A visit to Bern, a picturesque medieval town nestled at the foothills of the Alps is so energizing, unique and the perfect town for me to visit on my first trip to Switzerland. I spent a few days in the city, wandering its cobblestone streets, trapezing up and down the hillsides, and crisscrossing over all its bridges. This post is a compilation of all my adventures, highlighting the best recommendations for what I’d do again if I only had 24 hours!
You must must must MUST wake up and watch the sunrise over the mountains. I stayed at the Hotel Allegro just across the Kornhausbrücke bridge and paid extra for a room facing the city and it was worth EVERY PENNY. Watching the sky transform as the mountains and the city of Bern change colors from navy to lavender to peach is magical! I watched the sun rise and sun set every day from my balcony while I was there. Lauding from Houston where our city is flat and few buildings date before the mid-1900s, I fell in love with the picturesque Bern skyline of medieval row houses, bell towers and church spires winding their way through the morning light.
Next, we hopped over to the Bern Rose Garden to continue to see the morning evolve and get some fabulous views of the city built on a peninsula. Formerly a cemetery for the lower Bern population, the Rose Garden is now a public park overlooking the city. We wanted to visit the park in the early morning because in the photo guide recommendations from the city of Bern (click here to see them all!) the sunlight highlights the city best in the morning.
We were able to easily walk the few blocks to the Rose Garden from Hotel Allegro, although there are a few bus lines that pass by the block as well. Bern is incredibly walkable with the majority of the city centered around a peninsula that’s barely 1 mile wide and .5 mile long. With our stay at Hotel Allegro we also had passes for access to public transportation which we used a few times throughout the trip.
Although in mid-February the Rose Garden boasted more frost than roses, the city views made up for any lack of flowers! We grabbed breakfast at the Rose Garden Restaurant and sat in the interior terrace to enjoy our food and the continued scenery. We each got the “small breakfast” which consisted of croissant, brioche bread, and classic crusty Swiss wheat bread (it always seems to be crusty) with jam, butter, coffee, tea and orange juice and then split a cheese plate (Swiss cheese holla!!) with some antipasto items like olives, sun dried tomatoes and arugula. All in all a very typical European breakfast with the usual elevated Swiss price tag. The meal cost about $30 for two people. Views were totally worth it and my boyfriend and I both agreed that this meal was the highlight of our trip and even debated returning a second time.
It’s rumored that Albert Einstein and his wife Elsa, residents of Bern from 1902 to 1909, loved to visit the Rose Garden. And Bern leans pretty hard into the fact that Einstein once lived there. Not only can you visit his former apartment Einsteinhaus, but you can also go on a hunt to find all the Einstein benches the city (we found one at the Rose Garden!) as well as visit a coffee shop named in his honor–Einstein au Jardin.
We then made our way down the mountain to see the Bern Bear Pit. Spoiler they were hibernating in February but normally there are three bears roaming around a 6000 square meter enclosure. Bears are the symbol of the city of Bern, which according to legend dates back to 1224 hunting a bear as his first animal. You’ll see bear images incorporated into everything from statues, stone carvings, fountains (there’s some weird ones!) business logos, the bus system and more. Had we had more time in the city we would have grabbed a beer at Altes Tramsdepot, across from the bear pit and known for its Canadian influence.
Next we walked across the Nydeggbrücke bridge and into the medieval city. We grabbed a coffee at the Einstein au Jardin (such a cute coffee shop!) and visited the Cathedral of Bern when it opened at noon. I’m sure art scholars out there will scold me, but once you’ve seen one Gothic church you’ve seen them all. They’re impressive every time though and you have to be amazed at the craftsmanship of people who created 400 feet vaulted ceilings in the dark ages. The cathedral is the culmination of artists life work—one masonry worked for 30 years (YEARS!!) on just the entrance way. So crazy to imagine. Also, curious to think about how technology is going to start impacting the way we create art and lasting masterpieces—will we start 3D printing cathedrals?! A conversation for another time…
The cobblestone city center of Bern has three major streets and is packed with shops and restaurants. The covered arcades are the largest in the world (6km!) and date back to the Middle Ages. Shopping didn’t interest us, as we preferred to save our dollars for food and wine. But it was so cool to see the underground cellars that were built into all the buildings. We even visited a few!
Whenever searching for good restaurants, I do some research online to see what’s good (and where to find vegan options) and then couple that research with looking to see where the locals go since they’re probably not the ones filling out the reviews in English on Trip Advisor. I’ve more or less mastered the planning a trip in 2 hours or less process and always find good places to go (click here for that blog post and my travel tips!). My boyfriend and I shared a Google Maps list with eating and tourist destinations flagged in the area.
