Bern is the political capital of Switzerland, with one of the largest best-preserved Old Towns in the country. Bern can easily be visited as a daytrip from Interlaken, only fifty minutes away by train. There is frequent direct train service with five trains an hour, making this is an efficient rewarding trip. Don’t worry about schedules, just show up at the station and get on the next train.
If you are not spending the night in Bern, a half-day visit can be enough to see the famous clock tower and get the walking tour overview presented here, or stay all day and into the evening if you want to have a nice meal, shop and visit inside a couple of museums. It is a wonderful feeling to be immersed in these buildings that have not changed much in recent centuries.
The Old Town of Bern was entered onto UNESCO’s listing of World Heritage Sites, thanks to its well-preserved medieval townscape. Bern is truly a gem of medieval architecture with 6 kilometers of limestone buildings lined by medieval arcades, Renaissance fountains with colorful figures, and a beautiful cathedral founded in 1191.
The Bern train station is right next to the old town so the walk through the historic zone begins the moment you arrive. They've done a lot of work in rebuilding and reconstructing the Bern train station to make it a very modern facility – there's lots of shops and restaurants right in the train station.
Switzerland is famous for its excellent trains, and the train stations are an extension of that, sort of like a mini city. You can even take a shower in here in their clean restrooms. It's relatively safe, but you always have to look out for your valuables.
In front of the station there is the modern canopy for the main tram station that services the extensive light-rail network. However, you're not going to need to ride a tram when you're visiting Bern.
Everything is very compact in the Old Town and you can easily see it on foot, walking around, meandering here and there. We'll walk right down the main street which leads directly from the station. This historic section is ideally suited for a walking tour, immersed in buildings that have not changed much since the Middle Ages.
In 1405 all of the wooden buildings burned down in a huge fire, and it was decreed that the new buildings would be made of stone. And so the whole city was rebuilt in the early and middle 1400s up through 1500, basically, in a medieval style. Therefore it has a uniform and harmonious appearance, with one special defining aspect – there are 4 miles of arcades covering the sidewalks.
Among all the pretty towns of Switzerland, Bern is unique because most of the sidewalks in the historic section are covered by these old arcades that continue for nearly four miles along most of the streets in the center. The stone arcades offer protection from sun, snow and rain, but more importantly, create a special atmosphere that is somewhere between being outdoors and inside.
The main street is about ten blocks long extending for 330 meters, but changes name several times. By the station it's the Spitalgasse, then becomes the Marktgasse, then the Kramgasse, finally, the Gerechtigkeitsgasse. This is the main street of Bern, as it has been for centuries. Today it is a popular shopping street with surprisingly modern shop interiors, and it's accessible by foot, bicycle, tram or bus that run through it.
This street and its buildings are part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that encompasses the entire old city of Bern – a very impressive honor that UNESCO has designated all of the historic area as a World Heritage Site. There is a slight curve with a long line of Baroque façades that combine to produce one of Bern's most impressive streetscapes.
This road is remarkable, not only for the ancient buildings and arcades that cover both sides, but for the spectacular Renaissance fountains down the middle. Colorful fountains on the main street have been called the world's most beautiful traffic obstructions, with trams and buses passing close on both sides. Bern has been called the city of fountains, with about 100 examples around town, large and small. Spitalgasse is the first named section of this main road, extending about 250 meters along four blocks, lined with shops most of the way, with the Pfeiferbrunnen fountain midway along.
Both sides are covered with those stone arcades they call Lauben, protecting pedestrians from the weather. As you walk along the covered sidewalks notice the interesting views framed by arches, columns, flower boxes and windows that give pleasure everywhere you turn. People still live in the upper floors, which makes this a vibrant mixed-use community with bakeries, shops and cafes for locals as well as visitors. Because the buildings are small, department stores and franchises have stayed away, leaving most of the retail space for unique shops and galleries.
The human scale of this area makes it more of a piazza than a roadway. We can learn a lot about how to build our modern cities by studying these organic growth patterns that have evolved over the past nine hundred years. The arcades and sidewalk are private property and yet always open to the public and so they must be maintained by the property owners rather than the government.
Käfigturm is a medieval tower built in 1256 as a gate house for the second extension of the defensive wall, rebuilt in 1640 and a clock was added. Its name means “cage tower” because it was used as a prison. The large arch gate was built through the bottom level in 1902, and various renovations since have kept it in very good condition.
