The Bernese Oberland is, without doubt, one of the most beautiful regions of Switzerland. It is here you will find the world famous “Eiger” (3,970m / 13,025ft), “Mönch” (4,099m / 13,448ft) and “Jungfrau” (4,158m = 13,642ft) mountains.
Although well-known for these lofty peaks, this region is in fact perfect for walkers of all abilities; the alluring combination of classic alpine scenery, jagged peaks and rolling, verdant hills will appeal to anyone who loves the great outdoors. From the romantic shores of the beautiful lakes to awesome glaciers and swathes of forest and alpine flowers, there really is something new to see at every turn.
The area was first discovered as a tourist destination by the English taking their holidays in Switzerland at the end of the 18th century. They were instantly captivated by towns and villages such as Interlaken, Wengen, Grindelwald and Gstaad – as well as the towering peaks of the Swiss Alps. And so tourism to this region really took off in the 19th century, providing inspiration for a generation of artists, musicians and writers, including Turner, Brahms and Proust. The region has retained much of its old-world charm – which helps to make it so special.
Grindelwald – Situated on the northern side of Mt. Eiger, this is the closest settlement to the remarkable Jungfrau-Aletsch glacier and is often referred to as “the glacier village”. Unlike other mountain villages which are traffic-free, Grindelwald is accessible by car and bus and is therefore a popular place. There are many hotels here to choose from; the very first appeared in 1818, but several followed over the ensuing years. The Obergletscher (Upper Glacier) with its fascinating ice grottoes is just a short bus ride away. There are also several cable cars which can lead you up to a range of short and long hikes throughout this stunningly beautiful region.
Interlaken – Many walkers may dismiss Interlaken as being too touristy and somewhat lacking in quaint charm, but there is plenty to recommend staying here – as its location makes it an excellent base for exploring the area. Transport links here are brilliant and you can visit many of the Bernese Oberland’s attractions through day trips. A small town, Interlaken is situated between two great stretches of water: Lake Thun and Lake Brienz. It is also within hopping distance of the area’s three mighty peaks, Jungfrau, Mönch and Eiger. Interlaken is an easy drive from Basel, Zurich or Geneva airports. If you are arriving from the south, then it can be accessed via Grimselpass (summer months only) or via Simplonpass followed by the Lötschberg Car Transport.
Mürren – Free of car traffic, the peaceful mountain village of Mürren has an infectious charm. Perched on a sunny terrace above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, and with views to Jungfrau, Mürren has an interesting history, being an old ‘Walser’ settlement (Walser are people from the Valais) – and traces of this history live on today in both the architecture and the local dialect.
Wengen – Some of the best hiking in Switzerland can be easily accessed from Wengen, another village which is blissfully car-free. Situated at the foot of the mighty Eiger – Mönch – Jungfrau mountain range, pretty, sunny Wengen enjoys some of the best views in the Alps.
Gimmelwald – Not to be confused with the popular resort of Grindelwald in a neighbouring valley, Gimmelwald is a tiny hamlet that has truly fairytale-like qualities and is well worth a visit, just for its sheer beauty. It is located between the mountain villages of Stechelberg und Mürren, at an elevation of 1,363 metres (4,472 feet). Inaccessible by car, the best way to visit is via the cable car station in Stechelberg. A cable car service also runs between Gimmelwald and Mürren.
Kleine Scheidegg — Connecting Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen, this high mountain pass is home to the grand Hotel Bellevue des Alpes and the Kleine Scheidegg railway station, which serves two historic mountain railways, the Wengernalpbahn (operational since 1893) and the Jungfraubahn (1896). From Grosse Scheidegg, the trail winds down through alpine pastures to Grindelwald, a popular town dominated by two massive glaciers on either side, the Unterer and Oberer Grindelwaldgletscher, with view across to the Jungfrau, Eiger and Mönch.
Kandersteg and Kandertal Valley – With an abundance of enticing hiking trails starting from here, Kandersteg has long been a popular destination for walkers and nature-lovers. It benefits from excellent transport links too and it is possible to put your car on a train to the neighbouring Canton of Valais. Accommodation options here are broad and plentiful, from campsites through to luxury hotels and self-catering apartments and rustic Swiss chalets. There are also some excellent hut-to-hut walks in the area, with several Swiss Alpine Club-owned mountain huts and inns which serve weary walkers well.
