Things to do in Bern, Switzerland

Bern, the capital of Switzerland, is a beautiful and tranquil city full of museums, churches and historic buildings.

Established in the 12th century, and named after a bear found in a nearby forest, Bern's most important building is the imposing Federal Palace. Open to the public when Parliament is not sitting, this glass-domed structure is full of stained glass windows and statues. Visitors must also take in Bern's world heritage status Old Town, with its cobbled streets, arcades and fountains, and cross the turquoise River Aare to see four bears in Bern's Bear Park (Barenpark).

Those looking for culture will find it in Bern's Fine Arts Museum (Kunstmuseum), the Historical Museum of Bern, the Albert Einstein Museum (dedicated to Bern's most famous resident), the Paul Klee Centre, and the Natural History Museum.

Other must-see attractions are Bern's Cathedral (Bernmunster), complete with 330-foot bell tower and high-quality carvings, and Bern's Rose Garden (Rosengarten). Bern also offers top hotels, high class cuisine and shopping, and a number of famous festivals, such as the Gurtenfestival and Bern Jazz Festival.

1. The Federal Palace (Bundeshaus or Parliament Building)

The Bundeshaus or Federal Palace, home to Switzerland's legislature (© floofy, CCASA2.0 Generic).
The dome at the centre of Bern's Federal Palace.

Built between 1894 and 1902, under the supervision of architect Hans Wilhelm Auer, the imposing Federal Palace is the national parliament of Switzerland.

The building is crowned by an imposing 64 metre-high green dome, decorated with stained glass windows depicting the coats of arms of Switzerland's cantons and a central mosaic of the Federal coat of arms with the motto ‘One for all and all for one’.  

Underneath the dome is found the Bundeshaus' central hall, separating the two legislative chambers (the National Council and Council of States). Don't miss the hall's stained-glass windows illustrating Switzerland’s four regions and their main economic activities. 

Another must-see is the huge statue of the three confederates, Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden, the founders of modern Switzerland (who in 1291 swore the confederation oath on the Rutli meadow).

The National Council is the larger of Switzerland's legislative chambers, with 200 members elected under a system of proportional representation (with one representative for each 40,000 or so voters).  Its chamber is dominated by a large fresco by Giron representing the Confederation’s cradle. 

With 46 members, the Council of States is much smaller (most cantons are permitted to send two representatives); its chamber is decorated with a large Albert Welto mural depicting a people’s assembly in the Nidwalden canton.  

After each election, the members of the two chambers merge to  form the Federal Assembly, responsible for electing the executive (called the Federal Council) and appointing Supreme Court judges.  The Federal Council comprises seven members, from whom the Federal Chancellor is elected.

The adjacent newly renovated Parliament Square (Bundesplatz) is paved with granite slabs from the Alps and contains 26 hidden water-jets (one for each canton).  Entry to the building is free and tours are available when Parliament is in recess

2. Bern's Bear Park (Bärenpark)

The Bear Park in Bern. The Barenpark, Berne

Bern (or Berne) was founded by Duke Berthold V of Zähringen in 1191.

Legend has it that the Duke named Bern after a bear he encountered whilst hunting in the surrounding forest (one of the German words for 'bear' is 'bären'). (Another less romantic theory is that Bern was named after Verona, the word for which was Bern in Middle High German.)

By 1220 the bear had made its way onto Bern's coat of arms, and in 1513 the Bernese returned victorious from the Battle of Novara carrying a bear. The bear had, therefore, become synonymous with Bern.

Bern's first Bear Park (aka the Bear Pit, Bärenpark or Bärengraben) opened in 1857. Found at the far end of the Nydeggbrucke, next to the River Aare, the original bear pit is listed as an object of national cultural significance.

Today, the bear pit and interconnected 6,000 square metres of enclosure house four brown bears: Byörk and Finn and their two cubs, born in December 2009, Ursina and Berna. They are often to be found play fighting in their grassy enclosure, swimming in the 'bear bath', or eating apples, melons or other vegetarian fare.

where? Bear Park (Bärenpark), Grosser Muristalden 6, 3006, Old Town, Bern.

when? Daily, 8am to 5pm.

£$€¥ Free.

3. Einstein Museum and Historical Museum of Bern

Bern's Historical Museum The Einstein Museum is one of Bern's top attractions.

