Bern’s cobbled streets and red-roofed houses on the banks of the Aare River give it a small-town charm.
Its UNESCO-listed old town has a medieval look and feel, but the stylish cafes and designer shops hidden in its pretty arcades offer a very modern distraction. With brilliant museums, a dynamic nightlife and 100 striking – sometimes macabre – fountains make it a must-explore city.
Thanks to its size, you can take in many of Bern’s highlights in just a half day. Explore the Medieval streets of the old town and see more than 100 fountains that tell stories of heroes and historical events.
From the train station, follow signs for the Altstadt, popping into the Heiliggeistkirche (Church of the Holy Spirit) to see its pretty Baroque ceiling. Head along Spitalgasse to spot your first fountain: the Pfeiferbrunnen (bagpiper).
Duck in and out of the 500-year-old arcades either side of the road to window shop in the many boutiques, then pause for a moment at the Käfigturm, a 17th-century prison tower. Head through the tower’s arch on to Marktgasse and follow it to the city’s centrepiece: Zytglogge. This 13th-century tower has a 15th-century astronomical clock – time your visit to fall on the hour, and you’ll see its mechanical display working.
A quick detour to Kornhausplatz is a must. Here you’ll find probably the most famous of Bern’s 100 fountains, the Kindlifresserbrunnen, a fountain depicting an ogre eating a child – the story behind it remains a mystery.
Less of a mystery is the fountain dedicated to Bern’s founder, Zähringerbrunnen on Kramgasse, which you’ll walk along on your way to Einsteinhaus at number 49, where the young physicist lived. If there’s time, stop in for a coffee in the atmospheric cafe.
Continue to Gerechtigkeitsgasse for another of the original Gieng fountains, this one dedicated to Lady Justice (Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen), then circle back on yourself via Junkerngasse to pass Bern’s towering cathedral. Heading back to the station, you’ll find Bundesplatz at the end of Amthausgasse where a modern geyser-like fountain spouts water in front of the Parliament Building.
Every Saturday, farmers from the surrounding regions come to Bern to sell smoked meats, pastries and cheese. Pick up breakfast on the Bundesplatz and embark on a tour of the Medieval old town’s historical buildings and fountains.
On Bundesplatz itself you could take a tour of the 19th-century Parliament Building if the government’s not in session, or just enjoy its spouting fountains. Head along Amthausgasse to visit the enormous cathedral, Berner Münster. Take one of the tours available inside, or just admire its dramatic vaulted ceiling for yourself. Spot the fountain outside the cathedral depicting Moses with the Ten Commandments.
Walk down the beautiful Junkerngasse with its hidden arcade shops and painted buildings, then turn back on yourself to stroll up Gerechtigkeitsgasse. Here you’ll find a fountain dedicated to justice, another depicting Samson killing a lion and one of a bear in full armour. Enjoy the mechanical, on-the-hour performance at the astronomical clock on Marktgasse and seek out the somewhat disturbing Kindlifresserbrunnen – featuring a statue of an ogre eating a small child – one of the original fountains.
Spend the afternoon in Einsteinhaus learning about the physicist’s most creative and monumental years. Finally, try some superb Swiss cuisine in Le Mazot or dine in style at Baroque-style Kornhauskeller.
On day two, tour some of Bern’s many museums. Cross the Kirchenfeld Bridge and head south to the excellent museums, including the Natural History Museum, Bern Historical Museum – housed in what looks like a small castle – and the Museum of Communication.
Further south, you can enjoy an hour or two at the zoo, Tierpark Dählhölzli, or get active on an adventure rope course in the treetops at Ropetech Rope Park.
In the afternoon, walk along the south bank of the Aare, via Bear Park where three brown bears laze and play on the banks before you head up to Bern Rose Garden. Get your camera ready for some snaps of hundreds of roses, iris and rhododendrons framed by with sweeping city and mountain views.
Familiarise yourself with Bern’s history in the old town, where the streets are lined with arcades under sandstone arches and a series of characterful fountains give an insight into the city’s past. Don’t miss the astronomical clock, Zytglogge, which chimes on the hour, and the cathedral – the tallest in the country.
Spend your afternoon getting to know the city’s favourite son: Albert Einstein. The Einsteinhaus on Kramgasse is where the physicist spent time developing his Theory of Relativity and is now filled with period furniture and documents relating to his scientific discoveries.
Head south of the River Aare today and explore Kirchenfeld, the city’s museum quarter. Pick any of the museums in this area to while away a morning. The Bern Historical Museum is in the castle-like building immediately visible after crossing Kirchenfeld Bridge. The Natural History Museum has some excellent dinosaur displays and taxidermy and the Museum of Communication has interactive exhibits on our relationship with communication technology.
Get active in Bern today at the Ropetech Rope Park. Fit your harness and take to the treetops on the two-mile (3km) course, which includes zip lines, bridges and even a suspended rowing boat.
In the afternoon, stay grounded at Tierpark Dählhölzli, the city’s zoo, south of the museums. On your way back into the old town, don’t miss Bear Park, where a family of three brown bears live beside the river.
Head out of the centre today to visit the Zentrum Paul Klee, where over 600 works by the German artist are on display. It’s not just the art that will impress here, though; the building itself is just as striking, with its steel and glass-wave design. This architectural masterpiece is by leading Italian architect Renzo Piano.
Spend your afternoon at Bern Rose Garden, on a hill above Bern’s old town. Once you’ve had your fill of flowers, watch the sun set over the city from the viewing terrace, and see the city come alive at night from the excellent on-site restaurant.
Try your hand at some watersports on the River Aare today. You could learn stand-up paddleboarding or go rafting through the city. Alternatively, if it’s warm enough, enjoy a swim in the river or at one of the many outdoor pools.
Switzerland is famous for its mountains and Bern has access to the fabulous Gurten peak. Use your free Bern Ticket to take the funicular or hike to the top and enjoy a picnic on its grassy meadows.
Take the hour drive out of Bern to visit the Ballenberg Swiss Open-Air Museum. Over 100 reconstructed centuries-old houses and farms are a fabulous place to learn about rural life and see original, traditional dwellings in a large, green park.