Walks near Bern, Switzerland, are a delight to explore and be sure to make time for Bern itself. With its incredibly picturesque Old Town and laid back ambience, it’s easy to forget you are in the country’s capital city.

Introducing Bern
Bern takes its name from the German word for ‘bear’ (Bär) and is known as Berne in French. This compact and characterful city, which is German-speaking and which borders the foothills of the Bernese Oberland, has been Switzerland’s capital since 1848 and it also happens to be a wonderful place to visit. Flanked on three sides by the River Aare, Bern is one of the finest preserved medieval cities in all of Europe and its Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Swiss Capital has barely changed for hundreds of years, with its cobbled streets, cellars and fountains still standing strong after being built sometime between the 12th and 18th centuries. One of the most distinctive features of Bern is the 6.4 km (6mi) long network of blissfully traffic-free arcades, which run through the Old Town – now home to a wide range of shops. There are also over 100 public fountains which further add to the charm of this alluring city.

There are also plenty of walking areas around Bern which will appeal to hikers of all abilities. Some of the highlights include the stunning Emmental Valley and Emmental Alps (the home of the cheese with the same name) and the Gantrisch Nature Reserve (with views extending from the Alps to the Jura mountains) – both of these walking regions can be easily accessed by car or public transport from Bern.

Getting there and getting around:
Bern is located approximately 120 km (75 mi) from Zurich and 150 km (93 mi) from Geneva. Various trains from France, Italy, Germany and even Spain stop in Bern. The domestic train network is also very good, with regular services to and from Zurich (1 hour) and Geneva (1.5 hours). Bern makes a good base for exploring the Bernese Oberland, and there are trains departing hourly for this region’s main hub, Interlaken.  From Interlaken, you can take further trains to the most beautiful and dramatically sited spots, including the renowned route to Jungfraujoch, which surely ranks as one of the country’s most stunning rail journeys.

Walking is the most practical and pleasant way to explore Bern city, but there is also a good network of buses and trams – and in summer, there are horse-drawn carriages. It is possible to reach the starting point of many of this area’s best hikes, using trains and buses.

There are lots of interesting things to see and do in the Bern region. Here are some of our top recommendations:

Our Bern Tip Number 1 – Old Town Walk (Altstadt)
(Allow 1-2 hours; distance: 2.4km/1.5mi)
Exploring Bern’s ancient cobbled streets and architecture is like stepping back in time, since it has quite literally remained unchanged for centuries. The train station (Bahnhofplatz) is a good starting point, and you can pick up a city map from the Tourist Information Office, which is located there. Guided tours are also available, and the office can provide more information on these.

Our Bern Tip Number 2 – Rose Garden (Rosengarten)
The Rose Garden is a beautiful park and a lovely spot for simply relaxing in. You can enjoy wonderful views of the Old Town and Aare Loop from here and marvel at the 220 different species of rose, along with many other gorgeous flowers and a pretty pond, a pavilion and a reading area. Between 1765 and 1877, the Rose Garden served as a cemetery, but it was re-opened as a public park in 1913 and has provided city-dwellers and visitors with a relaxing haven ever since.

Our Bern Tip Number 3 – Bären Park (Bear Park)
The Bear is Bern’s mascot and from the early 16th century through to late 2009, they lived in the Bärengraben (bear pits) on the banks of the River Aare. However, after two bears had to be put down after falling ill, it was decided that they should be moved to a more comfortable home. The bears can still roam the pits, but they now have the luxury of an additional 6,000 square metres (65,000 square feet) of land on the river banks. http://www.baerenpark-bern.ch/

Our Bern Tip Number 4 – Alpines Museum (Swiss Alpine Museum)
This museum offers an insight into all things Swiss, including the effects of climate change, farming, glaciers and tourism on the Alps. It’s an interactive experience, with guides who are happy to answer questions and discuss issues. It’s well worth a visit for mountain lovers of all ages and there is a great restaurant on-site serving typical Alpine cuisine. http://www.alpinesmuseum.ch/en

Our Bern Tip Number 5 – Zibelemärit (Onion Market) 
If you happen to be visiting in late November, then you won’t be able to escape the hype of the great annual onion festival! For almost 200 years, this quirky event has taken place on the fourth Monday of November and is a celebration of the pungent vegetable and all the wonderful things you can do with it. The city basically transforms itself into one giant open-air market on this day. While the official opening time is 6am, the market is ready for business as early as 4am – and there’s something quite magical about the hushed atmosphere at this time, with the dim light evoking a genuine bygone era. As the day rolls on and the crowds pour into the city, the market becomes more like a carnival with lots of bright costumes, loud music and confetti fights. It’s also a tradition to adorn yourself with strings of peppermint candy. Locals have been making inventive items out of onions for months in advance, in readiness for this one day, such as cartoon characters, animal figures and clocks. Stalls also sell a range of traditional market goods and souvenirs. As you might expect, local eateries go along with the theme, so expect to see and smell a lot of onion tart and onion soup on this day.

The Emmental Valley – A mere 20 minutes train journey from Bern, the pastoral delights of the Emmental Valley offer a lot more than just the cheese which made it famous. This is a landscape of lushness, where fields and meadows alternate with swathes of forest. Large farmhouses boast impressively well-kept gardens. Traditional wooden chalets line the river banks and there are lovely views to the Alps in the distance. This remains a traditional and welcoming area, with a wonderfully serene atmosphere. The Emmental Alps offer some excellent hiking opportunities and this is probably one of the best places for walks near Bern, Switzerland. The mountains span three cantons: Bern, Lucerne and Obwalden and the range is separated from the Bernese Alps by the River Aare. The highest peak in this range is Mt. Brienzer Rothorn (2,350m/7,710ft).

