I’m talking about real brown bears. In Switzerland. Why? Because since 1513 bears have been kept in Bern as a sort of battle trophy or symbol and was often one of the first things to be stolen by enemies. You can now find Finn, Bjork and their daughter Ursina in the BearPark next to the river. They have around 6000 square metres to roam around in, an expansion of their previous home in 2009 funded by the locals. Lucky for us it wasn’t quite time for the bears to hibernate but we were told that we would be some of the last people to see them before they do.
Bern is also known for its stunning Aare river that locals swim in mostly over summer and the Old Town filled with water fountains, bear statues and underground cellars; once used as storage but now housing shops, restaurants and bars.
Bern was the third destination on our 23 day Interrail journey around Europe after spending three days in Strasbourg. How many days do you need in Bern? Well we stayed in Bern for three days and nights in October 2017 before an unplanned day trip to Zurich. Bern is beautiful but quite small so three days and nights is plenty to see everything. It’s also one of the more expensive European destinations to visit.
How to get there
We took the train to Bern from Colmar which is 30 minutes outside Strasbourg. From Colmar it only took us around one hour to Basel and after a break in between, a further hour to Bern.
Where to stay
If you love animals, you could stay at an Airbnb with rabbits and parrots like we did. It cost us £225 (around €250 or $380AUD) for three nights in a private room of a two bedroom apartment. For Switzerland, you’ll find this is a reasonable price. It was located was near the University, a short five minute stroll from the train station.
Things to see and do
- The bears Finn, Bjork and Ursina in the park next to the river before they hibernate
- Ride the rodelbahn at Gurten Park which is like going down a long silver tube slide whilst sitting on a flat trolley with a brake
- Free walking tour with the company of the same name (Free Walking Tours Bern) to learn the history from a local
- Check out the view from Rosengarten, a rose garden with different types of roses or, you can go up the top of the Munster (monastery) for a view as far as the alps on a clear day for five francs
- Swim in the Aare river like the locals which unfortunately we didn’t do because the weather was a bit too cool for us in October
Where to eat and drink
- Kornhauskeller for a glass of wine (around 8 francs) in a beautifully decorated underground cellar
- Munster Platform behind the Munster for a coffee or ice-cream but only on a sunny day
- Migros Takeaway, Brezel König or similar takeaway options for sandwiches and pretzels with delicious fillings for breakfast and lunch to save money, though still expect to pay around 7 CHF each or more
I wish I could offer a dinner option. Everything starts at 20 francs or more per person so after saving ourselves for a nice dinner on our final night in Bern which happened to be a Monday, the restaurant we were heading to was closed. Instead we ended up at Anker Restaurant near Kornhauskeller which was okay but we essentially spent 70 CHF on chicken schnitzel and chips, sausages and mash and two small white wines each.
- Two nights / three days is more than enough to see Bern, even if you choose to do a day trip out to Interlaken
- Recommended budget minimum 400 CHF (around £300, $500 AUD or €340) for two people over three days and that only includes one nice dinner
- Every overnight guest receives a Bern ticket with which they can use all public transportation for free; it gets you onto the funicular up to Gurten Park for free too!
- Pack a reusable water bottle and fill up for free in the many water fountains around the city
- It’s expensive to eat in Switzerland! Choose supermarket or takeaway options for most daily meals and don’t stay in Switzerland too long unless your budget allows. Oh, and check opening days and times for your restaurant of choice before making your way there
Day 1 – Seeing the bears
So I called this blog ‘sleepy bears in Bern’ for two reasons. The first reason is obvious and the second reason is that we had an afternoon nap every day during our time in Bern. Starting with as soon as we arrived at our Airbnb accommodation after a quick hello to the rabbits and parrots.
Harry had come down with a case of the man flu so I took the opportunity to have a REAL holiday and nap alongside him. A few hours later we set off to see the bears Finn, Bjork and Ursina in the BearPark. You can see them either from the bridge, up the top near the tourist information office or down by the river’s edge. From a distance they almost look like fluffy teddy bears but one of the information signs assured us that with Finn’s weight of around 300kg, they were big.
It was dinner time so we started to look for food options. The prices were high, everything starting from 20 francs. Hopeful, we walked and walked but gave up and bought some takeaway from Chinese restaurant Boky for around 35 francs and took it home to eat as we weren’t feeling too well.
When we got back to our accommodation we met our hosts and they introduced us to their rabbits Cognac and Sashimi and parrots Louis and… oh no! Forgotten its name already. But they’re beautifully coloured Brazilian parrots and Harry was given the chance to hold one of them before it flew onto the light fitting and we said goodnight.
Day 2 – Free walking tour
Staying near the University means you get a beautiful view of the alps in the morning. After buying breakfast from Brezelkonig at the train station, we took the bus to the Rosengarten, the starting point for the free walking tour at 11am.
