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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.