The Old Town of Bern was declared a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1983 because of the preserved medieval city centre. It’s also home to the first Lindt chocolate factory, legends of bears (and real bears) and Einstein’s most famous published work. When you visit Bern, you can also tune up a gear with some more adventurous action; including following the locals who have made urban swimming an actual UNESCO listed Swiss tradition.
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Inside Einstein’s house – the preservation of one of the city’s most famous residents
A fun fact is learning that Albert Einstein lived in Bern when he discovered and published his Theory of Relativity. I visited his apartment in the very heart of the old town since this perfectly suits my inner-geek sensibilities and I love looking around the houses of those deemed a genius. German-born, Einstein came to Switzerland when he was just 16 years old and continued to study here. He lived in Bern between 1902 and 1909, publishing 32 scientific papers, one of them being the Theory of Relativity and the other being the one for which he was awarded a Noble Peace Prize.
Naturally, any visitor will begin exploring right in the heart of Bern’s historic old city. Its island-like layout is woven together by the bending Aare River and is best traversed by foot (although trams do connect one end of the town to the other and the outer neighbourhoods).

Travelling in Switzerland’s Capital City of Bern

Visit the castle in Burgdorf on a day trip from Bern

View of the old city of Bern and the red rooftops, Switzerland's Capital, from the bridge
Compact as it may be, there are plenty of things to see in Bern, with the old centre being where the timeworn treasures are. The Zytglogge (Clock Tower) is the darling of the city – a historical highlight and one of the most favoured ‘meeting spots’. I passed this icon dozens of times, emerging from side streets and arcades, or when circling the city. Tours take place inside the clock where you can view its history in a small museum layout and view its mechanical workings. Bern’s clock is otherworldly in its old, creaking, hidden loft-like dwelling, and has large windows that open out onto the city for a closer, and more exclusive perspective.

The most central water point is the Aare River, a U-shaped playground for locals who float down its fast currents that hug the historical centre. The river in Bern is so unique that this treasured activity of ‘urban swimming’ is officially on the UNESCO list of Swiss traditions. So while you can slowly wander the UNESCO Heritage Old City, you are not fully inducted into Bernese life until you have taken a float down the fast-flowing aqua beauty of the River Aare that curves through it. No city guide to Bern is complete without a mention of this, and no trip here is whole without trying it.

Elevated view of red-roofed Bern Old town and the aqua Aare River flowing through it in Switzerland
The medieval streets and narrow side alleys weave you typical old town highlights of Bern, including a smattering of churches, a Town Hall and an opulent mint and gold-topped parliament building. Ghost walks take place in the old medieval alleyways at night for an alternative look at the city’s history.

Things to Do in Bern, Switzerland – The Historical Archive

Bern’s Altes Tramdepot craft beer brewery and restaurant

A small group of tourists outside the Zytglogge Clock Tower in Bern, Switzerland
People gather at the public viewing enclosure of the Bear Park Bear Pit in Bern
View of Old Bern city and the red rooftops from inside the Zytglogge Clock Tower
The red rooftops of the old city of Bern

Except that doesn’t take away the things to do in Bern that make it stand out as a central Switzerland attraction. You can visit the Swiss capital on a culture trip, yet pack in some high adventure to go with it. 

The neat rows of beige coloured arcades in Bern, Switzerland with Swiss and Bear emblem flags flying
The Aare River in Bern runs the length of the city and is unmissable in its colour
Green wooden doors to an underground arcade store in Bern, Switzerland
Inside Burgdorf Castle

Quaint coffee coloured houses with red rooftops mark out the old city of Bern style

