When indulging in a snowboarding holiday in the Swiss Alps, we often find ourselves with a day or two to spare before or after making our way to the mountain resort of Wengen. As we fly into Zurich, that’s normally where we spend our extra time – and good times have been had there (I’m looking at you, warehouse district and Hive Club) – but this year we decided to switch it up and spend some time in Switzerland’s quiet, old and totally charming capital.
Bern is about an hour away from Zurich on Switzerland’s heinously expensive rail system. But hey! It’s a good introduction to the country, where everything is heinously expensive (except alcohol, if you happen to be a GCC resident), so may as well get used to it. With a couple of suitcases as well as an unwieldy snowboard bag, it was a relief that our stay, the Hotel Schweizerhof, was an easy jaunt just across the street from the train station (the hotel is also a short walk from the Old City, situated just outside of its border). Marking its 100-year anniversary in 2011 with a top-to-bottom renovation, the hotel today retains a fresh feel and slick, modern design that stands out from the rest of the city’s traditionalist style. My room on the fourth (and highest) floor looked over the Old City’s rooftops and church steeples, and – who knows? – possibly to the Bernese Alps. Sadly, it was so cloudy through my entire stay that visibility did not extend that far. The bed was very cozy, the large rain shower a real luxury after a long day walking the town and the complimentary beer in the fridge an unexpected treat.
If you ask me, you can easily spend a long weekend just lolling about Bern, taking in its cafés, cute little shops and museums – and I hope to return in a summer month to do so again (it appears to be a beautifully green city). But, if you have just a day-and-a-half, that’ll do just as well. Bern’s Old City – and where you’re unlikely to stray far from – is fairly compact, making it easy to thoroughly explore and enjoy. The entire thing is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it’s easy to see why: Everywhere you look, down every lane and up at each steeple is a remarkably well-kept piece of medieval (the architecture and fountains), renaissance (allegorical statues atop some fountains) and gothic (the Münster/cathedral) history.
It is an art history enthusiast’s delight.
Spend your first day lazily taking in the city: walk down the cobbled streets occasionally stopping for some delicious baked apple snacks or into a warm restaurant for a coffee, and along the way it’s hard to miss Old City’s sights – even if you aren’t looking for them. The renaissance fountains – over 100, some of which include decorative statues (my favorite of which is the Kindlifresserbrunnen, or the “Child Eater Fountain” due to its unabashedly macabre depiction of a man or ogre eating a baby) – are most likely the first to be encountered. Moving on, the medieval and fairy tale-esque Zytglogge (clock tower) is one of Switzerland’s oldest clocks and includes an astronomical clock, mechanical figures and lots of color from the squat tower.
Walking along the Aare River, which borders the Old City on three sides, it’s pleasant to cross over the Nydegg Bridge to walk to the Rosengarten atop a hill for a stunning view of the town, and then back down to the brewery in the Altes Tramdepot for a quick drink and a warm up before heading back over the river to the city. At the Altes Tramdepot you’ll also find Bärengraben, the city’s bear pit. I believe it houses a number of bears, but we only saw one, by chance, from across the river for just a minute. I think they must have been hibernating. Bears – real life, statues, paintings, etc – are all over the city and you need only to look to the city’s name to understand why. When the city was to be founded in the 12th century, it’s said that it would be named after the first animal the duke’s hunting party found in the forest to be cleared for his new city. I can only assume everyone breathed a sigh of relief when it wasn’t a pigeon or chipmunk or something.
Back in Old City, the Wasserwerks area is an interesting mix of industrial new and old. Rows of medieval residences look over the riverbanks while creative workshops and design agencies fill warehouse space – it looked like a very cool place to have to go to work. Just above lies the Berner Münster with a courtyard (with table tennis!) overlooking the Aare and surrounding stately homes. It’s free to view the interior of the cathedral (I think 5 CHF to walk up the bell tower), which took 400 years to complete, and includes lots of gothic goodies like the intricate Last Judgement sculptures at the main entrance, morbid stained glass windows and laced vaulted ceilings.
When evening falls, try your luck in the Grand Casino (then, when you win big, walk right across the plaza to Hermès to spend it all). Or you can leave the risk for another and simply lounge at a bar or restaurant (at least in winter, I would recommend reserving a day in advance for dinner, as most restaurants – many are very small – seem to be fully booked for dinner from the morning). What you see on the street is not all that’s on offer. With many bars and restaurants situated underground it’s wise to keep a lookout for open cellar doors listing dinner menus and bar hours. One of the larger and more impressive of these is the Kornhauskeller in Kornhausplatz. Walking down the steps into what was once a granary, a stately, cavernous space with painted vaulted ceilings quickly fills up from the moment it opens in the evening, with everyone from tourists to friends to businessmen enjoying the warm atmosphere.
It’s easy to spend the morning of another day across the Kirchenfeld Bridge. First, put aside a couple of hours to tour the Historical Museum of Bern. Inside a large building modeled after historic castles, the museum’s lower floors are (in my opinion) the most fascinating. Telling a rather thorough history or Bern’s beginnings, with old books, lengthy family trees, artifacts from residents’ homes and Burgundian tapestries.
Before heading out of town, try lunch at the nearby – and festively lit – Schwellenmätteli on the Aare’s shores (or the “Bernese Riviera” *cough* as they call it). Here, a few restaurants dish out everything from fondue to fish in sophisticated surrounds with lovely river and cathedral views – and fat, white snowflakes quickly falling during our visit adding a nice wintery touch for desert dwellers.
Bern was an unexpected surprise. I figured it would be a pretty little stop – photos I had seen online made it clear I could expect as much. But what I didn’t see coming which just how dripping in history, beauty and atmosphere it would be. With a couple days, or even a train journey passing through with a few hours to spare, Bern is well worth a traveler’s attention.