The Historical Museum of Bern (aka Historiches Museum Bern and Musée d'Histoire de Berne), incorporating the Einstein Museum, is the second largest museum in Switzerland. 

Housed in an imposing 1894 Andre Lambert designed building, based on historic castles from the 15th and 16th centuries, the Museum is found on the Helvetiaplatz (a short walk across the River Aare from the Old Town). 

The Historical Museum's permanent collection displays 500,000 objects dating from the Stone Age, arranged into eight galleries such as ‘Stone Age, Celts and Romans', 'From the Middle Ages to the Ancien Regime', ‘Bern’s Silver Treasure’, ‘Captured Treasure—Court Art in Bern’ and ‘Bern and the 20th Century’.  

Highlights include objects from the burial site of a Bronze Age leader from nearby Thun, Flemish tapestries from the 15th century, a Königsfelden diptych painted for the King of Hungary, a Bodhisattva Buddha from South Asia, a Japanese Daimyo suit of armour and a Hawaiian feather cloak collected by Captain Cook. 

The Einstein Museum is devoted to the life of the world's most famous modern scientist.  Einstein (1879-1955) lived in Bern between 1903 and 1909, working as a patent office clerk and then as a lecturer at the University of Bern; it was during this period that Einstein published his 1905 Annus Mirabilis papers on photoelectric effect, Brownian motion, the special theory of relativity and E = mc2

The Museum traces the different aspects of his life, in 1000 square metres of exhibition space, with over 550 original objects, 70 films, and a number of animations. 

Highlights include Einstein’s (average) school reports, numerous letters sent or received by Einstein (such as a letter warning President Roosevelt of German nuclear capabilities in 1939 and a letter inviting Einstein to become the President of Israel in 1952), a gallery devoted to Eistein’s many lovers, interactive displays explaining the special and general theories of relativity, and Einstein’s 1921 Nobel prize certificate.

where? Helvetiaplatz 5, 3005 Bern. T: 031 350 7711. E: [email protected]

when? 10 am to 5 pm, six days a week. Closed Mondays.

£$€¥ Adults: CHF18; Children (6-16): CHF8; Concessions: CHF13.

4. The Kunstmuseum (Museum of Fine Arts)

The Kunstmuseum's permanent collection includes works by Monet (pictured), Manet, Pissarro, van Gogh, Cezanne and Gaugin. Cezanne self-portrait, Kunstmuseum Bern

The Kunstmuseum (aka the Museum of Fine Arts) holds over 3,000 paintings in its permanent collection and is Switzerland’s oldest and premier fine arts gallery. 

Housed in the late 19th century Stettler building in the northern part of Bern’s old town, the Kunstmuseum’s works range from the late middle ages to the present. 

Works by many of the world’s top artists are on display, such as

  • Ferdinand Holder’s The Consecrated One and Jungfrau and Silverhorn, as Seen from Murren,
  • Pablo Picasso’s The Sleepy Drinker, from his blue period, together with a a number of works from his cubism days,
  • Claude Monet’s Ice Drift (pictured)),
  • Vincent van Gogh’s Head of a Peasant Woman with White Cap and Still Life with Two Sunflowers,
  • Alfred Sisley’s Langland Bay,
  • Paul Gaugin's When Will You Marry?,
  • one of Paul Cezanne's self portraits, and
  • Amedeo Modigliani’s Portrait of Pinchus Kremenge

The Kunstmuseum runs two or three temporary exhibitions alongside its permanent collection, usually with a contemporary theme, and has an excellent café/bar. 

where? Kunstmuseum, Hodlerstrasse 8-12, 3000 Bern 7. T 031 328 09 44. E [email protected]

when? 10 am to 5 pm, six days a week. Late opening on Tues until 9 pm. Closed Mondays.

£$€¥ Adults: CHF7; Children (6-16): Free; Concessions: CHF5.

5. Bern Münster (Bern Cathedral and Cathedral of St Vincent)

Bern's beautiful cathedral.

Bern Münster (also known as Bern Cathedral or the Cathedral of St Vincent) is found in the heart of the Old Town next to the River Aare.

This three-naved protestant cathedral is of Gothic construction and built of sandstone from the nearby Ostermundingen. Construction commenced in 1421, under the supervision of Strasbourg master stonemason Matthäus Ensinger, with the tower not completed until 1893. The Münster is 276 feet long, 110 feet wide, and 330 foot tall at the apex of its tower.

