One of the highlights of my traveling so far was a period where I set up shop in Bern, Switzerland for just over 1 year. At the time I was studying at the University of Bern in a joint program between it, University of Neuchâtel, and University of Fribourg called the BeNeFri program which, compared to graduate degrees in the USA, was incredibly affordable.
Bern is a smaller city compared to say Zurich or Geneva and it is still in the German speaking portion of the country. Like a lot of the country I wouldn’t describe the culture as overly friendly but more welcomly tolerant, which to me seems more honest anyway.
I loved Bern and the entirety of Switzerland, the country is like a desktop wallpaper. There’s the usual things to do in the city that most sites recommend like climbing the cathedral and seeing the bears, which you should definitely do because they are lovely.
I’m going to go over some of my favorite cheaper activities in Bern, some of which are off the traditional tourism route.
1. Single Serve BBQs and Swimming in the Aare
There’s nothing like a good BBQ in the summer. If the weather is right you can go into any grocery store and buy a single use BBQ and set up a nice lounge next to the river.
2. Giant Chess
In several locations around the main square there are large chess boards set up where you can play chess with friends or for the confident you can challenge others. Loser offers beer.
You can take a trolley up the mountain to a large, hilly park called Gurten where people hang out, play sports, and host concerts. It has great views and a relaxing atmosphere so bring some blankets, beers, and picnic food.
4. Winter Light Show on the Federal Building
During the wintertime there is a light show projected onto the Federal building in the main square. It is incredibly detailed and done multiple times during the evening. My pictures won’t due it justice but believe me when I say it is mesmerizing. Here is a video of it, if you must know.
I went to a friends place one night for what I thought was a normal hang out session and it turns out it was Carnival, or as we American’s call it, European Halloween. People were dressed up, partying and having a merry old time. It turned into a bit of a ridiculous night and even if you just want to go people watching it a great experience of the holiday.
6. Free Jazz and Pasta
Every Tuesday there is a jazz jam session at this address:
Mühlenpl. 11, 3011 Bern, Switzerland
It is a sort of open studio bar that has a variety of musicians performing on other dates. You have to climb a respectable amount of stairs but you are also rewarded with free risotto just for showing up. It was one of my favorite traditions. Some nights they have a full on band, others it is just students getting together and trying to jam out. It was always rewarding and delicious as free food tastes better.
7. Fountain Hunting
Bern has a number of interesting character fountains throughout its streets and searching for them is a good way to get familiar with the city. Each one has a different story and finding them was a scenic experience. Also you get to see my favorite fountain, the Baby Eater of Bern. You can find more info on the fountains here.
Generally speaking drinking at bars was too expensive for me in Bern. However Turnhalle, a gymnasium that was converted to a bar, offered a more affordable option with life music and a good dance environment. It is also open later than a lot of the bars in the downtown area during the week. They also are right next to some tiny art galleries and have food trucks outside. Here’s more info.
A run down old stable house under a bridge that was originally occupied by squatters has become a pretty solid party location with a not so bad restaurant. The nights can get grungy, drunk, and loud. The concerts can become rowdy. It has regular events of varying types and we would go there a lot for ping pong and general hooligan activities. This place is very unique and hard to describe, it more needs to be experienced. Find more info on it here. You will encounter all types here, dress accordingly, or just have some drinks and you’ll fit right in.
10. Altes Tramdepot
This one is a bit more popular/mainstream than other list items and for good reason, it offers great views of the city and it is right next to the Bear Park. When my dad visited it was also his favorite place to go for food. You can visit their site here and see it has a more traditional Swiss aesthetic. It offers a bit more of a tourist vibe but sometimes that can be better and I can also say the food is quite good. It is also only a short walk from The Rose Garden Restaurant which is another spot with some amazing city views. Slightly better views than the Cathedral I would even say.
This is a great list to start with for some of my personal favorite activities in Bern, there are a good deal more as well and I will make a part 2 soon.