Our guide Patrick from the company Free Walking Tours was born in Bern and is actually a software engineer. Highlights included learning that Toblerone is made in Switzerland and if you look closely there is a bear in the logo, the cellars in the old town had to be built facing the street so they could be searched, and the water from the fountains has been quality tested and is better than bottled water. So bring your reusable water bottle and fill up for free. You’ll also notice different coloured street signs for each area of town and this was to help people in the old days find their way home.
For the afternoon we bought a long sandwich big enough for two people (because every franc counts) and made our way back up to the Rosengarten for lunch with a view of Bern. While I was enjoying not competing with as many tourists that I imagine are there in summer, I wished we could go for a swim or at the very least, see the locals swimming in the water. It’s so clear that it’s an aqua green colour.
Interested to see what the bears were up to, we went for a walk past them before moving on to Munster Platform. With every intention to have a hot drink and cake, there was an ice-cream stand and a shorter queue so a few minutes later we were eating chocolate and mango waffle cones. With full bellies, just like the bears before hibernation, it was nap time so we went home for a sleep. For dinner, man flu was still winning so it took all our efforts to walk to the nearby train station for a Rice Up takeaway and lemongrass soup to share.
Day 3 – Riding the rodelbahn at Gurten Park
With a teddy bear’s picnic in mind for our second breakfast of the day, the pretzel filled with salami from Brezelkonig just didn’t make it that far. But we still made seeing the bears the first priority of the day. We watched them for quite a while as it was the last time we’d see them, and left them as they slept peacefully in their respective nature beds (aka craters dug into the earth filled with leaves).
The sun was out from behind the clouds today so we went back to Munster Platform, this time for a coffee. Unfortunately the sky wasn’t clear enough to go up the Munster for the view so instead we picked up a salad for lunch from Migros Takeaway and took the funicular up to Gurten Park.
Riding the funicular for free was a hot tip from our walking tour guide (thanks Patrick!) And as we ate our salads at the top with the best view of Bern we’d seen so far, we noticed the rodelbahn to our right which is kind of like a toboggan or luge, just in a half cylinder like tube. All you need to do is push the lever forward to start moving and pull it back towards you to put the brake on. It was only 4.50 CHF each and so much fun! What a pleasant surprise! Why didn’t anyone tell us to go to Gurten Park and ride the rodelbahn!
There was also a viewing platform, miniature railway and some BMX tracks at the top of Gurten, but it was the cafe’s sun-soaked balcony that caught our eye. Sharing a delicious carrot cake and juice we were momentarily distracted from the view by two cats playing in the grass below.
After all that excitement it was time for, you guessed it, a sleep! And seeing it was our last night in Switzerland we made the effort to get dressed up for a nicer dinner. Turns out our restaurant of choice was closed on Monday so we ended up at Anker Restaurant near Kornhauskeller. Despite my reference earlier to the food being quite basic for the price, it was nice food and the recommendation to try Epesses white wine was pretty good too.
Kornhauskeller came highly recommended as a dining option but with mains around 40 CHF each we couldn’t afford it on our three week holiday. We could however, afford a final drink in the beautiful setting of this large old cellar, so we enjoyed a night cap here before bed.
Day 4 – Day trip to Zurich
It was a last minute decision to go to Zurich for the day before our overnight sleeper train to Ljubljana in Slovenia. Up and ready to go early, we caught the 9:02am train from Bern and arrived into Zurich around one hour later. We had time for a coffee before the downtown walking tour with the same Free Walking Tours company as Bern but the coffee in these parts was 15 CHF each. For my UK friends, that’s around £11.50. And Australian friends, almost 20 bucks. Instead we sat on a seat for half an hour and ate some roasted corn snacks we’d brought with us from London. And we thought Bern was expensive!
It was a beautiful sunny day in Zurich so the walking tour was popular. It was shorter than the tour in Bern, around 1.5 hours in total. Without our guide I’m not sure I would have appreciated Zurich with its banks, expensive shops and restaurants and well, expensive everything! Have I mentioned it was expensive?
Zurich has some older areas to discover and history to learn. Highlights included seeing Europe’s largest clock face (yes, even bigger than Big Ben!), the friendly old man waving from the rooftop across from the clock tower, more water fountains (1200 in fact), learning about Switzerland being a peaceful country not getting involved in wars and therefore having more untouched buildings than expected. There is also no official capital of Switzerland. Did you think it was Zurich? I did too. Actually the unofficial capital of Switzerland is Bern.
To pass the time in the afternoon before our overnight sleeper train to Slovenia, we spent 12 of our final 14 Swiss francs at the supermarket to get some wine and chocolate for a picnic by the lake. It was a peaceful end to our time in Switzerland, chatting underneath the trees with a view of the alps in the distance.
Next stop Ljubljana!