Bern Old Town: Visit The Stunning Swiss Capital

Bern old town

The old town of Bern is a stunning example of medieval architecture that looks like it was created just yesterday.

The whole town from the train station all the way downhill to the Aare river is a huge, living museum. The people of the city of Bern are lucky enough to call this home!

Find out what makes the famous old town of Bern such a stunning place to visit, and what you should see while you are there.

A UNESCO World Heritage Site

Bern was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983. It contains a wide range of buildings predominantly from the 18th and 19th centuries. However, the city was founded back in the 12th century and features some impressive examples of 15th-century arcades and 16th-century fountains that you will love as you roam this modern Swiss city.

Sitting atop a hill at 562 meters, overlooking the river Aare below and the jaw-dropping Swiss Alps in the distance, there is so much to experience and explore in Bern’s Old City that you will struggle to see it all.

Let’s find out what makes this city such a gem!

Sights and Monuments in the Old Town

The old city of Bern is actually split into two parts – the upper and lower old city. The majority of the sights are in the upper part, which is what we will concentrate on in this section.

It is easy to get around the old city of Bern due to its compact layout, but public transport is at hand if you want to lighten the load at any time.

The Arcades

Arcades along Marktgasse in Bern
Arcades along Marktgasse in Bern

One of the most impressive parts of the old city of Bern is the arcades. There are over 6 kilometers of arcades running slowly downhill toward the river.

The arcades are a pleasure to walk under or admire from the pedestrian-only streets of Kramgasse and Münstergasse. The city’s residents and shop owners have made great use of the limestone buildings too. There is a huge variety of shops, cafes, and restaurants here. Many of them are in the basements!

Historic buildings in the Bern old town
Historic buildings in the Bern old town

There are also lots of details to check out as you walk amongst this living history museum. There are ornate windows, old signs hanging from the buildings, hidden tokens of the Bern bear, and a whole lot more

Yes, the Bern arcades feature fun wooden basement doors with staircases where you can go down into the shops below. Often they are from the front, but sometimes from the side as well. Either way, they make for a fun entrance to the shops below.

Basement doors to shops in Bern arcades
Basement doors to shops in Bern arcades

Zytglogge – Astronomical Clock Tower

Zytglogge clock
Zytglogge clock

One of the most famous landmarks to see in Bern is the Zytglogge. This impressive astronomical clock chimes once an hour with a unique series of movements that are a sight to behold.

The clock itself is a stunning example of multiple clocks in one. There is a normal 12-hour clock, of course. And a 24-hour clock as well. But the most amazing is the astrolabium – which is an astronomical calendar clock.

Zytglogge astronomical clock
Zytglogge astronomical clock

Make your way to the Zytglogge clock four minutes before the hour to see the figures dance. Chronos, the rooster, the knight, the jester, and the bears put on a unique show every hour. Some hours are more impressive than others!

Zytglogge clock - rear face
Zytglogge clock – rear face

Be sure to also check out the other side of the clock tower which has another more simple face, and also take a look at the paintings hanging inside the archway under the tower.

Zytglogge clock - paintings in the archway
Zytglogge clock – paintings in the archway

And, maybe even climb the tower to the top. The views from the top are worth the climb!

Renaissance Fountains

Renaissance fountains in Bern

The old city of Bern has a huge range of Renaissance fountains that are worth admiring as you walk around. They are usually in the middle of the road, but some are off on side roads as well.

There are eleven medieval fountains in all, and each one represents either a historical event, a hero of some kind, or a social ideal. The majority of them were created by Hans Gieng, a local from Freiburg, and they are all meticulously maintained to this day.

They were actually a central part of life in such a medieval town, with people collecting water each day, stopping for a chat, or to water their animals. Today, they make for a great way to have a drink too. After all, Swiss water is fresh, clean, and some of the best in the world.

Einstein House – Museum

Einstein House Museum in Bern
Einstein House Museum in Bern

Want To Save This For Later?

I will email this post to you, so you read it for later (or keep for reference).

If you know a little about Einstein you would know that he spent a portion of his life in Bern, sometimes working at the post office. It was here that he came up with the idea for Special Relativity.

You know? E=mc2 and all that! The stuff that Einstein is famous for.

Special Relativity was discovered here by Einstein
Special Relativity was discovered here by Einstein

He lived in this house in the center of Bern between 1903 and 1905. There is a museum above the Einstein Cafe here that you can visit to learn more about this period of his life.

