Staying in Bern and need some information? Check out our city guide to Bern for lots of useful information for tourists, locals and expats.
Guide to Bern
Switzerland’s “federal city,” Bern is located near the centre of Switzerland, in the Canton of Bern. Not only is it the capital of the canton, but it is also seen as the de facto capital of Switzerland too. The people in Bern predominantly speak in Bernese German, an Alemannic Swiss German dialect.
Bern’s city centre boasts stunning medieval architecture and has been recognised as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. With its charmingly historical look and feel, there is plenty of things to do in Bern. From museums, to festivals, to sports events, there really is something for everyone in this magical city.
A short history of Bern
The area that now makes up the city of Bern was first settled in the third century BC by tribal people known as the Helvetii. The Romans would eventually settle the area themselves, founding a small village (a vicus) on the Engehalbinsel, at the site of original Helvetic settlement. Farms started sprouting up around the vicus and, even after the fall of the Roman Empire, settlements remained in the area.
Foundation of the city
The city of Bern as we know it today begins with Berthold V, Duke of Zähringen, who founded the city in 1191. After Berthold died without an heir, Bern gained town privileges and was made into an Imperial Free City after Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II issued the Golden Charter of Bern (Goldene Handfeste) in 1218.
Legends say that Bern was named after Berthold V vowed to name the city he just founded after the first animal he hunted, which turned out to be a bear. The animal was adopted to the city’s coat of arms from the 1200s.
While the Golden Charter of Bern is widely considered to be a forgery, done on behalf of Bern’s government to establish the city’s rights in writing, King Rudolph I of Germany confirmed all the rights set out in the Charter in 1274. The city was initially governed by a mayor, who came from one of the noble families that were citizens of Bern. By the late 13th century, Bern was a de facto independent city-state within the Holy Roman Empire.
Admission to the Old Swiss Confederacy
In 1323, Bern entered into an alliance with the cantons of Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden. Bern adopted an expansionist policy, which bought them into conflict with feudal lords and the neighbouring city of Fribourg. Bern’s army defeated the forces of Canton Fribourg, which eventually led to closer relationships with Uri, Schwyz and Unterwalden.
In 1353, Bern became a permanent member of the Old Swiss Confederacy. Bern would take a leading role in the new union and encouraged a more expansionist policy into the previously French and Savoyard territory to the north and west.
In 1405, Bern was devasted by a massive fire, which lead to the buildings in Bern being replaced with half-timbered houses and sandstone buildings. In 1415, Bern invaded Aarau and then Vaud, defeating both by 1555. It also added the Bernese Oberland to its territories, becoming the largest canton in the confederacy.
After a brief battle at Grauholz and Neuenegg, Bern was occupied by French troops during the French Revolutionary Wars and was stripped of its French-speaking territories. Following the Act of Mediation, which was issued by Napoleon Bonaparte himself, the Helvetic Republic was abolished in 1803, and Bern regained some of its lost territories, once again becoming the largest canton in the confederacy.
Is Bern the capital of Switzerland?
Bern also acquired new territories after the Congress of Vienna in 1814, namely the Bernese Jura. In 1848, Bern was proclaimed as Switzerland’s federal city (the seat of the Federal Assembly). Although this means that most of the Swiss government is housed in the city, there is still no official capital of Switzerland.
What to do in Bern: Sightseeing & Activities
Like other Swiss cities, Bern is home to a thriving culture and arts scene. Make sure you check out these sights and attractions during your stay.
The first and most famous of Bern’s attractions is its beautiful old city centre. The medieval town centre has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Cultural Heritage site and continues to attract tourists and sightseers today. The Zytglogge can also be found here; a medieval tower with a strikingly elaborate astronomical clock.
Bern is home to numerous museums. No matter your taste, you can find something to enjoy and marvel at in the city. If history is your thing, then check out the vast collection of artefacts and tapestries at the Bern Historical Museum. If you have a love of art, there is no shortage of works at the Museum of Fine Arts. If you have a penchant for communication, the Museum für Kommunikation has got you covered.
Other museums to make sure you check out is the extraordinary Zentrum Paul Klee, which celebrates the famous artist from which it takes its name. You can also visit the old home of Albert Einstein; the appropriately named Einsteinhaus.
Parks and nature
Bern is a city of gorgeous natural beauty. Anyone visiting Bern in the warmer months would do themselves a disservice if they didn’t go swimming in the Aare, the tributary river to the Rhine that runs through most of the canton. Any avid outdoorsman can also satisfy their thirst for adventure on the slopes of the Gurten, the mountain just south of Bern. Make sure you take the opportunity to ride the Gurten Funicular railway while you’re there!
While on your travels around the city you might stumble across the BärenPark, the park built to supplement the Bärengraben, or bear pit, which has long housed the heraldic animals of the city. You will also find the Rosengarten nearby, which alongside its beautiful gardens, offers spectacular views of the city.
Sports fans can also get their fix in Bern, which is home to one of Switzerland’s most successful football teams: BSC Young Boys. The team play at the Stade de Suisse Wankdorf, the second largest stadium in Switzerland. If football isn’t your thing, Bern is also home to the SC Bern ice hockey team, one of the most successful teams outside of the NHL in America.
Getting around in Bern
Bern is served by an extensive public transport network, making it easy to get around the city. The city is at the centre of the Libero tariff association, which allows for coordinated travel across different modes of transport.
Annual events in Bern
Make sure you check out these events in Bern if you’re there at the right time of year.
Zibelemärit translates to onion market, which tells you all you need to know. As its name suggests, the market mainly sells onions although you’ll also be able to pick up some delicious Zwiebelkuchen (onion pie) and onion soup.
If you can, make sure you check out this bizarre but wonderful festival. The parade offers all your typical features: fancy costumes, bright colours and music. However, at this festival participants dress as bears and are woken up by drummers in the morning.
If you are visiting Bern in March, make sure you take advantage of museum night. This annual event sees museums light up and over 40 museums open their doors to members of the public, who can access them all with a single ticket.
International Jazz Festival Bern
Every year, the city of Bern attracts jazz lovers from all over the world as world-renowned artists gather to perform at one of the biggest jazz festivals in the world.
Jobs in Bern
Bern is a centre for lots of different types of industries, so if you’re looking for jobs in Bern there are plenty to choose from. Take a look at our job listings on our Swiss job board.