In the centre of Switzerland, the Canton of Bern has been at the heart of Swiss history since its foundation, being the seat of government and as one of the largest counties (cantons) in the country. Today the canton is bordered by Jura, Solothurn, Neuchatel, Fribourg, Vaud, Valais, Uri, Nidwalden, Obwalden, Lucern and Aargau, as well as a sharing a tiny border with France.
Canton Bern in numbers
- Surface area: 5.959 km2
- Population: 1.039.474 (December 2019)
- Expat population: 172.286 (16,5 percent, December 2019)
- Universities: 1
- Unemployment rate: 2,5% (December 2019)
- GRP per capita: 76.085 Swiss francs (December 2019)
History of Canton Bern
The Canton of Bern was first settled by the Helvetii people in the early iron age. These people were then conquered by Julius Caesar in 58 BC and the area was forced to become a vassal state of the Roman Empire. The region around Bern was vital to the Romans as it linked the western roman empire with its expansions into northern Germany, as well as three mountain passes between Italy and northern Europe.
Because of its position on a key trade route, there is evidence of luxurious Roman baths and villas, the ruins of which you can still see today.
Burgundian rule and independence
After the fall of Rome, the Canton of Bern was split among many smaller counties ruled over by the new king of Burgundy. From the 10th to the 14th century, French Burgundians gave power to smaller counts and nobles from the Holy Roman Empire, who founded some of the larger cities in the canton.
In 1274, Emperor Rudolf von Habsburg declared Bern and the surrounding lands as free imperial territory, giving it far greater autonomy. However, in 1285, the emperor instituted a unique tax on Bern. This angered the residents of the canton who revolted in 1288. The city survived the war, defeating the emperor in 1298, securing its independence.
The Bernese then joined the new Swiss confederation in 1353.
The imperial canton
Between 1322 and 1400, due to conquest, inheritance and the purchase of land, the Canton of Bern expanded its borders several times. This led to Bern becoming the largest canton in the new confederation, encompassing the entirety of the land it controls today by 1400. After this, Bern focused on acquiring the French lands to the east and north, conquering what would become canton Vaud in 1555.
Defeat and federalisation
Despite possessing huge power, the Bernese struggled to maintain order and control over its French-speaking population, who were dissatisfied as they did not receive any political rights. Several long and bloody rebellions against the Bernese were undertaken between 1555 and 1798, severely weakening the canton's ability to fight. It was in 1798 that Napoleon invaded in order to free the French-speaking Swiss and establish a puppet state.
Bern was the only canton to properly resist the French, defeating them in Neuenegg before being forced to surrender after the Battle of Grauholz. In the ensuing peace, Bern lost the majority of its French-speaking lands to Vaud (1803), Fribourg, Neuchatel and finally Jura who declared independence from Bern in 1978.
Today the canton of Bern is the seat of the new federal government, its borders may not be as large as they once were, but the story of canton Bern is the story of German-speaking Switzerland, making it the figurative heart of the country.
Is Bern the capital of Switzerland?
Technically, Bern is not the capital of Switzerland. After the Sonderbund Civil War in 1848, the government adopted a new constitution that made the federal government stronger. After much debate, in said constitution, it is stated that the seat of the government will be Bern, making it the de facto capital. However, a capital city is never mentioned, meaning that the capital is not official and can be moved to any place whenever the people want.
Geography of Canton Bern
Much like the rest of Switzerland, Canton Bern is dominated by mountains and lakes. Many of the cities are on the waterfront of either a lake or river.
The Bernese Oberland has some of the most famous mountains in Switzerland, including Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch. The Mittleland and three lakes region make up part of the Swiss plateau, leading to rolling hills and large green fields.
Weather in Canton Bern
The Canton of Bern forms part of the alpine mountain range, meaning that it can experience vastly different temperatures depending on the direction of the wind. Southern winds can bring temperate winters and hot summers whereas northern winds can produce the opposite. Snow is common above 600 meters and can even be found in midsummer on some mountains.
The Bernese dialect is heavily influenced by French and German. A variation of Swiss German, Bernese German is known for its shortening of words and the mixing of several French words into conversation. The city of Bern is also where high society Swiss German is based and is the typical language used on radio and television.
Largest cities in Canton Bern
Alongside stunning mountains and lakes, the Canton of Bern boasts many large cities.
The spiritual heart of the canton and country, Bern is a stunning city perched atop a cliff with the river forming a natural border around the old town. For expats and for citizens, the city is a must-see attraction. For more information of the capital of the canton, see our guide to the city of Bern.
Biel / Bienne
On the banks of the Bielersee, the city of Biel was constructed in the 12th century by the bishop of Basel to protect the surrounding area and Juran mountains. It is one of the few regions in the canton that still speak French, hence the official name being Biel / Bienne. Visitors can see the old town as well as the nearby village of La-Chaux-de-Fonds. The two are famous for watchmaking and are now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
20 minutes south of the city of Bern lies the fortress of Thun. Protecting the larger city from invasion by boat, the city and old town impose themselves on the banks of the Thunersee. Visitors can see the many castles that line the city as well as take a steamship on the lake to sample stunning views of Eiger and Mönch.
Another city steeped in history, the city of Burgdorf was first settled in the 12 th century, with its large castle being completed in 1175. Twice besieged, the city has been pivotal for keeping invaders out of the canton. Today, visitors can sample the old town’s rich market squares which haven’t changed for hundreds of years.
Traditional food of Canton Bern
The main dish of Canton Bern has to be the Berner Platte. This dish is a cold plate containing meat, meat and more meat. The dish is adorned with juniper spiced sauerkraut, pickled turnips and dried beans.
Another favorite is the Zibelechueche, an onion tart that is traditionally served at the annual onion market held every November.
Sites & Attractions in Bern
When visiting Canton Bern, there are a large number of different places to visit. Here we have listed our favourites.
The Bernese Oberland
If you ask an expat to describe Switzerland, they will almost always think of the landscapes, fields, rivers and mountains that can be found in the Bernese Oberland. Within this stunning landscape, you can find anything from hiking tours to ski resorts. The landscape is defined by natural valleys in between mountain ranges, an ideal setting for camping.
The adrenaline capital of Switzerland, the city of Interlaken is well known for its selection of sports. These include rafting, kayaking, mountain biking, skiing, paragliding and parasailing. As well as a host of hotels and sports clubs that will be able to offer these experiences, Interlaken is also well known for its bars, restaurants and clubs.
Zentrum Paul Klee
Perhaps the most famous Swiss artist, Paul Klee was a forerunner in expressionism, cubism, and surrealism. Today, most of his works can be found at the Zentrum Paul Klee outside of Bern. The facility is on of the largest art galleries in Switzerland and has regular exhibitions from visiting artists.
Bernese coat of arms
The Bernese coat of arms is a yellow and red banner adorned with the Bernese black bear that used to be housed in the city. For more information, check out our guide to Swiss flags.