The art deco, columned grey building of Bern Town Hall, Switzerland
Bern has one of the longest covered shopping promenades in Europe – this is it
View of turquoise-roofed Swiss Parliament building in Bern, seen from narrow street
Gelateria di Berna – for the best gelato in Bern
The red-roofed houses and manicured gardens of residential area of Bern, Switzerland
Enjoying the Gurten Peak toboggan at full speed
A woman wearing purple taking a selfie at the top of a viewing tower in Bern, Switzerland
The interactive Einstein Museum is also a noted point of interest and frequented highlight of Bern, but if you only have time for a house visit, also check out the Einstein Café underneath. A coffee shop, cigar lounge and modern hangout, you can also order an Einstein beer.
Street art in old Bern city, Switzerland, a modern image next to timeless red-roofed houses
The beginnings of Bern’s street art scene?
A religious figure in a blue robe on top of a columned water fountain on a main street in Bern Switzerland
When you visit Bern, you’ll immediately notice why it is known as the ‘City of Bears’. Bear symbols can be found all around the city on murals, flags, fountain decorations and even on the Zytglogge. It comes from the legend that a bear was the first animal to be killed by the founder of the city. From that came the tradition of always having actual bears in the city.
A narrow alleyway filled with cultural event posters in Switzerland's capital city of Bern
How to Travel to Bern
The weekend farmer's market in Bern on a street filed with red and yellow flags
Bern has an airport, but should you be flying into Zurich (the more popular route), the direct train connection from Zurich airport to Bern is around 90 minutes.
A giant green dog and giant walking legs - artistic street sculptures in Bern, Switzerland
Drinking from a water fountain in Bern
View of Federal Palace of Switzerland Parliament building in Bern, seen from Aare Riverside park
Live like a local and enjoy the fast-flowing Aare River swim
Caramel and coffee coloured houses with traditional red roofs in Bern - the capital of Switzerland
Swimming in the River Aare in Bern is listed as a UNESCO tradition
Toffee coloured houses in a quiet residential neighbourhood in old Bern, Switzerland
View of Old Bern from inside the Clock Tower

What to Do in Bern – Climb Higher

The central water fountain in Bern just outside of the Clock Tower

Elevated view over the old city of Bern from the Rose Garden - one of the best things to do in Bern
Albert Einstein’s house in Bern, which is now a Museum

Ideal for Bern travel in and around the city, the Bern Ticket – complimentary when you stay at least one night in one of the hotels or tourism accommodations. It also grants you free access to all public transportation the central city zones, the Marzilibähnnli and Gurtenbahn funicular railways, and transfers to and from Bern Airport.

Exterior of the Restaurant Rosegarten in the elevated Rose Garden in Bern city
Lunch with a sweeping view at Emmentaler Showdairy in Emmental Valley, Switzerland
Altes Tramdepot craft beer brewery and restaurant in Bern, Switzerland
If you are a museum dweller, you can purchase a separate Museum Card, priced at 28 Francs for 24 hours and 48 Francs for 48 hours, giving you free access to all museums and collections in the city. 
The famous red rooftops of the old city of Bern, Switzerland marked by the high church spire
Not only do you get to bring out the child in you (I went on this three times and would have continued if it had not been for closing time) but on a clear day, you’ll get to see an incredible panoramic view of Bern in all its glory.

See the Bern Bears – The Famous City Symbol

At the top of a viewing tower in Bern
One of the best viewpoints of Bern

View to the tiered 6000 square metres Bear Park in Bern next to the riverbank
Bern has been Switzerland’s capital city since 1848. But what if everything you pictured as a federal capital turned out to be the complete opposite?
People gather at the public viewing enclosure of the Bear Park Bear Pit in Bern, Switzerland
This activity is a local favourite, with people using the Bern river float as a means to get home, or as a leisure activity that never gets too old, every sunny weekend.

Visit Albert Einstein’s City

The 6000 square metre Bear Park in Bern

The exterior of the house where Albert Einstein lived in Bern, Switzerland
One of the first old wooden dairy houses in the Emmental Valley
The museum inside Albert Einstein's house in Bern, Switzerland
Old town Bern interlaced with modern artworks

The aqua Aare River flowing through the Capital of Switzerland

Understand Why Bern is the City of Water

A view of the bright, turquoise Aare river in old Bern, Switzerland, seen from a elevated view overlooking the red-roofed Medieval buildings that line it

A black dragon-shaped fountain in Bern outside of the clocktower, one of many marking Switzerland's capital as the city of water
Many assume modern Zürich to be the Capital of Switzerland, so the slower-paced and older Capital of Bern is quite the surprise. Travel to Bern certainly changes perceptions on what a capital city should be, or what it is typically deemed to be. Absent are high-rises and a financial centre; bustling crowds and dense populations that fill miles of distinct districts that hug an old central, historical pocket.
A woman drinking from a water fountain in Bern, Switzerland
The restaurant nestled up here – Gurtners – is excellent, especially as the time approaches sundown, with its boutique style and stunning peak setting. Newly renovated and re-opened in March 2017, you can indulge in its self-proclaimed ‘good food made with love’ while chilling at altitude.

