Bern is the capital of Switzerland. Bern, Switzerland’s fourth-largest city by population, is a pivotal hub for politics, economy, and education.
Bern is characterized by its medieval architecture, which is very well preserved and is home to several museums, the city has a rich culture and high quality of life.
Where is Bern?
Bern is located in the western part of Switzerland. It’s situated in the Swiss Plateau, nestled within a bend of the Aare River, which gives the city a natural defensive advantage and a picturesque backdrop. Bern is around 70 kilometers from the northeast edge of Lake Geneva.
The city’s central location, close to the French and German borders, makes it easily accessible from many parts of the country and beyond. The surrounding region is known for its beautiful landscapes, including the Bernese Alps to the south.
History of Bern
Bern has a rich history that stretches back centuries. The city was founded by Berchtold V, Duke of Zähringen, on the peninsula formed by the Aare River in 1191. The city’s name, Bern, is said to be derived from the German word for bear (“Bär”), the heraldic animal of the coat of arms of Bern, after Berchtold killed a bear there.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Bern expanded its territory, growing in wealth and influence. The city joined the Swiss Confederation, an alliance of cantons in what is now Switzerland, in 1353 and quickly became one of the most influential cities in the confederation. During this time, the city also saw the construction of many of its most famous structures, including the Zytglogge, a clock tower that still stands in the city center.
In 1798, during the Napoleonic era, Bern was occupied by French troops. The old patrician regime collapsed, and Bern became the capital of the French puppet state, the Helvetic Republic. The city was chosen because of its central location, a factor that also influenced its later selection as the federal capital of Switzerland in 1848.
The modern Swiss constitution, which established Switzerland as a federal state, came into effect in 1848, and Bern was officially designated the Federal City (Bundesstadt), becoming the political center of Switzerland.
Bern has remained relatively unchanged since the 15th century, and its well-preserved medieval old town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its blend of historical and modern influences makes it a unique cultural location in Switzerland.
Features of Bern
Bern is a laid-back, small-town feel that is a refreshing contrast to the bustling energy often associated with capital cities. Its mix of historical preservation, natural beauty, cultural richness, and political significance make it a truly notable city.
Geography and Climate
Bern is characterized by its hilly geography, with three mountains surrounding the city: Gurten, Bantiger, and Ulmizberg. The Gurten mountain, in particular, provides a panoramic view of the city. The Aare River winds around the city, creating a natural peninsula where the old town is located. The river also forms numerous small islands within the city.
Bern experiences a temperate oceanic climate. Summers (June to August) can be warm and humid, with temperatures often reaching up to 25-30 degrees Celsius (77-86 degrees Fahrenheit), while winters (December to February) are generally cold and snowy, with temperatures often dropping below freezing. Rain is distributed throughout the year, with slightly more during summer.
Bern has a population of over 130,000 inhabitants. The residents of Bern are known for their high quality of life, and the city is recognized as offering an outstanding balance between urban and rural life.
The majority of the population speaks German, which is the official language. Still, it’s not uncommon to hear French, Italian, and English due to its multicultural environment and being a hub for international diplomacy.
Bern is essential to the Swiss economy. The city is home to the headquarters of several large corporations, including Swisscom and The Federal Railways. Bern also has a robust public sector, given that it hosts various federal agencies and embassies.
The economy of Bern is diverse, with sectors including healthcare, professional services, retail, and tourism contributing significantly to its economic health. Furthermore, Bern is known for its innovation and high-quality education, hosting several research institutions and universities like the University of Bern. This has fostered a burgeoning tech sector, particularly in medical technology and IT fields.
The city’s central location and excellent transport connections make it a key logistics hub. Bern’s economic stability is underpinned by Switzerland’s strong and stable economy, characterized by a highly developed service sector and a robust manufacturing industry.
Things to Do and Places to See in Bern
Bern offers an extensive array of activities and attractions to explore. Let’s delve into some of this captivating city’s most frequented and beloved destinations.
The Zytglogge is an iconic landmark in Bern. This medieval clock tower has been a guard tower, a prison, a clock tower, and a civic memorial over the centuries. It’s notable for its intricate astronomical clock, added in the 15th century, and continues to fascinate visitors with its complex mechanism.
Visitors can take a guided tour to learn about the tower’s history and even see the clock’s inner workings. One can enjoy a panoramic view of Bern’s old town from the top of the building. The Zytglogge stands as a testament to Bern’s rich history and continues to chime every hour as a beloved centerpiece of the city.
