Bern, the capital of Switzerland, is a city with a rich history.
Situated in the centre of the western part of the country, it is an excellent base for exploring all that Switzerland has to offer. The city is home to various museums and attractions, including the Einstein Museum, the Rosengarten, and the Bear Park.
Closer in size to a large town, Bern is a UNESCO World Heritage site. With its convenient location and abundance of activities, it is the perfect place to spend a day in.
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The top things to do in one day in Bern
Below I have outlined some sights worth seeing with one day in Bern. I have also summarised some other things you might want to consider if you have more time.
The size of Bern means it’s a very walkable city so it would be easy to explore independently.
Wander through the old town
With just one day in Bern, I’d suggest starting in the historic old town. If you have arrived by train, this is less than a 15-minute walk away.
The old town is home to many attractions, including the Clock Tower (Zytglogge) and the Federal Palace. It is also home to a good selection of restaurants and shops, making it a great place to browse.
The main street that runs the length of the old town is the Kramgasse which means “Grocer’s Alley”.
The narrow covered alleyways are filled with tiny boutique stores underneath arches, as well as a scattering of cozy cafés and bars in the basements. These would be ideal spots to snuggle up in if you’re visiting Bern in winter.
As the street has very little traffic, you can stroll along at a relaxing pace and admire the distinctive grey/green architecture. It’s where you’ll also find ornate and colourful – and quite unique – fountains and statues.
The medieval Clock Tower (Zytglogge)
The Zytglogge in Bern is one of the city’s most iconic landmarks.
Located in the old town on the site of the old city gate, it is an early 13th-century medieval clock tower that has been rebuilt and renovated several times over the years.
It is a popular tourist attraction in Bern and one of the city’s most photographed buildings. People often congregate in front of the clock to see the mechanical figures emerge and put on a show when it strikes the hour.
There are 130 steps to the top platform from where you can take in some fantastic views across the centre.
The Federal Palace
The Federal Palace (or Parliament Building) is also in the old town of Bern. It’s a lovely structure from the late 19th-century/early 20th century, and is almost 1,000 feet long.
When the parliament is not sitting, it is open to the public between Tuesday and Saturday. Visitors can explore the building and learn about its history.
Bern can also boast of having a church with the highest spire in the entire country.
The 19th-century gothic Bern Minster was built over the course of several centuries. It provides visitors who are prepared to climb 300 steps to the top with sweeping views over the old town.
It is also apparently possible to see across to the hills and mountains of the Bernese Oberland from here.
Meet Bern’s bears
The bear is the symbol of Bern. If you spotted bears on the buildings and or on flags flying in the city, this is why.
So after spending some time in the central part of the old town, I’d suggest walking down towards the river and the Bear Park.
The park is home to a family of bears that live here and pays homage to them as the symbol of Bern. It’s a place to visit for those who want to learn more about the city’s heraldic beast: a ranger is always available in the park to answer questions you might have.
You can see the 19th-century original enclosure, as well as a more recent larger area for the bears that stretches along the river bank.
The more recent addition is welcome news for me: the enclosure seemed a little small to me, but the stretch along the bank gives the bears some 6,000 square meters to roam around in.
The park is open year round and is free.
Go to the Rosengarten and have lunch
Bern’s Rosengarten is a beautiful, peaceful park overlooking the city across the meandering Aare river. It’s a must-visit – the views across the old town are a delight.
On a fine day, it’s a lovely place to walk around. There are over 400 varieties of roses and irises in the garden and a lovely pond with water lilies. In the spring, it’s a place to spot blossoming Japanese cherry trees.
The garden is a good spot to stop for lunch during your one day in Bern. There is a wonderful restaurant and bar here – the Restaurant Rosengarten – with plenty of outdoor seating with great views.
Alternatively, you could walk down the slope towards the river and wander across the road to the Altes Tramdepot bar and restaurant.
This is a reasonably priced eatery, also with great views, and housed in a former tram depot. It brews its own beer onsite. It is right next to the Bear Pit and Park.
Learn about one of Bern’s most famous residents
After lunch, I suggest you spend some time learning about one of Bern’s most famous residents, Albert Einstein.
