Breathtaking Bern

One of the most understated and underrated capital cities in Europe is worth far more than a quick stopover. Read on to discover why.

A view over Bern's World Heritage- listed Old Town. Photo by Lola Akinmade Åkenström.

A view over Bern’s World Heritage-listed Old Town. Photo by Lola Akinmade Åkenström.

Set on a narrow hill inside a U-bend of the River Aare against a backdrop of the Bernese Alps, Bern is about as picture-perfect as a nation’s capital can get. The cobbled streets and squares of its medieval center are a delight to wander around on foot, while the diverse, German-speaking city of 130,000 people is enlivened by a slew of excellent bars, sidewalk cafés, and restaurants to choose from.

Where to Sleep

Fully restored in 2011, Hotel Schweizerhof (41-31/326-8080; doubles from US$500) combines the elegance of yesteryear with contemporary comforts. Throughout its 158-year history, Bern’s most celebrated hotel has hosted luminaries and stars including Sophia Loren, Peter Ustinov, and French philosopher Albert Schweitzer. Expect stylish rooms, a gorgeous hammam-equipped spa, gourmet Swiss dining at Jack’s Brasserie (try the justly famous Wiener schnitzel), and an expansive rooftop terrace with killer Alpine views. It’s right across from the central train station, so your arrival couldn’t be easier.

The arcaded entrance to Hotel Schweizerhof.

The arcaded entrance to Hotel Schweizerhof. Photo courtesy of the hotel.

On the far end of the peninsula, more intimate accommodations await at the 17-room Hotel Belle Epoque (41-31/311-4336; doubles from US$280). Between its beautiful art nouveau interiors and enviable Old Town location—just a few minutes’ walk from the Berner Münster cathedral and some of the city’s top art galleries—the property is about as authentic and atmospheric as it gets, with genial service to match.

Where to Eat

With Italy less than 120 kilometers to the south, it’s no surprise that Bern has some superb Italian restaurants, and Lorenzini (41-31/318-5067) is easily one of the best. In summer the dining room spills out into a quiet inner courtyard and the lively sidewalk out front. The housemade cappelletti are divine and the meat is grilled to perfection, but leave room for the tiramisu—you won’t regret it.

For a taste of tradition, seek out Gourmanderie Moléson (41-31/311-4463). Here, you can indulge in Swiss fondue made according to the original recipe, with equal parts Gruyère and Vacherin cheeses. Or opt for a taste of neighboring France that goes with the chic brasserie style of the restaurant, evident in dishes such as tarte flambée and steak tartare.

A meal with a view is no rarity in Bern, but few places do it better than Schwellenmätteli (41-31/350-5001), where a covered terrace juts out above the Aare as its aquamarine waters tumble over a weir. Dining here is a feast for the senses, from the sound of the river rushing beneath the timber flooring, to the grandstand view of the cathedral with the massed trees and townhouses on the opposite riverbank. Fish dishes are a specialty, and the restaurant’s Sunday brunch buffet is not to be overlooked.

A tempting grilled salmon at Schwellenmätelli.

A tempting grilled salmon at Schwellenmätelli. Photo by Lauryn Ishak.

Restaurant Rosengarten (41-31/331-3206) is another standout. It’s set at the crest of a sloping, manicured park, allowing patrons to nibble on Mediterranean fare while admiring the spires, domes, and tiled red roofs of the Old Town through floor-to-ceiling windows. It’s the ideal setting for a romantic meal, thanks to an enviable position beside the city’s rose garden (as the name suggests).

Where to Drink

If you want to mix with royalty, politicians, and celebs, then head straight for the Bellevue Bar (41-31/320-4545), next door to the Bundeshaus (Parliament Building) and an unofficial meeting point for the city’s movers and shakers. Sophisticated and elegant in its wood-paneled finery, it’s the perfect spot for a quiet tipple. 

