top of page

Cities in the Spotlight: Bern, Switzerland

Updated: Mar 7

Today we will once again be heading to Europe. This time to Bern, Switzerland.


Bern City Information

Bern is the de facto capital of Switzerland, referred to as the "federal city". With a population of about 133,000 (as of 2022), Bern is the fifth-most populous city in Switzerland, behind Zürich, Geneva, Basel and Lausanne. The Bern agglomeration, which includes 36 municipalities, had a population of 406,900 in 2014. The metropolitan area had a population of 660,000 in 2000. Bern is also the capital of the canton of Bern, the second-most populous of Switzerland's cantons. The official language is German, but the main spoken language is the local variant of the Alemannic Swiss German dialect, Bernese German. In 1983, the historic old town in the centre of Bern became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is notably surrounded by the Aare, a major river of the Swiss Plateau. Although fortified settlements were established since antiquity, the medieval city proper was founded by the Zähringer ruling family, probably in 1191 by Berthold V, Duke of Zähringen. Bern was made a free imperial city in 1218 and, in 1353, it joined the Swiss Confederacy, becoming one of its eight early cantons. Since then, Bern became a large city-state and a prominent actor of Swiss history by pursuing a policy of sovereign territorial expansion. Since the 15th century, the city was progressively rebuilt and acquired its current characteristics. Bern was made the Federal City in 1848. From about 5,000 inhabitants in the 15th century, the city passed the 100,000 mark in the 1920s.


Bern Historical Significance

No archaeological evidence that indicates a settlement on the site of today's city centre prior to the 12th century has been found so far. In antiquity, a Celtic oppidum stood on the Engehalbinsel (peninsula) north of Bern, fortified since the second century BC (late La Tène period), thought to be one of the 12 oppida of the Helvetii mentioned by Caesar. During the Roman era, a Gallo-Roman vicus was on the same site. The Bern zinc tablet has the name Brenodor ("dwelling of Breno"). In the Early Middle Ages, a settlement in Bümpliz, now a city district of Bern, was some 4 km (2 mi) from the medieval city. The medieval city is a foundation of the Zähringer ruling family, which rose to power in Upper Burgundy in the 12th century. According to 14th-century historiography (Cronica de Berno, 1309), Bern was founded in 1191 by Berthold V, Duke of Zähringen. In 1218, after Berthold died without an heir, Bern was made a free imperial city by the Goldene Handfeste of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II.

In 1353, Bern joined the Swiss Confederacy, becoming one of the eight cantons of the formative period of 1353 to 1481. Bern invaded and conquered Aargau in 1415 and Vaud in 1536, as well as other smaller territories, thereby becoming the largest city-state north of the Alps; by the 18th century, it comprised most of what is today the canton of Bern and the canton of Vaud. The city grew out towards the west of the boundaries of the peninsula formed by the river Aare. The Zytglogge tower marked the western boundary of the city from 1191 until 1256, when the Käfigturm took over this role until 1345. It was, in turn, succeeded by the Christoffelturm (formerly located close to the site of the modern-day railway station) until 1622. During the time of the Thirty Years' War, two new fortifications – the so-called big and small Schanze (entrenchment) – were built to protect the whole area of the peninsula. After a major blaze in 1405, the city's original wooden buildings were gradually replaced by half-timbered houses and subsequently the sandstone buildings which came to be characteristic for the Old Town. Despite the waves of pestilence that hit Europe in the 14th century, the city continued to grow, mainly due to immigration from the surrounding countryside.

