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Bern is the pocket sized capital of Switzerland, situated on verdant hills right by the glacial blue-green waters of the River Aare. The locals clearly take pride in their well kept homes and leafy gardens barely concealing inviting little outdoor terraces with al fresco settings. The result is a stunningly beautiful multi-level town that would delight anyone who decides to take a relaxed stroll through the cobblestoned streets flanked by neat rows of sand coloured limestone buildings topped by darling little house-shaped chimneys. Warning – this is a photo heavy post. I just couldn’t help myself!
While I was in Basel, I decided to take the train for a day trip in Bern. Bern is a small town of only about 130 000, and incredibly easy to navigate. All of the main sights are basically situated within a square with the main railway station to the west and a bend in the river making up the other 3 sides. So all I did once I arrived at the railway station was to keep heading east, and I found that 1 day was enough for me to see all the major sights. However, if you’d like to visit some of the museums, you might like to allow yourself at least 2 days here.
Established in the 12th century, Bern was named after a bear found in the forest. Today, the city still maintains a bear enclosure, where the city’s namesakes can roam (almost) freely in one of the prime locations in town, right by the river.
Here are the 10 things I did while I was in Bern:
1. Federal Palace/Parliament/Bundeshaus
The Federal Palace was built between 1894 and 1902, and houses the national parliament of Switzerland. When Parliament is not in session, the building is open for free tours to the public. It’s easy to sign up at the front desk, though you should aim to turn up early as they seem to book out quickly. I arrived at Bern railway station mid morning and headed straight to the Federal Palace, and by then, all the English tours were already fully booked. I decided to sign up for the German language tour at 3pm as I was only there for 1 day, so figured I could at least admire the stained glass and statues even if I couldn’t understand the tour, and the lady at the welcome desk was very encouraging of this, providing an information pamphlet that I could read as the tour progressed. I’m ashamed to admit that I ended up foregoing the tour as I lost track of time whilst wandering through town – shhh… Nevertheless, I did enjoy walking around the building, which stands imposingly over the terraced houses and riverbank.
Outside the Federal Palace, there is a funicular that can take you to the lower level of town. I advise you skip this, at least initially. Visit the upper level first, then if you still have energy, the walk down the stairs by the cathedral to the lower level is simply delightful.
2. Stroll through the World Heritage listed Old Town
The medieval old town is pretty as a picture, and all the more charming for the trams that run through regularly and the many fountains topped by statues depicting Biblical and other characters. Don’t miss the ogre eating children and the 13th century Clock Tower/Zytglogge, which puts on a show 3 minutes before each hour. If you have more time than me, you might like to climb 130 steps to the Zytglogge’s observation platform, go through a cellar door for some underground shopping (like Alice in Wonderland!), or take a self-guided iPod tour of town. The iPods can be rented for CHF18 for 6 hours from the Bern Tourist Office at the main railway station.
3. Einstein House
Einstein was probably the most famous resident of Bern, and his former home (from 1903-1905) at #49 Kramgasse is now open to the public, housing a small museum detailing his life. The exhibit is very informative, and at CHF6, the admission is affordable enough, but I’d recommend this only for the most ardent fans of Einstein’s works. I whipped through pretty quickly, keen to get back outdoors and explore some more.
4. Bern Cathedral/Munster
With a tower height of 100.6m, the Gothic style Bern Munster, which took over 400 years to build, is the tallest cathedral in Switzerland, and therefore, I’m sure the views would be pretty good from up there. Again, due to lack of time, I decided to forego the tower climb, instead choosing to spend my time enjoying the views of town and the river from the cathedral grounds. There is a small playground and cafe overlooking the river, as well as an elevator next to the cafe at the southeast corner of the square, but if you want to explore the lower level of town, I would recommend walking down the stairs at the northeast corner instead (more on this later). The cathedral and stairs are free, but there’s a small charge for the tower and elevator.
5. Visit the bears at the Bear Park/Barengraben
By this time, I was getting pretty hungry, so decided to head towards the Bear Park. No, you can’t eat them. It will all become clear shortly.
Legend has it, that the founder of Bern, Duke Berthold V of Zahringen, named the town after a bear he encountered while hunting in the nearby forest. The bear appeared on Bern’s coat of arms in 1220, and soon became synonymous with the city. The first bear park, opened in 1857, was just a small pit by the river. Today, Byork, Finn and their 2 bear cubs, born in 2009, Ursina and Berna, live in relative luxury in 6000 square meters of prime land. They are fed and cared for, with the only annoyance being the scores of tourists gawking and flashing their cameras at them. The Bear Park is open daily from 8am-5.30pm, and is free.
6. Lunch at the Altes Tramdepot
The old tram depot is right by the Bear Park and now houses a tourist centre, public restrooms and a brewery serving the best Hefeweizen in town. The food is traditional fare and actually pretty good, but even better are the views from the al fresco area.
7. Rose Garden
Suitably fuelled, you can now head up the steep Alter Aargauerstalden to the Rosengarten, home to 220 varieties of roses and a fine restaurant. Your main aim here, though, is for sweeping views of the town.
8. Bern Show
Now head back to the old tram depot and rest your feet by watching this show of Bern’s history. Costing only CHF3, I couldn’t believe my friend and I were the only ones watching the show at the time that we went! This 3D multimedia extravaganza is only about 10 minutes long, but is both informative and fun with a few surprises along the way, but I won’t spoilt it for you. Trust me, it’s money well spent! There are daily shows every 20 minutes between 9am-6pm in summer.
9. Explore the lower level
Now you can head back to the cathedral and take the stairs down to the lower level. And here’s why – you pass these amazing gardens as you walk. If you were to take the elevator or funicular, you’d miss them!
10. Einstein Museum and Historical Museum of Bern
I knew it was too late by then for me to visit these museums, but it was such a beautiful day I decided to walk by the river, cross the Dalmazibrucke, have a look at the outside of the museum, then walk back across the Kirchenfeldbrucke back across the river again towards the casino. Just because. The museum can be found at Helvetiaplatz, and is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10am-5pm. Admission is CHF18.
From the casino, it was a simple left turn westwards from whence I came, the railway station. I have fond memories of my day in Bern and would highly recommend a visit there if you find yourself in Switzerland!
Have you been to Bern? What were your favourite things to see and do there?
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