Switzerland

Like a Local: Old Town Bern

by Tracy Kaler  |  Published August 28, 2017

Sheltered on three sides by the River Aare, Old Town Bern is charming and romantic, if not straight out of a storybook. Peppered with more than 100 historic fountains and six miles of arcades, the Swiss capital has a modern edge, yet much of its medieval center remains untouched.

The Aare flows through Old Town Bern. Photo by Tracy Kaler

Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983, Old Town Bern dates as far back as the 12th century, so despite the city’s updated infrastructure, its history prevails. Stretching for six kilometers, Bern’s arcades remain one of the longest covered promenades in Europe, and where you’ll find a bevy of excellent restaurants and one-of-a-kind boutiques.

Due to the laid-back attitude, hospitable locals, and excellent quality of life, it’s no surprise that the town often makes the cut for the “Best of” lists, and travelers might deem Bern the ideal European city.

Old Town Bern has one of the longest covered promenades in Europe. Photo by Tracy Kaler

Restaurants

Wander the streets of the old city in search of a meal, and you’ll stumble upon small restaurants putting out plates of local fare, plus food and drink with influences from around the globe.

Off the beaten path in Old Town sits Lötschberg (Zeughausgasse 16), a casual albeit modern-looking eatery that specializes in sizable portions of traditional dishes. Fondue, raclette, wiener schnitzel, and rosti (a peasant dish similar to hash brown potatoes) are some of the most popular, and rightfully so, as they’re all delectable. Lötschberg’s local beer and wine selections make for an ideal pairing alongside this decidedly Swiss-German menu. In the summertime, dine al fresco and let the world (or at least Bern) pass you by.

Dine al fresco at Lötschberg. Photo by Tracy Kaler

Italian culture is alive and well in Bern, and that’s apparent in the city’s stockpile of Italian eateries. For a bright Caprese salad with some of the freshest mozzarella outside Italy and an array of piping hot pies, Pizza Ristorante Thurm Molino (Waisenhauspl, 13) is a solid choice. Antipasti and pasta like Bolognese and pesto as well as other Italian dishes are reliable alternatives to pizza. Molino is ideally located in a bustling spot to people watch.

A former granary, Kornhaus Café (Kornhausplatz 18) serves a variety of European dishes including salmon soup flavored with fennel, saffron, and dill,  a tasty beef steak with pepper sauce, as well as a nice lineup of hot sandwiches. A house favorite is the “Spaghetti Tennessee” – pasta with roasted chicken strips tossed in creamy butter sauce. Located next to the City Theatre, the outpost draws a drinking crowd as well as hungry diners, particularly in warm weather as locals gather under the arches when the terrace is open. Kornhaus offers a lengthy cocktail list as well as a terrific selection of beer, wine, aperitifs, coffee, and tea for your drinking pleasure. Downstairs from the cafe is Kornhauskeller, a fine dining restaurant in the cellar of the Granary. The interior is worth a visit to observe the High-Baroque architecture.

The tasty beefsteak with shoestring fries at Kornhaus Cafe. Photo by Tracy Kaler

If Provence-style cuisine with Mediterranean flair sounds tempting, book a table at Metzgerstübli (Münstergasse 60). Straightforward and fresh, the dishes here are market-driven, and the ingredients land the starring role. Opt for the four-course tasting menu (two appetizers, one main, and a dessert or cheese course), or if you prefer, order a la carte. The restaurant changes up the dinner offerings every eight weeks, and provides three different spreads for lunch, always incorporating one vegetarian option. Metzgerstübli’s wine selection is as exquisite as the food, with most of the collection French or Swiss, but a few Italian bottles get thrown into the mix.

Bars and Cafes

Bars in Bern are for coffee, beer, wine, or a quick bite. In substance, whatever you want or need, you’ll find.

Sip an espresso and soak up the atmosphere at Einstein Kaffee and Rauchsalon (Kramgasse 49). Once the home of Albert Einstein, the European-style coffee house and bar dishes out a rotating menu of salads, beef tartare, charcuterie, and more. Besides caffeinated drinks, the café pours Einstein Beer along with prosecco, red and white wines, and aperitifs. Cigar aficionados can relax in the smoking room, which keeps a limited selection of stogies on hand in the humidor. On temperate days, catch Bernese chatting and reading in the outdoor café.

Locals relax at Einstein Kaffee and Rachsalon. Photo by Tracy Kaler

Depending on the time of day, Marta (Kramgasse 8) caters to caffeine lovers, tipplers, and music fans. Tea and scones along with coffee headline in the a.m. while British beers, wine, scotch single malt whiskeys, and American bourbon round out the evening choices. If you’ve had one too many, soak up that alcohol with a pile of cheese cones or a chunk of chewy bread. While most bands start the show at around 8’ish, some nights after parties continue the revelry until closing. Expect to hear everything from indie rock to folk, blues, pop, and country. Chances are –  there will be dancing.

