The city's principal attraction is an extensive, architecturally unique, and wonderfully preserved, old town. Strollers and window shoppers can spend hours exploring its six kilometers of arcade-lined streets. In 1983 Bern' Altstadt was selected as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its “positive example of how a medieval urban structure can be adapted to fulfill functions which are increasingly complex, notably the function of a capital city of a modern State.”

While the old town's low-key atmosphere, cobblestone streets, and many shops, are typical of other Swiss towns, Bern manages to set itself apart in myriad ways. Its straight, wide, arcade-lined streets—first laid-out in the 12th century—are different from Switzerland’s more typical narrow, winding lanes. (Watch out for trams and buses that hurtle down some of the otherwise car-free streets).

Architecture

The architecture also has a strikingly unified feeling: The city’s arcades (covered walkways) are framed by tall arches; elaborate fountains built in the sixteenth century depict men, women, and animals wearing bright colors; and stone building façades, sharing the same shade of soft brownish gray, are distinguished only by slight differences in their ornate, gold-accented window grates. Squeezed inside a tight, horseshoe bend of the Aare River, the Altstadt is also home to several impressive bridges that not only offer views of the fast-moving, crystal-clear river, but of the surrounding hills.

Suggested Bern Walk

A good way to get a sense of the city is to stroll up to the Rosegarten, on a hill across the Aare. Walk down Nydeggbrücke street, past the Bear Pits (see below), and then follow the signs uphill to the garden. In spring and summer, you’ll pass fields of yellow, purple, and white wildflowers before entering the manicured grounds. Bounded by a stone wall, the garden has shrub-lined pathways, subtle fountains, delicately designed flower beds, trellises and, of course, many roses, (depending on the season). There are big grassy areas, shaded by large birches and pines, where in good weather locals sprawl on blankets and kick soccer balls. There’s also a café tucked in one corner. But the best part of the garden is the view back down to Bern. In this single panorama, one gets a sense of all that makes Switzerland a unique destination: the Altstadt’s red-hued roof shingles clustered within the curve of the Aare, steeples rising from the mass of more modern buildings beyond, all backdropped by a slice of the Alps. It’s easy to spend an entire afternoon up here, admiring the view, smelling the flowers, or just lying in the lush grass watching the clouds. In a country known for the homogeny of its people, another noteworthy aspect of Bern is its cultural diversity. From drum-playing Africans to dreadlocked hippies to finely dressed politicos, the people-watching is never dull.

The Famous Bern Bears

For reasons we can't fathom, the town's most popular tourist stop is a few scruffy bears, the animal after which the city is named. For 142 years they were in a pit just across the river at the end of the old town. When we saw them many years ago for the first and last time, they didn't look very happy or comfortable. Since then, however, they have been given access to more suitable quarters. The last descendant of a long line of Bern-born bears, Urs, was euthanized in 2007. Remaining now are two playful Pyrenees Brown Bears born in the Zoo of Barcelona.

Bern Museums

Leading a good list of Bern museums is the Kunstmuseum, which houses the worlds' largest Paul Klee collection. There are also works by Picasso, Monet, Cezanne, Manet, Cranach, Chagall and other notables.

Albert Einstein lived in Bern for several years, working in the patent office and teaching at the university. He developed E=MC2 in an apartment at Kramgasse 49, which is now a small museum.

The Swiss Rifle Museum offers a comprehensive collection of firearms since 1817. The Museum of Natural History contains Europe’s largest diorama of mammals and birds presented in natural habitat, as well as the original “Barry,” the fabled Saint Bernard rescue dog. Exhibits at the Swiss Alpine Museum include 27 alpine topographical models. The Museum of Communication displays a huge stamp collection and traces the history of the Swiss postal system and telecommunications.

Bern’s Tuesday and Saturday street markets are lively and diverse. Locals and tourists meandering among the Bärenplatz vendor stalls can purchase everything from fruit to jewelry to stuffed animals.

Walking Bern's Altstadt

For our money, the best fun in Bern is simply to explore on foot every street, lane and alley east of the railway station. The principal east-west street which cuts through the heart of the old town keeps changing its name as it goes east. Starting out as Bubenbergplatz, it then becomes Spitalgasse, then Marktgasse, then Kramgasse and finally Gerechtigkeitsgasse. Then just before crossing the Nydeggbrücke, it becomes Nydegg-Gasse. The farther one gets toward the end of the peninsula and the bend in the river, the more exclusive the shops. A couple of interesting ones are Heimatwerk at Kramgasse 61 and Kunsthandwerkanderegg, Kramgasse 4. Because of the arcades, most sidewalks are undercover so one stays relatively dry on rainy days.

After you've done the Marktgasse, Kramgasse, Gerechtigkeitgasse, etc., street and find yourself at the end of the peninsula, do a 180-degree left turn and double back on one of Bern's most interesting little byways, Postgasse. It carries less foot traffic and is home to a number of interesting shops. See the purses at Momo Haller (#55) Postgasse, the sculptures at Bildhauerwerkstatt (#58), minimalist furniture at Zona (#60) and a fine kitchen store, Küchenladen (#53). Grab a bite at Restaurant Café Postgasse (#48), then drop by Antiquatten (#50) and LaengsRaritten (#54).

Parking in Bern

Parking is a problem in the center of Bern. Public lots are expensive and space is limited. Approaching the town by car the traveler see signs that electronically display the number of available spaces at each downtown parking garage. Some Blue Zone parking (display a blue parking disc in your car) is available with a 90-minute limit. Permits for these zones can be purchased at the rail station tourist office, city police, or from automatic machines. More parking info.