7 Free Things to Do in Bern, Switzerland

Switzerland is filled with art, culture, food, and these 7 free things to do in Bern that won't cost you a dime while visiting the historic capital.

Bern, the beautiful and historic capital city of Switzerland, is filled with art, culture, food, and – surprise – great things to do that won’t cost you a dime. This is no small deal when travelling in one of the most expensive countries in the world.

Our list of 7 excellent, fun, and totally free things to see and do in Bern includes some of the best attractions that money can’t buy. If you pair your visit with a stop at the Migros Marktgasse (Switzerland’s most popular grocer) to stock up on affordable sandwiches and take away treats (don’t miss their extensive chocolate selection!), you have the makings of a fantastic and cost-effective day trip or weekend away.

And we haven’t even included the free and priceless Alpen views!

Switzerland is filled with art, culture, food, and these 7 free things to do in Bern that won't cost you a dime while visiting the historic capital.

The 16th-century Zytglogge Astronomical Clock

1. Zytglogge

Bern is a city filled with history. Founded in the 12th century, the old city was walled, and several of its decorated medieval gates remain. One of the most popular historical attractions is the still-working Zytglogge – an astronomical clock built as the city’s main clock in 1530. [Given the Swiss reputation for quality time-pieces, it’s not surprising that it’s still working.] The clock chimes every 15 minutes, but it saves the biggest show for the top of the hour, when the jester rings the bells and the medieval figurines (human and bear) turn round and round in a musical pageant. Arrive 15 minutes before the hour to get good views and photographs.

Switzerland is filled with art, culture, food, and these 7 free things to do in Bern that won't cost you a dime while visiting the historic capital.

The scary 15th Ogre Fountain may terrify your wee travellers.

2. Old Town & Statues

The 15th-century medieval sandstone arcades and narrow streets of Bern’s old town centre make for wonderful (and weatherproof) walking, shopping and sight-seeing. You can easily walk from the Bahnhof (train station) to the Barenpark and back in a few hours, visiting many sites along the way, including the more than 100 fountains. Eleven of the fountains are of particular interest. They are topped with vibrant Renaissance figures with their own unique histories. The most interesting (and disturbing perhaps) is the Ogre Fountain or Kindlifresserbrunnen. This fountain is located in the Kornhausplatz, and depicts an ogre devouring (presumably disobedient) children. A good cautionary tale for encouraging good manners on the road.

Switzerland is filled with art, culture, food, and these 7 free things to do in Bern that won't cost you a dime while visiting the historic capital.

Taking a dip in the glacier waters of the Aare River is a highlight of visiting Bern in summer.

 3. Aarebad Marzili

The old town of Bern is encircled by the very fast moving Aare River. In summer, the vast (and free) Aarebad Marzili public pool area is open on the banks of the Aare, just below the Parliament buildings. The Aarebad Marzili includes several kid-friendly wading pools, a diving pool and a 50m swimming pool. The pools are surrounded by extensive green lawns for families to enjoy a full day of sun and swim. It’s a glorious place to spend a warm summer’s day.

The most unique (and best) part of Marzilibad is the opportunity to swim in the Aare River itself. The Aare is cold, fast-moving, Alpine melt water, usually a beautiful blue in colour. You don’t even have to swim – you can usually just float along for the ride. The trick is to enter a few hundred metres from the Marzili bathing area, and stay close to the banks to catch your arm on one of the exit steps to get out. Don’t wait for the last exit!

Switzerland is filled with art, culture, food, and these 7 free things to do in Bern that won't cost you a dime while visiting the historic capital.

Can you make it up the steps of the bell tower of the Munster Catherdral?

 4. Munster Cathedral

Construction of the gothic Munster Cathedral was begun in the 15th, and finished in the 19th century. The fit and brave can climb the over 344 steps of the bell tower for an incredible view of the city and the Alps. The portal over the main doors show the detailed sculpture of the Last Judgement – cautionary tales to the living to shape up while they could. Adjacent to the Cathedral on the south side is an extensive park area for walking and playing. The views down to the Aare River are outstanding.