2. Swiss Museum of Ceramics and Glass (Bern Historical Museum – Einstein Museum)
The Swiss Museum of Ceramics and Glass (Schweizerische Museum für Keramik und Glas) is part of the Bern Historical Museum, the second-largest historical museum in Switzerland. It houses an extensive collection of ceramics and glass dating from ancient times to today.
The museum’s collection includes various objects, from utilitarian pottery and architectural ceramics to decorative art pieces and glassware. The exhibition highlights the artistic and technical developments in ceramics and glass production over the centuries.
In addition to its permanent collection, the museum hosts temporary exhibitions on various themes related to ceramics and glass. Through these exhibits, visitors can understand the cultural, historical, and artistic significance of these materials.
3. Federal Palace
The Federal Palace is one of the most significant buildings in Bern and plays a crucial role in the country’s political life. Construction of the Federal Palace started in 1852 and was completed in 1902.
The palace is composed of a central assembly building and two wings. Architecturally, it combines elements from the Renaissance and neoclassical styles, along with decorative aspects that represent the cantons of the Swiss Confederation.
While the Federal Palace is a working government building, certain areas are open to the public. Guided tours are available when the Federal Assembly is not in session, offering insights into Swiss political history and the workings of the country’s government.
4. Bear Park
The Bern Bear Park (BärenPark) in Bern is a popular tourist attraction and a city symbol. It is home to Bern’s famous bears, which have long been considered the city’s mascot.
The Bear Park is an expansive enclosure situated on the slope of the Aare River, providing the bears with a natural and stimulating environment. The park includes various elements for the bears such as caves, trees to climb, and a pool to swim in, making it a much more humane and comfortable habitat than the previous Bärengraben (Bear Pits) where the bears were housed until 2009.
5. Bern Botanical Garden
The Botanical Garden in Bern is a beautiful green space in the city. It is home to various plant species worldwide, arranged in several themed sections, such as the rock garden, medicinal and useful plants, and systematic garden.
The botanical garden also features several greenhouses home to tropical and subtropical plants, alpine plants, cacti, and other succulents. These greenhouses allow the park to maintain a diverse collection of plants that would not otherwise thrive in the Swiss climate.
6. Bern Historical Museum
The Bern Historical Museum was founded in 1894 and has many objects and artifacts representing Bernese and Swiss cultural history. The museum has diverse exhibits, displaying over 500,000 objects from prehistoric times to the present, including archaeological artifacts, art, and ethnographic objects. The collections cover various subjects, such as archaeology, history, applied arts, ethnography, and more.
The museum’s building, designed by architect André Lambert, is an example of the neo-Renaissance architectural style worth seeing. There is also a park surrounding the museum with statues and a beautiful view over Bern.
7. Paul Klee Center
The Paul Klee Center houses the world’s most important collection of Klee’s works, with about 4,000 paintings, watercolors, and drawings. The center opened in 2005; the museum was designed by the Italian architect Renzo Piano. The building’s design, with its three undulating wave-like structures that blend into the surrounding landscape, is striking and reflects the organic forms found in Klee’s artwork.
The Paul Klee Center does more than showcase the artist’s works. It also offers insight into Klee’s life, his teaching activities at the Bauhaus, and his interest in music and theater. Klee’s varied interests and talents are reflected in the center’s multifaceted approach, which includes a children’s museum, educational programs, and music and theater performances, making it a cultural center rather than just an art museum.
Gurten – Park im Grünen, commonly known as Gurten, is a local mountain just a few kilometers from the city center of Bern. Rising approximately 860 meters (about 2,820 feet) above sea level, Gurten offers an excellent vantage point for panoramic views of Bern, the surrounding countryside, and the distant Bernese Alps.
There are several ways to reach the summit of Gurten. A funicular railway, the Gurtenbahn, runs from the mountain’s base to the top, offering a fun and convenient way to ascend. Alternatively, for those who prefer a bit of exercise, several hiking trails wind their way up the mountain.
9. Swiss Alpine Museum
The Swiss Alpine Museum (Alpines Museum der Schweiz or simply the Alpines Museum) is cultural and historical in Bern. It provides visitors with an in-depth exploration of this region and its significance to Switzerland and other alpine countries.
The Swiss Alpine Museum features many exhibits, including historical objects, photographs, maps, and multimedia presentations. The museum covers numerous topics related to the Alps, such as alpine farming and agriculture, the impact of tourism on the region, biodiversity, alpine flora and fauna, climate change, and the traditions and way of life of the people living in the Alpine region.
