Looking out to the Alps, Switzerland’s fifth largest city has been the “Bundesstadt” and de facto capital for almost 170 years. Bern has a lovable UNESCO listed old town tucked into a long meander of the River Aare. A lot of the old core is from the 15th century and is laced with several kilometres of arcades covering stylish shops and eateries.
Bern was also Albert Einstein’s home town for the first decade of the 20th century. The Historical Museum has a riveting exhibition about his time at the patent office in the city, and you can visit the apartment he shared with his wife and son. Another Bern native was the modern artist Paul Klee, a luminary of Expressionism and Surrealism. He is represented by a museum designed by Renzo Piano and holding almost half of the work he ever produced.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Bern:
1. Old Town
One of the many things to love about Bern’s UNESCO-listed medieval centre is its uniformity: Most of the city was claimed by a fire in 1405, and tall sandstone buildings took over from the old wooden houses.
Many are woven with arcades on their ground floor, and these are a defining characteristic of the city.
There are six kilometres of arcades in all, hiding shops, bars, cafes, and restaurants.
One idea for a walking tour is try to find all 11 Renaissance fountains in the centre.
Each of these dates from the 16th century and has a polychrome statue of a real personality from the city’s past, or an allegorical figure like Lady Justice.
Suggested tour: Bern: 90-Minute Stroll Through the Old Town
2. Zentrum Paul Klee
In Bern’s eastern outskirts is a phenomenal modern museum for one of the most influential artists of the early 20th century.
Klee was born just outside Bern and went to Gymnasium in the city.
In 1997 his daughter donated all of her inheritance to the city, and Renzo Piano was hired to design a museum for these works.
Looking like an oscillating wave, the museum opened in 2005 and after later donations now has around 40% of Klee’s entire oeuvre, beginning with childhood sketches and continuing through his Expressionist, Cubist and Surrealist periods.
Klee’s paintings are presented in ever-changing temporary shows on set themes, so no two visits to the centre will be the same.
Erected at the end of the 12th century as Bern’s western city gate, this tower in the Old Town has become an icon for an extraordinary clock that was installed in 1530. One of the oldest in Switzerland, this measured standard time in the Canton of Bern, and has an astounding astronomical clock below.
Get to Marktgasse on the stroke of the hour for a little show when some of the earliest examples of automata come alive beside the astrolabe.
These mechanical figures, the astronomical clock and the clock itself are all controlled by the same mechanism.
You can see it in action behind the scenes on a daily tour of the tower that starts at 14:30. Book in advance because numbers are limited.
Recommended tour: Zytglogge – Tour through the Clock Tower
4. Bern Cathedral
Switzerland’s tallest cathedral went up gradually during the 15th and 16th centuries.
The single spire soars to more than 100 metres and unless you’re a bit squeamish about heights you should have no hesitation conquering the 400-odd steps to view the distant, snow-capped Alps.
But before you do that, the Last Judgement will greet you as you enter.
Not literally the end of the world: This is the astonishing set-piece on the main portal, held as one of Europe’s greatest groups of Late Gothic sculpture.
In the tympanum you’ll see how the wicked are separated from the virtuous by the Archangel Michael, while Jesus, Mary and the Apostles look down from the archivolts.
Inside you can admire the 16th-century carved choir stalls and the “Dance of Death” stained glass window from around the same time.
If you’re in Bern for more than a day you have to plan a few hours on the slopes of Bern’s own hill, Gurten.
There’s a funicular that you catch from by the Aare in Waben.
This has been serving the 858-metre hill since 1899 and gets to the top in just five minutes.
Summer means hiking, a ride on the miniature railway for little ones, barbecues and other good times outdoors, while a toboggan run is available if there’s sufficient snow in winter.
Mid-July is time for the Gurtenfestival, which continues to grow and in the last few editions has booked artists like Muse, Patti Smith and Massive Attack.
6. Bern Historical Museum
Switzerland’s second largest institution in this field, the Bern Historical Museum handles historical and ethnographical collections going back to the Stone Age.
These are housed in a Neo-Renaissance edifice, which has a modern extension for temporary exhibitions.
Among the highlights of the vast and varied permanent displays are spoils of war: There’s set of tapestries taken from Burgundy in the 1400s and 1500s, and the bewitching Königsfelden Diptych, composed in Venice for the King of Hungary at the end of the 13th century.
The integrated Einstein Museum is a must-see, containing lots of footage, photography and objects illustrating his time in Bern when he devised his Theory of Relativity.
In Switzerland’s capital you have to make time for the Swiss Federal Assembly.
After all, we’re talking one of the world’s oldest democracies.
The Bundeshaus was completed in stages throughout the second half of the 19th century.
If you want to see inside you’ll need to book in advance as the tours fill up quickly.
Your knowledgeable guide will bombard you with interesting facts about the Swiss federal government, its founding myths and Bern’s 150 years as capital.