There are many highlights in this area, including the sapphire waters of Lake Öschinen, which can be visited from Kandersteg by chairlift or by foot via a wide, family-friendly hiking trail. Beautiful Lake Blausee (which translates as “Blue Lake”) is a located above the village of Kandergrund at 887m (2,910ft), not far from the river Kander. Lake Blausee has been attracting visitors since 1878, and it remains a popular tourist spot. The Kiental Valley, renowned for its wild and dreamy scenery, is the starting point for a number of themed walks and mountain passes. The end of the valley forms part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The Kandersteg-Allmenalp Via Ferrata
The Kandersteg-Allmenalp via ferrata was designed by the Köppel brothers (who were also involved in creating the Leukerbad via ferrata in Valais, which at the time of writing this is Switzerland’s longest and toughest). While the route dates back as far as the 18th century, it has been modernised with a number of bridges and ladders to ensure the highest levels of safety. While this route is not recommended for beginners (or those of faint heart!) there are regular platforms for walkers to stop off and take a short break.
The start of the route is clearly signposted from the cable car base station and return to the start is via cable car. Allow half a day to complete this incredible walk.
Lauterbrunnen and Lauterbrunnen Valley – This area is indescribably beautiful and many fervent Alpinists will tell you it is easily the most spectacular valley in Europe. It’s certainly the world’s deepest U-shaped valley with sheer rock faces on either side rising up some 1,000 metres (3,281 ft). Down in the valley is the village of Lauterbrunnen village which serves as a centre for the two slopes above which happen to be two of Switzerland’s most popular ski resorts.
A riot of colour in the warmer months, the Lauterbrunnen Valley is also one of Switzerland’s biggest nature conservation areas, characterised by its cascading waterfalls and carpets of meadow flowers. There is in fact a clue in the name: ‘Lauter Brunnen’ translates as ‘many fountains’. There are 72 waterfalls in total, including the glorious ‘Staubbach Falls’, one of the highest free-falling falls in Europe, plunging some 300m (984ft) from a rock face above. The valley and its water have long provided inspiration for creative masters. In 1779, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe penned his poem ‘Spirit song over the waters’ after visiting the Staubbach Falls.
There are two historic trails which wind their way to the head of the valley: from Mürren a high level path and from Stechelberg, an old trading route.
A visit to this area in summer would not be complete without also seeing the Trümmelbach Falls, which are well hidden away behind some immense rock faces. The only way to catch sight of this thundering phenomenon (where up to 20,000 litres of water per second tumble over 10 glacier falls from a total elevation of around 200m/656ft), is to take a tunnel lift (summer months only).
Walking in Lauterbrunnen is also a joy – and the town it is the starting point for some of the best known trails in the Mt. Jungfrau region. It benefits from a rack railway which runs up to the sunny village of Wengen on the eastern side of the valley and to Kleine Scheidegg, where you can change trains to reach the Jungfraujoch.
Gstaad – Attractively positioned Gstaad has just the one, traffic-free street running through it. It’s a lively place filled with wooden chalets, interesting shops, many lovely restaurants, hotels and art galleries. It’s a popular hang-out for wealthy jet-setters, particularly across the Christmas holiday period, boasting one of the Alps’ largest and finest skiing areas. However, in summer, it’s walking which takes centre stage with over 300 km (186 mi) of signposted and well maintained trails to choose from. Thanks to an excellent local transport network of mountain trains, buses and cable cars, it is possible to reach a wide range of walking routes, to match all abilities.
Adelboden – This traditional village lies at 1,350m (4,429 ft) above sea level, with stunning views across to the Mt. Wildstrubel and the Mt. Lohner ranges. There is an extensive network of walking trails here, taking you through miles upon miles of alpine meadows and majestic mountains. Walkers of all abilities will enjoy exploring the area around Adelboden and for those who really want to challenge themselves, there are a number of trickier ascents that will really get the heart pumping. The walking alone here will probably keep you entertained for days, but should you wish to try something else there is plenty to recommend, including boat trips on the nearby lakes of Thunnersee and Brienzersee. You can also take a cable car to the revolving restaurant ‘Piz Gloria’ right at the top of Mt Schilthorn (at 2,970m / 9,744 ft). Enjoy stunning panoramic views at this unique restaurant which featured in the Bond movie ‘On Her Majesty’s Secret Service’.