For a cup of Joe or a quick beer, Adriano’s Bar & Café (Theaterpl. 2) is conveniently located across from the Zytglogge (Clock Tower). Pop into this buzzing outpost when your body craves a caffeine fix (the café boasts an in-house roasting plant and brews some of the best java in town), or relax in the evening over a glass of Adriano’s namesake beer. What’s more, this Mediterranean-inspired coffee shop-slash-bar serves up croissants, bagels, and sandwiches, as well as house-made iced tea, and remains a frontrunner among Bern residents.

A glass of Adriano’s beer hits the spot. Photo by Tracy Kaler

Shops

Brimming with independently owned shops as well as larger retailers, Old Town Bern is a shopper’s paradise.

Three colleagues and fellow designers joined forces to open Ooonyva (Münstergasse 35), a stylish shop and studio that sells men’s and women’s clothing as well as accessories. Owned by Debora Rentsch, Nathalie Pellon, and Zara Nydegger, the eco-conscious store focuses on producing the trio’s quality textiles and garments, many of which are made in Bern. Besides their own pieces, the friends welcome guest designers who add to their collection, crafting shoes, jewelry, socks, as well as a handful of novelty items.

Many of the items at Ooonyva are made in Bern. Photo by Tracy Kaler

So much cheese at Chäsbueb (Kramgasse 83), so little time. Friendly cheesemongers offer expert advice at this Old Town cheese shop situated next to the Zytglogge (Clock Tower). Chasbueb boasts a unique assortment of cheeses, so it’s easy to see why the store is often a top pick by locals. Savor a sampling of Swiss raclette, nuts, dried fruit, and local mustard paired with a glass of Swiss white wine, an excellent combo for a light, mid-day meal.

Like the natives, browse the Bernese Weekly Market (open Tuesdays and Saturdays from 8 a.m. until noon) at Parliament Square in front of the Parliament Building or in the Münstergasse. Shop produce, meats, cheeses, herbs and spices, pastries, and other edibles, all in season and locally sourced.

Browse the Bernese Weekly Market on Tuesday and Saturday mornings. Photo by Tracy Kaler

Create your signature fragrance at Art of Scent (Rathausgasse 39), a perfume atelier that was founded by lifelong friends Brigitte Witschi and Christian Siegenthaler. Sharing their passion for scent, the partners focus on the art of crafting fragrances for the individual. Beyond creating custom perfumes, the shop sells No. 1 Edelweiss, No. 2 Blauer Enzian, and No. 3 Silberdistel, available in 10 ml roll-on and 50 ml atomizer sizes, plus fragrant candles and soaps. Art of Scent also provides tours through the arcades of Old Town where guests encounter more than 30 different scents and essences.

Parks

Offering spacious lawns, historical monuments, cafés, and magnificent vistas, parks in the old city appeal to both natives and tourists.

For the most captivating view of Old Town Bern, climb to the idyllic landscaped Rosengarten where you’ll notice hundreds of rose varieties as well as well-manicured lawns, rhododendrons, and other plantings. While you’re there, dine at Restaurant Rosengarten and take in that fabulous Old Town view.

Well-liked by Bernese, the Münsterplattform is the most visited park in Bern.  This elegant terrace is adjacent to the Münster Cathedral – a fine example of Late Gothic architecture – whose tower affords panoramic views of the city, Swiss Midlands, and Bernese Oberland. Here you’ll run into locals meeting up with friends, playing petanque, or grabbing a coffee from the café inside the park. And of course, don’t miss the spectacular city views from the platform.

Adjacent to the cathedral, the Münsterplattform is the most visited park in Bern. Photo by Tracy Kaler

At the heels of the Parliament Building lies Bundesterrasse (Federal Terrace), also the terrace on the south side of the Federal Palace of Switzerland. Catch a perspective of the Bernese mountain, “Gurten,” the glorious River Aare, and the Kirchenfeldquartier (Museum District). Bundesterrasse also overlooks the Marzili neighborhood.

A state park and café share the same name, Kleine Schanze, which translates to “small hill.” This park is a section of the last Bernese fortification from the 17th century and boasts a concert stage, playground, chess and checker boards, several monuments, a fountain, various works of art, and a small ski jumping area. The views of the Aare are fantastic here, so it’s no surprise that Kleine Schanze is one of the top parks to visit in all of Bern.

BärenGrab (Bear Park) lies at the foot of Old Town across the Nydegg bridge and provides an exceptional perspective of the city, which may or may not include three furry residents: Finn, Bjork, and Ursula. Built in 2009, BearPark set up infrared cameras to allow visitors to observe the bears inside their caves. Descend the stairs or ride the lift for a stroll along the Aare, where you might sight one of the four-legged creatures napping as they blend in with the lush foliage throughout the 6,500-meter park.

Descend the stairs and stroll along the Aare at BärenPark. Photo by Tracy Kaler