I took a fast-paced 8-day solo Couchsurfing trip through much of Switzerland and Liechtenstein to see the region’s historic cities, mountain views, and top-notch hiking without breaking the bank. Follow my blog in its entirety or click here for a travel guide to Switzerland.
Photo: Nydeggbrucke Bridge
Getting to Bern
From my Couchsurfing host’s place in Nyon, I took the train east for 2 hours to Bern, changing trains in Lausanne (46 franc). At the Bern train station, I found the platform where the bus I needed to my next Couchsurfing host’s flat was and hopped on after it came a few minutes later. Before getting on the bus, I bought a day pass for 13 franc which covered all transport within Bern – a great deal since one ride is over 4 franc.
Once on the bus, I was impressed that there was a screen which listed the upcoming stops, how many minutes until arrival at each one, and whether a stop had been requested. It’s so handy and definitely needs to be a thing on all buses in the U.S.! I also began to acclimate myself to the fact that I was now in a German-speaking area. I know pretty much only the basic greeting “guten tag” and the thanks “danke,” so luckily most people in Bern speak English.
I got off the bus and walked over to my host’s apartment. My host wasn’t home, but I was happy to be able to drop off my stuff, use the wifi for a bit, and then get on a train back to the Bern city center.
My first stop in the Old City was Kleine Schanze, a park that promised good views of the city. I first noticed a fun statue that featured five people holding hands around a globe. Then I walked up a small hill and came across a wonderful view of the River Aare (which loops around three sides of the Old City) and surrounding countryside.
From the park, I walked a couple blocks to Church of the Holy Ghost (Heiliggeistkirche), located right next to the main train station. The interior of this church is stunning – with an elaborately decorated pink ceiling that sets it apart from the thousands of other amazing European churches.
After admiring the church, I began to walk into the true Old City down a commercial street which had solely cool old buildings. I noticed that almost all of the stores were closed due to it being a Sunday. I first noticed Kafigturm, a beautiful old clock tower. It appears that you can climb it on weekedays, but alas I couldn’t. I made a right turn and walked a block south to Bundesplatz – one of the main plazas in Bern with a nice park, tons of outdoor restaurant seating, and supreme people watching. Just south of the park was the Federal Palace, which houses Switzerland’s legislative and executive branches of government. It was closed for Sunday, but you can usually go inside and take a tour or look-see. On the back side of the Federal Palace, I again saw great views of the River Aare and greater Bern.
The Cheese Glob
Before my trip, I had researched cheap places to eat in each city I was going to since Switzerland is known for being such an expensive country. An average restaurant would charge you $30+ (sometimes much more than that) for a meal, while I’m more of a $10 meal person. Most of the affordable food options are actually ethnic food (like Chinese, Indian, or Middle Eastern), but in Bern I actually was able to lunch at an authentic Swiss restaurant.
Le Mazot is a very Swiss/German-feeling restaurant with rustic decor and mostly German-only speaking servers. The most affordable item on their menu happens to be one of Switzerland’s most famous dishes: raclette. Raclette is a giant glob of melted cheese with small sides of mini potatoes, onions, and pickles. It wasn’t a huge portion, but it was a good-sized midday meal and the cheese was super delicious. Plus it was only 11 franc! I definitely recommend stopping in to try this if you’re in Bern.
Looking Up & Looking Down
After a quick lunch, I continued walking deeper into the Old City, coming to the city’s most famous landmark after one long block. Zytglogge is a beautiful, huge clock tower that dates back to 1191. It’s a remarkable sight and it’s even more magnificent when you think about how long it’s been there. Bern’s Old City is also extremely historic – the street plan is one of the only ones in the world that has remained essentially unchanged since medieval times (it was named a UNESCO World Heritage site because of this).
Continuing down the street, I soon passed the city’s iconic fountain called Simsonbrunnen which colorfully demonstrates the biblical story of Samson killing a lion. It was built in 1544. The great thing about fountains in Switzerland is that they’re on just about every block in every city and you can sip from them or fill your water bottle unless it’s one of very few that is labeled as non-potable. No need to spend money on bottled water or even carry a bottle of water with you when you can enjoy this refreshing mountain water everywhere!
I walked south to the Bern Munster, the city’s most famous cathedral and the largest Christian church in the country. The interior decor was quite similar to other European churches, so I was more eager to embark on a 5 franc tower tour. This is the tallest church tower in Switzerland, so it was quite a climb up the spiral staircase, but the views on top were stunning. I was able to walk around the entire perimeter of the tower and get great views of the Old City, Greater Bern, and the nearby River Aare. It’s a very special place.
