Bern: Switzerland’s “Unofficial” Capital City

old town, bern
Old Town with Clock Tower

Bern, Switzerland’s “unofficial” capital is perhaps the most underrated city in Europe. It’s a perfect destination for the history lover, the foodie, outdoor enthusiast, leisurely and relaxed, and the casual shopper.

When traveling to Europe, the majority of Americans don’t make it to Bern. Geneva, Zurich, Lucerne, Interlaken and the like are what people are most familiar with. Mountains, skiing, and cheese is the standard response when describing Switzerland. But, the country has so much more to offer the curious traveler.

There is no place in Switzerland better suited to discover the beauty and diversity of the country than Bern. The city itself is gorgeous set in a beautiful natural landscape, it’s well run, clean, full of history, has an incredible food scene, great shopping, and easily walkable. You’ll always have plenty to keep you busy no matter your personal interests.

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Old Town

The Old Town’s three principal streets run east from Bern’s Clock Tower. The Clock Tower (or Zytglogge), dating from 1220, is one of Bern’s iconic symbols and undoubtedly one of the most visited tourist attractions in the city. Found above the Old Town’s western gate tower, this 75-foot structure was originally built as part of a defensive wall and today displays a large astronomical clock made between 1527-1530. Visitors can climb the 130 worn steps to the observation platform, a former women’s prison, which offers great views over the old town rooftops and the Alps off in the distance.

The Bern Munster Cathedral (pictured above) is one of the most impressive buildings in the city and Switzerland’s largest ecclesiastical building. The three-naved protestant cathedral is of Gothic construction and building began in 1421, under the supervision of Strasbourg master stonemason Matthäus Ensinger. 

Tip: Take the 344 steps above the entrance to reach the 300 foot tall cathedral tower for another gorgeous lookout point over the city.

Related: 3 Reasons Why You Have to Visit Switzerland

Einstein and History Museum

There are several major museums in Bern worth a visit, but perhaps the greatest and one you should not miss is the combined Bern Historical and Einstein Museum.

Bern’s most famous resident joins forces with the rich history of the nation to create a marvel every visitor will enjoy. The History Museum’s permanent collection displays 500,000 objects dating from the Stone Age to modern times, and the Einstein Museum beautifully captures the life and times of the great theorist as he spent some of his life in Bern developing his famous theories.

Tip: I highly recommended getting the combined ticket to allow you access to both museums. It’s well worth it and saves you money in the end.

Get a Personal Travel Guide on Your Phone

If you’re looking for everything you need to know while in Bern check out Guidester’s personal travel guide; made just for you and your trip.

The Great Outdoors

Bern’s placement in the mountainous Oberland is one of the city’s greatest traits. Surrounded by rivers and mountains this is an ideal setting for the outdoor enthusiast.

The iconic turquoise river “Aare” runs right through the city center where you can actually swim during summer months. You’ll also find a maze of well-maintained bike paths zig-zagging all around the area.

The Rose Garden is the most beautiful park in the city and offers a unique view of the old town and the river below. The park is home to 220 different types of roses, 200 types of irises, and moor beds with 28 different types of rhododendrons. Not far away you will find another famous Bernese Park, The Bear Park, which yes is actually home to live bears that you can see roaming the hillside.

If you’re looking for something a little more adventurous you don’t have to go very far. The Gurten, Bern’s local mountain, is a situated just to the south and at over 2,800 feet, the summit has picturesque views of Bern, the Jura mountains, and the Alps. You may hike, bike, or take the local funicular to the top. 

Tip: Bern has a great bike rental program available ‘PubliBike’ that allows you to rent bikes on an hourly basis. Better still many of these for-hire bikes are pedal assist, which makes getting around the hilly terrain all the more simple and enjoyable. 

Bern’s Food Scene

Swiss cuisine combines influences from the German, French and Italian cuisine. However, tastes vary greatly from region to region with the language divisions constituting a rough boundary outline.

Many dishes, though, have crossed the local borders and become firm favorites throughout Switzerland. There are few better places in the country to sample the quality of Swiss food than in Bern. A Swiss favorite, raclette, is melted cheese served with “Gschwellti” (jacket potatoes), cocktail gherkins and onions as well as pickled fruit.

Lötschberg – A Guidester favorite, this local establishment serves up some of the best cheeses, Swiss food, and wines to be had in the city. Recommended to try the raclette, the most traditional Swiss cheese dish you can have!

Klösterli Weincafe – More than 200 years old, this was a place where travelers could get refreshments after hitching their horses and oxen in the stalls below. The Swiss and European wine list is also impressive and includes 20 kinds available by the glass. The food is also delicious.

Terrasse – A glass shoebox with wooden decking over the water, sun loungers overlooking a weir (small dam that is illuminated at night), and comfy sofa seating is perfect for lingering over Sunday brunch, a drink, or a midweek two-course lunch.

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