Bern (population 127,000) is Switzerland’s capital but only its fifth-largest city. Indeed, this speaks volumes about its softly-softly approach to being one of Europe’s best examples of democracy. Forget about bloated bureaucratic enclaves, this place has charm, style and a beguiling character worth many a bear hug.
Her Old Town streets, cobble-stoned and arcaded, hide cool little bars and old-fashioned eateries; centuries-old fountains will make you wonder if the artists responsible for their design wasn’t on something mind-altering; basement shops reveal quirky souvenirs and knick-knacks; museums and galleries highlight Swiss artists and history in style; and an imposing cathedral keeps watch over it all. Above all, there’s a lot to do and see, but the city’s compact nature means you can revel in it all in less than a weekend.
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Pastoral prettiness lies a stone’s throw from the national capital in the hauntingly lovely Bernese Mittelland. Here pastures are devoted to producing Switzerland’s iconic ‘Swiss’ (ie, Emmental) cheese. Moreover, driving around (and sometimes getting lost in) this dreamy landscape is a low-key delight: gently rolling hills, old farmhouses weighed down with geranium planters, lovingly tended vegetable plots and gentle light (silver at sunrise, golden at sunset).
Some of the natural wonders that have made Switzerland famous (the Jungfrau Region, Glacier 3000) mean that the region known as Bernese Oberland, the southern highlands of the canton of Bern, should be your target.
Above all, stunning Alpine scenery combines with chocolate-box charm no matter what the season — this is a region that shines. Using action-packed Interlaken as a base, you can also enjoy the beauty of the jewel-toned lakes (Thun and Brienz) that sandwich it. Or just head to waterfall-filled Lauterbrunnen and explore the pretty car-free Alpine villages of the Jungfrau at your leisure.
Moreover, the natural beauty of this Canton Bern is as bold as it gets, with towering Alpine peaks, brilliantly blue lakes, lashings of snow in winter and ‘kiss the sky’ trails. Furthermore, the ever-efficient transport network and eager tourism service providers make getting around and active a dream well within reach.
To book a suitable hotel or other accommodation in or around Bern, you can use the map below, which shows current prices for hotels and apartments. If you wish to book further afield, then just enlarge the map (+/-) to see more properties or, if you have somewhere particular in mind, enter your preferred resort/town/village in the ‘Where are you going?’ box.
The city of Bern is a year-round destination and a visit there requires no special planning in terms of the season, although late spring and early summer and early fall are the most pleasant times of year.
There is a big difference between the city and the Alps though, and a trip to Bernese Oberland (and especially the Jungfrau Region) is very much dependent on the time of year, especially if you’re planning an overnight stay, with some Jungfrau village hotels shutting shop for weeks at a time in the low season.
If you’re after snow sports at their finest, the winter and spring skiing seasons offer great opportunities for all sorts of snow bunnies in this ‘birthplace of skiing’: think relaxed spots beloved by locals (Adelboden-Lenk); luxury hotels and resorts imbued with jet-set allure (Gstaad) and family-friendly destinations (Grindelwald).
In summer, walking and hiking takes center stage, with trails for everyone, from easy-does-it sightseers, to the mobility impaired and serious onward-and-upward enthusiasts. Many ski slopes morph into mountain bike trails during the peak season.
Bernese Mittelland is worth traveling to in the warmer months, as spring can be very wet and grey and late fall on the dull side. the fall colors are special, but summer is when the region is at its verdant, blooming, cow-filled best.
Bernese Oberland is relatively compact, but initial appearances can be deceptive: mountains always take time, whether you’re on foot, in a car, in a cable car or on skis.
Bern, for all its delights, can easily be covered in 36 hours if you focus on the main sights (see our 36 Hours in Bern itinerary for the perfect day-and-a-half visit).
If you’re looking to explore famous mountain regions such as the Jungfraujoch, it’s worth setting aside a whole day for a return trip (to Interlaken or Lauterbrunnen) and setting off early. Always pay close attention to details such as ‘last descent’ and schedules for trains back to your accommodation, if you’re relying on public transport to get around.
If you’re traveling by car you’re only ever a few hours at most from the destinations mentioned here, but bear in mind that some of the Jungfrau‘s loveliest spots are car-free (such as Mürren and Gimmelwald), meaning you will need to park you car and take a cable car to your destination.
If you plan to ski or hike, it’s worth setting aside at least two days to really enjoy the experience: nothing beats spending a night in a sweet little pension or chalet and then heading back down to earth at a leisurely pace. As with most destinations, if you can avoid school holidays you’ll have a much calmer time of it.
Bernese Oberland is incredibly popular in the summer months, so it pays to have some idea of how you’d like to fill your time (especially if it’s limited) and to make reservations at hotels and hostels.
Hotels and other accommodation options are often closed from the first week of April until the first week of May (Grindelwald), from early April until late May or early June (Wengen), all of April until early May or June (Mürren), and April (Lauterbrunnen — although many places remain open). Mid-October to mid-December is another time when many local businesses take a break to prepare for the Christmas and winter rush.