Adventure Activities in Bern

Swim in the Aare River

Residental Bern for quite walks near the riverfront
Street views in Bern to the Swiss Parliament building

View of the bright aqua Aare river that flows through the city of Bern, Switzerland

Two women relaxing next to the Aare river in Bern, Switzerland
The old city of Bern retains its heritage features and packs Swiss traditions and a long history into a tiny, compact space.
Three women swimming in the River Aare in Bern, which is listed as a UNESCO tradition
There’s nothing like the emerald waters of the River Aare in Bern

Biking in The Emmental Valley, best seen with a local

Three women swimming in the Aare River in Bern, Switzerland, as locals do
I was invited by Bern Tourism and Switzerland Tourism to uncover the city of Bern in my style – seeking out cultural and historical highlights while highlighting the accessible adventure activities in and around the city (in conjunction with Emmental Tourism). All opinions in this Bern travel blog remain my own, in changing the perceptions of an underrated European capital. 
Three women enjoying the UNESCO listed Swiss tradition of swimming in the River Aare in Bern
Bern is a scenic walking city
A woman swimming in the River Aare in Bern
The weekend farmer’s market in Bern within its old town streets

The Capital is Switzerland, characterised by red-roofed townhouses and manicured gardens that sit beside the Aare River

Customers queue outside the famous Gelateria di Berna is the best ice cream store in Bern, Switzerland
To fit in with the locals, be sure to take your dry bag featuring Bärnhard, the Bear that is available at the local tourism office. A stop at the infamous Gelateria di Berna before or after all the fun is also a right of passage – it’s the best-loved gelato in town.

Go to Gurten Peak

Day trips from Bern to areas like the Emmental Valley are easily accessible due to the comprehensive train network system. Day Saver Tickets mean you can flexible with timings going to and from Bern train station to nearby stops.

Glass-fronted entrance to Gurten Peak cable car in Bern, Switzerland
Castle wall views across Burgdorf

The dominating Federal Palace of Switzerland Parliament building

A man rides the mountain toboggan overlooking Bern city, as it starts a decent 500m down an overall drop of 55m on one side of Gurten peak.
Even if you only have a weekend city break planned or a few short days in Bern, the regional train network means further exploration is close at hand. Rolling green valleys and emerald meadows mark the diversity of the wider Bern region, and like any city, there’s always more than the history within. At Bern train station, look for a train heading to Burgdorf (less than 20 minutes away). On arrival you can hire an e-bike and spend the day taking on some scenic miles through the Emmental Valley, famed for its cheese with the holes.

Walk along the riverbank for 15 minutes or more to ensure you’ll spend a reasonable amount of time in the water, find a spot to jump in and away you go. It’s a cold start and a heart-racing journey, especially getting out (where you have to get over to one side to grab hold of one on the red bars). Yet, floating down currents of clear water in a myriad of sparkling blues was a highlight of my time in the city, adding adrenalin to my historical exploration.

A woman rides the 500m long mountain toboggan on Gurten Peak, Bern, Switzerland
One of the best-elevated viewpoints over the old city is from the Rose Garden (the entrance pathway is metres away from the bear pit). A green oasis up high, filled with over 200 types of roses, this area is an idyllic frame over the orange hues of historical brickwork and the dominating river in Bern that feeds it. You can also climb the 222 steps of Bern Münster for a 360 panoramic viewing ledge.

Cycling in the famed Emmental Valley in Switzerland

City views from pink and blue pastel building of the Gurtners restaurant on Gurten Peak in Bern
The Zytglogge Clock Tower in Bern – a centrepiece of the city
Worldclass food at Gurtners restaurant on Gurten Peak, Bern, Switzerland
The rolling green patchwork quilt of the Emmental Valley in Bern

Bern Day Trips – Exploration Outside of the City

We naturally stopped at the Emmentaler Showdairy for lunch. Glass windows allow you to peer into the working production rooms from two levels. At the same time, you dine on all manner of Emmental cheese-laden dishes to views of the surrounding meadows. On-site are the four cheese dairies from past centuries, where you can learn about how cheese dairy-farming and production in Switzerland has changed over the years by visiting the first dairies from 1741 and 1900, the village dairy from 1954 and now the modern one.

The white castle in Burgdorf on a day trip from Bern
The Aare river is a beloved local hangout
Inside the Castle in Burgdorf on a day trip from Bern
Passing the Grand Tour of Switzerland route in the Emmental Valley
Village views from the white walls of Burgdorf castle on a day trip from Bern
Switzerland’s capital is known as the city of water, with fountains on every avenue and street corner (there are dozens of them!). The river used to run through the town, and if you look hard enough, you will still see a small flow that runs through a small channel under the main streets, Kramgasse and Gerechtigkeitgasse.

