Where to stay
Bellevue Palace Historic hotel, close to Parliament and Old Town, with beautiful views from its terraces of Bern, the River Aare and the Alps beyond. Don’t miss the elegant bar and restaurant, whose dishes include carré d’agneau (rack of lamb), Angus beef burger and grilled fish of the day. Extensive wine list. Doubles from £342. 3-5 Kochergasse, 00 41 31 320 4545, bellevuepalace.ch
Kreuz Bern Located at the start of Old Town, just a 15-minute walk from the station and close to the main shopping area, this 93-room hotel is basic and uncomplicated but boasts a prime location and a good restaurant serving Bernese favourites. Doubles from £115.41 Zeughausgasse, 00 41 31 329 9595, hotelkreuzbern.ch
Schweizerhof Hotel Iconic, long-established hotel a few minutes’ walk from the train station. Its rooftop terrace and cocktail bar offers a panoramic view over Old Town against a backdrop of the Bernese Alps. Worth a visit is the comfortable brasserie featuring Swiss and international dishes, and hotel specialities of Wiener schnitzel, Caesar salad and Swiss and French pastries. Doubles from £212. 11 Bahnhofplatz, 00 41 31 326 8080, schweizerhofbern.ch
Bern is the federal capital of Switzerland and lies 20km north of the Bernese Alps. Flights from London take around 1 hour and 45 minutes. Local time is 1 hour ahead of GMT. Currency is the Swiss franc (CHF) and the language spoken is Swiss German. In October, the average high temperature is 14C and the average low temperature is 5C.
Skywork Airlines flies direct from London City to Bern. flyskywork.com
Swiss Air flies from London Heathrow to Zürich Airport. The train journey from Zürich to Bern takes around 1 hour. swiss.com
Swiss Rail Pass covers all train travel within Switzerland for three days and also provides free entry to museums and exhibitions. First class from £275; second class from £173. sbb.ch
Few cars and plenty of places of historical and cultural interest make Bern a good ‘walking’ city, while public transport is fast and frequent.
Bern Tickets are given to you by your accommodation provider for free public transport in zones 100/101 throughout your stay. bern.com
PubliBike is Bern’s bike-sharing network, which has rental stations for regular and e-bikes throughout the mostly car-free city. publibike.ch
Bern Welcome is the official tourist board and its website has a host of information to help you get the most out of your visit. bern.com
Where to eat
Prices are per person for three courses, with a glass of beer or wine, unless otherwise stated
Altes Tramdepot Microbrewery and popular meeting place. Homebrewed beers include Vienna-type and Bavarian – check the website for tour details. Menu includes pan-fried salmon or monkfish, local cheese plates, Bavarian sausages with mustard, homemade apple strudel and a selection of snacks. From £29. 6 Grosser Muristalden, 00 41 31 368 1415, altestramdepot.ch
Dampfzentrale Watch the swimmers head along the towpath while you enjoy lunch on the terrace. Set menus – think schnitzel with spinach, roast beef with fries, risotto with olives and tomatoes, ice cream – change daily. Lunch, from £23; dinner, from £35. 47 Marzilistrasse, 00 41 31 312 3300, dampfzentrale.ch
Einstein Café & Bel Étage On the ground floor of the house where Albert Einstein wrote his Theory of Relativity. Try air-dried Swiss beef antipasto, steak tartare, local sausages with mustard and crusty bread, fresh salads and fruit tarts washed down with a selection of own-label seasonal beer, cocktails and Swiss wines. From £20. 49 Kramgasse, 00 41 31 312 2828, einsteincafe.ch
Hotel Moosegg A 40-minute drive from Bern, in the Emmentaler region. Enjoy the view from the terrace of the valley meadow below and the Alps behind. Menus are short, and change frequently; dishes include local sautéed zander (lake pike-perch), rabbit with saffron risotto and (Swiss) Tessin cheese, and Italian-inspired vitello tonnato. Open April-November. Lunch, from £46; dinner, from £62. 231A Moosegg, Emmenmatt, 00 41 34 409 0606, moosegg.ch