Down by the bear park—more on that later—on the far side of the Aare, Altes Tramdepot (41-31/368-1415) combines a bar, microbrewery, and restaurant all under one roof—plus there’s a fantastic riverside terrace. Four or five house-brewed beers are always on offer; the specialty is Märzenbier, an amber lager with a malty taste.

House-brewed beer at Altes Tramdepot.

House-brewed beer at Altes Tramdepot. Photo courtesy of the restaurant.

There are plenty of good coffee shops in town, but none better than Adrianos (41-31/318-8831), opposite the handsome medieval clock tower known as the Zytglogge. It’s great for watching the world go by as you sip your espresso, or for an early evening aperitif before dinner.

Outside Adrianos

Diners outside Adrianos. Photo by Lauryn Ishak.

Where to Shop

Artisan-made souvenirs are the mainstay at Heimatwerk Bern (41-31/311-3000). Here, all the creative gifts on sale are made in Switzerland, ranging from hand-carved wooden toys to edelweiss-embroidered tablecloths and exquisite glassware. You’re guaranteed not to leave the shop empty-handed.

If you think all Swiss cheese has holes, one look inside Chäsbueb (41-31/311-2271) will prove that this isn’t the case. You can almost smell this shop before you see it, but once inside it’s your eyes that are almost overwhelmed by the immense variety of cheeses on the shelves. With over 250 kinds for sale, and not all of them Swiss, this is a shop to warm any fromage fanatics’s heart. It’s great for a picnic or for taking home—ask them to vacuum-pack your purchases.

Every Tuesday and Saturday morning the heart of Bern fills with market stalls piled high with plump fruit, crisp vegetables, and a host of local delicacies. Most stallholders are local farmers and much of the produce is organic. Head to the Bundesplatz in front of the Parliament Building for fresh produce, but for more delicious edibles the best stalls are along Münstergasse leading down to the cathedral.

What to Do

The best sight in Bern is Bern itself; the entire medieval center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site thanks to its beautiful array of historic sandstone buildings and a street plan that’s changed little in 600 years. The best way to explore the Old Town is on foot, especially as all the streets are lined with arcades so come rain or shine (or snow), you’re always under cover. Dotted around town are a series of whimsically painted medieval fountains (and yes, you can drink the water) depicting everything from a bear in a full suit of armor to an ogre biting the head off a baby.

At the heart of it all is the Berner Münster, a massive gothic cathedral crowned by the tallest church tower in Switzerland (it takes 344 steps to reach the tower’s upper gallery, but the panoramic views are worth the effort). Also worth a look are the painted sculptures adorning the western facade’s main portal, depicting the Last Judgment in all its fiery glory.

The other striking site in the Old Town is the Zytglogge clock tower, a former city gate and prison that has been keeping the Bernese on time since the 15th century. The mechanism within is still original, and must be manually wound by two caretakers every few days. Be sure to arrive several minutes before the hour to witness a parade of moving wooden figures beside the astronomical clock. (Guided visits inside the tower are available by appointment with Bern Tourism.)

Modern art lovers should hop aboard a bus to the Zentrum Paul Klee (41-31/359-0101) on the city’s eastern outskirts. Sporting a wavelike form that blends into the landscape, the Renzo Piano–designed museum contains the world’s largest and most important collection of work by German-Swiss painter Paul Klee, who was born in a small town just north of Bern. Though his highly individualistic style is difficult to pinpoint, Klee’s paintings spanned the radical art movements of the early- to mid-20th-century, including cubism, expressionism, and surrealism.

Contemplating a canvas at Zentrum Paul Klee.

Contemplating a canvas at Zentrum Paul Klee. Photo by Andy Christiani of Getty Images.

And of course you can’t come to Bern without seeing the bears, the symbol of the city. The current family of three brown bears lives in the Bärenpark, just across the Aare from the tip of the Old Town. The attraction has been expanded in recent years to encompass a riverside habitat with the addition of a long pool, where the thick-furred residents can be seen cooling off in the summer.

This article originally appeared in the April/May 2017 print issue of DestinAsian magazine (“The Best of Bern”).

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