Our Hiking Tip – The Napf Ridge Walk (Emmental Region)
(Allow 4.5 hours; distance: 12km/7.5mi; best to walk from June to October).

Mt. Napf and the rustic Mountain Lodge Napf which sits atop it are a must for any keen hiker who visits this region. The peak cannot be accessed via any mode of transport – other than on foot and there are seven walking trails – all with different start points – which lead up here. Entering Napf Mountain Lodge is like stepping back in time, as it has barely changed since it opened back in 1801. Napf Mountain itself, which rises up to 1,408m (4,619ft) is broad and hump-shaped, and while not the highest peak, it does offer some fine views of the surrounding mountain ranges. On a clear day, you’ll be able to see as far as the Black Forest in Germany, the Vosges Mountains in France, the Säntis, the Glarus and Central Swiss Alps, and the Bernese Oberland.

Another recommended hiking route is the trail from Lüderenalp, around 45km (30mi) east of Bern. From here you can  take the linear path west along the ridge through fields, forests and meadows and past traditional farmsteads with fine views to enjoy at every turn. For the return route, you can aim for either Mettlenalp, Luthernbad or Romoos (in the canton of Lucerne) and take a bus or train back to your starting point. It is well worth contacting the Emmental tourist information before you set off on your hike, so that they can advise on public transport times and local weather conditions.

Emmentaler (Swiss Cheese) – Cheese is a very important part of Swiss life. There are many locally produced cheeses, but the best known and loved of them all has to be the Emmentaler – which to many non-natives is simply known as ‘Swiss Cheese’! It’s a distinctive product, with its characteristic ‘holes’ and nutty flavour. Every year, around 20,000 tons of Emmentaler cheese is exported. To produce just one kilogramme of cheese takes 12 litres of unpasteurised milk. The cheese is matured for between 4 and 12 months, depending on the variety and bubbles from the carbon dioxide released during this process is what causes the distinctive ‘holes’.

To see for yourself how this national cheese is produced, it’s worth visiting the ‘Emmental Show Dairy’ in the town of Affoltern. There is an original, thatched 18th-century farmhouse and the staff dress up in traditional clothes – but the cheese-making facility itself is very modern and also interesting to witness. Naturally, there is a shop on site selling a vast range of excellent cheeses. http://www.emmentaler-schaukaeserei.ch/

If you love cheese and also enjoy cycling, then the Emmental Cheese Route (Emmentaler Käseroute in German) should also be on your ‘must-do’ list. This is a fair-weather activity, so only recommended on fine days between April and October. The route is 35km (22 miles) long and includes visits to 21 attractions, but you can tailor the excursion to make it as short or as long as you wish. It is possible to hire e-bikes and there is a free app for download which provides commentary via audio, photos and videos as you explore the route.  http://www.kaeseroute.ch/en/

Gantrisch Nature Reserve – Just a half hour’s drive south of Bern lies the Gantrisch Nature Reserve, whose highest and most popular peak is Mt. Gantrisch at 2,175m (7,136ft). Other well known mountains here include Mt. Nünenenflue (2,102m/6,896ft). Because of its proximity to Bern, the nature reserve does get very busy, so you’re advised to start your walks early, in order to avoid the crowds (and get a car parking space, if you’re driving).

Laupen – Just a 20-minute drive from Bern, Laupen is a surprisingly tranquil place. Sited at the convergence of two rivers, Laupen is a medieval town with a pretty castle and the surrounding scenery is very pleasant. It’s not mountainous around here, but it’s a great spot for some leisurely rambles. Laupen can also make a good alternative base to Bern, as the capital can easily be reached by public transport if you wish to visit it.

Oberaargau (Upper Aargau) – The Oberaargau is located halfway between Bern and Zurich and acts as something of a stopping off point, with both the country’s major motorway (A1) and the Bern-Zurich railway running through it. So this region tends to be ignored by tourists, which is a shame because it has a lot to offer, particularly if you’re looking for good cycling routes or leisurely walks, as the fairly flat landscape takes you through some pretty villages, valleys and forests.

History & Culture

The first settlements in Bern date back to the pre-Roman era. It was for a long time an important trading centre and then an important political and military force and one of the leading members of the old Swiss Confederation. Bern was officially founded by Berthold V, Duke of Zähringen in 1191 and he commanded the construction of a city which in many parts remains unchanged to this very day. In spite of French invasion in 1798, Bern remained strong and in 1848 was declared the permanent capital of modern-day Switzerland. In 1405, much of the Old Town was burned to the ground and it was re-built in sandstone. Between the 16th and 17th centuries, the rebuilding work was completed and a series of arcades were added, the same arcades which today house a wide range of shops. Although Bern is now quite cosmopolitan, its Old Town remains wonderfully intact.

Geography, Flora & Fauna

Bern is situated on the Swiss Plateau, which stretches from Lake Geneva in the south west to Lake Constance in the north east, with an average altitude of 580m (1902ft). The farming landscape here looks extraordinarily ‘neat’ and the fields are small – they alternate with meadows and small areas of woodland. There are some low mountains on the right bank of the River Aare and east of Berne you’ll find the Emmental Valley, with its meadows and pastures punctuated by swathes of forest and peaks rising up above 2,000 metres (6,562ft). Wildlife which you may encounter when out walking in the countryside, the Gantrisch hills or the Emmental Alps include badgers, buzzards, deer, foxes and hares.