Switzerland is renowned for two things: its exceptional beauty and for being expensive. On both of these counts, Bern is no exception.
UNESCO-listed Bern seduces you with its medieval centre, a profusion of fountains and 6km of arcades lining cobbled streets of grey sandstone buildings. It is encircled by the turquoise waters of the River Aare and, on a clear day, the Alps are visible in the distance.
Like the rest of Switzerland, Bern is pricey. But is easy to spend one day in Bern without handing over any Swiss Francs.
I know because I did it.
Make the most of your time in Switzerland’s capital with the ten best free things to do in Bern.
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Why You Should Stay Overnight in Bern
Whilst you can see the best of Bern in one day, I recommend staying overnight, using the city as a base to explore other towns and cities in the region.
If you are staying overnight in the city, you will be given a free Bern Ticket. This gives you free use of public transport within the city centre and its immediate surroundings for the duration of your stay.
To maximise its benefits, activate your Bern Ticket in the Bern Welcome app prior to your stay.
An overnight stay will also allow you to enjoy the Old Town at night once all the day-trippers have left.
READ THIS NEXT: 7 Amazing Day Trips from Bern, Switzerland by Train
10 Best Free Things to Do in Bern in One Day
1. Explore Bern’s Old Town
The Alstadt, or Old Town, is Bern’s historic heart. The best way to explore this medieval core is to wander its cobbled streets without a plan.
2. Count Bern’s 11 decorative fountains
Although Bern has over 100 fountains, eleven of these retain their 16th Century folkloric and historical figures. You will find most of these along Marketgasse where it becomes Gerechtigkeitgasse and Kramgasse.
The best-known of these fountains is the Kindlifresserbrunnen on Kornhausplatz, which depicts an ogre snacking on a child.
3. Watch the Astronomical Clock
The Clock Tower, or Zeitglockenturm, is the focal point of the city. Once forming the main gateway of the city, this ornate 16th Century astronomical clock is one of Bern’s biggest draws.
At four minutes before the hour, crowds of visitors gather to watch its performance. This starts with a rooster and continues with a procession of bears, a jester, Father Time, a knight in shining armour and a lion.
In all honesty, I found it underwhelming and I could see some of those gathered turn to each other as if to say “Is that it?” That said, a visit to Bern would not be complete without watching this show.
BERN MONEY-SAVING TIP!
To save money on lunch, do as the locals do and pick yourself up a freshly made baguette or salad at the Migros supermarket in the city centre.
4. Visit Bern’s Munster
Before entering Bern’s 15th Century Gothic cathedral take time to examine its main portal.
The awe-inspiring collection of 238 individually sculpted figures over the entrance portrays The Last Judgement, with Bern’s mayor ascending to Heaven and his counterpart in Zürich condemned to the fiery depths of Hell.
Inside, it’s all soaring arches and lofty stained glass windows.
For a fee, it is also possible to climb the 344-step spiral staircase of the Munster’s 100-foot spire for panoramic views over Bern and the surrounding area.
5. Take a free guided tour of the Swiss Parliament Building
Bern is home to the Parliament Building, an impressive late 19th-century building in the Altstadt, which is the seat of the Swiss Federal Government.
Free guided tours in four languages are available from Tuesday to Saturday. Tours last a maximum of 60 minutes and should be booked online no sooner than three days before your intended visit.
6. Explore the hiking trails of the Gurten
The Gurten is a small peak, 3km south of the city centre, that offers a semi-rural escape from Bern. It is reached by a funicular and is a fabulous free thing to do in Bern if you crave outdoor spaces.
Firstly, take tram #9 which leaves every four minutes from the city centre towards Wabern. Alight at Gurtenbahn and the funicular station is a steep five-minute uphill walk. Both the tram and funicular are included in the Bern Ticket.
Before you board the funicular, make sure you pick up a leaflet at the station listing the walks available, which range from 3 – 6km in length.
I chose the Gurten Classic, a hike of just under 4km across alpine meadows and forest trails to Walbern below. The clanging of distant cowbells was as Swiss as cheese and chocolate.
7. Take a spin on the shortest funicular in Europe
Also included in the Bern Ticket is the Marzilibahn, linking the railway station with the Aare.
