas tree.
Average Bern winter temperatures are around 3℃ (38℉), so dress warmly!
Getting around in Bern
The best way to get around the Old Town is on foot but if you need to go a bit further afield in Bern, public transport is easily accessible. Streetcars (trams) and buses, operated by BernMobil, offer frequent services across the city. Tickets can be purchased from ticket machines at tram and bus stops.
You can ride on Bern’s public transport network for free if you hold a Swiss Travel Pass. Guests of Bern’s hotels are also entitled to a Bern Ticket which provides free public transport within zones 100 and 101.
Where is Bern
Bern is located in west central Switzerland in the Canton of Bern, the second-largest of the Swiss Cantons.
How to get to Bern
Easy rail connections are available from both airports, and other destinations across Switzerland and Europe, to Bern. If you prefer to arrive by car, modern motorways connect Bern with all corners of Switzerland.
Zurich to Bern
by train: Zurich to Bern trains depart every 30 minutes with a journey time of approximately one hour.
by car: Alternatively, you can drive, which will take about 1 hr 20 minutes.
by bus: As another option, you can also take the bus – this will take a little longer at around 1 hr 35 minutes.
by organised small group day trip: You can also join a full day excursion to Bern from Zurich. You’ll see the main sights of Bern as well as enjoying stops at the Kambly biscuit factory and a cheese dairy in Emmental. Click here to check details and prices.
Geneva to Bern
by train: Geneva to Bern trains depart approximately every 20 minutes. The journey time is around 1 hour and 45 minutes.
by car: If you prefer to drive, you can take the A1; the journey will take around 1 hour and 50 minutes.
by bus: If neither of those options suit, you could opt to take a bus (there are five daily from Geneva to Bern); however, this is a longer journey at around 2.5 hours.
Interlaken to Bern
by train: Interlaken to Bern trains depart at least twice per hour. The journey takes around 1 hour.
by car: It takes around 55 minutes to reach Bern from Interlaken via the A6 motorway.
Lucerne to Bern
by train: There are at least two Lucerne to Bern train services every hour, with a journey time of around 90 minutes. You can also travel part of the way on the panoramic GoldenPass Line.
If you choose this option, you’ll travel from Lucerne to Interlaken on the Luzern-Interlaken Express (2 hours) and then on an InterCity or Regional train from Interlaken to Bern (1 hour).
by car: You can reach Bern from Lucerne in 1 hour 15 minutes via the A1 motorway or take a more scenic route on the A8 and A6 over the Brunig Pass. Allow around 1 hour 45 minutes for the scenic route.
Best Bern hotels
Here are our top three picks for where to stay in Bern city centre.
Luxury and location are two words to describe Hotel Schweizerhof Bern and THE SPA. This superb 5-star hotel is directly across the street from the train station and all of Bern’s main sights can be reached on foot.
In addition to a brasserie restaurant, there’s also a lobby bar, cigar lounge, a rooftop terrace, a huge wellness centre and a fitness room.
If you’re looking for quiet, elegant rooms for your stay in Bern, The Bristol is a great choice. Perfectly situated in the heart of the medieval Old Town, you’ll be close to the train station and tourist sites.
Guests can make use of the fitness centre, a bar and lounge area, and there’s free WiFi.
With a great location right in the Old Town, the hotel is just a few minutes’ walk to all the main attractions including the Bear Park, Zytglogge and Federal Palace. Bern station is just a 5-minute walk away.
As well as modern, well-equipped rooms, the Kreuz Bern Modern City Hotel also features a restaurant and free fitness facilities.
Bern Switzerland Weather
Bern’s summer months (June, July, and August) are relatively warm and temperatures average 25°C / 77°F in July.
Snow tends to fall between October and April (with December, January, and February being particularly snowy). As I mentioned above, average January temperatures are 3°C / 38°F.
You can compare temperatures throughout the year in Bern here.
I hope this guide has encouraged you to visit Bern. As you can see, there are things to see in Bern for all ages and interests. Whether you want to see Bern in one day or have a bit longer to spend in the city, you are sure to fall in love with the charming, medieval capital of Switzerland.
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