The belltower is open to those prepared to climb the 254 steps to its upper viewing gallery. The views over Bern and to the Swiss Alps make the effort worthwhile.

On a clear day the Wetterhorn, Schreckhorn, Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau are all visible. The belltower is home to the largest bell in the country, weighing 10.5 tonnes and rung every day at noon and 6pm.

The Münster's main entrance displays the Last Judgment, a collection of over 200 wood and stone sculptures. Spared the violence visited on much of the interior during the reformation, this Edhard Küng work depicts sinners (naked) and the righteous (clothed) surrounding Michael the Archangel.

The Münster's stained glass windows are another principal draw. Dating from 1444-50, most feature heraldic symbols and religious imagery. The most striking is the Matter Chapel's Dance of Death; this 16th century work by Niklaus Manuel depicts skeletons symbolising death claiming the lives of the working classes and the great and good. Such works were common at the time of the Black Death.

Services are held on Saturdays and Sundays, with the Münster hosting concerts and cultural events throughout the year. The adjacent Münsterplatz, a pretty cobbled square, holds an annual Christmas market and is home to the 1545 Moses Fountain.

where? Bern Münster, Münsterplatz 1, Postfach 532, 3000 Bern 8.

when? May-early Oct: 10am to 5pm Mon to Sat; 11.30am to 5pm Sun. Other times: 12pm to 4pm Mon to Fri; 10am to 5pm Sat; 11.30am to 4pm Sun.

£$€¥ Free.

6. Bern Communications Museum

The Bern Museum for Communication.

Founded in 1907, the 2,000 square metre Museum of Communications (aka Museum für Kommunikation) attracts over 80,000 visitors each year. 

The Museum’s permanent collection comprises three exhibitions.  The first, So Near and Yet So Far: People and Their Media, charts how people have communicated over history.

Starting with face-to-face communication (such as body language and how  interaction differs between cultures), the exhibition then examines postal services, Samuel Morse's telegraph, Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, radio and television, and finally the internet. 

The second, As Time Goes Byte: Computing and Digital Culture,  begins by taking a look at the first computers; the principal exhibit is the first Swiss computer, ERMETH, which occupies 50 square metres but offers less performance than a modern pocket calculator!

Subsequent galleries are devoted to silicon, the binary code, the uses to which computers are now put, and to displaying a ‘Living Room of the Future’. 

The final exhibition, Imagery that Sticks: the World of Stamps, is the museum’s smallest.  It is devoted to Swiss stamps, many of which are blown up to make their images appear life-sized.  Overall, the Museum's interactive displays, games and workshops make this a great attraction for children. 

where? Museum of Communication, Helvetiastrasse 16, 3005 Bern. T. +41 031 357 55 55. E. [email protected].

when? Tuesdays to Sundays 10am to 5pm; closed Mondays.

£$€¥ Adults: CHF15; Children (6-16 years old): CHF3.

7. The Old Town

Bern's Old Town

Surrounded on three sides by the turquoise-watered River Aare, the medieval centre of Bern (aka the Old Town, Old City and Altstadt) was awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 1983. 

The Old Town’s three principal streets run east from Bern’s Clock Tower.  The wide, cobbled central street, running downhill to the Nydegg Church, is bordered by four-storey arcaded limestone buildings; their lower floors are filled with scores of independent shops, selling products ranging from high-class coffee, to antiques, books and couture (described by the tourist information centre as the longest covered shopping promenade in the world). 

One of the upper floors was inhabited by Albert Einstein between 1903 and 1905 (his 'annus mirabilis'); it has since been turned into the Einstein House Museum.

Don’t miss the numerous public fountains found at regular intervals in the middle of the street, dating from the 16th century and crowned with statues representing biblical scenes or concepts such as justice.  The most famous statues include the Simsonbrunnen (depicting Samson killing a lion), the Zahringerbrunnen (a bear in full armour) and Lauferbrunnen (the Runner Fountain). 

The Clock Tower (or Zytglogge), dating from 1220, is one of Bern’s iconic symbols.  Found above the Old Town’s western gate tower, this 75-foot structure displays a large astronomical clock made between 1527-1530.  A troupe of mechanical figures—including a rooster, fool, knight and piper—put on a show at three minutes to the hour. 

Visitors can climb the 130 worn steps to the Zytglogge’s observation platform, a former women’s prison, which offers great views over the rooftops and towards the Alps.

