Discover the Zytglogge Clock Tower in Bern’s Historic Heart

Bern Old Town Zytglogge

Located in the heart of Bern’s UNESCO World Heritage-listed Old Town, the Zyteglogge is a must-see attraction. It is one of the most iconic landmarks in the Swiss capital and definitely worth spending some time seeing if you are in town.

The Zytglogge actually means “time bell” in the local dialect (Bärndütsch – Bernese German) and once you see the bell ring, you will understand why. The Zytglogge is more than just a clock and attracts thousands of visitors each year.

Architectural Details of the Zytglogge

Zytglogge clock tower in bern
Zytglogge clock tower in bern

The Zytglogge is a very distinct 23-meter-high tower that stands in the heart of downtown Bern. It has marked the passing of town for centuries and is even said to have inspired Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity.

It features a unique combination of both Gothic and Baroque architecture, which has evolved over the centuries.

The Astronomical Clock

Zytglogge Astronomical Clock Explained
Zytglogge Astronomical Clock Explained

The current astronomical clock was installed in 153 and actually replaced replacing an older, less sophisticated clock. The clock mechanism was designed by Kaspar Brunner, a Swiss clockmaker and is quite the work of art

The astronomical clock face features a plethora of clocks all wound around one another on the face. The various clocks and timekeeping devices include:

  • Hours and minutes (including 24-hour time – 2 x 12 hours)
  • Day of the week
  • Lunar calendar
  • Zodiac calendar
  • A Planisphere (day, dawn, dusk)
  • A Calendar Dial
Zytglogge clock tower in Bern
Zytglogge clock face

But let’s not forget that on top of all of this runs an intricate clockwork that also moves a series of figures across the elaborate facade.

The Moving Figures

The Zytglogge Figures
The Zytglogge Figures

The moving figures on the Zytglogge’s astronomical clock are one of the highlights of any visit to the clock. They represent various aspects of time and serve as an entertaining spectacle every hour for onlookers. The four main moving figures are:

  1. Chronos: The god of time holds a scepter and an hourglass and symbolizes the continuous passage of time. He rotates the hourglass each hour and strikes the bell with his wooden scepter.
  2. The Rooster: Represents the herald of a new day, just as it does in real life. The Rooster crows three times: once before the hourly chimes, once during, and once after.
  3. The Jester: Symbolizing the fleeting nature of time, he sits just below Chronos. As the clock strikes the hour, the Jester rings two small bells in each hand, reminding us how important it is to enjoy each moment.
  4. The Golden Knight: Represents both civic pride and chivalry. He can be seen marching in a circle as the clock chimes. It is said that this figure exemplifies the values and virtues of Bernese citizens.
  5. A Parade of Bears: The bear is the symbol of Bern, so it is no surprise that at the bottom of the animated area is a parade of bears that begins every procession.

The Frieze

Right between the giant clock face and the astronomical clock is a large frieze worth looking at. It features a mix of Greek & Roman pagan gods including Jupiter, Saturn, Jupiter, and Mars, Venus, and Mercury.

If you look in detail you will also notice that only the female gods have faces.

The Western Facade

Zytglogge's West Face
Zytglogge’s West Facace

The western face of Zytglogge is also adorned with a giant clock and decorated with a fresco titled “beginning of time. This mural illustrates Adam and Even in paradise being evicted by an angel while the devil is hovering menacingly in the background.

The Zytglogge Archway Paintings

Something a lot of people miss when visiting the Clock Tower is the paintings in the archway underneath. There are two on each side, each representing a particular part of the history of Bern.

The paintings were painted by Gotthard Ringgli and left to right above depict the following

  1. The granting of the hand vest by Emperor Friederich II
  2. The bear hunt in Nydegg (The apparent reason Bern is strongly associated with bears)
  3. Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen commissions Cuno von Bubenberg to build the town of Bern
  4. The building of Bern

When Should You Visit The Zytglogge?

You should visit the Zytglogge at least 5 minutes before the hour because of how the timing of the clock and moving figures operates.

Although the Zytglogge strikes every hour, the moving characters start their performance 4 minutes before the actual hour. So, to be sure you don’t miss anything, be there early, especially in summer and weekends when the crowds in front of the clock tower can be quite big.

The Zytglogge clock strikes every hour with a series of chimes and animations involving the four moving figures mentioned above.

The process begins a few minutes before the hour, as the Rooster starts to flap its wings and crow. When the hour arrives, Chronos inverts his hourglass and strikes the bell, while the Jester simultaneously rings his bells, usually too early, as is typical of such a fool. The Rooster crows again during the chimes, and the Golden Knight marches in a circle.

After the clock finishes ringing, the Rooster crows one final time, marking the end of the hourly spectacle.

The Zytglogge’s Rich History

No one knows the exact date, however, the Zytglogge was originally constructed between 1218-1220 as part of the city’s western gate and fortifications.

It has had a variety of functions over the centuries from its initial role as a gate to a women’s prison, and a guard tower, to its final role as a clock tower and archive.

In 1405 the tower was almost completely destroyed during a fire and had to undergo significant reconstruction. Early in the 15th century, the first simple clock was installed along with the first large bell that gave the Zyteglogge its time – “the Time Bell”.

Further restoration projects have been undertaken in 1527-1530, which was when the more elaborate current astronomical clock was added. Further repainting of the clock was carried out between 1607-1610 by Gotthard Ringgli and Kaspar Haldenstein who added the intricate detail in the clockfaces we see on both sides of the tower today.

There was a further repainting of the face in 1890, but people disliked the Rococo style and it was replaced in 1929.

Zytglogge Tours

One of the best ways to experience the true depth and intricacy of the Zytglogge is through a unique tour. Not only do you get to learn all about the history, inner workings and movements of the clock tower, you also get to go inside and see how it all works. You will also get a unique view from the top of this Bern landmark, something not everyone gets to do!

Sources

Wikipedia

Bern Tourism

BBC Travel

Zytglogge Bern

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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