Bern was occupied by French troops in 1798 during the French Revolutionary Wars, when it was stripped of parts of its territories. It regained control of the Bernese Oberland in 1802, and following the Congress of Vienna of 1814, it newly acquired the Bernese Jura. At this time, it once again became the largest canton of the Confederacy as it stood during the Restoration and until the secession of the canton of Jura in 1979. On 28 November 1848, a majority of the new Swiss Federal Assembly deputies chose Bern as the Federal City (seat of the government) of the newly-created Swiss federal state, ahead of Zürich and Lucerne. Bern was chosen as not to concentrate all the power in the economic powerhouse of Zürich, while Catholic and conservative Lucerne had been part of the Sonderbund during the war a year before. In addition, Bern had a more central location and was supported by the French-speaking cantons due to proximity to them. However, the constitution doesn't define Bern as official capital of Switzerland, but as the seat of government. A number of congresses of the socialist First and Second Internationals were held in Bern, particularly during World War I when Switzerland was neutral; see Bern International. The city's population rose from about 5,000 in the 15th century to about 12,000 by 1800 and to above 60,000 by 1900, passing the 100,000 mark during the 1920s. Population peaked during the 1960s at 165,000 and has since decreased slightly, to below 130,000 by 2000. As of September 2017, the resident population stood at 142,349, of which 100,000 were Swiss citizens and 42,349 (31%) resident foreigners. A further estimated 350,000 people live in the immediate urban agglomeration.


Travel to Bern

*taken from Lonely Planet*

Wandering through the picture-postcard, Unesco World Heritage–listed Old Town, with its provincial, laid-back air, it's hard to believe that Bern (Berne in French) is the capital of Switzerland.


Must See Sites

Zentrum Paul Klee; Bern’s answer to the Guggenheim, Renzo Piano’s architecturally bold, 150m-long wave-like edifice houses an exhibition space that showcases rotating works from Paul Klee’s prodigious and often playful career. Interactive computer displays and audioguides help interpret the Swiss-born artist’s work. Next door, the fun-packed Kindermuseum Creaviva lets kids experiment with hands-on art exhibits or create original artwork with the atelier’s materials during the weekend program Five Franc Studio.

Berner Altstadt; Bern’s flag-bedecked medieval centre has 6km of covered arcades and cellar shops and bars descending from the streets. After a devastating fire in 1405, the wooden city was rebuilt in today’s sandstone. Bern’s clock tower, Zytglogge, is a focal point; crowds congregate to watch its revolving figures twirl at four minutes before the hour, after which the actual chimes begin. Tours enter the tower to see the clock mechanism from May to October. Equally enchanting are the 11 decorative fountains (1545) depicting historical and folkloric characters. Most are along Marktgasse as it becomes Kramgasse and Gerechtigkeitsgasse, but the most famous – the Kindlifresserbrunnen, a giant snacking on children – lies in Kornhausplatz. Inside the 15th-century Gothic Münster, a 344-step hike up the lofty spire – Switzerland’s tallest – is worth the climb for its impressive views over the Aare river and the terraced rooftops of the medieval town.

Zytglogge; Bern’s most famous Old Town sight, this ornate clock tower once formed part of the city’s western gate (1191–1256). Crowds congregate to watch its revolving figures twirl at four minutes before the hour, after which the chimes begin. Tours enter the tower to see the clock mechanism from May to October; contact the tourist office for details. The clock tower supposedly helped Albert Einstein hone his special theory of relativity, developed while working as a patent clerk in Bern.

Museum für Kommunikation; Fresh from extensive renovation and expansion, Bern's Museum of Communication reopened its doors in August 2017. Occupying almost 2000 sq metres of exhibition space, it has cutting-edge interactive stations that explore the hows and whys of human communications with a focus on the role technology plays in our interactions with each other. Expect engaging, hands-on, high-tech interactive exhibits complemented by the museum's fabulous original collection of retro phones and computers.

Historisches Museum Bern; Tapestries, diptychs and other treasures vividly illustrate Bernese history from the Stone Age to the 20th century in this marvellous castle-like edifice, the best of several museums surrounding Helvetiaplatz. The highlight for many is the 2nd floor, devoted to a superb permanent exhibition on Einstein.

Kunstmuseum; Bern's Museum of Fine Arts houses Switzerland’s oldest permanent collection, ranging from an exquisite early Renaissance Madonna and Child by Fra Angelico to 19th- and 20th-century works by the likes of Hodler, Monet and Picasso.

