I love walking, I love old buildings and I love cheese and chocolate, so there are few better places to spend an afternoon than in the Old City of Bern, Switzerland. The Old City (Altstadt) is famous for its well-preserved late medieval architecture; its cobblestone streets are lined with cafés and bakeries, and it is a pedestrian zone – ideal for walking around with or without a plan. You can’t really get lost even if you wander around without a map.
In Your Bucket Because…
- You love medieval architecture.
- You like to do your sightseeing on foot.
- Good for lovers of history, architecture and Swiss chocolate.
The Old City is mostly car-free, and although you can use trams or buses (which operate with Swiss punctuality), walking is the best way to get around. When it comes time to take a break from walking, there are dozens of cafés and restaurants with outdoor seating areas – the Swiss love their outdoor cafés even in the winter.
Things to See in Bern’s Old City
The Old City is full of small details. Look up and you’ll see a colorful mural, turn around and you’ll see a 16th century fountain. The market squares have weekly (or, in the summer months, daily) markets – the stalls on Bärenplatz sell fresh vegetables, fruit, cheeses, breads and cakes, the market stalls on Waisenhausplatz sell clothes, jewelry, gifts and handicrafts.
There are miles of medieval stone arcades that today form a covered shopping area. The boutiques and stores sell Swiss watches, jewelry and fashion with price tags that make most other cities in the world seem cheap. The shops that interest me most, though, are the amazing chocolate shops and bakeries. In Switzerland it is best not to count calories.
The city of Bern was founded in 1191, but in 1405 a fire destroyed most of it. Many buildings in the Old City were constructed right after the fire and they have been preserved extremely well. The highlights are the 15th century clock tower Zytglogge and the Gothic cathedral Münster.
The Main Tourist Attractions in Bern
Zytglogge is easy to find; crowds of tourists gather under the tower every hourto wait for the decorative clock to strike. In the 12th century, Zytglogge was Bern’s main clock and also functioned as a gate into the city. The tower was rebuilt after the 1405 fire, and in 1530 it received the now famous astronomical clock that is decorated with the twelve signs of the Zodiac.
A short walk from Zytglogge took me to the Einstein House, Albert Einstein’s home from 1903 to 1905. The Albert Einstein Society has restored the scientist’s old apartment and it is now a small museum. After another five minutes of wandering around I end up outside the Town Hall (Rathaus), which was built between 1400 and 1406 and is today the seat of the government of the canton of Bern.
My favorite building in the Old City, though, is the Münster Cathedral, one of the largest Gothic cathedrals in Switzerland. Its 101-meter-high tower is the highest church tower in the country. The cathedral took a long time to build; its construction started in 1421, but the spire at the top of the tower was added in 1893. You can climb up to the top floors for perfect views over the city and over the River Aare. On a clear day you can see the Alps in the distance.
Continuing on, a scenic walk along Bundestrasse, a pedestrian walkway that looks over the riverside, takes me from the Münster to the Houses of Parliament. The late 19th century Bundeshaus is the seat of the Swiss government and when the Parliament chambers are not sitting, guided tours into the house are offered in several languages.
And after touring the Bundeshaus, it is probably already time for another coffee and some more chocolate…
Practicalities for Visiting the Old City in Bern
- Bern is an hour away from Zürich by train and a two-hour train journey from Geneva. You can even catch a direct train to Bern from Zürich and Geneva international airports. The Old City is a walking distance from Bern’s train station. The tourist information point at the railway station is open daily.
- If you don’t want to walk all the way, trams number 6, 7, 8 and 9 travel from the railway station (Bahnhof) to Zytglogge. Buy a ticket from one of the red ticket machines at tram stops. The “kurtzstrecke” ticket allows you to travel a maximum of five stops. Zytglogge is just two stops from the train station.
- Bern is mainly German-speaking but French and English are widely spoken and understood.