Bern Or Zurich: Exploring Switzerland’s Two Major Cities

bern or zurich

Switzerland is known for its charming cities and two that are certainly worth visiting are Bern and Zurich.

Bern is the capital of Switzerland, but Zurich is the financial capital and that makes these two cities quite different indeed. They both have their unique charm, but Zurich is a lot larger, busier and more developed than Bern.

Below I will compare Bern and Zurich in detail: from top attractions, transportation, and food, to accommodation, nightlife, people and culture. That way, you can figure out which is the city for you!

Bern vs Zurich: The Highlights

  • Bern is a lot more compact and generally cheaper than Zurich
  • Zurich is larger with more dining, accommodation and night club options
  • Both have dozens of museums, stunning old towns and sights to see
  • Zurich is closer to airports, while Bern is also closer to the Jungfrau Region

Transportation

bern old town and the aare river
Bern Old Town

If you have ever been to Switzerland, you will know how amazingly efficient and reliable the country’s public transport network is. Everything runs on time, all the services connect seamlessly, and it is a pleasure to use – Bern and Zurich benefit from this.

Bern is Switzerland’s federal city and it is actually quite a small city, especially compared to Zurich. This makes Bern very walkable and you can see the whole city without even setting foot on public transport.

But, if the weather is bad or you simply don’t want to walk, there is an excellent network of trams and buses that will get you around Bern very easily. Bern’s main train station is also a hub that will connect you to pretty much anywhere in Switzerland and nearby towns for a day trip.

On the other hand, Zurich has a much more extensive public transportation system as it is the largest city in Switzerland. Zurich Old Town is very walkable, but to see the whole city, you will have to utilize the trams, buses, subway, and even train network.

Zurich train station, Zurich Hauptbahnhof, is one of the busiest train stations in Europe and you can hop on a train for day trips across Switzerland and to countless destinations in Europe.

Zurich and Bern also have bicycles for rent if you prefer to cycle around the city.

Bern or Zurich: Food

Rosti
Rosti

Bern is not a very international city and it certainly does not compare to Zurich in this regard. Nevertheless, Bern has an up-and-coming culinary scene that will have any foodie excited.

Being a rather traditional and historical city, Bern is an excellent place to sample some of the best traditional Swiss cuisines in the country.

It is also home to quite a diverse range of international cuisines and fine dining options too, so no matter what your taste buds are after, you will be sure to find it.

Bern’s cozy cafes and food markets are also becoming more and more popular.

Zurich, being a cosmopolitan city, caters to a wider range of tastes than Bern. Its food scene is a delightful fusion of Swiss traditions and international influences.

You can find it all in Zurich, from gourmet restaurants to bustling street food markets with traditional Swiss dishes, alongside global cuisines, including Asian, Middle Eastern, and Mediterranean delights.

If you are after Michelin Star restaurants, they are there for the taking in these cities, too.

Accommodation

Park Hyatt Zurich
Park Hyatt Zurich © Booking.com

Both Bern and Zurich provide a ton of accommodation options to suit various budgets and preferences.

In Bern, you can choose from a range of hotels, guesthouses, and charming boutique establishments to match your budget.

Staying in Bern’s Old Town is highly recommended, with its medieval architecture and narrow cobblestone streets. It is an ideal location for getting around as it is in the city center and the architecture is to die for.

Like Bern, Zurich’s accommodation choices are also very diverse, ranging from luxury hotels to budget-friendly hostels but there is more to choose from as the city is so much larger.

Each of Zurich’s neighborhoods has its own distinct character and the place to stay if you can afford it is in the Old Town. Not only is it beautiful but you will be near all the historic sites.

Staying in trendy District 5 is also lovely, especially if you want a more trendy, alternative artistic scene. Or look for accommodation near Lake Zurich for peace and access to nature. There is nothing like starting your day with an early morning swim in the summer.

Shopping

Shopping in Zurich Bahnhofstrasse
Shopping in Zurich Bahnhofstrasse

Bern’s historic Old Town is a bit of a shopper’s paradise and as you twist and turn down the cobbled streets, you will find independent boutiques, shops, and Swiss specialty stores. If you are looking for unique souvenirs to take home with you, Bern is the place to find them – from traditional handicrafts and clothing to Swiss watches, you can find it all.

Zurich’s shopping scene takes things to another level in comparison to Bern. Bahnhofstrasse is one of the world’s most exclusive shopping streets as it showcases luxury brands, high-end boutiques, Swiss watch stores, and jewelry shops – even if this is outside your budget, make sure you walk down this street.

If you are looking for more vintage or trendy items, head to the independent boutiques, vintage stores, and local designers of District 4 and District 5 or to the Bürkliplatz Market.

Nightlife

Langstrasse
Langstrasse © 2023 Zürich Tourismus

If you are in Bern during the summer, you have to head to the banks of the Aare River in the Old Town for sunset. It is lined with delightful bars, pubs, and restaurants where you can have a lovely drink in a buzzing atmosphere as the sun goes down.

Bern also has numerous live music venues, theaters, and clubs, so you can usually find what you are looking for. However, it does not have as many options as Zurich, as you would imagine.

