In the fall of 2016 I had the opportunity to visit Switzerland for work. I’d be spending a week there covered by the company, but I extended my trip with stays in AirBnBs on both weekends. Luckily, Switzerland is small enough, with a diverse set of cities, that there was a lot to see without much travel. I would fly into and out of Zurich, and technically spend the most time there, but upon arrival I immediately took a train to Bern. I chose Bern simply because it was close, large, and because I’d seen some pretty pictures of it (cities that I considered, but which didn’t make the cut, were St Gallen, Interlaken and Grindelwald). It was my favorite place in Switzerland. Bern is the de facto capital of Switzerland, and has about 600k people (for comparison, Zurich has 1.8 million). I felt like the city had all the amenities (public transit, walkable downtown) you’d expect in a northern European city, but was also set in a great landscape, and with friendly people.
As soon as I got into the city, I checked into my AirBnB, a private room and surprisingly cheap in the center of the old town, a UNESCO site (view from street). I was sandwiched between a church and a cathedral, with a beautiful view from a roof deck.
My hosts were wonderful as well – a couple about my age, originally from Bern. When I checked in they said they were attending a birthday party that evening and I was welcome to stop by.
I wanted to hit the ground running and see the big sites of the city: I only had a weekend there before heading to Zurich. The old town, a peninsula bounded by an oxbox turn of a river on three sides and rail tracks on the fourth, is pretty small, and very steep. Hungry from the overnight flight, I grabbed some snacks: vegan gummy bears and Rivella. Rivella is a whey soda that I heard was de rigeur in Switzerland; I enjoyed it, but I guess it’s not really that popular.
I made my way across the river, and walked along the southern bank; there a forested trail snaked its way along the water, rewarding me with a beautiful view of the city. At the end of this trail were the ‘bear pits,’ a free zoo with a few bears (which give Bern its name – Bern is German for “Bears”).
These weren’t really pits, just an outdoor zoo exhibit on the side of a cliff; the bears also had a section of river to swim in. I enjoyed it as a quick easy diversion from the city. It’s literally a park in the city with bears, what’s not to like? Bern really takes the the bear seriously: it’s the heraldic insignia, and there are statues of bears slurping honey and displaying armor around the city.
I covered pretty much the entire city center over the course of the day. I wasn’t a huge fan of the architecture style – too much similar limestone everywhere, in the kind of Georgian style I don’t particularly like. But the city layout and culture was great. There’s a peculiar street arrangement to this part of the city, with fairly wide streets and then sidewalks with overhanging buildings, essentially making it feel like a mall with an open street in the middle. I’ve rarely seen this elsewhere.
There’s some old clocktowers and similar sights downtown, which I found a little underwhelming; I think the charm of the city is not in its architecture.
In the evening I wanted to attend a hockey game; hockey is one of the major sports in Switzerland, and Bern has both the largest stadiums and one of the best teams (they won the 2016 season). There were fireworks, cars driving around the ice, big drums; it felt like going to a soccer game at one of the more involved MLS cities (such as Portland), because although large the stadium only fits 17k people.
There were great supporters clubs and so on, but as it got increasingly late, and with little scoring, I left early. Walking back into the city proper I could hear crowds roaring from inside. Turns out I missed 3 goals at the very end of the game! Can’t win ’em all, I guess.
I’d also left early to check out this birthday party, and I’m glad I did. The party was still in full swing when I got there – perhaps 15 Swiss in a little boathouse down by the river. There were three parties in a row, each a block away, and as luck would have it, they were the third. Once I got settled in, it was a good time. They had beer and the brother of one of my hosts had started a liquor company, producing a kind of liquor called Ingwerer (German for “ginger-er”). Really great stuff, and apparently popular throughout Switzerland. The boathouse was cute and cozy, and everyone made sure to make me feel welcome.
In fact this was one of my better experiences spending time with foreigners; everyone naturally spoke amazing English. We talked a bit about politics (they were aghast about the US election, this was two months before the results came in); life in Switzerland (very nice – it’s expensive there, but this means that even those with low-paying jobs can travel through Europe; and it’s centrally located); life in Bern (sounds like a city with great quality of life; every summer they take the train upriver and tube back into town on the Aare river). Towards the end of the evening, we played a sort of charade/noun-guessing game, and they played it in English… some of the words were just ridiculously obscure, I was impressed with how well everyone spoke English.
All in all, it was a great start to my time in Switzerland.