Marked seasonal variations take place in Bernese Oberland, meaning that the weather will often determine the way in which you spend your time.
Spring and summer in the valleys are pleasant and especially popular times to visit for hikers. At altitude it’s also possible to spend your time on the ski slopes too.
Autumn/fall brings with it a little cold (especially come nightfall), although days can still be sunny and pleasant for those spending time outdoors.
Winter time is, of course, all about the snow sports and numerous resorts are dedicated to just this thing.
In addition to the usual days off for Christmas and Easter, Ascension, Whit Monday and the third Sunday in September are all public holidays in Bern canton.
One event that captures the rapt attention of the locals is the annual FIS Ski World Cup at Wengen, with the famously demanding Lauberhorn (2472 m, 8110ft) descent (4.48km, 2.78mi) testing the strength, speed and stamina of downhill competitors. In 2017 the race takes place January 13-15.
Bern Canton is located in the CET (Central European Time) zone.
Daylight Saving Time (DST) happens in the Spring (last Sunday in March at 1AM) when clocks are advanced one hour. In the Autumn (last Sunday in October at 1AM), clocks shift back one hour to standard time to give more daylight in the morning.
Like much of the country, locals dress in comfortable, weather-specific clothing: Switzerland is not a major fashion hub but you will find plenty of stores dedicated to outdoor gear and sensible footwear! Unless you fancy paying for these things in Swiss francs, you’re best off bringing gear from home, although it is possible to hire equipment, especially in Interlaken.
In all but the fanciest restaurants you’ll be welcome in your regular sightseeing or outdoor gear, although it’s always good form to leave wet or snow-covered clothing at the cloakroom or clothing rail.
The world-famous Tour de France race will come to Bern Canton and its surrounds for stage 17 of the gruelling event for three days in July in 2016 (the 18th, 19th and 20th). See the official website for more details.
All those engineering feats (the Jungfraubahn, funiculars, cable cars) have to be paid for somehow, and you’ll be tempted to think that you’re the one footing the bill if you’re unlucky enough to have to stump up an adult return trip full fare to the Jungfaujoch from Interlaken! It makes sense to stretch your Swiss Franc as far as a bungee cord, as trip costs up to the famous peaks add up fast: look into the Bernese Oberland Regio Pass (see Transportation) or even a Swiss Half Fare Card if you want to squeeze every penny from your transportation.
Bargains are few and far between in this region: Bern‘s status as the nation’s capital means that it’s full of government workers and therefore accommodation and eating out are routinely expensive. The good people of Bernese Oberland are not fools and know that they can charge top dollar (or top franc) for the Alpine experience of a lifetime. Fortunately, some of the most memorable experiences in the region, such as hiking, or visiting a Lake Thun castle after a boat ride across the lake, are free or relatively inexpensive.
Bernese Mittelland is somewhat cheaper, and there are even some excellent accommodation bargains if you’re prepared to sleep in a modest farmhouse in the countryside.
Prices often fluctuate dynamically depending on capacity, seasonality and deals. We don’t want to lead you astray by quoting exact prices that quickly become wrong. To give you a rough idea for budgetary planning purposes, though, we have indicated general price ranges for all points of interest.
Price ranges are quoted in Swiss francs (CHF).
See & Do
N/A => Not applicable
€ => Tickets less than CHF10 per person
€€ => Tickets CHF10-CHF25 per person
€€€ => Tickets CHF25 per person
€ => Rooms less than CHF250 for a double
€€ => Rooms CHF250-CHF400 for a double
€€€ => Rooms CHF400 for a double
€=> Less than CHF30 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€ => CHF30-CHF75 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
€€€ => CHF75 per person for a meal (without alcohol, tax, tip)
N/A => Not applicable
€ => Tickets less than CHF10 per person
€€ => Tickets CHF10-CHF25 per person
€€€ => Tickets CHF25 per person
Transport is excellent throughout the region, although getting around rural areas (such as the Emmental Region, in Bernese Mittelland) is easier with your own wheels.
Roads are in good condition throughout, transportation links are solid and some trips are attractions in their own right (the famous Jungfraubahn, for one).
It pays to remember that some of the Jungfrau Region‘s most photogenic villages (Gimmelwald and Wengen to name but two) are car free — plan your trip accordingly and see our village listings for details.
With Bern as the region’s transportation hub and Interlaken a handy base for Jungfrau region explorations, most big sights are within easy (a couple of hours, tops) reach. Bern is accessible by train from the country’s three major airports (Geneva, Basel-Mulhouse and Zürich). Bern is also accessible by train from Berlin, Paris and Milan. Connections to Swiss cities such as Basel, Zürich, Geneva, Lausanne and Interlaken are frequent.
Despite being the country’s second-largest canton (in size and population), Bern Canton is easy to navigate and positively compact if you’re coming from a country as large as the USA or Australia.