The interior is even more impressive than the dominant Neo-Renaissance facade, and bursts sculpture, stained glass and carved wood.
In front, on the Bundesplatz is a popular fountain with 26 jets, each one symbolising one of Switzerland’s Cantons.
Cross the Aare from the Old Town and you’ll find yourself in the company of three brown bears.
Bern has long had an affection for bears, and the animal was adopted as an emblem as long ago as the 12th century.
Bern has kept its own bears since at least the 16th century, and they were moved to this park on the opposite bank of the Aare in 1857. The habitat was modernised in 2009, when a new space was opened next to the original pit.
The two enclosures are linked by a tunnel, and even allow the bears to take dips in the river.
If you’re hesitant about animals in captivity you’ll be cheered by the all the room the three inhabitants have and how healthy they look.
The city’s rose garden is on high ground, close to the BärenPark and with a very satisfying vista of Bern’s Old Town from the right bank of the Aare.
Families, friends and couples come to meet up and take picnics with Bern at their feet.
This piece of open land was a cemetery up to 1913, and the first of its roses were planted in 1917. Spring and early summer are the most beautiful times, when ithe223 rose and 200 iris species are in flower.
The rose garden also has 23 rhododendron species that flower in May, as well as a graceful pond with lilies that bloom in July.
10. Museum of Fine Arts
The oldest art museum in the country opened its doors in 1879 in a purpose-built Eclecticist hall.
The earliest pieces are from the middle ages and the museum grazes over host of movements up to the present day.
In the collection there are 3,000 paintings and sculptures as well as almost 50,000 photographs, prints, sketches and pieces of video art.
There’s a batch of works by the Symbolist Ferdinand Hodler, and Expressionism is well-represented by Paul Klee, Franz Marc, Kandinsky, August Macke and Alexej von Jawlensky.
The museum made the news recently when it was unexpectedly bequeathed a cache of 1,400 works by the German collector Cornelius Gurlitt.
The only drawback is that a great deal are likely to have been stolen by the Nazis in the 30s and 40s.
11. Tierpark Dählhölzli
Swearing by the credo, “More Space for Fewer Animals”, Bern’s zoo is ten minutes from the Hauptbahnhof.
This wooded park is divided between a free and paid sections: In the free enclosures beside the Aare you’ll pass wild boar, chamois and ibex, as well as a small farm with domestic animals like horses and goats.
The paying section has more exotic animals, but there’s still an emphasis on European species.
In the tropical house are reptiles, birds and monkeys and there’s an aquarium here with a coral reef ecosystem.
And outside, leopards, wolves and harbour seals are all granted spacious enclosures.
12. Museum für Kommunikation
Just off Helvetiaplatz is the only museum in Switzerland on the subject of communication.
Its origins lie in a post museum founded in 1907, and there’s still an exhibition on this topic, explaining the postal network and showing historic coaches and postage stamps.
There’s also some archive correspondence, like authentic letters sent by Paul von Hindenburg.
Another exhibition deals with “media” , and teems with interactive audiovisual displays.
And there’s an extensive area for telecommunications, complete with early telephones, telegraphs where you can decipher Morse code and vacuum tubes for sending messages.
A nice complement to the Historical Museum, this minor attraction holds the second floor flat where Einstein lived from 1903 to 1905. He shared this modest abode with his wife Mileva Marić and son Hans Albert while he was employed at the Swiss Federal Institute of Intellectual Property.
While living here Einstein wrote his Annus Mirabilis papers, which changed the way we understand the universe.
On the second floor the flat has been recreated with contemporary architecture, while there’s more of a scientific theme on the floor above.
This exhibition looks into the theories he developed in Bern, and has a timeline of his life.
14. SC Bern
Attending a sports event may not be the first thing on your mind in a city flush with art and sights.
But SC Bern are not your average ice hockey team.
Playing at the PostFinance Arena, they’re the best supported ice hockey team in the world outside the NHL. Their home stadium has a capacity for 17,000 and regularly sells out during the season from September to March.
The standard is also as high as you’ll find outside North America, and in 2017 SC Bern won their second NL Championship in a row their third in five seasons.
Their talisman is right-wing Mark Arcobello, an import from the NHL who contributed 55 points (25 goals and 30 assists) in the 2016-17 campaign.
15. Swimming in the Aare
In spring and summer the Aare can seem a bit treacherous, particularly when you cross the Nydeggbrücke on the way to the BärenPark.
But south of the Altstadt it’s perfectly safe to bathe in the river.
And the ultimate way to do this is to enter the water at the recreation area at Eichholz and just let yourself drift downstream to the Freiban Marzili.
This bathing area also has outdoor pools for set aside for kids and women, and a lush grassy space where you can dry off in the sun.
From here you can catch one of the shortest funicular railways in the world, trundling up the hill for just over 100 metres to the Bundeshaus.