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Bern is a popular day trip from Zurich and Geneva, but the Swiss capital has a lot to offer visitors that could easily fill a 2 day itinerary. Bern is a relatively small city compared to others in Switzerland, and with free public transportation passes available from your hotel, it’s easy to get around either on foot, by tram, or by bus. If you only have a short time to spend in Bern, then you’ll probably want to focus on the old town and its main attractions.
The entire old town of Bern has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983, so it’s a haven for people who love history. The cobbled streets, beautiful stone buildings, and unique alleyways, together with the numerous clock towers and historic churches, combine to make the old town unlike any other that you’ll come across in Europe. There are a lot of interesting places to visit in Bern within the old town, so make sure you bring a comfortable pair of walking shoes.
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Attractions in Bern’s Old Town
Bern’s old town, also referred to as the Old City, has a rich history dating back over 800 years. If you’re planning on doing a bit of sightseeing in Bern during your visit, then I would highly recommend basing yourself here, especially if it’s your first time in the city. Here are the top must-see attractions in old town Bern.
One of the main things to see in Bern is the Berner Münster. The cathedral itself is free to enter, and with a history dating back to the 15th century there’s a lot to take in, from the stained glass windows to the beautiful stone arches. If you’re not afraid of heights, for CHF 5 you can take a walk up the stairs to the top of the cathedral for some incredible views of Bern’s old town and the surrounding mountains. This must-see attraction in Bern’s old town is a fantastic way to start off your itinerary.
The city's fountains
If there’s one thing people know about Bern, it’s that it has some pretty impressive water fountains dotted around the city. There are over 100 water fountains within the old town, many of which have been elaborately decorated with unique statues at the top. Of these statues, the most famous is the Ogre Fountain, but you can put together quite a fun walking tour of Bern trying to locate the rest of them. Visiting the fountains is one of the best free things to do in Bern, and the water’s completely drinkable too.
The Kornhauskeller is a unique restaurant in Bern’s old town located underground in a former granary. The building itself dates back to the 17th century, and the interior still retains much of its historical charm. Even if you’re not planning on eating here (because it’s very expensive), it doesn’t hurt to head downstairs and take a quick look at the space, and maybe grab a cocktail at the bar so you can soak up the atmosphere.
There are a few different bridges connecting Bern’s old town to the newer parts of the city, but one that you can’t miss is the Nydeggbrücke. It sits at the eastern tip of the old town, crossing the Aare River, and was completed in 1844 as a result of increasing traffic and tourism to the city. It runs parallel to the older Untertorbrücke which was originally built in 1256 and is the city’s oldest bridge crossing the river. There’s also a beautiful viewpoint halfway across the Nydeggbrücke of the lower part of the city that shouldn’t be missed.
The Nydeggkirche is a beautiful church that was completed in the mid-14th century. During the Protestant Reformation the church was used as a warehouse rather than a place of worship, but today visitors can take part in a service or explore its Gothic interior. The Nydeggkirche is also one of the first churches in Europe to perform a same-sex union so it’s still making its mark on history and is a must-see attraction in old town Bern.
6km of arcades
One of the best things to do in Bern is to explore the 6km of shopping arcades that line the streets of the old town. The shops are completely covered, so it’s a great activity to do if it’s raining, and it makes it easy to get between the main attractions without getting too wet. The medieval storehouses that sit under the arcades have been converted into artisan shops and galleries as well, so there are plenty of shopping opportunities for everyone.
At the very top of the list of the must-see attractions in old town Bern is the Zytglogge, or the clock tower. The clock tower was first built in the 13th century and now stands as one of the city’s most visited landmarks. Every hour you can watch the clock figures perform small movements, but don’t get too excited because it doesn’t last long. If you’re very interested in the mechanisms of the clock itself, there are tour options to go inside the clock as well.
Main shopping streets
There are plenty of streets that make up the old town, and pretty much all of them are lined with unique shops and restaurants. The main shopping streets in Bern are Marktgasse, Kramgasse, Spitalgasse, and Gerechtigkeitsgasse which is where you’ll find most of the old town’s main attractions as well as some popular places to eat in Bern. For example, Kramgasse starts at the Zytglogge and is where Einstein’s House is located.
One of the more unique attractions in Bern’s old town is the Einstein Haus, where Albert Einstein lived for a couple of years. An entry ticket costs CHF 6 which will give you access to the two floors of the building. We were left a bit underwhelmed with this attraction, as the second floor is a very modern exhibition of the history of Einstein rather than a reconstructed traditional room like the first floor. But if you have spare time it’s a cool building to say that you’ve been inside!
The French Church is a less touristy attraction in Bern to visit, as it’s not along one of the main streets, but it boasts a rich history that’s worth exploring. It’s the oldest sacred building in Bern and was built in the 13th century by local Dominicans. It later became known as a safe haven for the Huguenots. The French Church is open daily, and is free to enter, so I would highly recommend taking a look inside because the architecture and art is beautiful.
