Switzerland’s capital city, Bern, flies under most people’s travel radar, but it shouldn’t -- it’s a beautiful, multilingual, friendly city. Bern attracts just a fraction of the visitors who head to Paris, Milan, or Munich, but the city has charm, a rich history, interesting architecture, gorgeous gardens, fantastic public spaces, and a very special river. It’s one of my favorite European cities, and I’m on a mission to encourage more people to visit!
In just a day or so, you can see the very best of what Bern has to offer, plus fit in some delicious meals and pick up a few unique souvenirs. Here’s how you should spend a day in Switzerland’s lovely capital.
Watch The Action In The Public Square
People-watching is a real art in Bern. Hanging out in the main public square during market hours, I watched everyone from seniors to students to smartly dressed professionals pick up cheese, chocolate, baked goods, produce, and more substantial grocery orders. I wasn’t alone in my observations. Locals also linger on benches or lean against fountains, keeping an eye on everything. Public games like boules (a game similar to bocce), checkers, and chess are popular among the elderly men of the community, and the players’ indignant reactions to their opponents are a master class in dramatic acting.
Visit The City’s Namesake Bears
The word bern means “bear” in German, and while Bern's mascot and namesake may seem like a stern and imposing animal, the bears who roam Bern's Bärengraben (“bear garden”) are perfectly relaxed. The residents of the large open-air animal enclosure near the river are well cared for and have plenty of room to explore. You can visit the Bärengraben at any time, though whether or not the bears are out and about will depend entirely on their mood.
The bears of the Bärengraben aren’t the only ones you’ll find in Bern. Bears are everywhere in the city! Keep an eye out for bear statues, posters, logos, and artwork. If you have a keen eye, you can even spot a bear in the Toblerone chocolate logo. It's a local company and cleverly showcases its Bern pride (but no spoilers here -- you're going to have to squint at it yourself!).
Keep An Eye On The Time
Bern’s most famous and popular attraction, the Old City clock tower, has a whimsical and merry side. Known as the Zytglogge, Bern’s clock tower dates back to the 1200s, and it influenced how the young Albert Einstein, stationed in Bern as a patent clerk, thought about time. Most visitors aren't contemplating physics, however, when the clock chimes and a parade of sculpted bears come out to dance in a circle. It’s a delightful display that is a highlight of a visit to Bern. Be sure to show up on the hour, when the sculpted bears put on their best show. Keep an eye out as well for the gilded bell chimer -- as well as the gilded living statues, or people dressed and made up to look like statues.
Take The Plunge
While bears and markets and historic timepieces are all well and good, they pale in comparison to my favorite thing to do in Bern: swimming in the river. Yes, everyone really does swim, float, and bob in the Aare River, which meanders through the city center. I’ve done it myself, and I can’t recommend it enough.
In late spring, summer, and early fall, as long as the water temperature is tolerable, locals and in-the-know tourists use the river to relax, socialize, and even get to work. There are a few ways you can take advantage of the fun swimming. It never hurts to ask locals where their favorite river entry point is, but I generally head to the riverside recreation complex in the city’s lower town. This large park is home to tennis courts, traditional swimming pools, and amenities like lockers and changing rooms. From there, you can walk on to the river, where there are some steps leading down to the water. Just jump on in! The current, strong and smooth but not scary or overwhelming, will take you through the city. Whenever you want to get out, just grab one of the metal bars jutting out from the riverbank.
I personally was happy to jump in the river at one side of the recreation complex, float along for a few hundred meters, and then get out, scoot back down the path, and do it again. But Bern residents have been known to put their work clothing in scuba backpacks and float all the way downstream to their offices, while teenage daredevils love jumping off the city’s bridges.
Stop And Smell The Roses
The walk up to Bern’s Rose Garden is one heck of a trek up a steep (but well-maintained) cobblestone path. Halfway to the top, you might wonder why you didn’t stay down below and soak a bit longer in the river! But when you get to the top, you’ll find that what awaits is well worth the effort.
It’s hard to say what’s the most rewarding thing at the top. First, there’s the beautiful view over the city’s rooftops and spires. Next is the Rose Garden itself, a popular, relaxed spot where families hang out. There are more than 220 rose bushes, plus irises, rhododendrons, water lilies, and many other varieties of flowers to admire. Finally, there’s the Restaurant Rosengarten, a lovely place to enjoy traditional Swiss cuisine and local wines.
Eating In Bern
Bern has the relaxed, casual atmosphere of a student town; university students, politicians, and businesspeople mingle in the city’s markets, delis, and chocolate shops. Going out for cake and tea is a popular pastime in Bern, and there are plenty of places where tourists can experience traditional Swiss cuisine.
Altes Tramdepot Brewery & Restaurant
Close to the Bärengraben and with great views of the Old Town, Altes Tramdepot Brewery & Restaurant has an on-site brewery and a menu full of traditional Bernese pub classics. You can expect sausage, smoked pork, sauerkraut, and spaetzle to feature heavily.
Restaurant Della Casa
Since 1892, Restaurant Della Casa has been serving up traditional plates like bratwurst and liver, pork chop schnitzel with lime sauce, and roasted chicken with melon. It also offers an extensive Swiss wine list.
One of Bern’s oldest restaurants, dating back to 1865, Gourmanderie Moléson has an opulent interior that’s as impressive as its longevity. The menu focuses on fresh, sustainable, and local food and has a separate vegan menu as well, a rarity in Bern.
Who could possibly pass by an Einstein-themed café when the tagline is “relatively the best”? The standout treats here include the apple cake and other desserts, creamy coffee drinks, and rich hot chocolate.
Gelateria Di Berna
Serving up the best gelato in all of Europe, Gelateria di Berna has all the classic flavors, like pistachio and chocolate. But that’s not what I recommend -- I suggest that you go for some of the funkier combinations. I had a scoop each of grapefruit pepper, strawberry balsamic, and apricot lemon thyme, and it was well worth the mountainous bowl.
Shopping In Bern
Chocolate should be at the top of your Bern shopping list. You can purchase the city’s favorite chocolate, Toblerone, in any corner shop or grocery store, and it’s even available at the airport. Cheese vendors can advise you on the possibility of transporting your purchases internationally.
I found Bern to be a very stylish city. There are a lot of small, fun, quirky shops selling creations by up-and-coming designers. If you see something that catches your eye, snap it up!
Everyone has a favorite chocolate shop in central Bern, and Tschirren is mine. It specializes in truffles, which you can buy individually or in gift boxes. And you can even pick up bear-imprinted slabs of chocolate.
One of Bern’s best shoe shops, Titolo is the place to go to pick up a pair of stylish yet understated shoes. You can also grab a new pair of running shoes to add some spring to your step! Titolo’s collection of Nike products is excellent.
Maria Pia Amabile
A little bit punk and a little bit mod, with lots of Italian flair, Maria Pia Amabile can best be described as quirky-classy. The shop is hugely popular with locals; you can get alterations done on-site and even request custom colors and cuts.
Home to gorgeous leather bags, wallets, and accessories in a variety of colors and finishes, Fiona Losinger might just convince you to break all your travel budget resolutions. The leathers are tanned using natural dyes and materials, a gentler and more environmentally friendly process.
Franz Carl Weber
This Swiss chain is a toy lover’s paradise. It sells global classics like Legos, toys by lesser-known European toymakers, and everything in between, including puppets, stuffed animals, learning toys, puzzles, art supplies, wooden trains, and much more.
Planning a trip to Switzerland? Be sure to make time for the beautiful Lake Geneva region as well.