Münster; Bern’s 15th-century Gothic cathedral boasts Switzerland’s loftiest spire (100m); climb the 344-step spiral staircase for vertiginous views. Coming down, stop by the Upper Bells (1356), rung at 11am, noon and 3pm daily, and the three 10-tonne Lower Bells (Switzerland’s largest). Don’t miss the main portal's Last Judgement, which portrays Bern’s mayor going to heaven, while his Zürich counterpart is shown into hell. Afterwards wander through the adjacent Münsterplattform, a bijou clifftop park with a sunny pavilion cafe.

BärenPark; A popular etymological theory is that Bern got its name from the bear (Bär in German), when the city’s founder, Berthold V, duke of Zähringen, snagged one here on a hunting spree. In today’s spacious 6000-sq-metre open-air riverside park dotted with trees and terraces, three bears now roam relatively freely. You’ll find the BärenPark at the eastern end of the Nydeggbrücke. With any luck you’ll spot Finn, Björk, Ursina as they frolic, swim, eat and poop in the woods, as nature (almost) intended. Obviously, things are quieter in the winter, when hibernation is the name of the game. An inclined elevator provides barrier-free access between the riverside walkway on the banks of the Aare to the top of the steep enclosure.


Must Try Food & Drinks

Berner Rösti; Berner rösti is a traditional Swiss variety of rösti originating from Bern. This type of rösti differs from the standard rösti due to the addition of diced bacon, and the potatoes are coarsely grated. It's made with a combination of boiled potatoes, diced bacon, butter, and salt. The potatoes are coarsely grated, seasoned with salt, and mixed with diced bacon. The mixture is fried in butter over medium heat on both sides. In the end, the bottom of the rösti should have a crispy crust. Once done, this rösti is served hot with the crust side up.

Raclette; Raclette is a national dish that shares its name with a slightly nutty Swiss cheese made from cow's milk, an appliance for preparing the dish, and a full dining experience. Extremely popular in the ski region Valais and other parts of the Swiss Alps, where it also originated, raclette was invented by the Swiss mountain shepherds who used to gather around a fire while roasting potatoes. As they left some cheese near the fire, it started to melt so they scraped bits of it on the potatoes and raclette was born. The dish takes its name from the French word racler, meaning to scrape. As few people have a fireplace these days, modern appliances such as raclette melter and raclette grill are used instead. The scraped cheese is usually accompanied by roasted or cooked potatoes with their skin still on, vegetables, cold cuts, pickles, onions, and bread. There is also a variety of raclette where the mixture of cheese and other ingredients is scraped onto an opened baked potato. A perfect dish to share with others during cold, winter nights, raclette is best paired with light white wines or traditional kirsch liqueurs.

Meringue; The sweet, airy, featherweight delicacy known as meringue is made with a handful of ingredients: egg whites, sugar, some kind of acid such as cream of tartar or vinegar, and the most important, although invisible component - air. Meringue is incredibly versatile and it is mostly prepared to turn desserts into works of art: it can be whipped into frostings for cakes, spooned on pies, incorporated into cakes to make them fluffy, or mixed with chocolate, fruits, and ground nuts for extra flavor. The origins of meringue are still somewhat shrouded in mystery, but the Larousse Gastronomique claims it was either invented by a Swiss pastry chef with Italian origins, named Gasparini, or by King Stanislas I Leszcynski's chef, because some believe that the word meringue comes from the Polish word marzynka. There are also other sources claiming that meringue is an English invention. Regardless of the origins, most food historians agree on the fact that meringue was shaped with a spoon until the early 19th century, and the famous French chef Antoine Carême first started using a pastry bag in order to form this decadent dessert into a more aesthetically pleasing shape. Meringue can be consumed in its soft or hard form, and is usually prepared using French, Italian, or Swiss methods, which all differ from one another. These three methods gave life to a wide variety of popular desserts, including the beloved meringue cake.