Kornhauskeller Vaulted, high-domed former wine cellar. Try traditional specialities by chef Jorge Peixoto including Berner platte, raclette, sausages and pastries. Local beer on tap. From £32. 18 Kornhausplatz, 00 41 31 327 7272, kornhausbern.ch
Lötschberg A must for cheese-lovers, this restaurant, bar and deli specialises in fondue, raclette and other Swiss delicacies. From £45. 16 Zeughausgasse, 00 41 31 311 3455, loetschbergaoc.ch
Rosengarten Modern all-day restaurant in a rose garden with a view of medieval Bern and the Aare. The lunch menu nods to the Mediterranean, while dinner options include felchen (whitefish), pork saltimbocca and roast beef. Lunch, from £23; dinner, from £35. 31B Alter Aargauerstalden, 00 41 31 331 3206, rosengarten.be
Toi et Moi Next door to Bern’s main railway station, this quiet, tree-shaded courtyard and restaurant is an ideal place to break your journey. Dishes include würst (sausage), käsekuchen ‘Spittu’ (savoury cheesecake), grilled lake fish, burgers and salads. From £27. 2 Bahnhofplatz, 00 41 31 312 4000, toietmoi.ch
- Berner platte
- The traditional dish of Bern: sausages and meats– typically dried beef, beef tongue, smoked pork chops, shoulder,knuckle and belly of pork, and sometimes pigs’ ears – served withjuniper-spiced sauerkraut, boiled potatoes and pickled turnips
- A dish of oats, apple, hazelnuts and/or almonds createda century ago by Swiss doctor Maximilian Oskar Bircher-Benner
- Emmentaler (or Emmental) cheese
- Swiss-made, it has AOP status;made elsewhere, it’s status-free emmenta
- Melted Emmental and Gruyère cheese prepared in a traditionalpot (caquelon); ask for la religieuse, the crusted rind on the bottom
- Cookie-like cakes made of ground hazelnuts,sugar and egg whites and spiced with cinnamon; especially popularat Christmas and a staple of festive markets
- Lake fish
- Local fish dishes are of freshwater lake fish – whitefish(felchen), perch (egli), pike (hecht), pike-perch/zander – andpan-fried (filets) or grilled (whole fish)
- Mandelbärli (almond bears)
- Little cakes in the shape of Bern’semblem, the bear, made from almonds, sugar, butter and egg white
- Meringue served with whipped cream and sometimesfresh, seasonal fruits or caramel
- Melted semi-hard, cow-milk cheese served with jacket orboiled potatoes, air-dried meat and small gherkins and onions
- Grated potatoes cooked in fat (similar to hash browns) and servedas a side dish on traditional tables, sometimes with onion or cheese
- Warm raisin puff pastries named for their snail-like shape
- Onion tart; a dish associated with Zibelemärit (OnionMarket) that takes place on the fourth Monday of every November
- Large, egg-glazed plaited loaf – a Sunday favourite
Food and Travel Review
Arguably the best way to see a city is to take an early morning stroll. This is a particular pleasure in Bern, the federal capital of Switzerland, as its medieval Old Town (Altstadt) – that nestles within a horseshoe bend of the River Aare – is still almost perfectly intact. A Unesco World Heritage Site dating from the 12th century, the city was destroyed by fire in the 15th and rebuilt with sandstone. My walk takes me past the colourfully dramatic 13th-century Zytglogge (Clock Tower) and sombre Käfigturm (Prison Tower), both former gates to the city, the neo-renaissance Bundeshaus (Federal Palace), home to the Swiss Parliament, and 15th-century Berner Münster (Bern Minster), whose 234 depictions of the Last Judgement worry me slightly. In the late Middle Ages, Bern was regarded as the most powerful city state north of the Alps.
At this time of day, the wide, cobbled streets are peaceful, for many cycle here, and the trams and buses glide rather than rumble. A few hours later, the small shops in the upper level of the city’s six kilometres of medieval arcades open, and then the large, wooden doors of the cellars below. As I walk along Kramgasse and Gerechtigkeitsgasse to Nydeggbrücke (one of the bridges over the Aare), small tables appear outside cellar doors as if by magic, and are soon filled by passers-by drinking coffee, beer and wine.