Then we have the Schützenbrunnen, the Marksman, created in 1527 by Hans Gieng who created most of these fountain statues. Typical of many, this piece has been restored and damaged and turned around and moved, and here it stands in the middle-of-the-road. The beautiful fountain on Marktgasse, Anna-Seiler-Brunnen, honors that lady who founded the first hospital in Bern back in the 1350s.
The most famous clock tower and arch, called Zytlogge, is at the end of Market Street, Marktgasse. This the oldest building in town with an astronomical clock that still works after five hundred years. Try and be at the clock four minutes before the hour to catch the whimsical parade of mechanical bears, armored knights, jester, lion and father time celebrating the moment. There are two clocks on the tower. One is a standard timepiece and the other is an astronomical clock built in the form of an astrolabe. It represents the planets orbiting the sun.
Watch the clock tower segment of the video here
When the tower was built in 1218 it was part of the fortified gate of the medieval wall in the western portion running around Bern. As the city expanded in size, two other walls were built further out from the center, and this tower no longer was so important as a front line defense of the city.
In the Kramgasse section of the street you will find two more decorative fountains and a continuation of the arcades sheltering many fine shops. The Kramgasse was known as the Marktgasse (Swiss German for "Market Alley") until the 15th century and as the Vordere Gasse during the 16th century. The changes in name reflect the street's changes in character. In medieval times, it served as the city's marketplace, but after the Reformation the market stands were gradually replaced by stores. The street remained the commercial center of the city until the middle of the 19th century, its heyday being the 1840s.
Over the centuries, the street was slowly gentrified. Throughout the 19th century, residents complained about the waste, smell and noise associated with the Schaal, an open hall of butcher's stalls vis-a-vis the Simsonbrunnen.The Schaal was eventually demolished in 1938 and a conservatory built in its place, disrupting the medieval streetscape. Local legend has it that a calf once flayed alive here still haunts the place of its death with frightful bleats
In the second half of the 19th century, the commercial significance of the Kramgasse waned as business moved to the newer, western part of the city and the authorities shut down the many noisy cellar taverns. At the turn of the 20th century, the Kramgasse was already a tourist attraction. Beginning in the 1920s, buses and tramways were routed through it, and from the 1970s on, motor traffic was gradually prohibited throughout the lower Old City. The number of apartments on the Kramgasse steadily dwindled as they came to be replaced by shops and offices. In 2005, the street was thoroughly renovated and its cobblestone pavement replaced.
Apart from a few cellars, only fragments of the current buildings on the Kramgasse date from before 1500. Many of the private town-houses retain elements from the Late Gothic period. There are very few preserved 17th century faÁades. Between 1705 and 1745, the facades and parts of the interior of 72 of the street's 85 buildings were rebuilt in the Baroque style.
The Kramgasse cannot be reached by car without a special permit. It is accessible by foot, bike or by means of the Bernmobil bus line no. 12 that runs through it and has stops at either end of the street (Zytglogge and Rathaus).
You’ll arrive at the Zahringerbrunnen fountain, which is Bern's first figure-topped fountain. It depicts an armored bear, Bern's heraldic beast. In a moment we’ll show you the live bears waiting at the end of this street. The fountain in the center is the Simsonbrunnen built in 1527 and decorated with a figure of Sampson taming the lion.
The Kramgasse is one of Bern's more upmarket shopping streets. Among others, it features antiquaries, drugstores, bakeries, banks, jewelry shops, bookstores, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, furniture stores, opticians stores, watch shops and wine cellars. Over the centuries the street was slowly gentrified. In 2005 this street was thoroughly renovated, and it's cobblestone pavement replaced, but it still looks very old.
Ever since the Middle Ages Kramgasse has been the main market street of the city and it's thriving today with all these modern shop fronts in the old buildings sheltered by the arcades. It makes it a very pleasant place to walk along. However in the mid-19th century there was a time of decline and decay. The neighbors were complaining about the crowding and the smell of the market and so the commercial center moved out and more towards the newer western part of the city, but it bounced back by the beginning of the 20th century when it was already becoming a tourist attraction and it's been growing in importance ever since.
Einstein lived on this street from 1903-1905 and worked at the Patent Office while developing his Theory of Relativity. His home on the second floor is now open as a museum. This was Einstein’s most productive period in which he made several major physics discoveries. It’s called his miracle year.