Brienz & Lake Brienz (Brienzersee) – The welcoming village of Brienz lies at the eastern end of the Lake and is a good hopping off point for various excursions to the wider Bernese Oberland area, or even further afield into Lucerne and Interlaken. Brienz is renowned for one street in particular, the ‘Brunngasse’, which was once awarded the accolade of “Europe’s most beautiful street”. Much of the architecture here dates back to the 18th century and features ornate wood carvings. Brienz has long been known as a centre for wood carving and to this very day has a college where you can learn the fine art of carving and violin-making.
Lake Brienz is formed by waters from the upper reaches of the River Aar to the east and from the River Lütschine, in its south-western corner. Over on the western shore, a slip of land called the Bödeli separates it from neighbouring Lake Thun (Thunersee). Also between these two lakes is the popular centre of Interlaken. And just 3kms (1.86 mi) from Interlaken lie two idyllic villages, Ringgenberg and Bönigen, which are very pleasant places to stay and explore the Jungfrau region. There are many excellent walks to be found around the lake and higher walks are always possible by hopping on one of the many buses and mountain trains which run through the area.
Passenger ships have been using the lake since 1839. Operated by the local railway company, they connect to Interlaken Ost railway station, via a 1.3 km (0.81 mi) long navigable stretch of the Aar River. The ships also carry passengers to the Giessbachbahn funicular, which leads up to the popular Giessbach falls.
Thun & Lake Thun (Thunersee) – The area around Lake Thun is known as the “Riviera of the Bernese Oberland”, thanks to its pleasant, mild and sunny climate which usually lasts well into the autumn months. The sapphire blue waters of the Lake, framed with a backdrop of rugged mountain peaks, lies at the far northern end of the Alps, between Thun and Interlaken. Thun itself is an attractive town, wonderfully sited at the western edge of the Lake. It is commonly referred to as the gateway to the Bernese Oberland.
Lake Thun is popular among watersports enthusiasts, especially sailors and windsurfers, who make the best of the waters’ light wind. The lake boasts a number of inlets and beaches which are perfect for a swim and the area both around the lake and into the hills is also favoured by cyclists, climbers and, naturally, hikers. This is also a very pleasant place to stay, with lots of serene villages dotted around the lake’s shores, offering comfortable chalet and guest house accommodation.
A lake cruise is recommended to fully appreciate the beauty and diversity of this area. Boats of all shapes and sizes grace the lake, including the wonderfully restored “Blümlisalp” paddlewheel steamship (originally built in 1906), which shuttles passengers between Thun and Interlaken every day.
Other highlights in this area include the town of Spiez with its stunning historic buildings – including a castle and Romanesque church – lying on the opposite side of the lake to Thun. And if you’re visiting the area in the summer, you may be lucky enough to see some musical performances along the lake’s shore as part of the Lake Thun Festival (Thuner Seespiele).
Mt. Niesen is one of the Lake Thun region’s most visited peaks. You can take a mountain railway to the top, and do a little climbing to reach an observation platform (at 2,362 m/ 7,749 ft) to take in the breathtaking 360° panorama of the Bernese Alps, Lake Thun and Lake Brienz with far-reaching views out to the Jura mountain range. There is also a very pleasant mountain hut here (Niesen Kulm) where you can enjoy some fine food out on a large, sunny terrace.
Our top recommendation: Big Thrills at Trift Glacier
Trift Bridge, in Haslital, is a 100m (328ft) high, 170m (558ft) long suspension bridge and one of the finest in the Alps. There is a wonderful walk which incorporates a crossing of the bridge along with two other major highlights: a gondola ride for 2.4km (1.5m) and the ascent of a deep-cut river gorge. You need to allow around half a day to complete this spectacular hike, which takes in some wonderful views of the Trift glacier.
