After my trip to Bern, I couldn’t help but wonder – is it Europe’s most underrated capital city? Before my trip, I’d never thought of visiting the Swiss capital and knew nothing about it apart from the fact it’s the capital. Bern doesn’t have the high global profile of other Swiss cities such as Geneva and Zurich, so I mistakenly believed it didn’t have much to offer a wandering traveller. How wrong I was!
Bern is a quirky, delightful city and there’s so much to see and do. My trip to Bern was a last minute decision as having thoroughly explored Basel on Saturday, I decided to head out of the city on Sunday. I looked at various options – Liechtenstein (on my travel bucket list, but hours away from Basel and involving multiple trains and buses); Lausanne (two hours away). In the end, I plumped for Bern as it’s only an hour by train.
Situated around a bend in the picturesque River Aare, Switzerland’s capital, which is home to some 130,000 people, is incredibly pretty with its Old Town sitting within the bend, high up on a hill overlooking the river. The city was founded by Duke Berthold V von Zahringen at the end of the 12th century and according to legend, it was named after a bear that was killed in a hunt.
I arrived in Bern just after 11.30am (as an aside, Swiss trains are marvellous – incredibly easy to use and punctual) and immediately headed to the tourist information office to pick up a map and form a plan of action. The city map handily had a couple of walking trails marked upon it that took you around all the main sights in the Old Town, so I picked a trail and headed off.
First up was the House of Parliament (above), which as its name suggests is home to the Swiss Parliament, and Parliament Square. As it was a Sunday, the Parliament was closed so I couldn’t go inside. So I chose instead to walk around it, admiring the statues above the Parliament entrance and the scenic views across the city and the Aare from the viewing platform on the other side.
I then followed the walking trail along to the Old Town, which was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, where covered walkways, home to a number of quirky and unusual shops and cafes, line either side of the main thoroughfares. Unfortunately most were closed, so all I could do was gaze longingly at the window displays and the interesting goods within.
One thing that really caught my eye as I walked the streets was the unusual figurines topping the Renaissance-era fountains and adorning some of the buildings. They were all different and very distinctive, and fascinating to look at. Most impressive of all was the stunning clock tower, the zytglogge (above, top left). The ornate 16th century astronomical clock features a series of little moving figures and is incredibly beautiful.
I followed the walking trail around to Bern Munster, another architectural gem in the Old Town that overlooks the river. The cathedral, which was built in 1421, is the biggest church in Switzerland. Its spire, which stands at 100m tall, was only completed in 1893, 300 years after the last master mason in Bern died leaving the spire unfinished at 60m.
Inside, the late Gothic cathedral has a high-vaulted grey stone ceiling with dark wood seats in the centre and oak panelled stalls that line the sides. After touring the cathedral, I walked over to the small garden behind it, which has beautiful views across the Aare – with its crystal clear blue water and white sandy beaches, it looked very inviting!
By now I was famished so I stopped off for lunch at the Einstein Cafe, a hip little café in Albert Einstein’s old house. The renowned physicist once lived in the city and judging by all the locals sipping coffee, it’s a popular coffee hot spot. The coffee must be really good as I was the only person not drinking it. I plumped instead for tea and a platter of bread and cheese (above), which I devoured in no time.
Lunch over, my next stop was the Bern Museum of History, which is also home to a museum dedicated to Albert Einstein. The museum charts the history of the city from prehistory to the present day, and includes exhibitions on some of the city’s most prominent families and individuals through the ages. I found it fascinating and was completely absorbed by the displays. It’s laid out beautifully and the curation is spot on.
Despite allocating two hours to look around the museum, it took me an hour and a half to get around one and a half floors (there are four floors in total). I found myself having to rush latterly to try to squeeze in as much as possible – even so, I didn’t make it to the third floor.
The second floor is home to the Einstein Museum, and like the rest of the museum, is fantastic. The exhibition, which takes visitors on a journey through Einstein’s life, is massive and full of interesting information and artefacts.
After the museum, I only had a short time left before my train back to Basel, so I finished the walking trail at breakneck speed, stopping off along the way at the Nydeggbrücke bridge, for further stunning views across the Aare, and the town hall.
Bern is a fantastic and underrated city, charming and full of character. I could easily spend a number of days there as there was so much to see and do. The Aare is beautiful and I’d really like to spend a few hours walking along the river and soaking up the views, it’s so scenic; while the city has some really interesting and unusual shops just waiting to be discovered.
I’d love to go back for a full weekend break to really explore all the things the city has to offer. Another place to add to the list…