There is a train every few minutes and the journey takes less than a minute. The station is on the terrace of the Bundeshaus, within a five-minute walk of the railway station.
8. Relax in the Bern Botanical Garden
Spread out over five acres along the Aare River, the Bern Botanical Garden is home to almost 6,000 species of plants, both native and exotic.
9. Watch frolicking bears in Bern BearPark
Bears are the symbol of Bern and have made the city their home since 1513.
Firstly they roamed the town itself, moving to the bear pit in 1857. Since 2009 they have had their own spacious park, Bern BearPark. The bear pit still exists and remains at the bears’ disposal.
10. Smell the roses at the Rose Garden
Occupying a prime location overlooking the city, Bern’s Rose Garden is a perfect spot to unwind after a day’s sightseeing.
This public park is home to 220 different varieties of roses, 200 types of irises and moor beds with rhododendrons.
Planning Your Visit to Bern
How to get to Bern
Getting to Bern is easy.
Most visitors arrive in Bern by train. From the city’s Bahnhof there are connections to towns and cities in Switzerland and beyond, courtesy of the country’s efficient rail network.
I travelled from London St Pancras to Bern using the Eurostar service and it was super easy.
Zurich is the nearest major international airport, 1 hour 10 minutes by train. Other airports that are within easy reach of Bern are EuroAirport Basel Mulhouse Freiburg (one hour by train) and Geneva Airport (around two hours by train).
Travelling in Switzerland by train
Thanks to Switzerland’s efficient and highly integrated transport system, doing these day trips by train is easy. However, as Swiss rail travel does not come cheap, I recommend weighing up the benefits of a European rail pass.
However, if most of your travelling is within Switzerland it is worth considering a Swiss Travel Pass, which comes with extra benefits, or even a regional pass. Just do your homework before you travel.
>>> CHCEK THE PRICE OF A SWISS TRAVEL PASS HERE
With the high cost of rail travel in Switzerland, an Interrail Pass (or Eurail Pass) or a Swiss Pass / regional travel pass is a gift that keeps on giving.
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Planning train travel in Switzerland
Packing a good guidebook to help you plan train travel in Switzerland, and explore the country whilst you are there, can be a smart move.
I can recommend this excellent Bradt guide which I used when I was visiting Switzerland. This is easily the best guide to exploring Switzerland by public transport on the market.
Where to Stay in Bern
The prime location for accommodation is Bern’s Aldstatdt, for which you will pay a premium. Cheaper alternatives can be found a little further out on the banks of the River Aare.
Splurge – The Bristol
I stayed at this 4-star hotel in the Old City, a few minutes’ stroll from the railway station. Perfect for those day trips! Newly refurbished with coolly efficient staff, a comfortable bed and a great location. Not cheap but recommended.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK
Here are some other hotels that I have found in Bern that may suit other budgets:
Mid-range – Habsburg B&B
A short walk from the Old City, this bed & breakfast has excellent reviews.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK
Budget – Bern Youth Hostel
Budget options are thin on the ground in Bern. This is a centrally located option at a bargain price by Swiss standards.
>>> CLICK HERE TO BOOK
>>> None of these take your fancy? Find other accommodation deals in Bern, Switzerland.
Solo Travel in Switzerland
It is one of the most dramatically beautiful countries in Europe and is home to some of the most scenic train rides on the planet, including the famous Glacier Express.
Each of its regions has its distinct identity and language, so much so that you feel that you are visiting there or more countries for the price of one. From the Italian character of the Ticino region to the dramatic Alpine vistas of the German region, there’s something for everyone.
Public transport in Switzerland is world-renowned for its cleanliness, efficiency and punctuality. However, trains and cable cars in Switzerland aren’t cheap. To reduce costs look into buying a Swiss Travel Pass or Interrail / Eurail Pass.
And if that’s not enough, there are multiple opportunities to gorge on excellent Swiss chocolate, cheese and fondues. This is not a place to start a diet.
DISCOVER OTHER GREAT SWISS EXPERIENCES!
Bridget Coleman has been a passionate traveller for more than 30 years. She has visited 70+ countries, most as a solo traveller.
Articles on this site reflect her first-hand experiences.
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