A Toboggan is always a good idea, especially the one up above Bern. Open now for nearly two years, this mountain toboggan whirls for 500m down an overall drop of 55m on one side of Gurten peak.

Cycling in The Emmental Valley in Switzerland, close to the city of Bern
Hotels in Bern are plenty, despite its compact size. I stayed in Hotel Allegro, a 4* property just across the river from the Old Town and less than five minutes walk to the clock tower (although it’s also connected by the tram).
Biking in The Emmental Valley in Switzerland, close to the city of Bern
The Restaurant Rosegarten is an excellent excuse to stop and enjoy this postcard view, as is the Altes Tramdepot craft beer brewery and restaurant at the bottom of the hill which looks out to the old town.
Views of the rolling green hills of the Emmental Valley in Switzerland
The views from Switzerland’s Cheese Route
A woman stands at a Grand Tour of Switzerland sign in the Visiting the Emmental Valley in Bern
One of the many water fountains in Bern, seen on almost every corner

The streets from the clock tower house a neat row of arcades that stretch over 6km, giving Bern the title as having one of the longest covered shopping promenades in all of Europe (there’s a great guide to the stores here). The four miles of hidden stores that form arching waves within the baroque buildings are not just on the surface though. More intriguing for me, were the shops underground, whose small wooden slat doors are open on the street for those who want to venture down into cave-like neat dwellings, housing all manner of boutiques, bars and cafes.

A woman sits on a stone wall across views of the Emmental Valley in Switzerland on the Cheese Route
The Emmental Valley is situated in the middle of Bern and Luzern, but Burgdorf (which itself was once a part of Bern) is a starting point of the cycling trails. Not only was this a gentle cycle on panoramic views and curving paths ways through valleys, but a chance to sample part of the Herzroute that runs across the country.

The Things to Do in Bern – See Switzerland’s Capital of Surprises

A group of people enjoyung Lunch at Emmentaler Showdairy in Emmental Valley, Switzerland
The Gurten Bahn is not far from the city centre and gets you up to the peak
The first old dairy house in the Emmental Valley, Switzerland
The start of the 500m long mountain toboggan overlooking Bern city

Travel to Bern Guide – Extra Things to Know

The Art Nouveau Bern Town Hall

A panoramic view of the red-rooftops of the old city of Bern, the capital of Switzerland
You can also catch the extensive Bern city views from Gurtners restaurant on the top of Gurten Peak

How to Get to Bern, Switzerland

For more information on Bern city including tours and excursions, visit the comprehensive tourism website.

Travelling in Bern with the Bern Ticket / Bern City Card

Brimming with history, culture and adventure, small enough to uncover in-depth in a short amount of time, and nestled right in the middle of Switzerland from which to travel the country in every direction, there’s no excuse not to visit Bern. This capital breaks the European capital persona mould.
If the Aare river adventure isn’t enough, then head to Gurten Peak – a short tram ride outside of the centre of the city.

Where to Stay in Bern

Lunch with a view at The Restaurant Rosegarten in Bern

Book a Hotel in Bern

One sample of the incredible menu at Gurtners restaurant


Getting Around Bern

This path also crisscrossed with part of the newly opened ‘Cheese Route’ – a circuit of 21 historical and culinary attraction points. Here, I got to stop in some pretty spots in the Emmental Valley and take in some views of the hills scattered with traditional farmhouses and with distant views of the mighty Alps. Emmental also has over 1100km of marked walking trails if you wish to ‘cheese farmhouse hop’ your way around.
There’s a big Bear Park on the riverbank that borders the historic old town – the first was documented in 1441. While this is not something I believe in, it exists and will always be a talking point of the city, although I’m glad they have a home now that is 6000 square metres and not the original small pit adjacent to it.

Planning a Trip to Bern? Pin It!

One of the best things to do in Bern is to seek out the underground arcade stores and bars
But where is Bern? Located 95 kilometres southwest of Zurich, it might not immediately be on a travellers’ radar. However, Bern’s placement in the very centre of the country means it holds right to its capital reign in being the heart of the country and also in being a jumping board from which to travel wider Switzerland. 
It’s completely normal to float down a long stretch of the River Aare

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