The River Aare in the centre of Bern

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.

The Federal Palace of Switzerland in Bern

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.

Bern Munster

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!

Lunch of cheese and bread at the Einstein Cafe in Bern

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.

A sign promoting the Einstein Museum in Bern

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.

View over the River Aare in Bern

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…



River Rhine in Basel

The Swiss city of Basel is a cultural behemoth, home to 50 museums, the resting place of the scholar and humanist Erasmus, plus some seriously delightful architecture. My dentist visited the city the week before me and came back singing the city’s praises, so based on all the great things I’d heard, I was really looking forward to my mini-trip to Switzerland.

I arrived in Basel Saturday morning and having pre-checked into my hotel by 9.45am, caught the tram into the city centre. The public transport in Basel is fantastic and I spent my time (unusually for me as I usually walk everywhere) hopping on and off the trams, which are frequent, easy-to-use and, best of all, free for anyone with a hotel booking in the city.

The Kunstmuseum in Basel

My first stop, after a quick hot chocolate, was the Kunstmuseum. After being told by a stern guard at the entrance to put my handbag in a locker (it seems only teeny handbags are allowed in Swiss museums and galleries), I set about touring the masterpieces within.

The art gallery is home to an extensive and varied collection of art, including paintings by masters such as Hans Holbein Jr, Broegel and Rembrandt; impressionists such as Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh; 20th century icons such as Pablo Picasso, Joan Miró and Salvador Dali; as well as sculptures by Auguste Rodin and Alberto Giacometti, among others.

Along with a temporary exhibition on Christianity and art, there was a lot to see in the gallery and some exceptional pieces on display, and I spent a good couple of hours working my way around everything. My favourite pieces were Max Ernst’s The Large Forest and Wassily Kandinsky’s Schweres Rot.

On leaving the museum, I headed to the Museum of Ethnology. The museum is filled with artefacts from all over the world, including Australia, Switzerland and Colombia, but an overwhelming number come from Papua New Guinea, as according to one of the guards, the country was frequented by Swiss collectors and anthropologists.

The museum is fascinating and they’ve done a brilliant job of innovatively displaying the objects to show them at their best and give visitors a 360° view where possible. The staff were friendly and helpful, and it’s one of the best curated museums I’ve seen for a long time. The museum also handily has guides available in different languages for each exhibition.

Basel Munster

Next on my whistle-stop tour was Basel Munster. The red sandstone cathedral was built between 1019 and 1500, and with its pretty tiled roof, is an impressive building. Inside the cathedral, I was struck by the high-vaulted ceilings and elegant grey stone pillars.

Up near the altar, there was an exhibition about Erasmus of Rotterdam’s bible, which looked really interesting. And after a quick look around, I walked down to the crypt at the back of the cathedral and on coming up the other side, followed the signs to Erasmus’s tomb.

On leaving the cathedral, I stopped by the cloisters where I marvelled at the cathedral’s architecture from different angles, and then left via a back door, which led out onto a small paved area with magnificent views over the Rhine.

The Käppelijoch on the Mittlere Brücke in Basel

By now it was early afternoon, so I headed back to my hotel to finish checking in and to grab a late lunch, before catching the tram back into town for some more sightseeing. I got off just before the Mittlere Brücke, a charming bridge built in 1905 on the site of one of the oldest bridges (originally built in 1226) across the Rhine.

Midway across the bridge, I was intrigued by a small, pretty tower with lots of padlocks attached to its metal door frame (above). The Käppelijoch is a reconstruction of the old bridge’s chapel where they used to sentence criminals to death, its colourful tiled roof and pretty features belying its grim history.

Having admired the bridge and the views over the Rhine, I walked up a narrow, winding street to the left of the bridge that’s home to some quirky and interesting shops.

After a quick spot of window shopping, I headed inside the Natural History Museum, further up the hill. The guard at the Museum of Ethnography suggested I pay a visit as until 10 years ago, the two museums were joined together.

The museum is home to exhibitions on various aspects of the natural world including wildlife, minerals, evolution and geology, and looked relatively interesting – but all the displays were in German so I spent much of my time guessing at what I was looking at.

There were some nice interactive displays though, including one where you could run your hands across different animal skins so you could feel the difference between that of a hedgehog, for example, and a fox.

The ornately decorated Rathaus (city hall) in Basel

Feeling all museumed-out after three museums, I finished my day with a walk around Basel’s old town, following one of the city’s walking trails. The architecture was beautiful, but the most impressive building by far was the Rathaus (city hall) – an unusual angular, dark red building featuring striking medieval-looking frescoes.

It’s a really unique building and I haven’t seen anything like it anywhere else. Unfortunately, as the building is closed on the weekend, I could only look around the courtyard. But that brief glimpse inside was worth the visit.

Dinner at the Brasserie Monsieur Verseau in Basel

After a long day’s sightseeing, I caught the tram back to my hotel where I had dinner in a restaurant/wine bar opposite. The Brasserie Monsieur Verseau was really relaxed and I settled down with my book and a welcome glass of wine to enjoy a superb wiener schnitzel served with a side-salad and some incredibly moreish pommes soufflées, followed by a crème brûlée. A wonderful end to a great day.