Hefekranz; Hefekranz is a slightly sweet yeast bread that is shaped into a wreath, stuffed with raisins, and flavored with lemon zest. It is popular throughout Switzerland and Germany, especially at Easter and Christmas time, when it is traditionally prepared in numerous homes and bakeries across the country. The German version is known as hefezopf, and it is usually not shaped into a wreath, but braided. It is believed that the first hefekranz was made by the first Bakers' Union in Switzerland in 1256.

Basler Läckerli; Basler läckerli is a hard, spiced Swiss biscuit consisting of hazelnuts, almonds, candied peel, honey, and Kirsch. These cookies are a specialty of Basel, where it is believed that they have been prepared ever since the Middle Ages. Once baked, the biscuits are traditionally cut into rectangular pieces, then topped with sugar glaze. Nowadays, they are typically enjoyed during Christmastime, although they can be bought or prepared throughout the year.

Älplermagronen; Invented in the 1930s, Älplermagronen is a rustic Swiss dish that can be translated as Alpine macaroni, but it is more commonly known as herdsman’s macaroni. The key ingredients include macaroni pasta (usually hörnli, a small, curved, tubular pasta variety), cheese, onions, and potatoes, although there are numerous variations on this Swiss classic. The ingredients used in the dish were all available to herdsmen who were keeping an eye on their cows grazing on the Alpine pastures. The basic version is prepared by layering cooked pasta and potatoes with cheese and cream, and the combination is then baked in the oven and served topped with onion rings, applesauce, and bacon. This hearty meal is a perfect dish to warm one up on a cold winter night.

Swiss Chocolate Truffles; A variation on the classic chocolate truffle, the Swiss chocolate truffle requires heating a mixture of dairy cream and butter to its boiling point, then stirring in melted chocolate, and finally transferring the resulting mixture into desired molds (traditionally round ones). Once the chocolate truffles have hardened, they are rolled into cocoa powder just like the French truffles. Owing to the freshness of the ingredients used in the chocolate truffles' preparation, these sweet confections spoil much more easily and faster than other truffle varieties. Apart from the traditional chocolate flavors which include either milk chocolate or dark chocolate, these truffles can nowadays be found in a great variety of flavors such as coffee, champagne, hazelnut, citrus fruit, or toffee.

Emmentaler; Emmentaler is a semi-hard Swiss cheese made from unpasteurized cow’s milk. It must be matured for a minimum of 4 months, though some varieties can be aged longer. The cheese is characterized by its pale yellow color, smooth texture, and marble-sized holes (eyes), which appear during maturation. Although the final flavor profile depends on maturation, the cheese is usually nutty and tangy, with aromas that are reminiscent of fresh hay. Emmentaler is traditionally served sliced or cut into cubes, but it also incorporates well into various dishes, and it is one of the most common cheese varieties used in fondue. This classic Swiss cheese was named after the river Emme in the canton of Bern, where the cheese-making tradition dates back to the 13th century. Emmentaler can be produced in eleven Swiss cantons.

Sbrinz; Sbrinz is a Swiss extra-hard cheese made from raw cow's milk. The cheese has a natural rind, and it's texture is dense and flaky. The aromas are slightly spicy, while the flavors are full, intense, tangy, spicy, and nutty, with notes of butterscotch. Sbrinz is traditionally aged for at least 18 months, and the more it ages, the more aromatic it becomes. It can be consumed in 3 ways: when it's aged for 18 months, it is sliced or shaved into thin rolls, from 24 months and up it's broken into smaller pieces called möckli, and finally, it can be grated and used in a wide array of dishes.

Petite Arvine; Petite Arvine is a white grape variety that is mostly cultivated in Valais and Aosta Valley, although its exact origin is still somewhat vague. This late ripening grape is used in the production of dry and sweet wines which are typically intense and fragrant, with floral, citrus, and fruit aromas. Most styles can benefit from aging, and they usually have well-balanced acidity and minerality. Dry wines made from Petite Arvine grapes pair well with white meat, seafood, charcuterie, and cheese.


4 views0 comments


bottom of page