Make the most of your time in Switzerland’s capital with these five fabulous free things to do in one day in Bern.
Switzerland is renowned for two things: its exceptional beauty and for being expensive. On both of these counts, Bern, its understated capital city, is no exception.
Bern immediately entices you with its perfectly intact medieval centre, a profusion of fountains and 6km of arcades lining its cobbled streets of grey sandstone buildings. For these reasons, it has earned a place on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.
Its setting is also stunning. Encircled by the turquoise waters of the River Aare, on a clear day the alps are visible in the distance. In addition to its charm, beauty and easygoing air, Bern is also a great base from which to explore the surrounding area.
And yes. Switzerland can be expensive but is easy to spend one day in Bern without handing over any Swiss Francs.
To help you make the most of your time in Switzerland’s capital, and to stretch your travel budget further, here are the ten best free things to do in Bern.
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Where is Bern?
Bern is located just west of the centre of the country in Switzerland’s Mittelland. It is within easy reach of other major Swiss cities, 150 kilometres from Zurich and 183 kilometres from Geneva. The Bernese Alps start 20 km to the south of the city.
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 by train 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).
Should you visit Bern as a day trip or stay overnight?
Whilst you 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, when checking in to your hotel you will be given a Bern Ticket for free. This gives you free use of public transport within the city centre and its immediate surroundings for the duration of your stay.
An overnight stay will also allow you to enjoy the Old Town at night once all the day-trippers have left.
Top 10 free things to do in one day in Bern
Explore Bern’s Old Town
The Alstadt, or Old Town, is Bern’s beating historic heart. The best way to explore this medieval core, it to wander its cobbled streets without a plan.
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.
Gawp at the Astronomical Clock
The Clock Tower, or Zeitglockenturm, is the focal point of the city. Once forming the main gateway of the city, today Bern’s 16th Century ornate astronomical clock is one of the city’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?” Having said that, a visit to Bern would not be complete without watching this show.
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.
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 Tuesday – Saturday. Tours last a maximum of 60 minutes and should be booked on-line no sooner than three days before your intended visit.
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.
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.
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 five minutes’ walk of the railway station.
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.
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 bear pit from 1857 and since 2009 in their very own spacious park. The bear pit still exists and remains at the bears’ disposal.
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.
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.
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.
Here are some other hotels that I have found in Bern that may suit other budgets:
Habsburg B&B – A short walk from the Old City, this bed & breakfast has excellent reviews.
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.
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, a rail pass is worth considering.
I travelled around Switzerland by rail on a Global Interrail Pass. This cost approx €500 for ten days of first-class travel within a month. For those living outside Europe, the Eurail pass is available.
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.
With the high cost of rail travel in Switzerland, an Interrail / Eurail Pass or a Swiss Pass (or regional travel pass) is a gift that keeps on giving.
Planning train travel in Switzerland
Packing a good guidebook to help you to plan train travel in Switzerland, and to 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.
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