Bern Pictures, Switzerland

Berne old town clock and tram, Switzerland

Berne’s number one sight, the medieval Clock Tower (Zytglogge) and West City Gate, with tram, west Switzerland.

Visit Bern

The old city of Bern, (known as Berne in French-speaking Switzerland) is the country’s diminuitive capital, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and a very easy walking tour since the old section comprises no more than a few streets.

The impressive clock pictured above, the Zytglogge, was built between 1218-1256 though the current mechanism – which, being Swiss, still works – was installed in the 16th century and not only tells the time, day, month, phase of the moon and sign of the zodiac but also puts on a modest clockwork puppet show every hour (though don’t bother to hang around for it, it’s not that great).

Free guided tours to see the Zytglogge’s clockwork action from inside the tower can be booked at the tourist office.

Berne’s River Aare with a kid floating towards the old stone Untertor bridge (1490), seen from Nydegg bridge. A popular summer swim for proficient locals is to plunge in from the ‘English Garden’ and be powered along to the Lorraine Swimming Pool.

Berne Old Town

Berne main street, Kramgasse cafe, Switzerland

The lower part of Bern’s main street, Kramgasse, in August. Old, yes, but medieval? Hmm, wide streets and five storey buildings. . . Or is the medieval bit just the Clock and the Cathedral?

Bern is the arguably the easiest capital in Europe to travel around as a tourist – and that includes Monte Carlo.

Walking is the way to tour these UNESCO Heritage streets, even a bicycle would be overkill. In fact, if you were in a hurry you could see Bern’s key attractions in a couple of hours as they are well represented by just three or four streets.

Bern’s old town is a lively, pretty and interesting place to walk around. It’s full of history, strange statues (little bears, knights and ogres), medieval buildings and cobbled streets and covered arcades so you can still wander and shop or nip into quirky bars and cafés if the weather is bad. The old town is easy to get around if you get tired, as buses and trams go pass through the area.
One way to explore beautiful old Berne is by bicycle. Hotels often rent cycles and if not there are shops that do so.

The main old town street starts as Spitalgasse, becomes Marktgasse and Kramgasse before leading into something unpronounceable and onto the Nydeggbrucke (bridge) and the Bear Garden, Barengraben.

Another couple of attractive streets run parallel to Spitalgasse/Marktgasse and two or three more cross those three. And that’s about it, though it would be a shame to rush the experience as the relaxed ambience is part of the joy of Berne and a sit down near one of the many quirky sights is worthwhile, if you can afford the cost.

Bundesplatz, or Parliament Square. The Bundeshaus/Parliament building is on the right.

Bundesplatz square is the core of Berne and frequently stages events here. Water fountains in summer, ice skating in winter, Christmas markets, lights shows at random times.

Berne, Bern Arcades, Switzerland

A small section of Bern’s 6 kms (4 miles) of shopping arcade network, cool in summer, warm in winter.

Berne, Bern bear mascot, statue, Switzerland

Bern’s mascot, the bear, seen everywhere but most curiously here preparing to fire a musket.

Samson killing a lion fountain, Kramgasse, Bern, Berne, Switzerland

A 16th century drinking fountain topped by Samson killing a lion (a biblical story); Kramgasse, a street that was also home for a while to Albert Einstein at No. 49, Einsteinhaus. Berne provides the thirsty passer-by with over 100 drinking fountains, eleven of which are crowned by allegorical statues from the 16th century, usually colourful and occasionally grotesque.

Best month in Berne

The best month to visit Bern is September when the daily average temperature is 13C (56F) with 8/30 rainy days. However, the three summer months June-August are acceptably dry with a 1/3 chance of rain while high temperatures range from 21C-23C, so strolling the shady streets and arcades is fine then. October is also usually dry but considerably cooler with a mean of 9C (47F).

All in all Berne is one of the drier, smaller cities in Switzerland with moderate temperatures so perhaps tourists should base their travel plans on other trickier Swiss destinations since Bern can be fitted into most itineraries, such as holidays in Lucerne or Vevey, trips to Zurich or jazz in Montreux.

By road Bern is around 1-2 hours to these cities on fine tho’ busy motorways/autoroutes, but watch out for speed cameras, your SatNav may not warn you about them! (most of Europe yes, Switzerland, no! )

Other Bern Attractions

Gurten (free)

The Gurten is the small mountain/tall hill just to the south of Berne. Take a short ride up the funicular (cable/cog train) for a few Swiss francs or use your Berne bus/tram pass if you have one; many hotels give tourists the pass when they check in. If you prefer to walk up/down it’ll take about half an hour.
Visitors can walk around the top on a trail with stunning views over Berne’s old town and over to the Alps mountains. There’s a restaurant and bar at the top and a kids play park with small train and crazy golf. Gurten is a fine place for walks, cycling and picnics and spending a few hours or even a whole day up there is possible.
On the walk down there’s a lovely hamlet called Gurtendorf with pretty farms and chalets.

Adventure rooms

A riddle-solving adventure set in closed rooms where you have to solve puzzles and clues to progress from one room to another against the clock. It’s quite a challenge and good activity if you’re bored or the weather is tiresome, though don’t go there if you don’t like puzzles or are claustrophobic. The setting is a little primitive at the moment and in the development phase.

Rose Garden (Rosengarten)

It’s a steep hike up to the Rose Garden but the different rose plant varieties are beautiful and the views over the Old City are stunning and the café/restaurant is welcoming.

Bern, Berne, ogre eating children statue, Switzerland

Probably Bern’s most gruesome fountain-statue is in Kornhausplatz, an ogre eating children from his belt-pantry, the Kindlifresserbrunnen. The origin of the concept is lost in time but it is most likely to be a traditional monster used by Swiss parents to scare disobedient children into cleaning their rooms.

Bern, Berne, bear and soldier statue, Switzerland

And there’s another of those soldier-bears! But what is it doing? Licking the helmet clean? Inspecting it for damage? Looking for honeybees?

Free Walking Tours of Bern

These tours are pleasant and very informative with many stories about Berne, it’s history and odd anecdotes. Guides vary of course but since it’s free you can hardly grumble if you get one that’s not feeling very perky that day. Tourists who have experienced free walking tours in other European cities say that Berne’s are one of the best. Find the tours online or from the tourist office.

Bern Museum

For more strange historic sculptures try the excellent Berne Historic Museum with its fine displays of worldwide artefacts (Asia and Egypt) as well as local treasures focusing on the hundreds of years of mediaeval triumphs and tragedies involving Bern. The building also contains the Einstein Museum.

The Swiss-oriented exhibits in this museum help to explain the curious Swiss history, in an interesting context though some think that is rather average and not interesting to children, though a good retreat on a rainy day!

The exhibits range from the neolithic era to the Celtic, Roman, Alemanic periods, and the founding of Bern in the 12th century, the medieval era to the renaissance, age of enlightenment all the way to the near present. It’s closed Mondays.