With great restaurants, serious shopping cred, beautiful architecture and plenty of sites to see, why is this hip little city so under-rated? Competing with its larger siblings to the north and south the Swiss capital often gets bypassed by travelers in favor of the scenic cities surrounding it. But Bern can more than hold its own against Zurich or Geneva. Here are ten reasons why Bern should be on everyone’s travel ticket.
It’s hipster friendly
With around 140,000 people (350,000+ counting the suburbs), Bern has a laid-back, casual feel to it that Switzerland’s moneyed larger cities lack. There’s even a name for this—Entschleunigung—that loosely means “deceleration.” The city is full of people chilling in cafés, chatting under the shopping arcades or relaxing with a beer in hand on a rooftop lounge. Slow down, embrace the pace, and join the crowd.
You won’t break the bank
Although Bern is Switzerland’s capital city, it is smaller than a few other Swiss metropolises, making it more affordable for cash-conscious travelers. Hotels, whether large and luxe or cute and cozy, can be half the price of a property in a larger center. Those who might not be able to afford a five-star hotel elsewhere might be able to do so in Bern. The Schweizerhof Bern, for instance—a five-star superior property known for its posh, popular Lobby-Lounge-Bar, Jack’s Brasserie with 14 Gault-Millau points, the Sky Terrace, a rooftop lounge overlooking the city, and cool contemporary rooms—starts at CHF 400 less than a comparable hotel in Zurich. Add in a free public transportation card that includes transit to and from the airport—handed out by every hotel in the city—and it is a whopping savings.
It’s no surprise, then, that restaurants, too, can be a great bargain. Run by young chefs who are churning out delectable dishes, some of the city’s best spots can be found in the Old Town, such as the contemporarily-styled Casa Novo serving Mediterranean fare and, farther out in the Schönhalde neighborhood, the glass-enclosed Restaurant Schöngrün, located next to the über-modern Zentrum Paul Klee. Here the chef builds his meticulous creative cuisine at the open kitchen counter, a feast for all of the senses. This chef is bound for greatness, and a meal can be experienced at a fraction of the cost than if he were in any other Swiss city but Bern.
The Old Town is a showcase of local shops
Bern’s Old Town is a designated UNESCO heritage site and its four miles (six kilometers) of covered medieval arcades, or lauben, are downright quaint. They give the city center much of its character and, rather than being full of recognizable brand names, they are jam-packed with local merchants selling everything from fashionista-ready clothes to handmade bon-bons and chocolates that compete with Bern-born Toblerone chocolates.
Bears are the official city mascot
The Bernese love their bears—it’s their namesake according to local legend. The founder of Bern, Berthold V, Duke of Zähringen, is said to have shot a growling looming beast of a bear back in 1224, give or take. Bern was named after this heroic deed (bär is bear in German) and started keeping these shaggy creatures in a Bear Park in 1513 as an ode to braving wild animals. Since then, in addition to the mammoth 6,000-sq-m BärenPark, there is Bear’s Square (Bärenplatz), bears as fountain figures, facade decorations, at the clock tower (Zytglogge), bears made out of gingerbread and chocolate… It is even the city’s heraldic animal, seen on flags throughout town.
You can follow your nose
Every city worth its salt offers numerous types of tours so visitors can get to know the place, but never one so intriguing: the Scent Tour is based on the link between scent and memory. During the tour roam the scenic streets with a guide and stop to smell, if not the roses, the sulfur, violet, incense and licorice. During each stop, a scent is brought out to sniff, and the connection is given to that particular spot and time in history, cementing each moment in the mind. And at the end–scent aficionados will love this–head to the perfume atelier of Brigitte Witschi, Art of Scent, to create an individual, one-of-a-kind perfume made with the Bern notes used in the tour.
Onions are cause for celebration
Moving from sublime scents to smelly ones, any city that celebrates these sulfurous tuberous vegetables is worth knowing. Imagine a cold, dark morning in very late November. It’s a Monday, perhaps the most dreaded day of the week for most. And it’s 5 a.m. In the Old Town, the streets are crowded, Glühwein is being sold out of a market stall and braids of onions and garlic are hanging from every spare square of space. This is the Zibelemärit, or Onion Market, held the fourth Monday of November, and it’s a cause for celebration in Bern. Farmers bring in over 50 tons of raw onions to sell and almost every restaurant uses it as an excuse to flood the city with savory onion tarts and satisfying onion soups.
The nightlife is fun and affordable
Bern has some sweet spots for enjoying either a classic cocktail or a classical performance. In the Old Town, places like Abflugbar, found down the stairs of an old storage cellar, and Kornhaus Galerie Bar, in the vaulted cellar of a former Granary, are two of the most picturesque lounges to be found anywhere, with a bevy of beverages on offer. For some entertainment to go with that whiskey sour, or a double espresso if preferred, head to the Café-Bar Parterre in the Länggasse (students) district. Indie bands ranging from folk to rock, readings, and small plays are to be found in this stylish café, coffee joint and bar.
For classical music aficionados Bern has options that are shockingly affordable. Check out the Kultur Casino Bern for 18-karat concerts that can cost only CHF 15 to start.
It’s all relative
Einstein took great pleasure roaming the streets of Bern and created some of his most important work here (hello, Theory of Relatively). Through written records, original memorabilia, documentaries and animations that explain Einstein’s experiments, the Einstein Museum is for those who want to know the ins and outs of his work and of the time he lived. Einstein House is the third-floor apartment where Einstein lived between 1903-1905 and is another spot to try to get into the mind of the man. (To rest up after the visit, Einstein House is also the stylin’ home of Einstein Kaffe & Rauchsalon.)
The canton is home to Switzerland’s design capital
The municipality of Langenthal—in the canton of Bern—is deemed to be Switzerland’s design capital. From case goods to the rag trade, Langenthal is design central. The best way to learn about the history and current goings-on is with the DesignTour Langenthal. There are some choices to be made here: Pick an interest to take the self-guided Showroom Tour and head out to the factory showrooms to see the collections. More in-depth, the Factory Tours are guided and visit either two factories (Factory Tour Light) or three. During these tours a behind-the-scenes look is given of the production floors and showrooms and include lunch.
There’s no need to be shy
Since 1782 the Bernese have been quietly swimming in the Marzili, thought to be the prettiest river swimming pool in the world, until 1978 when they decided to flaunt it while they float, by eliminating the topless bathing ban. A bit self-consciously, they dipped their toes into the clear show-it-all waters. The first Swiss city to allow this degree of body display, the Marzili quickly became a hip hotbed in which to lounge on the lido with a cold one in hand. Still suitable for young and old, though, locals love to chill on the deck and chill off in the water. Visitors are welcome because the more the merrier.