Across the vaulted bridge, an attractively squat building, Altes Tramdepot, that once housed the city’s trams, is now a microbrewery. ‘I started work here when I was 14 years old, 15 years ago. Every day is different, I like the variety of people who visit,’ explains manager Lars Maeder, as I admire the huge copper brewing casks behind the bar. ‘We’re perfectly located for brewing beer, with the clean, fast-flowing Aare outside, and craft beer is now so popular.’ Outside the large, wooden terrace with its fine view of the river below and of Old Town across the bridge, is filling with young locals and visitors. Maeder is quite right about the popularity of craft beers: for a small city, Bern has a remarkable number of microbreweries. When you ask for a stange (the common 300ml serving size for beer), you will likely be given a local small-batch craft pour.
The same spirit of innovation is in Bern’s modern café culture. When a central gymnasium (grammar school) closed a few years ago, local artists transformed it into an off-beat cultural hub. They turned the former staff room into a cookbook shop and café called Das Lehrerzimmer (‘teachers’ room’), installed a bar, and change both art exhibits and the café menu frequently. There has always been a café culture in Bern – just like elsewhere in Europe’s German-speaking world – but over the last 20 years it has changed. Where once cafés would serve brewed coffee or tea and cakes, many now serve espresso. ‘I source coffee beans from Peru, Ethiopia, Indonesia,’ Micha Flach, co-owner of Caffé Bar Sattler tells me, ‘and I love making coffee for the people coming here. I enjoy listening to their stories.’
Behind the café in a former garage, three young brothers opened an ice cream shop, Gelateria di Berna, eight years ago. ‘They used to love their Italian holidays, and wanted to continue the taste of their childhood at home,’ Andy Käser, another partner, explains. ‘We are always making new combinations. Popular ones are chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, marzipan and poppy seed – we have 24 flavours at the moment. My own favourite is grapefruit with pepper. We use Swiss sugar (from beets) and organic milk. Its flavour is different in the summer and you can taste it in the gelato and other local ingredients whenever we can.’ While we were speaking, a crate of fresh, dark-green cucumbers is delivered for a new flavour being tested: cucumber and hemp.
Like the tram depot and old school, Bern’s old electricity generating station, Dampfzentrale, is now a centre for cultural activities, including a theatre. The tall, cavernous building includes a light, high-ceilinged restaurant, too, and a large terrace beside the path along the River Aare. In one direction, alongside the river, lies the popular public swimming pool, in the other, upstream, the three-metre-high bridge from which many of the river swimmers jump into the turquoise water. I find Laura Müller there, contemplating the jump. ‘It’s warm in there today, 21C (23.5C is the warmest recorded), so all I have to worry about is whether I will jump on to someone,’ she says, as she looks behind her, upstream. About 40 heads are bobbing at speed towards the bridge (the water flows at about 16km per hour), and two rubber dinghies holding noisy young men. ‘The secret is to position your jump so that you float or swim downstream to reach the swimming pool. You don’t want to go close to the river bank, or to miss the pool, as a weir lies beyond.’ Laura chooses her moment, throws in her waterproof bag holding her belongings as, like most, she came by hire bike and quickly jumps in. She retrieves it, and the current sweeps her off, waving. In 10-15 minutes, she’ll arrive at the pool. On a fine Sunday, or after work on a summer’s day, hundreds of all ages will make the jump or enter the river from the nearby steps, squealing, screaming, laughing and splashing. Afterwards, it’s an ice cream in Gelateria di Berna, or a beer or coffee in one of several nearby pop-up cafés or Dampfzentrale.