This walk is somewhat off the beaten track. To reach the start point, take a bus from Meiringen (Haslital Valley), which takes around 30-40 minutes to reach the Nessental Triftbahn stop where you then pick up a cable car (they depart every 15 minutes) and be transported into the remote reaches of the Trift Gorge.
When you step out of your cable car, you need to cross a small bridge to climb up the west side of the Triftwasser stream. This path is steep in places as it crosses a number of tributaries which flow into the Triftwasser below. It takes about 90 minutes to reach the suspension bridge. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but if you take the leap of faith and cross the bridge, it will be quite an unforgettable experience as you gaze across to the Trift Glacier and the azure waters of its glacial lake.
The suspension bridge alone is well worth the trip up here, but for those seeking further adventure, you can continue on to either the Trift Mountain Hut or the Windegghütte Mountain Hut. Neither have many beds available, so if you are planning on staying overnight, it’s definitely wise to book ahead as far as possible via the Swiss Alpine Club.
The bridge was built in 2004 after the glacier had receded so much that it was no longer possible to reach the Trift Hut by foot. Five years later, the bridge was re-built to ensure maximum safety. It is now one of the highest and longest suspension bridges in all of Europe. However, this is only one appealing aspect of the Trift Glacier hike, which itself has so much to recommend it.
Fitness required: moderate
A Journey to the top! The Jungfraujoch & Jungfraubahn (Jungfrau Railway)
The rack railway trip from Kleine Scheidegg to Jungfraujoch is one of Switzerland’s finest tourist attractions. It’s worth waiting for a clear and sunny day before embarking on this high-altitude journey, to fully appreciate the views at the top. When you reach the peak at 3,454 metres (11,333 feet), you have officially reached the ‘highest point in Europe, via Europe’s highest railway’. The train will stop at various points along the way for you to view the North face of the Eiger and at the very top you will be treated to glorious mountain views as far as the eye can reach. You can also visit an Ice Palace and enjoy spectacular views from the Sphinx Observation Terrace which takes in the Aletsch Glacier (Europe’s longest glacier).
To start your journey to the top, you are best off heading to Interlaken and taking a train from Interlaken Ost early in the morning, before 7am if possible, to beat the crowds, which goes directly to Kleine Scheidegg. Be sure to take plenty of layers with you; even in summer it can get quite chilly at the top. You’ll also need to wear hiking boots and protective eyewear. Be warned that since you will be reaching a high altitude and therefore a drop in air pressure, some people can suffer from a temporary shortness of breath, headaches and fatigue.
When at the top, look out for the Lauberhorn; the ridge behind here is where the annual World Cup downhill ski race takes place. This is where you can also view the imposing trio of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau mountains. There are also two historic hotels here (Bellevue and Des Alpes (1841 and 1896), which are a great place to spend a night or two, for a special treat.
For more information and ticket booking, please go to: http://www.jungfrau.ch/en/sommer/tourism/
The largest glacier in the Alps Aletsch Glacier (Aletschgletscher in German) is approximately 23 km (14 mi) long, covering a surface area of more than 120 square km (46 sq mi). The Aletsch Glacier comprises three smaller glaciers, which converge at Concordia (Konkordiaplatz in German), a large, flat area of snow and ice, located just south of Mt. Jungfrau. The glacier forms part of the Jungfrau-Aletsch Protected Area, which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2001. A cable car ride up to the Bettmerhorn or Eggishorn will help you to appreciate just how colossal the Great Aletsch Glacier really is. The two mountain stations put you within touching distance of these peaks. If you’re seeking further adventure, then it is possible to continue ascending the Bettmerhorn via wire ropes and wooden steps up to the summit, which takes around half an hour.
Get into the spirit! Some recommended Movies & Video Clips:
The Eiger Sanction
|On Her Majesty’s Secret Service
The sixth James Bond movie was based on the book of the same name, by Ian Fleming and was released in 1969. It starred George Lazenby, Diana Rigg and Telly Savalas. The spectacular first scene was shot in October 1968; an aerial view of Bond climbing the stairs of Blofeld’s mountain retreat. The scenes were shot from the revolving restaurant Piz Gloria, which can be found at the summit of Schilthorn, near the village of Mürren. Back then, the restaurant was only just being conceived, but the producers were so taken with the location that they had to finance the provision of power and cable car transport to enable filming to take place. Some of the most best-known ‘chase’ scenes were filmed at Lauterbrunnen and Saas Fees, in the Christmas scenes in Grindelwald, and others on location in Bern. You can view the trailer for this movie here.