Upon leaving the church, I walked through Munsterplattform, a park between the church and the river with more great views. I looked east and noticed that there was a block of old buildings below the Old City right on the river and took a moment to savor their beauty.
The City of Bears…and Roses
I walked through the remainder of the Old City and over a bridge which crosses the River Aare and has great views. I then came to the Altes Traindepot, a tourist information spot and restaurant where I was able to kindly ask for the wifi password. The depot is located right in Barenpark, Bern’s ode to the bear which is a symbol of the city found on its flags, documents, and buildings dating back hundreds of years.
Barenpark hosts several bears visitors can see – they live in hilly enclosures with water, trees, and hiding spots, an improvement over the apparent small pits they used to live in but it’s still sad that they aren’t free to roam the wilderness as bears should be. I got some good views of the bears and was able to walk along the River Aare for a few minutes. The water was unfortunately a khaki-color, not the aqua blue I had seen in photos – likely due to a large storm that had recently passed through the region.
From Barenpark, I walked 10 minutes uphill to Rosengarten, a collection of roses and one of the best viewpoints in the city. From here, you can see the River Aare wrap around the Old City. It was a bit rainy and cloudy when I was there, but I imagine the view is 💯 on a bright day.
Rooftop Bars (or Lack Thereof)
I crossed back over the river and peeked into Nydeggkirche, a church right next to the river. It wasn’t terribly unique and there weren’t any towers to climb so I continued walking until I reached the wonderful Town Hall (Rathaus) building. It has twin staircases going up it from either side and a cool clock in the center. It was closed for the weekend of course.
Across the street, I walked inside Christliche Kirche, another beautiful cathedral building. There was no one else around, so I attempted to fix a wedgie I was experienced (sadly without any luck).
After a few more blocks, I reached the Ogre Fountain (Kindlifresserbrunnen), a silly fountain that commemorates this mythical creature. I then walked north and crossed over the river to the Allegro Hotel, which I had heard had a rooftop bar. Sadly, the rooftop bar was closed, but the front desk attendant suggested a basic lobby bar where I pretended to peruse the menu while using wifi for a few minutes.
Back on foot, I walked a bit north and crossed over another bridge (Lorrainebrucke), from which I could see a good view of Blutturm, a random tower situated amidst trees next to the river. You can walk down and get a closer view, but I didn’t feel like it so I kept walking back into the Old City.
Across from the train station, I made my 2nd attempt to visit a rooftop bar at the Schweizerhof Hotel. Unfortunately, the bar (Sky Terrace) was closed due to the previous day’s rain. Womp, womp. I was pleased that the clouds of the morning had vanished, so I walked back through the Old City to the Rosengarten where I was able to get a better view than I had earlier.
Bern’s Little Mountain
With several hours of daylight left and most of the city’s sights seen, I plotted my next move. I had marked the Gurten Mountain as a potential place to go but had assumed that I wouldn’t have time since it was a bit far from everything. Luckily, I inquired and found that it was a quick bus and rail ride and that the gondola ride to the top of the mountain was included with my transportation day pass!
I struggled with my rail connection at the main train station since Google Maps was unclear and I didn’t realize it was one of the main train platforms that took you to other cities. While waiting for my train, I got a pretzel sandwich (yum! and only 5 franc!) and stopped in a chocolate shop for my first Swiss chocolate.
Arriving at Gurten (which I learned was adorably known as Bern’s Little Mountain), I was able to quickly get on a gondola and go up the mountain. There were beautiful views of Bern and the countryside that got even nicer once I got off the gondola and happened upon a tower while walking around. The top of this observatory tower had excellent 360 degree views and on a clearer day I probably would’ve been able to see tons of Alps.
There’s a beautiful old restaurant, grassy areas, playgrounds, and plenty of walking trails at the top of Gurten so I explored for a bit and then hopped back on the gondola. I got confused by bus stops so I missed my bus home but instead relaxed in the peaceful area and eventually got on a train and headed home.
My hosts weren’t home, so after relaxing for an hour, I went back to the Old City via rail. I happened to walk by a bar that has tons of stuff labeled “Gratuit” lying outside so I picked up a Swiss hat, a St. Patrick’s day hat, and a couple other random things. Gotta love free stuff – as long as it fits in your suitcase!
I was curious about Bern’s gay scene, so I walked over to one of the city’s prominent gay bars – Comeback. It had a classy, old-school vibe but wasn’t very crowded and I didn’t feel like drinking so I didn’t stay long.
My walk back to the bus was fun as I passed several lively restaurants with outdoor seating. On my bus ride home, I sat between three young ladies excitedly speaking German to each other and tried to make sense of their conversation but alas it was an eavesdropping fail.
Tired from my long day, I chatted with my Couchsurfing hosts for a bit and went to sleep.