Switzerland is renowned for two things: for its natural beauty and for being expensive. On both of these counts, Bern, its understated capital city, is no exception.
Bern immediately entices you with its perfectly intact medieval centre, a profusion of fountains and 6 km of arcades lining its cobbled streets of grey sandstone buildings. For these reasons, it has earned a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites. Its setting is also stunning. Encircled by the turquoise waters of the River Aare, on a clear day the alps are visible in the distance. As well as acting for a great base to explore the surrounding area, its charm, beauty and an easygoing air are good enough reasons in themselves for placing Bern on your list of must-see places in Switzerland.
Switzerland can be expensive but is easy to spend one day in Bern without handing over any Swiss Francs. If you are staying overnight in the city, when checking in to your hotel you will be given a Bern Ticket for free. This gives you free use of public transport within the city centre and its immediate surroundings for the duration of your stay. Great for exploring all that the city has to offer.
So, without further ado, here are the five best free things to do in one day in Bern.
1. Count the 11 decorative fountains
Although Bern has over 100 fountains, eleven of these retain their 16th century folkloric and historical figures. You will find most of these along Marketgasse where it becomes Gerechtigkeitgasse and Kramgasse. The best-known of these fountains is the Kindlifresserbrunnen on Kornhausplatz, which depicts an ogre snacking on a child.
2. Gawp at the Astronomical Clock performance
The Clock Tower, or Zeitglockenturm, is the focal point of the city. Once forming the main gateway of the city, nowadays its 16th Century ornate astronomical clock is one of Bern’s biggest draws. At four minutes before the hour, crowds of visitors gather to watch its performance. This starts with a rooster and continues with a procession of bears, a jester, Father Time a knight in shining armour and a lion.
In all honesty, I found it underwhelming and I could see some of those gathered turn to each other as if to say “Is that it?” Having said that, a visit to Bern would not be complete without watching this show.
3. Visit the Munster
Before entering Bern’s 15th Century Gothic cathedral take time to examine its main portal. The awe-inspiring collection of 238 individually sculpted figures over the entrance boasts a portrayal of The Last Judgement, with Bern’s mayor ascending to Heaven and his counterpart in Zürich condemned to the fiery depths of Hell. Inside, it’s all soaring arches and lofty stained glass windows.
For a fee, it is also possible to climb the 344-step spiral staircase of the Munster’s 100-foot spire for panoramic views over Bern and the surrounding area.
4. Explore the hiking trails of the Gurten
The Gurten is a small peak, 3km south of the city centre, that offers a semi-rural escape from Bern. It is reached by a funicular. Firstly, take tram #9 which leaves every four minutes from the city centre towards Wabern. Alight at Gurtenbahn and the funicular station is a steep five-minute uphill walk. Both the tram and funicular are included in the Bern Ticket.
Before you board the funicular, make sure you pick up a leaflet at the station listing the walks available, which range from 3 – 6km in length. I chose the Gurten Classic, a hike of just under 4km across alpine meadows and forest trails to Walbern below. The clanging of distant cowbells was as Swiss as cheese and chocolate.
5. Take a spin on the shortest funicular in Europe
Also included in the Bern Ticket is the Marzilibahn, linking the railway station with the Aare. There is a train every few minutes and the journey takes less than a minute. The station is on the terrace of the Bundeshaus, within five minutes’ walk of the railway station.
HOW TO SPEND ONE DAY IN BERN
- To save money on lunch, do as the locals do and pick yourself up a freshly made baguette or salad at the Migros supermarket in the city centre.
- I stayed at the Hotel Bristol, a few minutes stroll from the railway station. Newly refurbished with coolly efficient staff, a comfortable bed and a great location. Not cheap but recommended.
- Bern is a great base from which to explore the surrounding area. For example; Montreux, Vevey, Fribourg and the Bernese Oberland are easy day trips from Bern.
- Bern’s railway station has to rank as one of the grimmest in Europe. At the platform level, it resembles an oppressive concrete bunker. Outside the station in the evening, at times it felt slightly threatening. Although I think that any personal risk is minimal – on the whole, Switzerland is a relatively safe country – I advise that solo female travellers remain vigilant.