Bern is the capital of Switzerland and is located in the western part of the country, about halfway between Zurich and Geneva. The city was founded in the 1100s and has been the capital of the Swiss Federation since 1848. With several interesting touristic sites, a beautiful natural setting, and its fascinating role in Swiss and European history, Bern is worthy of a few days of exploration. You can use also it as a base for exploring other Swiss cities.
Get Acquainted With the Altstadt
Bern's Altstadt, or Old Town, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated as such because of its well-preserved medieval architecture. After a fire in 1405 destroyed most of the original 11th- and 12th-century wooden buildings, the Altstadt was rebuilt in half-timber and sandstone. The area is home to the Zytglogge, 16 elaborate 16th-century fountains, and 3.7 miles (6 kilometers) of shopping arcades, under which sit exclusive shops and restaurants. Many of the Altstadt's former wine cellars have been converted to underground restaurants and wine bars.
Make Time for the Zytglogge
Bern's most famous sight is the Zytglogge, an incredibly elaborate and complicated astronomical clock with several moving figures. The tower was first built as a watchtower in the 1200s and was later used as a women's prison, with the present clock installed in the early 1500s. Today, those same 16th-century mechanisms, all based on a system of weights and pulleys, keep remarkably accurate time. Stand under the clock a few minutes before the hour, as the mechanical rooster crows and a series of figures start to move. For an in-depth look at the clock's complexity, book a tour of the clock interior with Bern Tourism.
Marvel at the Minster
You'll spot Bern Minster long before you arrive at the church—it has the tallest church spire in Switzerland. The mighty Gothic cathedral was begun in the 1400s as a Catholic cathedral, but well before it was completed in 1893 it had already become a Protestant place of worship. Inside, there are beautiful stained glass windows and it's possible to climb 312 steps to a viewing deck that offers a spectacular panorama of Bern and the surrounding countryside. Even if you don't go in, be sure to study the main portal on the church exterior—it's a dramatic sculpted depiction of The Last Judgment, intended to strike fear in a population who couldn't read or write.
Pass Some Time in Bundesplatz
The Swiss Bundehaus, or Parliament Building, is the seat of the Swiss government. The elegant and imposing Bundeshaus was constructed in the late 19th- to early 20th-centuries and is known for its domed central building, which connects the eastern and western wings. Tours of the Bundeshaus can be arranged through the parliament website. In front of the Bundeshaus, the Bundesplatz is a popular gathering area with a fountain play area for kids (summer only). Behind the Bundeshaus, a broad terrace has views for miles.
Ponder Relativity at the Einstein Haus
Albert Einstein only spent two years in Bern, but they marked some of the most eventful of his career. From 1903 to 1905, the legendary scientist rented a flat in Bern with his young family and it was here that he developed the Theory of Relativity—it's even said that his studies of the Zytglogge influenced his revolutionary theory of time and space. Today, the former apartment is now the Einsteinhaus, a museum with period furnishings and exhibits detailing the physicist's time in Bern.
Peek Into the Kornhaus
For a quick glimpse at Bern's history, duck into the Kornhaus, the early 18th-century building that once served as the city's granary. Grain reserves were stored here for a number of reasons—in the event of war or famine, to artificially control the price of grain, and to pay civil servants whose paychecks once came in the form of a sack of grain. Today, the grand downstairs hall of the granary is an upscale restaurant. But even if you don't eat there, you can walk around the upper level and admire the painted, vaulted arches and the historic ambiance.
Be Dazzled at the Zentrum Paul Klee
Paul Klee, one of the most influential artists of the 20th century, spent much of his childhood and adult life in Bern. More than 4,000 of his whimsical, colorful abstract paintings are at the Zentrum Paul Klee, a futuristic museum and cultural center designed by famed Italian architect Renzo Piano. The Zentrum promotes Klee's legacy and also hosts exhibits from other noted artists, as well as music, theater, and dance programs.
Wave at the Bears at the Bärengraben
Life has improved significantly for the bears of Bern. Since the city's founding, Pyrenean brown bears have been the symbol of Bern and since the 1800s, a handful of bears lived in the Bear Pit, a rather dismal enclosure on the eastern shore of the Aare. In 2009, a new BearPark (Bärengraben) opened, giving the current family of bears a more natural habitat, with woods, a swimming area, and caves for hibernating. The Bärengraben is free and always open, but if you visit in the wintertime, the bears will be fast asleep in their dens.
Stop and Smell the RosenGarten
On the east side of the Aare, about a 10-minute walk from the Bärengraben, Bern's Rosengarten holds more than 200 varieties of roses and dozens of other types of ornamental plants. Its position on a hill affords terrific views of the Altstadt and it's a great place for a picnic. West of the city, on the northern bank of the Aare, the Botanischer Garten is another pretty, green spot, either for learning about plants or just taking a break from historical sites.
Go Jump in the River Aare
Urban swimming in the Switzerland's super-clean lakes and rivers is a popular summertime pursuit. Take advantage of Bern's brief warm summer temperatures and go swimming in the Aare. There are several river pools, which are pool areas built over the water and fed by river water. Strong swimmers can walk downstream (south) along the Aare, jump in, and let the current carry them back to Bern.