One Day in Bern: Bundeshaus, Bridges, and Bears

After hitchhiking from Freiburg im Breisgau to Bern, we had half a day plus one night’s stay in the Swiss capital. The next day, we departed Bern toward Geneva by train for a catsit.

Bern Ticket: Free Public Transit in Bern by Staying One Night

train station arrival hitchhiking to Bern Switzerland

When we booked our hotel in Bern a week before going, we received an email from our hotel that explained the Bern Ticket. It’s a ticket for free public transportation in the city for the duration of your stay. The email explained to us how to get it. There are two ways:

  1. Download the Bern Welcome app (Android + Apple) and type in your hotel confirmation number. This gives you public transport for free already before getting to your hotel
  2. Get a physical ticket when checking into your hotel

And that’s it! Now you can travel for free in second class in the Bern city area. It includes the Gurtenbahn, the elevators, and the short Marzili funicular.

Bundeshaus and Bike Infrastructure

Our city tour started at our hotel National Bern. We made a rough plan, packed a day bag with water and snacks, and left with the funky little elevator. It’s important to note that our first impression of Bern walking from the train station to the hotel was that it was a little dodgy. Hence we dressed in a way that makes life difficult for pickpockets.

Our first stop was the Kleine Schanze city park. There’s a nice fountain there and some vistas of the Federal Palace of Switzerland and the Kirchenfeldbrücke that crosses the Aare River. Next, we walked past the absolutely packed Marzili funicular dating back to 1885. It’s so short its Wikipedia page even mentions it’s a heckin’ short one. At CHF 2.90 for a return trip (if you don’t have the Bern Ticket), it’s not a bad price. But also, it only brings you up or down 32 meters, so if you have no business going in either direction and are able-bodied, just save your money—you are in Switzerland, after all.

We stayed uphill and walked in front of the Bernese Bundeshaus, where the Swiss government convenes. There’s a nice terrace with ever-improving vistas of the city. We passed the level Kirchenfeldbrücke, with its castle that houses the Bern Historical Museum. In this short visit to the city, we won’t have time to wander around museums for hours.

We walked a little onto the bridge to admire the integration of public transit and bicycle friendliness. One of the reasons we’re visiting Bern is that Not Just Bikes posted a very positive video about a few Swiss cities, including Bern, about their increasingly good bicycle infrastructure. Although there were pedestrian zones neatly separated from the tram, bus, and car traffic, the bicycles also had to mingle with these heavy vehicles. They didn’t even have a painted bike gutter to call their home. And cyclists wearing helmets is a sign that people consider cycling a dangerous activity here. Is NJB full of shit?

Wandering Around Bern Altstadt

Next, we entered the Old City (Altstadt) of Bern, which is completely surrounded by the Aare River loop. The few vistas of the river I’d seen were very beautiful, since the Aare has that turquoise color associated with glacial sediments. It reminded me of the day we paddled from Passau in Germany to Engelhartszell in Austria; the confluence of the river Inn with the Danube changes the water color completely since the Inn comes from Swiss glaciers and the Danube from boggy springs in the Black Forest. Tangentially related, a week after we visited Bern, we hitchhiked with a Swiss guy who said kayaking down the Aare from Thun to Bern is his most recommended activity in all of Switzerland. We didn’t know about this or had time to do it, but it’s exactly up our alley.

Through some cute streets, we walked to the Bern Cathedral, which was of course under renovation. Though we tried to enter beyond the gift shop, there was some confusing information about paying CHF 5 per person to enter the main part of the cathedral. Paying to see a church from the inside is quite unusual in Europe, so it felt weird and we left. Later, I found out that this price is for climbing the cathedral tower, not to see it from the inside. Anyway, modern problems require modern solutions, so this is what it looks like from the inside:

The cathedral also has a nice terrace with a park and vistas of the Aare and its Mattenschwelle weir. This weir has been around since 1218 in various forms. As a professional weir-hater (free the rivers!) I wonder how kayakers and Aare River swim commuters pass this obstacle?

Unfortunately, it was too early in the season to see people commute like this. Also, I’m just wondering how dangerous this is since the currents of the Aare looked incredibly strong to me. Edited to add: I found this handy map of the three recommended swimming routes in the Aare. It’s in Swiss German, but there are also symbols that are pretty understandable in my opinion. 

Pride Flags, Crossing the Aare, Bearspotting

We continued through the city. What has stood out to me since arriving in Bern four hours ago is the number of (Intersex Inclusive Progress) Pride flags, particularly on civic buildings. I’ve never seen this many rainbow flags in my life, barring that one time at Amsterdam Gay Pride in 2012. Pride Month is only two weeks away, so perhaps they’re just getting ready? That seems unlikely.