10. Bern Cathedral (Bern Münster)
Bern Münster, also known as the Bern Cathedral or Cathedral of Bern, is the tallest cathedral in Switzerland and a prominent symbol of the city of Bern.
Built in the Gothic style, the cathedral’s construction started in 1421 and took centuries to complete, with the spire only finished in 1893. Despite the long construction period, the cathedral maintains a consistent architectural style.
Some key features of the Bern Münster include:
At 100.6 meters (330 feet), the cathedral’s spire is the tallest in Switzerland. Visitors can climb the 344 steps to the top for a panoramic view of the city and the surrounding Alps.
11. Einstein House
The Einstein House (Einsteinhaus) is a museum dedicated to the life and work of the physicist Albert Einstein. He lived in the apartment during an especially significant period in his life, as it was during this time that he developed his groundbreaking Special Theory of Relativity, forever changing how we understand the universe. The theory’s famous equation, E=mc^2, is one of the most well-known scientific equations worldwide.
The Einstein House has been restored to reflect the period when Einstein lived there with his first wife, Mileva Marić, and their son, Hans Albert. Visitors can see the living room, study, bedroom, and kitchen, all furnished in the style of that era.
12. Museum of Communication
The Museum of Communication features a wide range of exhibits that explore communication in all its forms, from traditional mail service and telecommunication to digital and social media. Through interactive exhibits, visitors can explore the history of communication and consider its future in an increasingly digital world.
Exhibits in the museum include historical post office items, vintage telephones, early computers, and exhibits about internet culture. There’s a strong emphasis on visitor interaction and participation in the museum, with many hands-on activities and multimedia presentations.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is the best time to visit Bern?
The best time to visit Bern is generally during the summer, from June to August, when the weather is warm, and the city is lively with outdoor events. However, spring and autumn also offer pleasant weather and fewer tourists. If you enjoy winter sports, the surrounding Bernese Alps becomes a winter wonderland from December to February.
Is it safe to visit Bern?
Yes, Bern is generally considered a very safe city for residents and visitors. Of course, like any city, it’s always wise to stay vigilant and aware of your surroundings, especially at night or in less crowded areas.
What is traditional food and cuisine like in Bern?
Bern is known for its hearty and diverse food like the rest of Switzerland. The cuisine includes a variety of breads, dairy products (especially cheese), and meats. Traditional dishes include Rösti (a potato dish), fondue, and raclette.
What’s a must-try dish/food in Bern?
The Berner Platte, a platter of various meats and sausages served with sauerkraut, potatoes, and dried beans, is a local specialty and must-try in Bern. Also, try the Swiss-style fondue or raclette, particularly in the colder months.
What souvenirs can I bring home from Bern?
Swiss chocolate and Swiss watches are popular souvenirs, as are items related to Bern’s symbol, the bear. You could also consider Swiss cheeses, local handicrafts, or a cuckoo clock as a distinctive memento of your visit.
Which languages are spoken and understood in Bern?
The official language of Bern is German, or more specifically, Swiss German. However, many commonly understand and speak English, especially in tourist areas and among younger people. French and Italian are also widely understood due to Switzerland’s multilingual nature.
How can I get around in Bern?
Bern has an efficient public transportation system that includes trams, buses, and trains. The city’s compact size makes exploring on foot or by bicycle easy. If you’re staying in a Bern hotel, you’ll receive a Bern Ticket for free travel on public transport within the city.
Is it expensive to visit Bern?
As with many Swiss cities, Bern is often considered more expensive than other European cities, especially for dining and accommodation. However, many of the city’s attractions, including Bear Park and the Federal Palace, are free to visit.
Is Bern a good city to live in?
Yes, Bern consistently ranks highly for quality of life due to its safety, cleanliness, public services, cultural offerings, and balance between city and nature. Its central location also makes it ideal for exploring the rest of Switzerland.
Bern is a captivating blend of historical charm, vibrant culture, stunning natural beauty, and Swiss efficiency. Whether wandering its cobbled streets, marveling at the medieval architecture, enjoying the lively markets, indulging in Swiss culinary delights, or simply relaxing by the Aare River, there’s no shortage of experiences. Its position as Switzerland’s capital also provides insights into its rich political history.
Its safety, cleanliness, and the friendliness of its people further enhance the visitor experience. While it may be considered more expensive compared to other European cities, the unique experiences it offers make it a worthy destination.
Overall, a visit to Bern is not just a journey into the heart of Switzerland, but a step back in time, making it a must-visit for any traveler.