The source of the River Aare is in the Bernese Oberland in the Alps. It crosses four lakes (Brienz, Thun, Wohlen and Biel) before ending in Koblenz, where it flows into the Rhine. On its way, its tributaries create many fertile valleys and one, close to Bern, is the home of Emmentaler cheese. Emmental made in the traditional way has AOP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée) status, meaning it has a distinct cultural and gastronomic heritage. It’s said to have been produced here since the 13th century. Made with cow’s milk, salt, starter cultures and rennet, its ‘Classic’ varietal is aged in cellars for a minimum of four months, ‘Reserve’ Emmental is aged eight months, and ‘Kaltbach Cave Aged’, for 12 months. Its large, glossy and characteristic, holes or ‘eyes’, are formed by carbon dioxide produced by the starter cultures. Mild-flavoured and soft when young, older Emmental is sharper and semi-hard. Farms are generally small, with around 20 cows, and practise transhumance (the movement of animals from low-lying winter pasture to summer high meadow). Mid-September, when the cows arrive back at the farm from the high pasture, there’s a huge celebration.
Young and aged Emmental is sold in Bern’s cheese shops and in the large market that, twice-weekly, fills the Bundesplatz (Parliament Square) and Münstergasse, towards the cathedral. Producers bring air-dried and smoked beef, salami and sausages from the south, and fishermen bring their catch – felchen (whitefish), egli (perch), zander (pike-perch), hecht (pike) – from the lakes that connect to the Aare. Other stalls sell flowers, honeys, fruit cordials, herb teas, cakes, sweet, seasonal fruit and savoury onion pies or are stacked high with crusty brown bread, and züpfe, a large, handsome, plaited loaf made from a dough rich with butter and milk. And in among the abundance of fruits and vegetables, you will find piles of crimson-blushed, sweet ‘beefsteak’-sized Bernese tomatoes.
Dark-pink tomatoes are not the only surprise here. Just around the corner, in Kramgasse, the window of Confiserie Tschirren has a display of red-hued milk chocolate, a new creation from a Swiss chocolate company made from the ruby cocoa bean. Bern has a special affinity with chocolate. The company Lindt had its first factory here, near Nydeggbrücke, and Toblerone is still made locally. Look carefully at its packaging and you will see the shape of the Bernese Alps and the shadow of Bern’s symbol, the brown bear. More small patisseries in the arcades sell traditional hazelnut horseshoe cookies (meitschibei), meringues (merännge), almond bears (mandelbärli) and hard, gingerbread-like cookies make with hazelnuts (leckerli, from ‘lecker’, meaning delicious).
The buildings of Kornhausplatz, at the beginning of Old Town, once housed 18th-century traders and their wares. I find chef Jorge Peixoto in the kitchen of Kornhauskeller, a huge, vaulted, fresco-painted cellar built for storing the wines of Bern’s once-thriving wine trade. ‘I came to Bern from Portugal to study food when I was 18 years old. I have worked in the city 28 years, 19 of them here. I enjoy my cooking, it’s ‘old school Swiss’– Berner platte, roast chicken, merännge, apricot tart.’ I asked Jorge what he likes best about this cuisine that’s so different from his own. ‘I love Swiss food, especially the cheese dishes, raclette and fondue, and the offal and odd cuts of meat that home and farmhouse-cooks here have always done so well.’
On the other side of Nydeggbrücke a path leads up to Rosengarten (Rose Garden), a public park with a spectacular view of Old Town and the sparkling, strangely vivid shade of turquoise river that provides Bern’s citizens with so much pleasure. Early evening, the air is perfumed with the park’s roses – orange-pink Sutter’s Gold, purple-pink, damask-perfumed Melody Parfumée, pale-apricot Lady Di, deeply-scented Queen Elizabeth Rose.
As the sun sets and the sky turns a mesmerisingly streaky redgold, the Minster spire appears to rise as high as the surrounding forested foothills, and the distant snow-covered mountains seem all of a sudden closer. The tall, medieval houses across the river begin to glow, and their russet-red rooftops brighten. With the last rays of sunshine of the day, isolated houses on the surrounding hills briefly light up as if by a skyward searchlight. A stillness descends over the beautiful view. But in the city itself, bars and cafés are filling rapidly and cyclists, walkers and trams happily share the cobbled streets. Bern – a small city with a rich, thousand-year history and joyous population – is moving, albeit slowly, into the future.
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