At the end of the street you reach the Aare River, which surrounds the historic center of Bern with a sharp curve that defined the town plan, offered protection, enclosed the space and encouraged growth in a compact arrangement of shops and homes that fit perfectly together. We could learn a lot about how to build our modern cities by studying these organic growth patterns that evolved over the past 900 years. The river is so clean that locals love to swim in it and ride various flotation devices for fun and games.
Cross the river on the Nydeggbrücke bridge, built in 1840, to arrive at the famous Bear Park The word Bern means bear, and this animal is the symbol and icon of the city. Since 1513 bears have been at home in Bern; until 1857 in the town itself, then in the bear pit, and since 2009 in the new and spacious bear park.
The government has greatly expanded this bear habitat to make it really a pleasant place for the bears to live in a 6,000 square meters park. Previously it was not so nice, it was really just a bear pit, a hole in the ground lined with cement and a couple of bears living there, almost a cruel place to keep the bears. But now it's become a vast outdoor zoo and the bears seem to be enjoying it – they're having a great time. The “Bear Pit”, which still exists and has been listed as a federal cultural asset of national significance, remains at the bears' disposal.
Watch the bear segment of the video here
They created this Bear Park with lush landscaping down the hillside to the river and created several plunge pools for the bears to swim in, with landscaped walkways so that the public can see the bears and the bears can see the people. It's all very well planned and of course it's all very safe. They're not going to jump out at you but you do get a chance to get very close to them.
You might get lucky and see the bears playing rough with each other, as we did on an amazing day in which two young bear brothers had been reunited after being apart for nearly a year. They had been separated off to different cities and now were brought back together again, happy to see each other, having fun wrestling and playing.
Bears have been kept on display in the city for 500 years, most of that time in that small hole in the ground. In the 1990s they made some effort to renovate the enclosures, but it wasn't sufficient – so this beautiful park was opened in 2009 on the steeply sloping land that comes down to the river. It really gives the bears an outdoor environment they can enjoy.
These fascinating bears give the visitor a good reason to walk through the entire old town of Bern, because the bears are located outside the old town across the river beyond the end of the main road, easily reached in a few minutes walk across the bridge. It is only about 1.5 kilometers from one end of the old town to the other, so the bears are easily reached.
After visiting the bears, head back into the Old Town along a slightly different route, towards the great cathedral, along Nydegasse to Junkerngasse with more delightful arcades forming a cozy environment. Junkerngasse means Nobility Lane, and according to Wikipedia, it's the old city's best-preserved street. It was home to some of the city's leading families and still has some palatial mansions along it.
Ironically this lovely and important street would be ignored by most tourists coming to Bern. They just don't see it. We’re off the beaten track. It's one of those rewards of an out-of-the-way place and yet it leads right to the Cathedral we’ll see in a moment.
An impressive building here, the Erlacherhof, is the seat of government for the city of Bern and dates back to the mid-1700s. It was originally the most significant private palace in the old town. Some of these building date back to the 1400s, others are from the Renaissance and later Baroque periods.
One of the most important buildings is the Gothic cathedral, the Minster, with the nation's highest church tower at 100 meters (328 feet), which you may climb up a spiral of 254 narrow steps, giving a bird’s eye view of the historic center.
Construction of the cathedral began in 1421 in the Gothic style, and took 450 years to complete. The pulpit dates from 1470, and the steeple was only completed in 1893. It is a three-nave basilica without transept or aisles, 85 meters long and 34 meters wide – quite huge. The walls outside are supported by flying buttresses and the majority of the building is constructed with local sandstone. Bricks were used to build the ceiling of the vaults, which are 20 meters high.
Originally constructed as a Catholic church, it became Protestant in 1528 as part of the Protestant revolution that swept throughout central and northern Europe. Called the Minster, or they say Munster, located along Münstergasse at Münsterplatz, it was built by the city of Bern as a symbol of the growing power of the city-state. The interior was designed to awe the citizens as well as any foreign visitors who came by. The central nave was built in a lacy Gothic style with enormous stained-glass windows and numerous altars in the side chapels. The Gothic style allowed for a very tall central nave and very large windows, much larger than were possible before in the Romanesque period, creating an impressive feeling of light and air.
Watch the cathedral segment of the video here.
The Munster’s hundred-meter-high belltower can be climbed for a small fee up a spiral of 254 narrow steps, but sorry not this time. There is a helpful gift shop where you can get postcards and also rent an audio guide. Admission to the Munster is free, so you don’t want to miss this great example of the late gothic. Another advantage of visiting churches is a chance to sit down and rest.