A quick search shows that the Swiss government only recently passed marriage equality. Switzerland has had gay marriage since July 2022, making it the 31st country in the world to pull its head out of its own arse.

Part of the route went through an arcade on the Junkerngasse, which is a type of architecture I enjoy. This led to the Nydeggbrücke, which crosses the Aare and leads to the Bärengraben or bear pit. You read that right, bear pit.

I had read about the bears of Bern before, but for Jonas, it came as a complete surprise that while crossing the bridge he saw an actual fucking bear just going about his little bear errands. We of course made a stop to look at the bears. There was even a guy employed to point people in the direction of where the bears are roaming. Considering the substantial amount of bear references in the Bernese flag and the city name, I think we all get it? Also considering the aforementioned number of Pride Flags in the city, I feel like Bern missed out on the opportunity to fly this flag and triple-down on their bear references:

By Fibonacci. – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Though I love all sorts of bears, I was concerned about the cage size of this particular bear pit. In my opinion, it’s possible to further animal rights and human rights at the same time.

Following the Aare, Taking the Tram

We left the bear pit area and crossed the lower Untertorbrücke back to the Altstadt of Bern. The currents in this river are strong and it does look like a shitload of fun to paddle down this. Looking at the water vortices at the end of the bridge pillars brings back fond memories of paddling under similar old stone bridges such as the one in Regensburg.

Then we followed the river downstream on its left bank. We came past a boating club called Aare Club Matte Bern with a few boats in storage and one tied to the shore. They do wasserfahren in traditional Rhine (and upstream) boats of a type called Weidling. It looks a bit like a Venetian gondola but is more suitable for strong river currents. It has a smooth bottom and is quite wide. And apparently, to cross some of the weirs, you just drop off them because your boat is long enough.

This section of the Aare also had some slalom poles hanging across the river. I only know those for canoe slalom, not for any other type of boat slalom. I also doubt these Weidling boats are maneuverable enough to be used in slalom stuff.

A little further downstream is the pedestrian bridge Altenbergsteg and the high vehicle/tram bridge called Kornhausbrücke. This pedestrian bridge had “Joggen verboten” painted on it in big letters. Jonas found this quite hilarious, saying “I thought Germany was into rules.” Two minutes later, we actually spotted a jogger who indeed stopped jogging on the bridge and then continued jogging on the other side.

After checking that one out, we walked uphill via some graffitied tunnel back to the upper part of the city with its stately buildings, notably the Stadttheater, Kornhausforum, and the Zytglogge. That last one is the famous astronomical clock of Bern.

There’s a statue of a child-eating monster with a fountain called Kindlifresserbrunnen. This reminds me that the correct answer to the question “Do you want to have children?” is always “No thanks, I’m a vegetarian.”

From this square, we hopped into the tram to Gurten Park: tram stop Zytglogge till tram stop Wabern on line 9. No need to buy a ticket because it’s included in our hotel stay in Bern.

Gurtenbahn Funicular for Vistas of Bern

It was a very smooth tram ride through the hectic area around the train station to the calmer neighborhood at this tram stop. From there it was a 400-meter walk a little uphill to the bottom station of the Gurten funicular (Gurtenbahn). Usually, it’s CHF 11 per person round trip, but because of our Bern Ticket, it was also free. In three minutes it brought us up the Gurten mountain.

On top, it was very windy and quite cold. We wandered around a bit to admire the vistas of the airport and surrounding mountains. There were lots of activities on top of the mountain, but most of them were not open (yet), such as a toboggan ride down the mountain, a self-guided frisbee course, rolling ball machines sponsored by the Swiss version of Sheriff, and a small train for uneaten children.

The last thing we did was climb the steampunk-themed observation tower. This spot truly had the best vistas of Bern and the meandering Aare River and the god rays breaking through the clouds. This also concluded our visit to Bern.

On the way down, we took the funicular once again. We shortly contemplated walking down, but we had to prepare for our catsit in Geneva the following day. We petted the cat statue once again and then headed to the tram back to our hotel.

Next time in Bern

If I ever have the chance to visit Bern again for a longer time, I’d like to still do/see the following things:

  • Enter the cathedral (and perhaps even drop money and climb the tower)
  • Kayak from Thun to Bern or beyond on the Aare River
  • See the Holländerturm
  • Visit the botanical garden
  • Spot some fountains
  • Go hiking in the surrounding mountains, including the Bantiger Berg with its TV tower with an observation deck
  • Do a toboggan ride, even if it scares me

Map of Exploring Bern on Foot

Helpful post? Ponder buying me an apple juice

Open in wallet

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