Museum of Fine Arts
The Kunstmuseum, or the Museum of Fine Arts, was established at the end of the 19th century and holds artwork from the Middle Ages to the present period. If you’re planning to visit Bern for a few days, this is a must-visit museum in the capital where you can gaze at pieces of artwork by Swiss renowned artists as well as those of artists such as Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalì. Entry costs CHF 10 and is definitely worth it if you enjoy art.
The Bundeshaus is the country’s parliament building and is located in the Bundesplatz. The oldest part of the palace dates back to 1852, and free tours are offered from Tuesday to Saturday in different languages for people interested in going inside. At the back of the Bundeshaus is a beautiful space where many locals go to eat lunch and look out over the rooftops of the houses.
If you’ve looked at a map of Bern then you’ll know that the old town is surrounded by the Aare River. If you’re visiting Bern in the summer months you’ll see many locals taking a dip in the river. We visited Bern in October so it was a bit too cold for that, so we enjoyed taking a leisurely stroll along the riverbank instead. The Aare River is one of the most scenic attractions in old town Bern and is beautiful to visit at any time of the day.
As you make your way from Bern’s main train station towards the old town, the first clock tower you’ll come across is the Käfigturm. It’s located along Marktgasse which is extremely busy with people, trams, and buses so getting a photo of the tower can be a bit tricky. The Käfigturm has a history dating back to the 13th century, and has predominantly acted as a prison up until recent times. It’s one of the main Bern tourist attractions inside the old town so don’t forget to see it!
At the far end of the Nydeggbrücke is where the famous Bear Pit is located. Although the pit isn’t usually used to hold bears anymore, visitors will get the chance to see the city’s family of bears in the Bear Park next to the Aare River. The city of Bern is synonymous with the bear, and you’ll see a lot of bear symbolism throughout the city. Ever since the 16th century Bern has had bears within the city but today’s bears have been given a lot more space to roam around and are no longer confined to a concrete pit. The Bear Park is one of the top must-see attractions in old town Bern, so put it at the top of your itinerary.
Where To Stay in Bern’s Old Town
One Suite Hotel ZOLLHAUS
Bern’s old town has a lot of fantastic accommodation options, but I guarantee that none are as unique as One Suite Hotel ZOLLHAUS. This small boutique hotel in Bern offers guests the chance to “sleep with the bears” as it’s located just above the Bear Park - so yes, you have views of the bears walking around! The building it’s situated in was once a toll house, where visitors to the city would need to pay to cross the bridge. It dates back to 1844 and the original foundation has been beautifully preserved. There’s also a very popular restaurant and bar, Altes Tramdepot, on site that you should take full advantage of.
The suite is made up of two storeys, with the living quarters being on the top floor. The bedroom is very spacious with luxurious bedding, with modern amenities mixed in with furnishings that reflect the building’s earlier life. Next to the bedroom is a lovely elevated TV space that can be blocked off with a curtain. Across the small hallway is an enormous bathroom, with a stunning rainforest shower that I guarantee you won’t want to leave. Despite the suite being right next to the road with many tourists walking by, we didn’t have a problem sleeping as barely any noise gets through the windows.
The downstairs space is just as quirky as the upstairs, with a second bathroom. The living room space is very open, with a large window overlooking the Aare River as well as the Nydeggbrücke. The couch can be turned into a second bed if needed and there are dry bags hung up behind the door which guests are free to use to keep their belongings safe when it’s raining. The hallway also came equipped with an umbrella and a tablet attached to the wall where you can look up more information about the city and the nearby restaurant. Unfortunately it was raining during our stay so we couldn’t take advantage of the outdoor terrace, but it’s a nice space to spend some time in the sunshine if you have good weather.
What I loved the most about the downstairs space was the kitchen and dining room. It came equipped with everything we could need for our 2 nights stay, with complimentary beers and lemonade in the fridge, fruit, coffee, teas, a toaster, and plenty of kitchenware. In the morning you can expect a very unique breakfast experience, where the breakfast is served through a small window next to the main door. This will be dropped off at a time of your choosing and left there until you pick it up so you’re not disturbed. The breakfast comes with a wide variety of specially prepared continental items that will definitely fuel you up for the day.
One Suite Hotel ZOLLHAUS is by far the most unique place to stay in Bern’s old town, and is the perfect accommodation option if you want to treat yourself. You’re the only one in the entire building so it really does feel like your own personal space which is hard to get while travelling. With a history dating back over 100 years, and a fantastic up close view of the city’s bears, you’ll be talking about this suite for years to come.
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Although many people plan a day trip to Bern, the small Swiss capital offers visitors a lot in terms of historic attractions and beautiful scenery. This list of the must-see attractions in old town Bern is just a small example of how you can spend 2 days in Bern, but there are many attractions outside of the old town that are worth exploring too. This UNESCO World Heritage Site is as unique as they come, and nowhere else in the world will you come across such a beautifully preserved old town.
Have you wandered the streets of Bern’s old town yet? If not, please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below, or get in touch via email. You can also reach out and follow my travels on Instagram where I’ll be sharing more information about our trip to Bern.