Switzerland is filled with art, culture, food, and these 7 free things to do in Bern that won't cost you a dime while visiting the historic capital.

The picturesque, UNESCO World Heritage capital city of Bern.

5. Go for a Spin

Borrow a bicycle and take a spin around the Old City. Bern Rollt offers free bikes for rent in the old town of Bern. The main train station (Bahnhof) hosts the year-round rental location, while others are open May-October. Some ID and a deposit of 20 Swiss francs or so, and you’re free to ride the streets and bump along the cobblestones for up to four hours.

Switzerland is filled with art, culture, food, and these 7 free things to do in Bern that won't cost you a dime while visiting the historic capital.

The brown bears from which Bern received its name find fun in the Bear Park.

6. BarenPark | Bear Pit

Bern is named after the German word for bear ‘bar’, and the bear symbol is on the city and canton’s coat of arms. The Bernese have kept a Barengraben, or Bear Pit, as a tourist attraction, since 1857. Fortunately for the bears, their home was transformed in 2009 with the opening of the BarenPark. This is a much larger, treed area for the bears to roam, along the banks of the Aare River, just below the original pit location. There is a tourist information building above the BarenPark, with movies & interesting displays about the history of the city.

7. Tierpark Dahlholzli

The forested, outdoor Animal Park – Tierpark Dahlholzli – is a pleasant walk across the Aare River from the Old Town. There is a vast array of animals & reptiles, a KinderZoo, kids playground, and an excellent restaurant on the banks of the river. The Tierpark is popular with locals and visitors. Children love running from one section to the next, and adults enjoy the leisurely strolls and leafy pathways through the extensive grounds.

Tip: You won’t need a car within Bern’s city limits. But getting around Switzerland in a vehicle with the family is a great way to see this magnificent country. Those four wheels will help you find these 50 unique things to do in Switzerland, courtesy of my colleague, Journalist On The Run!

Photo Credits: C. Laroye This post contains affiliate links.

Have you visited Bern? What are some of your favorite things to do in the city? Share your comment below.

31 Comments

  • dana freeman says:

    Great post. We are likely heading to Switzerland this summer!

    • Claudia says:

      How exciting! Happy trip planning (and saving).

      • Ana says:

        Hello Claudia,

        I am planning a trip to Europe (with my high school Visual Arts’ students) and, travelling from Paris, I would love to stop at least one day in Bern. We will later proceed to Milan (Italy)

        In your opinion, which are the 2 or 3 best free things would you recommend for teenagers? Of course, art oriented, but also interesting and “cool” (e.g.: music, dance, etc.) activities that will entertain them…

        I would appreciate your advice.

        Best regards,

        Ana

        • Claudia says:

          That sounds like a wonderful trip Ana. For teens, I would highly recommend a visit to the Marzilibad, and swim in the Aare if you have the time and the weather allows. You should also check on the local event calendars for concerts happening while you plan to visit Bern. A visit to the Gurten is also a must, as it often has festivals and concerts in the large park there. It’s a lovely greenspace with great views of the city. The Paul Klee Museum isn’t free but it’s an incredible art space that would be perfect for your students. Finally, I recommend the City Guide Bern app – http://www.myswitzerland.com/en-ca/city-guide-bern-app.html – for the latest events happening in the city. Happy travels!

  • Was the river current swift? The last exit in 240m sign would make me nervous – looks beautiful, though. Love free-things lists!

    • Claudia says:

      The river current is very swift. But you don’t even have to swim, the current just carries you along with it. Very refreshing on a hot summer’s day!

  • Lillie says:

    What cool-looking city! The Bear Pit is especially intriguing… The week I spent in Switzerland years ago really exceeded my already high expectations, so I need to make it back there, and add Bern to the mix!