Despite its manageable size, it pays to remember that mountains always take time, whether you’re traveling by train, funicular or car. Check here for information about whether mountain passes are open to vehicular traffic.
Public transport within the region is excellent, and although prices are comparatively high, but you can ease the pain with discounts and passes.
Bern, as the capital of the country, is a transport hub and boasts excellent links with the region, especially via train. The main train station is in the center of town, and buses to surrounding towns and neighborhoods depart from a nearby bus station. Getting to Bern from other parts of the country is a straightforward business.
Interlaken, a very busy tourist town, is another regional hub and has excellent transport links and two train stations (Ost and West). It’s also possible to catch boats here.
The following websites offer detailed timetable and route listings.
Train, Boat and Bus: www.bls.ch
Valid for four, six, eight or 10 days, the Berner Oberland Regio Pass gives you free travel by train, bus, boat, mountain railway and cableway on consecutive days over a broad area. Prices start at CHF288/240 (1st/2nd class) for the four-day pass, but there are further discounts for holders of the Swiss Travel Pass and Swiss Half Fare Card etc. Information on other travel passes is available here.
The ‘free area’ defined by the pass covers all forms of transport and extends west to east from Gstaad to Meiringen, with Spiez, Interlaken, Thun, Brienz, Grindelwald, Lauterbrunnen, Adelboden, Kandersteg, Mürren, Gimmelwald and Kleine Scheidegg included. From the north, Bern and Lucerne are included, all the way down south to Brig. The 50% discount area extends to the wildly popular Bernese Oberland highlights of Jungfraujoch and Schilthorn, and as far as Titlis, Engelberg, Andermatt, Montreux and Les Diablerets.
You can buy the pass at the BLS Interlaken office (contact details are included in this review), and also from travel agents, boat and rail ticket offices in the area, plus major airport trains stations (ie, Zürich, Basel and Geneva).
The Jungfrau Travel Pass offers travel on a consecutive number of days within certain areas or trains, buses and certain cableways: for an adult traveling 2nd class it costs CHF180/205/230/255 for 3/4/5/6 days (less for holders of a Half fare Card or Swiss Travel Pass). Children pay only CHF30.
To give you an idea of ticket prices, here are some popular one-way trips (adult, 2nd class price) in the region.
Bern to Interlaken (train): CHF28
Bern to Lauterbrunnen (train): CHF35.60
Interlaken to Jungfraujoch (train): CHF102.20
Interlaken to Grindelwald (train): CHF11
Lake Thun and Lake Brienz boat one-day ticket: CHF68
Canton Bern, the second-largest canton (in terms of population and size) in Switzerland. As you’d expect, it wields a fair bit of influence over Swiss life, but the independent and resourceful Swiss place great stock in having their home cantons being as ‘separate’ as possible from the seat of federal power, so Bern doesn’t feel like a capital city the way other places, such as Paris and London, do. The power there seems softer and at a gentle remove from daily life, no matter how many public servants keep the cogs turning.
The canton is blessed with two ‘backyards’ and both of them reward exploration. The area known as ‘Mittelland’ (basically, ‘middle ground’) is a pastoral paradise and the home of the world-famous holey cheese known as Emmental. Green, lush and quiet, it is a lovely spot to calm down, count cows, sleep in straw and recharge.
Bernese Oberland is a different, bolder beast, with its soaring peaks, giant skies, popularity with local and international visitors and devotion to outdoor activities. This is the home of incredible Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau and the equally incredible Jungfraubahn, which chugs all the way to the top, through tunnels carved from sold rock. Interlaken, the region’s main base, is bursting at the seams with businesses offering action, adventure and extreme sports: think paragliding, canyoning, skydiving and rafting, to name a few. Skiing in winter and hiking in summer are de rigeur, and achingly pretty Jungfrau villages provide the perfect setting for the thrill of a lifetime.
Bern joined the Swiss Confederation way back in 1353. By the 16th century it was a powerful city-state, whose influence extended to canton Vaud (on Lake Geneva). In 1848, Bern was named the federal capital.
Meat eaters will be tempted to try (and probably share) the Berner Platte, a heaving portion of local victuals that includes various sausages, a wide variety of pork cuts (shoulder, ears etc) and some veggies, including delicious juniper-infused sauerkraut and plenty of potatoes.
November is the time to eat Bern’s famous onion tart, as it’s when the lively Zibelemärit (onion market) takes place.
Throughout the canton meringues, usually smothered in rich double cream, are a popular item on the dessert menu.
Canton Bern has two official languages: German and French, although German is by far the more widely spoken one. The local dialect is famously slow and lilting, and the butt of some decent ribbing by many Swiss. English is widely spoken in Bern and also in areas popular with tourists.
Good web resources for travel in the region include the following:
Bern Tourism (www.bern.com)
Interlaken Tourism (www.interlaken.ch)
Jungfrau Region (www.jungfrau.ch)
Lake Thun (www.thunersee.ch)
Great nation-wide hiking information abounds at www.wanderland.ch/en/; with special itineraries at a local, regional and national level.