Brilliant Bern

Taking a dip in the river Aare is a national pastime. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Taking a dip in the river Aare is a national pastime. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Bern is one of Europe’s smallest capitals, but punches above its weight when it comes to world-class galleries, unbeatable urban swimming and, of course, chocolate, writes Tom Allan.

Urban river swimming

Taking a dip in the river is a national pastime here, and the river Aare is the basis of the city's claim to be Europe's urban swimming capital.

Fed by meltwater from the Bernese Alps, the river has a magical blue colour, and it is perfectly clean to swim in, even in the city centre. The most popular spots are Marzilibad, an area with flat grassy lawns, easy access to the river and an open-air pool - and Lorrainebad, a little further downstream. The strength of the current means you need to plan where to get in and, more importantly, where you are going to get out (the exit points are all marked with red railings). Avoid the clearly marked weirs, where swimming is forbidden. There are paddleboards to hire at Tip-to-Tail. Information about the river's temperature and the water's flow rate is updated daily on my website, Aare Guru.

The best of Swiss art

Switzerland's museums and art galleries are among the best in the world. The Renzo Piano-designed Paul Klee Zentrum on the outskirts of Berne houses many of the finest works by the city's most famous artist and also hosts international exhibitions. It's a 10-minute bus ride from the city centre. The fine art museum, Kunstmuseum Bern, has a good permanent collection featuring Swiss artists such as 20th-century surrealist Meret Oppenheim and Ferdinand Hodler, whose realistic style became "parallelism''. The collection of giant crystals in the Natural History Museum really blew my mind as a child - I couldn't believe that such delicate, beautiful things came out of the mountains.

The Zentrum Paul Klee gallery, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
The Zentrum Paul Klee gallery, designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES
Anarchy on the Aare

Right next to the main station is one of the city's most unexpected places: the graffiti-covered Reitschule, or Reithalle. The former riding school was taken over by squatters in the 1980s and despite numerous attempts by the authorities to evict them, they have turned the space into a vibrant alternative heart of the city and a welcoming space for everyone (you can stay as long as you like without purchasing food or drink). Inside are bars, a club, a theatre and a good restaurant, Sous le Pont, where you're as likely to see businessmen in suits as anarchists. The Vorplatz area outside has pop-up bars and restaurants and on a Friday night is packed with young Bernese. That the Reitschule exists within 50m of the swankiest hotel in Berne (the five-star Hotel Schweizerhof) sums up the city for me: Berne packs a lot of variety into a small space.

Waterside beds

The recently refurbished Bristol hotel (doubles from about $NZ400 B&B - like the other places listed this includes a Bern Ticket, which gives guests access to all public transport in the city) offers smart, boutique-style rooms right in the old town. Hotel Jardin (doubles from about $300 B&B) is a family-friendly three-star on the edge of the Lorraine district, a 20-minute walk from the centre. Bern Youth Hostel (dorm beds from about $65, en suite doubles from about $230) has recently refurbished rooms in a great location between the Marzili swimming area and the old town. The cheapest place to stay in the city is Eichholz campsite (open April-end September, adults about $20 plus about $16 for a small tent, dorm-style rooms also available) right on the banks of the Aare and an easy walk from the old town.

Bern’s graffiti-covered Reitschule. PHOTO: WWW.BERN.COM
Bern’s graffiti-covered Reitschule. PHOTO: WWW.BERN.COM
Ice-cream and chocolate

Gelateria di Berna, which has four locations in the city (plus another in Zurich) and is a Bernese institution, creates unusual flavours, such as hibiscus flower, strawberry and balsamic vinegar, and there's a chocolate sorbet to die for. A lovely and relaxed place for pastries, coffee and book browsing is Apfelgold. For the best Swiss chocolate, head to Laderach, which has stores on Marktgasse and in the central station. Every flavour of chocolate you could dream of is laid out in huge slabs on the counter, and sold by weight.

Gardens with vistas

Bern's famous Rose Garden in springtime blooms with yellow azaleas, lush hot pink rhododendrons and hanging pale wisteria in flower.

For the best overview of Bern's old town, climb up from the river to the Rosengarten (rose garden, free entry). It has a restaurant, and its benches are popular in the colder months, as it catches the sun. The Botanical Garden (free entry) has a wonderful range of Alpine plants and is a lovely place to relax by the river. There are good swimming spots here, too. Alternatively, The Gurten is a 858m "mountain'' (more of a hill, really) overlooking the city. As this is Switzerland, there is a funicular railway to take you to the top and a restaurant on the summit. There are also hiking, running and mountain biking trails on the forested slopes, as well as a 500m-long summer toboggan run.

Bern Youth Hostel. PHOTO: BOOKING.COM
Bern Youth Hostel. PHOTO: BOOKING.COM
Cathedrals and clocks

Climbing the 100m spire of Bern's cathedral is a must (open daily, adults about $8). On a clear day you can see all the way to the Eiger, Monch and Jungfrau mountains in the Bernese Alps. Nearby is the 13th-century Zytglogge (clock tower) - probably Bern's most famous landmark. A guided tour lets you see the clock mechanism, which was crafted in the 16th century (departs 2.30pm daily or by appointment, adult about $34).

Stroll through arcades

The Bernese are famously leisurely walkers. The old town's almost 5km of medieval shopping arcades, built from local sandstone, allow city folk to shop in comfort, protected from the elements. Try freshly baked bread and patisserie at Backerei Bohnenblust, and pop into Chat Noir for postcards, posters and craft products from local artists, which show that the Swiss design tradition is alive and well.

Beer and bears

The Altes Tramdepot serves some of the best beer in the city. The Bavarian-style beers are brewed on site next to the famous BarenPark (bear park). Unlike most places in Bern, the Tramdepot is open on Sundays. There are craft beers to try at BarBiere, which is run by a group of friends who started off brewing in their garage before opening this bar in the hip Lorraine district. IPAs, stouts and porters are the focus here but there are also beers with ingredients like elderflower and cherries, when in season. My favourite is a strongly hopped IPA - though the dark malty stouts are also delicious. Nearby Brasserie Lorraine serves unfussy dishes using local, seasonal ingredients (set lunch menu from $28). It has daily vegetarian and vegan options, too. The Turnhalle is a cool cultural space in the city centre, popular for an after-work beer. It's packed on Friday and Saturday evenings and is a popular hangout for the artists and designers who rent studios in the attached cultural centre, ProGR.

Eat fondue in summer

Don't believe those who tell you melted cheese is just for winter. The best fondue in Berne is served at Harmonie (mains from around $32), which does quality versions of other classic Swiss dishes, too. A good place to sample modern takes on traditional Swiss food is Restaurant Lotschberg (mains from $32) in the old town. 

Getting there

  • Berne is one hour by train from Basel and Zurich, and two hours from Geneva. Travel by rail from Paris (about 4 hours), changing at Basel or Strasbourg, costs from $NZ100.
  • Prices: Beer (half litre) around $11, cappuccino $8,  three-course meal for two $170.
  • Further information:

Best time to visit

  • The warm summer and early autumn are the best times for river swimming (a few hardy types swim year round but you have to be OK with 6degC water temperatures). In winter, snow adds to the magical feel, and a visit can easily be added to a skiing holiday.

 - Guardian News and Media


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