On an unusual meander of the Aare River is Switzerland’s capital city, Bern. Just outside Bern is the Wohlensee, a long and winding lake with verdant islands and numerous small rocky beaches with jetties for kayaks and rowing boats. This small lake sets the scene for the rest of the canton, dotted with medieval towns and villages, and swept by undulating agricultural fields, small forests, and abrupt rocky bluffs. In the distance, away from the city, the flat land gently slopes up to the low peaks of hills quilted in trees, with the snowy Alps behind them. This German-speaking region is separated from France only by a small stretch of the Parc Naturel Regional des Doubs, but has a very strong individual identity. The towns around the city of Bern are wholly unique in their character, with a blend of styles and influences that holds its own. Festivals and celebrations at castles and on medieval streets take visitors and residents back to the region’s origins, and sweet and savoury delicacies add to the overall flavour of the communities. Rivers wind around perfectly round hills, roads meander their ways through valleys and between lakes, and the quaint towns and immeasurably grand and cultural cities are full of luxury hotels with plenty to offer their guests.
The city of Bern itself is undoubtedly the main attraction of this region. The beautifully preserved Old Town has remained popular with artists and writers throughout history, with an infectious, laid-back atmosphere. Fountains, enumerating more than 100 and dating from the Middle Ages, dot the streets, topped with colourful statues of folkloric and historic figures. A late Gothic town hall is the seat of the local political decisions in Bern, though the sensational House of Parliament provides a much grander, more ornate face for Swiss diplomacy. The main copper-clad dome has become a well-known image associated with the city. Parliament Square is possibly the best place to enjoy the majesty and grandeur of Bern, with jets of water, which represent the 26 cantons, that are illuminated in the evening, and an ice rink in the winter. Bern Cathedral is the largest ecclesiastical building in Switzerland and its construction originally begun in the early 15th century; the spire was not completed until the late 19th century. From the top of the spire, visitors can enjoy views all the way into the Bernese-Mittelland, with the grand silhouettes of the Alps rising in the distance. For a further taste of Bern’s history, spend an hour or two at the Bernisches Historisches Museum, which also has an inbuilt Einstein Museum. The artefacts and exhibits here are recognised to be world-class, with Burgundy tapestries, ethnographic objects, and prehistoric remains. However, what may be the most iconic symbol for Bern, is the astronomical Zytglogge Clock Tower, with its several revolving faces and unique hands.To the east of the city of Bern is the region of Emmental, where dairy farming comprises the main economy and two river basins make the land remarkably flat in comparison to the snow-capped Alps on the horizon. Irregularly-shaped fields are lush shades of green and grazed on by cattle. Should you head out this way while staying in Bern, ensure you pick up some Emmental cheese from its place of origin. For an insight into this picturesque agricultural region, drive or catch a train to Burgdorf to visit the Castle Museum Burgdorf, the former home of the Dukes of Zahringen. Alternatively, visit the Regional Museum Chuechlichus Langnau, which is housed in one of the region’s oldest buildings. In Affoltern im Emmental, be sure to visit the Emmental Show Dairy, with its cheese factory, two restaurants, and small village atmosphere. To the west of Bern is the Gantrisch Nature Park, a rightly-preserved expanse of green plains interspersed with canyons, quaint villages, unusually-shaped jagged mountain bluffs, and rare wild- and plant-life. Some highlights of the Park, aside from the numerous hiking and walking paths, include the atmospheric ruins of the 11th century Rueggisberg Priory and the Uecht Observatory, which affords visitors stunning views across the miles-upon-miles of surrounding countryside.On the border between the cantons of Bern and Fribourg is the small region of Laupen. The little town of the same name has a beautiful medieval centre with original 11th century houses. Laupen is the perfect place to soak up a sense of culture outside of Bern, with examples of traditional craftsmanship, ancient monuments, and the agricultural way of life. Laupen Castle sits on the confluence of the Sense and Saane Rivers, a position that gave it a significant advantage in the 14th century against the Habsburgs. Today, its tall stone walls are topped with towers and houses that have dark wooden beams and peaked terracotta-tile roofs. At the entrance, a pretty chalet-esque house with pink flower window-boxes supports part of the archway. The views from the top transport you back in time with views over more terracotta roofs, this time on the white-washed houses of the town. In the far east of the Canton of Bern is the Oberaargau Region, which is a natural haven for outdoorsy visitors, and therefore the perfect place to enjoy long scenic bike rides, gentle strolls, and slow boat trips past meadows. We would highly recommend paying a visit to the Burgaschsee, believed to be a remnant of the Rhone Glacier, as well as the water meadows that are the last preserved in the country, the ethereal 14m high Mutzbackfall, and the St. Urban former monastery.Whichever part of the canton your exploration is focused on, Bern has an abundance of natural, cultural, and historic attractions that will surely keep you entertained for days.Festivals and culture in BernDue to the history of the Bern area, throughout the year there are a vast number of festivals which celebrate traditional Swiss Culture. On the last Wednesday of September, Zaziwil holds the Brachete Zaziwil, a festival that enacts the traditional breaking of the flax. Women dress in traditional dress to craft linens and cloths from the flax, and a range of local products are sold at stalls, including schnapps, braided bread, and cheese. In early to mid October, the Shnit International Short Film Festival is held in Bern, celebrating the best of Swiss Short Film. Through late October and November, the Parliament Building becomes the canvas for the Rendez-Vous Bunesplatz light and sound show. On the fourth Monday in November, Bern hosts the Onion Market, which follows the traditions of folk festivals. In mid-May, Bern demonstrates its best Jazz music at the International Jazz Festival. The Sauerkraut Festival on the third Sunday of October involves the mass-process of shredding, salting, smashing, packing, and canning one of Switzerland and Germany’s most famous ingredients. At the Rueggisberg Priory Ruins in the middle of summer, the old walls come alive with music, theatre, and art. Gastronomy in BernBern is an ideal destination for food lovers and gastronomists, with over 1,300 Gault & Millau points spread across the city. Rustic, homely restaurants serving hearty home-cooked food sit beside chic gourmet establishments, offering a range of choice, flavours, and delicacies for visitors to try. One of the key dishes of the area is the Rosti; though this pan-fried potato dish is most commonly associated with Valais when sprinkled with bacon bits and topped with a fried egg, it was eaten for breakfast in Bern long before the people of Valais put their twist on it. Those with a sweet tooth will enjoy the Lekerlis biscuits with hazelnuts that originated in Bern. These biscuits have a gingerbread-like flavour, and are excellent alongside a hot drink. Of course, no trip to Switzerland is complete without trying an authentic fondue.Travel arrangementsDue to the excellent rail service available in Switzerland, we always recommend navigating your tour, while in the country, by rail. Trains are known for being punctual and comfortable, and offer an excellent way of viewing the sublime scenery as you pass. Many of the most picturesque villages and towns in Switzerland are also traffic-free, or have complex, winding roads as their only access-point by car; yet, you will find they almost unfailingly have a rail station. Many iconic rail journeys allow travel from the UK direct through France into Switzerland, which we have always found adds a new dimension to your trip; however, flights from the UK into Geneva or Zurich are also regular, providing a quicker alternative for those who would like to spend their entire trip in Switzerland. From Bern, you are perfectly placed to venture into any of Switzerland’s regions, be it towards the Bernese Oberland, Lake Geneva, Zurich, Grisons, and Ticino.
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