He spent seven years in the city (and apparently said, “Those were good times, the years in Bern”). Bern was where he developed his General Theory of Relativity.
There are two places where you can learn more about Einstein.
The first is The Einstein House, the flat that Einstein occupied from 1903 to 1905 with his wife, Mileva Maric.
The museum has a large collection of exhibits and photographs from the couple’s life together. On the first floor, these are displayed around the flat as it presumably was laid out at the time.
Upstairs, there is an informative short film. This draws on archive footage that charts the different stages of Einstein’s life.
In the museum, you can learn about Einstein’s great work, as well as his personal life and his later time in the USA.
Although this Bern museum is only small, you can learn a great deal in a short time.
You can visit the house between February and December. For further information, see my more detailed post on my visit to Einstein’s House.
The Bern Historical Museum
The second place to learn about Einstein is in the Bern Historical Museum.
This contains exhibitions dedicated to history, ethnography and archaeology. Built in the late 19th century, it is the second largest museum of its type in Switzerland.
In addition to the section about the history of Bern, there is also a section on Albert Einstein. Over 1,000 square metres is dedicated to him and his life and work. There are over 500 exhibits and 70 films to browse.
The museum is open all day, Tuesday to Sunday.
Note that if you only pay to enter the historical museum, you will not get access to the Einstein Museum. However, if you pay for the Einstein Museum, you can enter both.
Other things to do in Bern
If you’re looking for other ideas for things to do in Bern, or have longer to explore, then you might want to consider the following attractions.
The Zentrum Paul Klee museum
The Zentrum Paul Klee is a modern art museum dedicated to the work of artist Paul Klee.
The museum has a broad range of exhibits that feature Klee’s work as well as those by other famous artists. There is also a library on-site and cafe.
If you like art, this is one to put on the list. The building itself – designed by Renzo Piano – is also something to see. It is open all week except for Mondays.
The Natural History Museum
The oldest museum in the city, the National History Museum showcases a vast array of exhibits that tell the story of Switzerland’s natural history.
There are several permanent and temporary exhibits, including ones on invertebrates, rocks, minerals, and crystals, as well as African animals and Swiss creatures.
There is also a room containing over 300 skeletons, including a 23-metre fin whale.
The museum is open all day, Tuesday to Sunday and on Monday afternoons.
Bern Zoo – the Tierpark – is located by the river in the Dahlholzi forest. It is a highly recommended place to spend the day if you have kids (or are a kid at heart).
There are a variety of animals to see, including leopards, wolves, monkeys, reptiles, seals, bears, and birds. If you time your visit well, you’ll get to see some of the animals being fed.
The zoo is open every day but closing times depend on the time of year.
You can get to the zoo via the number 19 bus from the main train station. Alternatively, you could walk along the river, a walk of about half an hour.
The Museum of Communication
The Museum of Communication is dedicated to the history of communication and contains interactive exhibits and collections.
For example, you can be picked to be in a scene from a film, send a message through a letter shoot, make your own personalised postage stamp and see the first (gigantic!) Swiss computer.
The museum is open every day except Mondays. To get to the museum, you can take the number 6, 7 or 8 tram from the train station.
Getting to Bern
Bern has an airport. You can catch flights here from various cities in Europe, although the number varies seasonally.
However, the nearby airports in Geneva and Zurich have more regular flights. You might therefore find it more convenient to catch a flight to one of these airports.
Bern is then just over an hour via train from Zurich airport and around two hours to Geneva airport.
Other ideas for European day trips and short breaks
My website has a range of posts on other places to give you more ideas for day trips and short breaks in Europe.
You may be interested in my ideas that include:
- A short break to Varenna in the Italian Lakes
- A day trip from Zurich to the Rhine Falls
- 2 days in Lisbon
- One day in Lausanne
- A visit to the Alhambra in Spain’s Granada
- 2 days in Lyon
- A weekend in Bath, England
- 2 days in Munich in Germany
- 3 days in Edinburgh, Scotland
- Things to do in Zurich in winter