For lunch, we grabbed quick sandwiches at Adriano’s Bar & Cafe one day and Tidbits the next. Tidbits is a vegetarian and vegan buffet, where they weigh your food before you pay (think like a Whole Foods salad bar) and they—wait for it—offer you free tap water!! Seriously, after a week of indulging on heavy bread and cheese the fresh ingredients in the mushroom and green bean salads, artichoke gnocchi, spicy harissa and seaweed glass noodles were SO refreshing. Tidbits was actually so amazing, we planned our return train trip from Grindelwald to have enough time in the Bern train station to go there again.
One thing we found was that even the simplest food in Switzerland tends to ring up at the high end of the spectrum. It’s not super unreasonable, but adds up over time. When I went the USD and Swiss Franc (CHF) had more or less the same value, but a simple cup of black coffee could easily be 5 CHF and a sandwich 14 CHF. Although we didn’t go, these cafes Ringgenberg and Café des Pyrénées were always packed with people enjoying an afternoon wine or coffee on the patio in the sun.
After lunch, we wandered across the Kirchenfeldbrüecke bridge to see the museums. Bern has a few like Kunsthalle (art) and Bern History Museum which could be of interest, but we were more interested in feeling out the vibe of the town and seeing more of the city. So we hopped on a random bus and rode it to its end destination and then took it back into town. It was an excellent way to get out of the cold (albeit the weather was SUPER mild when we went—no snow or anything) and rest our feet. I did a similar thing in Luxembourg which was quite fun as well.
As Bern is a relatively small city, the remainder of the afternoon was spent exploring other books and crannies of the city and checking off other photo destination recommendations from the city of Bern like the Zeitglockenturm clock tower which used to be the entrance of the city in 1191 – 1256, the Kornhauskeller which used to be a corn cellar that’s now refurbished into a fancy restaurant.
One thing that was not on the list, but I absolutely adored was a visit to the Bern Botanical Gardens. We stumbled upon this after crossing the Lorrainebrücke bridge and taking the staircase down towards the river. I loved the green houses with contained plants from tropical to desert like ambient. Again another great way to get out of the cold, see something fun, and not spend money!
If I spent more time in Bern, I would definitely bring my running shoes and take a lap around the river. A few trails trace around either side the Aare river and plenty of runners were seen getting their mileage in.
Plan your day accordingly so that you’re either watching the sunset from a high point, like the terrace of Hotel Allegro (open to the public), the Rose Garden, or a bridge because again the sunlight fading highlights the Alps and the city towers in the most magical ways! Please enjoy these pictures of us being cheesy and romantic on the Kornhausbrücke bridge.
For dinner, there’s only one option in Switzerland—FONDUE. Just kidding there’s way more than that, but if you didn’t try the queso fondue in Switzerland can you really say you lived? Be sure to make a reservation because most places are filled up between 7pm and 8pm. Our first night, we went to Gormanderie Moléson’s and enjoyed non traditional Swiss fair— fish in curry sauce and vegetable medley, accompanied by beer and crusty bread.
The second night we had to get our fondue fix and after some research we landed on one that we had passed by several times and just fell in love. I don’t know the name but it was near Klotzlikeller. Nearly every Swiss restaurant has fondue on the menu and after trying it, I think it’d be pretty hard to mess up. basically, it’s Swiss version of queso —traditionally they use Gruyère cheese and Emmentaler or another cheese that varies by region. It’s melted in a pot over a flame accompanied by bread, boiled potatoes and pickled accouterments like onions, pickles, and apples. It’s hearty and delicious and you can add-on things like meat which you can cook table side as well. Pro tip: order a salad beforehand because lawd knows your gonna need some green in your life to balance out the pot of molten cheese you’re soon to consume. Also some champagne to wash it down! We got a bottle for $50 at dinner. And across the board alcohol was the only thing that’s cheap / reasonably priced in Switzerland. Take advantage of this!
After dinner, grab a post dinner drink and dessert at Lieblings. We stumbled upon this place on our first night, fell in love and had to return the second night (I also left my Saint Bernard’s hat there—but still). Leiblings opens at 5pm serves coffee and alcohol. On the weekends they have live music and board games to play. We nibbled on chocolate and apple cake, sipped on coffees, and played German Scrabble (the letters are all different!) and Connect Four. Pro tip: make sure you have some cash because small places like this do not take credit card. Also when you go to coffee shops, treat them like you would a bar in America, where you open a tab and don’t pay until the end.
The night life in Bern is actually quite bumping. Wandering the streets we were able to identify a few places that looked fun. We continued our evening at by getting a beer nearby at Bistro Blue Cat (fitting for me). We considered going to Les Amis next door (open to 3am on weekends with a club and special cocktail menu) or grabbing another drink at Kreissaal. Throughout our trip, we enjoyed sampling whatever beer the bars had on tap—usually a local variety from the region. Again, Swiss Francs came in handy as none of these places took card.
I checked many things off my Bern bucket list and would hands down go again to this medieval town to see the city during the other seasons—actual winter weather with snow covered buildings and/or the Rose Garden filled with roses!