    • Claudia says:

      I hope you’re able to return to Bern soon, Lillie! There’s so much to discover and enjoy.

  • Bern looks like a lovely city to spend a few days. We didn’t manage to add it to our itinerary in Europe this past Spring, only Zurich, so I’ll keep it in mind for future trips!

  • Tara Cannon says:

    Bern looks fantastic. I love the idea of swimming in the river, but I definitely would take your advice to get out before the last exit. 🙂

    • Claudia says:

      Yes, Tara, you must! It’s well-marked and I’m sure you wouldn’t miss the last exit from the Aare. 😉

  • I honestly have never even heard of Bern… it looks like a fantastic city though. I am sure my kids would love to float in the river although I am pretty wimpy when it comes to cold water. I may have to resort to photographer and stay ashore.

    • Claudia says:

      I’m happy to introduce you to Bern, Amber! It really is one of my favorite cities in the world. I hope you’re able to plan a visit soon.

  • Wonderful to have some free things to do in the beautiful (but expensive!) Bern!

  • Keryn says:

    Well, you know I don’t need another reason to visit Bern, but you just gave me 7 more! One of these days we will be there at the same time. Cause yeah, Switzerland is SO much closer than Canada. Ha!

  • Elena says:

    We loved Rosengarten! It was really helpful to orient ourselves after wandering around the (very not straight) city for most of the day. Amazing views of the city and Aare!

    • Claudia says:

      So glad that you enjoyed your time in Bern! The Rosengarten is a beautiful place with gorgeous views. The big chess boards are wonderful fun for the kids too.

  • Sara Greig says:

    Great post, Claudia! Next time you are in Bern come stay in one of ours apartments, http://www.berncityrentals.com. We are located in the heart of the old city and an extra bonus, we are Swiss/Canadians 🙂

    • Claudia says:

      Thank you for visiting and glad you enjoyed the post! I shall pop by your lovely apartments next time I’m in Bern!

  • Chaitali says:

    Hi im from india n will be visiting switzerland in may. Will it be a good time to visit bern? If yes how would u say the weather will be then? Thnk u

    • Claudia says:

      May is an alright time. The weather may still be quite cool, in the mountains especially. Dress for any and all weather! You may get snow when you least expect it. Enjoy Switzerland!

  • Hello, I am Swiss and lived in Bern for over 20 years, now living in St. Moritz. Your tips are really very good ones, I would also add Rosengarten in spring or summer as a wonderful free place to go. There are lots of different roses, ponds with lotus flowers, grass to sit on or benches to relax. Also very recommandable and free is the botanical garden in the Lorraine, very nicely layed out near the river Aare, showing all kind of flowers, trees, succulents and orchids. If you are interested in more tips or recommendatuons for restaurants or other places, you can email me: swissmountainlife(at)hotmail.com. Greetings from Katharina

    • Claudia says:

      Thank you so much for your helpful comments! The Rosengarten is indeed a lovely spot! Tschüss!

  • Roger says:

    My great x7 grandfather emigrated from Bern in 1726. It is on my short bucket list of places to visit. A visit to a cemetery would be possible? I am assuming they would be public places?

    • Claudia says:

      Hi Roger, The sites I’ve mentioned are all free to visit. I’m sure that there’s no cost to visiting loved ones in cemeteries either. I hope you get to visit Bern soon.

  • Tilly says:

    Thank you for your ideas on Bern! It’s on my list for my next trip to Switzerland! ?

  • Rob says:

    Yes, please do, we’ve been waiting for you 🙂 ! We’re starting to get booking inquiries for next summer already! June was wet this year but the 2nd half of July was spectacular! We were at the Marzili almost everyday for a week and our 7 year old did his first Aare swim at the Muribad where they’ve made it an easy-in easy-out acccess for the river. The pools there are really great too, mostly families and a decent cafeteria on top of it all.

    Happy travels,
    Rob

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