History & Culture
The first known settlers in Oberland were from the Roman era. They settled along the river and the lakes and used a number of the alpine passes which remain to this day. During the Middle Ages, the Oberland first was ruled by the Kingdom of Burgundy, and then the Dukes of Zähringen. Once this family line became extinct, rule of Bernese Oberland fell to various different local Barons. For a brief spell during this period, some of the Walser ruled portions of the region and certain sections of the alpine passes were held by the Bishop of Sion, until the 19th century.
The city of Bern, with its aggressive policy of expansion, managed to acquire the vast majority of the Oberland from the local barons during the late 13th century, either through purchase, mortgage or marriage. However, the late Middle Ages saw the Oberland people revolt against Bernese authority, so from the first battle in 1445 between the Evil League (Böser Bund) to the revolt of Thun in 1641, it was a fractious period for the region.
During the Middle Ages, settlement always followed a similar pattern. Development would begin on a low valley level of around 1,100 m (3,600 ft), then a market and some kind of fortification would be established. Market towns gradually became surrounded by tiny villages and hamlets. During the 14th-16th centuries, trading with Bernese grain-producing towns in the lowlands allowed alpine villagers to become more self-sufficient by raising their cattle, which they then proceeded to export, both to the Bernese settlers and into Italy, via the alpine passes.. By 1500, there were seven medieval markets and eleven new cattle markets which were opened specifically to allow the Oberland villagers to sell their cows.
Following Napoleon’s invasion of Switzerland in 1798, the old Bernese rule became unstable and two distinct cantons were formed: Oberland and Bern. However, borders and rights were not carefully considered and since people here had been living in relative peace, they did not really see the value in this new order. As such, in 1801, the Malmaison Constitution proposed bringing Oberland and Bern back together; however it took 2 further years, the Act of Mediation, abolition of the Helvetic Republic and a partial restoration of ancien régime, before the two cantons were to be officially reunited.
Geography, Flora & Fauna
The various rocks which have formed the Alps as we know them today were, millions of years ago, part of the ocean floor. Following the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates some 100 million years ago, the rocks were lifted and compacted and ultimately shaped by the ice ages and glaciation. The Eastern Alps remain the most imposing. And it is the constant presence of snow and ice, and other glacial features such as lakes, gorges and waterfalls, along with fertile alpine meadows, which draw visitors to the beautiful Bernese Oberland.
Due to its incredible natural beauty, the Bernese Oberland region has been popular with tourists since the early 19th century. While for many this area is synonymous with the celebrated mountain trio of Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau – which are without doubt as impressive as you would expect – there are many other natural highlights in this region which warrant a visit; some lesser known but no less spectacular.
To appreciate the diversity of this land’s flora, the Alpine Garden on Schynige Platte (The Plateau), at around 1967m/5450ft elevation, is well worth a visit. Here you will find more than 500 different species of colourful flowers and plants – as well as some amazing views. To get there you need to take a rack rail train from Wilderswil.
The Jungfrau-Aletsch conservation area, which includes the well-known Aletsch Glacier, also boasts the largest glaciated area in Europe and is almost wholly covered in rocks and ice. Nature thrives here, with 1,250 species of animals, 1,800 plants, and 700 mosses. Just some of the more commonly seen creatures include red deer, chamois and alpine ibex, as well as hares, foxes, marmots and lynx.
Bird-watchers will not be disappointed either; the Bernese Oberland region, and Thun in particular, is a “twitcher’s” paradise. Birds found in this region include the song thrush, bullfinch, goldfinch, common kingfisher – to name but a few.
And finally, let’s not forget the iconic cow (Bergkuh) with a bell on its neck! You are more than likely to encounter many of these on your adventures through the grassier sections of alpine Bernese Oberland.