Other attractions are Bern Munster and the Parliament Buildings, described above, and the many pretty bridges crossing the Aare, including the Untertorbrucke (a stone arch bridge, 52 metres in length, constructed between 1461 and 1489). 

8. Rosengarten(Rose Garden)

Bern's Rosengarten

To the east of the Old Town and Aare Loop is found the tranquil Rose Garden (Rosengarten). 

Found at the top of a steep hill (a ten minute walk from the Bear Garden), and occupying four acres, the Rosengarten was a cemetery between 1765 and 1877 and has been a public park since 1913. 

It contains formal and walled gardens (with 223 varieties of roses, together with 200 iris and 28 Rhododendron species), ponds, fountains, lawns and a number of impressive sculptures

The Rose Garden also offers stunning views over the Old Town and to the Alps and Jura, along with the excellent Restaurant Rosengarten (which offers good value food throughout the day inside or on its large sun terrace). 

where? Rosengarten, Alter Aargauerstalden 31b, 3006 Bern. T. +41 (0)31 331 32 06

when? The Restaurant Rosengarten is open from early March to November.

£$€¥ Free. A meal for two at the Restaurant Rosengarten will cost from CHF80.

9. Paul Klee Centre (Zentrum Paul Klee)

The Paul Klee Centre, displaying work from this Swiss/German modern artist (©  Sjordi at en.wikipedia, distributed under a CCASA3.0 licence).

Paul Klee (1879-1940) was a painter born to a German father and Swiss mother.

His unique style transcended surrealism, abstraction, cubism and expressionism, and is particularly well-known for combining different media into the same work (eg, paint, ink, pencil, pastel etc).

His works are exhibited around the world, including at New York's MoMA and Guggenheim museums. Klee was also a highly respected theorist, with his Writings on Form and Design often favourably compared with da Vinci's Treatise on Painting.

The Paul Klee Centre was opened in 2005. Its permanent collection includes around 4,000 works by Klee (predominantly pencil drawings and watercolours). Because many of these works are photosensitive, they are exhibited on a rolling basis—with around 120 to 150 on display at any one time.

The permanent collection includes Dame mit Sonnenschirm (Woman with Parasol, pencil on paper), In den Häusern von St. Germain (Houses of St Germain, watercolour on paper) and Tod und Feuer (Death and Fire, oil on jute).

Zentrum Paul Klee is housed in a structure designed by renowned Italian architect Renzo Piano (1937-), designer of the Pompidou Centre and London's Shard skyscraper. It takes the form of three undulating hills or waves (pictured), and incorporates a 150-metre long glass facade which is 19 metres tall at its highest points.

The centre also houses temporary exhibitions, musical events and conferences.

where? Zentrum Paul Klee, Monument im Fruchtland 3, Postfach 3000 Bern 31. T: + 41 (0)31 359 01 01.

when? Tuesdays to Sundays 10am to 5pm; closed Mondays.

£$€¥ Adults: CHF20; Seniors: CHF18; Students: CHF8; Children (6-16 years old): CHF5.

10. The Natural History Museum

Bern's Natural History Museum.

Founded in 1832, Bern's Natural History Museum, affiliated with the University of Bern, attracts 100,000 visitors annually.

Start your trip by meeting Barry, a preserved Great St Bernard alpine rescue dog who lived between 1800-1814 and was responsible for saving over 40 lives.

The Museum's other principal draws include its 220 dioramas. The most popular are devoted to preserved big game shot by Swiss painter Bernhard von Wattenwyl in the early 20th century (including tigers, rhinos, pandas, orangutans and snow leopards).

Another must-see is the Stones of the Earth collection, which exhibits alpine minerals, the Planggenstock giant crystals, gold mined in the Swiss Alps, and a number of meteorites.

Other notable attractions include the country's biggest collection of animal skeletons (including that of an Asian elephant), the C'est la vie exhibit (describing the cycle of life), Beetles & Co (giving insight into the world of invertebrates) and Fins, Feet Wings (devoted to evolution).

An interesting and educational activity for all the family.

where? Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum), Berastrasse 15, 3005 Bern. T: 031 350 7111. E: [email protected]

when? Mon: 2pm - 5pm. Tues, Thurs Fri: 9am to 5pm. Weds: 9am to 6pm. Sat, Sun:10 am to 5pm.

£$€¥ Adults: CHF8; Concessions: CHF6; Children: Free.