Zurich has a diverse and lively nightlife with a large array of bars, nightclubs, and lounges catering to most tastes and styles.

The famous Langstrasse is known for its eclectic mix of bars and clubs, while the Niederdof district in the heart of the old town also has a buzzing bar culture.

In the summer, be sure to head to Lake Zurich, where you will find a ton of open-air bars with incredible views as well as summer festivals.

People & Culture

Buskers Bern Street Music Festival
Buskers Bern Street Music Festival – Image courtesy of Buskers Bern

The people and culture of a city can determine a lot when visiting places and when it comes to Bern and Zurich, the vibe is very different.

Bern is much smaller and therefore, everything moves at a much slower pace than it does in Zurich. The atmosphere is very relaxed and Bern is less culturally diverse than Zurich.

In my experience, the people in Bern are a lot more open and welcoming. And the whole city embraces its cultural heritage, so you will get a true Swiss experience when visiting this lovely city. Especially since you are immersed in the old town 90% of the time.

In contrast, Zurich is more of a fast-paced metropolis but not like London or New York, it is far more relaxed than that. The city is also very walkable, but it is larger and more focused on finance, so the feel of the city is always going to be different.

Being more cosmopolitan, Zurich’s multicultural, vibrant, and dynamic atmosphere is lovely to be a part of, and it still holds onto Swiss traditions at the same time.

Art, design, culinary exploration, and innovation are a big part of Zurich and then you have the Old Town, which is full of Swiss history, a lovely balance.

As Zurich is so fast-paced, the locals can come across as cold but this is due to being so busy. Don’t let that put you off though as once engaged they are kind and helpful.

Top Sights in Bern

Bern old town arcades
Bern old town arcades

Bern has a number of top sights that you have to see and most of them are found in the Old Town.

Bern’s Old Town is a site-to-see in itself as it is one of the best-preserved medieval Old Towns in Europe and is a UNESCO World Heritage site filled with medieval architecture.

You should also be sure to see the Zytglogge, a medieval clock tower in the Old Town, and the architecturally incredible Bern Cathedral, stunning views across the city from the tower.

The Bear Park, home to Bern’s beloved symbol, offers a unique opportunity to observe bears in a natural habitat, and the Rosengarten, a beautiful rose garden with views into the Bernese Alps, is exceptional in the spring and summer months.

The Einstein Museum & Bern Historical Museum are also great to see as is the Einstein House, Swiss Parliament building, and a stroll along the stunning Aare River is also a must.

Top Sights in Zurich

Grossmunster in Zurich Old Town
Grossmunster in Zurich Old Town

Zurich’s Old Town is a true highlight of the city, and like Bern, it is also where most of the great historical sights are found. Stroll down its cobblestone alleys, through its picturesque squares, take in the architecture, and see the beautiful Limmat River.

In the Old Town, you will find Grossmünster, a Romanesque-style church, and climbing its towers for a panoramic view of the city is something every visitor to Zurich should do.

Art lovers should go to Kunsthaus Zurich, one of Switzerland’s most important art museums, which houses an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art.

The Swiss National Museum should not be missed either, as it houses some of the most important historical collections in the world dating back to the prehistoric era.

You can not visit Zurich and not go to Lake Zurich. With its crystal-clear waters, it is perfect for summer trolls, swims, sunbathing, and watersports, and the views are simply fantastic.

Bern or Zurich: Travel Cost

sbb train in zurich
SBB Train in Zurich HB

If you fly into Zurich or Basel, then it is cheaper to get to Zurich than Bern.

However, once you reach Zurich City, it is more expensive than Bern across the board. Expect to pay more for accommodation, food, drinks, and night clubs.

Bern is generally a lot cheaper, and you can find affordable accommodations and dining establishments in Bern’s surrounding districts, which is great if you are on a budget.

Public transportation costs are similar in both cities, with convenient travel passes available for visitors which provides free transport around the city.

Bern or Zurich: Best Time To Visit

Bern
Winter in Bern

Choosing the right time to visit Bern or Zurich can make or break your trip in my experience. The key is good weather, fewer crowds, and more affordable flights and accommodations.

I would recommend visiting Bern and Zurich in May, June, September, and December.

May, June, and September are blessed with lovely warm weather so you can live life outside and it is before/after Switzerland gets crowded and expensive, which happens in July & August.

December is a lovely time to visit as both cities are filled with Christmas lights, decorations, and markets, and it is about as Christmassy and festive as can be – thrown in some snow and a quick ski and you have a great pre-xmas weekend away.

Bern or Zurich: Which Is Better?

Deciding which city is better for you, Bern or Zurich, is a very personal decision, and ideally one should visit both if one can.

If you prefer a walkable city with a rich historical heritage and a slower pace then you will love Bern’s medieval charm and relaxed ambiance. Bern is known for offering a more traditional Swiss experience compared to Zurich too with its deep connection to Swiss traditions and culture.

Zurich is known for being a fast-paced cosmopolitan and vibrant city with multiculturalism, and a buzzing atmosphere. If that is what you are after, Zurich might be a better fit for you. It truly has it all from a happening nightlife to museums, culture, nature, and a historic old town to boot.

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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