Amazing Views

View from behind the Parliament building in Bern
View from behind the Parliament Building in Bern

It may not seem like a place to get spectacular views, walking amongst the streets of the old city of Bern. But let me give you a few quick tips!

If you head to the south side of the Bern old town, towards the right as you walk down the arcade streets, you will be in for a surprise. Because the old city sits so high above the surroundings, the views over the Swiss Alps are jaw-dropping.

You can head to the back of the Parliament building or the cathedral for the best views. Both have great parks to relax in or to take some epic shots of the Alps!

The Cathedral of Bern (Berner Münster)

The Cathedral of Bern (Berner Münster)
The Cathedral of Bern (Berner Münster)

The Cathedral of Bern has a Gothic spire you almost can’t miss. It is the highest church spire in Switzerland and stands at over 100 meters. The largest bell in Switzerland has also found a home here, so you can hear it ringing from all over Bern.

It takes 312 steps to reach the top, something that will take your breath away – literally! And once you reach the top of the bell tower, the views of the old city and the Alps will stun you yet again.

There is also a lot to discover inside the church. Not only the choir vault and all its details but the main portal as well. Be sure to spend a little time inside and discover all that the Berner Münster has to offer.

The Parliament Building, Bundesplatz

Parliament Building from the Kirchenfeldbrücke
Parliament Building from the Kirchenfeldbrücke Bridge

No visit to the old city of Bern is complete without passing by the Parliament Building at Bundesplatz. The building is large and imposing as such buildings should be. There is not a lot to spend time exploring, aside from the rear where the epic views are.

Parliament Building from Bundesplatz
Parliament Building from Bundesplatz

If you want to do a tour of the inside, to see the domed hall, the Council chambers, and the lobby, and of course, find out how the Swiss government functions.

Just be aware there are only two tours a day (Tuesday – Saturday), and four on Saturday. But the language of the tour is the crucial part, so check out the languages, times and days below:

  • Tuesday & Thursday: French – 11.30 am, German 3 pm
  • Wednesday & Friday: German – 11.30 am, German 3 pm
  • Saturday: French 11.30 am, Italian – 1.30 pm, English – 2 pm, German 3 pm

The Bear Pit / Bear Park

Bern Old Town from the top of the Bear Parkx
Bern Old Town from the top of the Bear Park

Bern is historically intertwined with bears, ever since the founding Duke first named the city after his first game hunt kill – a bear! No one is 100% sure this is true, many also attribute the association to the original name of the city – Bernador.

Either way, bears are plastered all over Bern. From the canton’s flag and coat of arms to fountains and buildings all over the old city. And ever since 1549 Bern has also had a bear pit, a place to keep bears as local pets.

The practice has been a little questionable. Even when I first arrived in Switzerland, the original pit was not the nicest place for bears to live. However, back in 2009 it was moved and revamped into a more livable park that is a portion of the hill along the Aare river next to the Nydegg Bridge.

Bears in the Bear Park in Bern
Bears in the Bear Park in Bern – Image via Wikimedia

There are three bears living at the park – Finn, Björk and Ursina. And when they are out and about, you should easily spot them roaming the large park area. The Bear Park is open all year round and is free to visit. You can stroll along the top and peer down at the bears, or walk down the stairs (or take the lift) to the river, and do the same from the bottom. It is perhaps the easiest way to see the elusive Swiss wildlife close up.

Most people make a loop of it by walking along the river bank and back up to the Nydegg Bridge again further downstream. You can even combine it with a walk over the oldest bridge in Bern – Untertorbrücke, which is just a few meters further down the river.

Untertorbrücke - bern old town
The Untertorbrücke beyond the Nydegg Bridge – Aare river in Bern

Just be aware that the bears do go into their dens sometime in the fall, and come out again in spring. I was there in mid-November and it was empty! Nice place for a walk, but no bears to be seen.

Where is the Bern Old Town?

Bern is located in the east of Switzerland along the Aare River just before the Bernese Oberland starts. The Bern old town is right in the center of the city on a hilltop above the river. It is easily reached from the main train station on foot, and the whole old town is completely walkable.

Written by Ashley Faulkes
As a twenty-year resident of Switzerland, I am passionate about exploring every nook and cranny of this beautiful country, I spend my days deep in the great Swiss outdoors, and love to share these experiences and insights with fellow travel enthusiasts.

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