There are several other lovely side streets worth exploring. We walked over to the Rathaus, which has a very impressive Rathausgasse and walked along the Rathausgasse for a block, another well preserved neighborhood. Another big church of St. Peter and Paul.
Then we took a detour on Brunnengasse, another charming little street, very quiet, hardly any cars, with nice shops, a few restaurants and bars along the way, Chinese take-out, old historic buildings and a lovely curvature of the road that reconnects once again with the Rathausgasse.
Next you'll come across Kornhausplatz, which is a large plaza that was first built about 600 years ago and it's always been one of the main plazas of the city, a very large space. In the basement, the Kornhauskeller restaurant offers, delightful ambience and excellent food specializing in Swiss aand Mediterranean cuisine. It is called Kornhausplatz after the German word for grain, or corn, because a granary was built here in the 1700s and the plaza became a grain market.
Watch the Kornhhausplatz segment of the video here.
Continuing along Zeughaugasse, another busy commercial street with some modern shops, a department store, some restaurants, and three hotels. Leading into another large plaza with more cafés and shops, the Barenplatz and then on to Aabergergasse, which features yet another one of these heroic fountain statues, this time it's the chief crossbow man.
There is also a very impressive fine art museum, with the world’s largest collection of paintings by Paul Klee, who lived nearby, and many important European masters, including a nice sample of Impressionists. You don't really need to go inside a museum while you are in Bern because the entire old town is a living outdoor museum.
You will inevitably find your way back to the main street, the Kramgasse, which lies at the center of the old city.
To recap, the western half of the central axis is the oldest part, the Zähringerstadt, built right after the founding of Bern in 1191. It is bounded to the west by the Zytglogge, Bern's iconic clock tower that served as the city's main gate tower in the 12th century. In the east, the Kreuzgasse, literally a "crossroads", separates it from the other half of the old main street, the Gerechtigkeitsgasse. Several narrow alleys and passageways connect the Kramgasse to the parallel Rathausgasse in the north and the Munstergasse in the south.
This wraps up our walking tour of Bern, which has how returned to the train station, after walking a total distance of 4 kilometers or 2 1/2 miles, so you can easily do it in a half day visit. In front of the station is one of Bern’s important churches, the Church of the Holy Ghost, considered the most elaborate Protestant baroque church in the country.
We've been so busy sightseeing we didn't take any time to sit down and have lunch, so now we are hungry – no we are starving – and there's this great restaurant called Tibits. It's part of a chain of restaurants in Switzerland that are all vegetarian featuring a fabulous buffet they the boat, loaded with all sorts of great salads, beans, tempeh, veggies and tofu that will tempt you with high-quality freshly-cooked food at reasonable prices.
This is where we end our visit with a great meal, sit down, relax, unwind, absorb the memories of Bern before departing and heading back to Interlaken. It could not be more convenient because Tibits is located in the train station, which is right on the edge of the old town. So, very easy for us to get to the train.
We have a few minutes before catching the train to consider more about Bern. The Bern population is only a hundred forty thousand, making it the fourth-largest city in Switzerland behind Geneva, behind Basel, behind Zürich. Of course, it's the national capital. The national parliament meets here, but Switzerland is a decentralized power, and the parliament has less power than the states do.
Each of the states, called cantons, has quite a bit of autonomy. The national leader is not a president or prime minister, but is more like the speaker of the parliament, serving a brief term. It's not like a big leadership role, with strong man politics.
The government goal is consensus politics at the state and village levels. Switzerland has something like the old New England town meetings, where each village has quite a bit of authority. That's one reason why they never joined the EU. The villages in the valleys are conservative and have managed to veto any joining of the EU. The businessmen all want to be in the EU, the yuppies, the professionals – they wish they were in the EU, but they can't get there because of this decentralized power structure. Anyway, it's been a great city for these five hundred, six hundred years now. The Canton and municipal governments are also situated in the old city.
Okay, it's time to enter the station, find our platform and return to Interlaken, our home base. The train station is quite large, but nicely designed with escalators and signage to help navigate – get down to your platform on schedule and wait for the train. There is frequent train service between Bern and Interlaken, about three trains an hour, so it's a quick trip, 50 minutes by train back to our home base at Interlaken.
A vintage video of Bern from the 1990s.