Planning a Trip
By Plane -- The Bern-Belp Airport (tel. 031/960-21-11) is 9.6km (6 miles) south of the city in the area of Belpmoos. International flights arrive from Munich, Rome and London, but transatlantic jets are not able to land here. Fortunately, it's a short hop to Bern from the international airports in Zurich and Geneva.
A taxi from the airport to the city center costs about 35F to 50F ($29-$41/£15-£21), so it's better to take the shuttle bus that runs between the airport and the Bahnhof (train station) -- it costs 14F ($11/£5.70) one-way.
By Train -- Bern has direct connections to the Continental rail network that includes France, Italy, Germany, the Benelux countries, and even Scandinavia and Spain. The TGV high-speed train connects Paris with Bern in just 4 1/2 hours. Bern also lies on major Swiss rail links, particularly those connecting Geneva (90 min.) and Zurich (58 min.). For rail information and schedules, call tel. 0900/300-300.
The Bahnhof rail station, on Bahnhofplatz, is right in the center of town near all the major hotels. If your luggage is light, you can walk to your hotel; otherwise, take one of the taxis waiting outside the station.
By Car -- Bern lies at a major expressway junction, with A1 coming in east from Zurich, A2 heading south from Basel, and A12 running north from Lake Geneva.
Bern Tourist Center, in the Bern Bahnhof, on Bahnhofplatz (tel. 031/328-12-12; www.berninfo.com), is open June to September daily 9am to 8:30pm; October to May Monday to Saturday 9am to 6:30pm and on Sunday from 10am to 5pm. If you need help finding a hotel room, the tourist center can make a reservation for you in the price range you select.
Main Arteries & Streets -- The geography of the city is neatly pressed into a relatively small area, so getting about is quite easy. You can walk to most of the major sights. Altstadt, or Old Town, lies on a high rocky plateau that juts out into a "loop" of the Aare River. A majority of the major hotels and attractions lie in this loop.
Most arrivals are at the Bahnhof on Bahnhofplatz, in the center of town. From here you can walk along the major arteries of Bern: Spitalgasse, Marktgasse, Kramgasse, and Gerechtigkeitsgasse. The town's major squares include Theaterplatz, with its famed Zytgloggeturm (Clock Tower), Kornhausplatz and its much-photographed Ogre Fountain, and Rathausplatz, on which stands the old Rathaus (town hall), seat of the cantonal government.
The three major bridges crossing the Aare into this historic loop are Kirchenfeldbrücke, Kornhausbrücke, and Lorrainebrücke.
Finding an Address -- In a system developed during the Middle Ages, street numbers in the city begin in the center of Altstadt, and the numbers increase as they fan out. Even numbers lie on one side of the street, odd numbers on the other.
Maps -- Good local maps are available at the Bern Tourist Office.
Neighborhoods In Brief
Only two of Bern's many neighborhoods are of particular interest to tourists:
Altstadt This is the heart of Bern, lying inside a bend of the Aare River. Filled with flower-decked fountains, it encompasses some 6km (3 1/2 miles) of arcades and medieval streets, many reserved for pedestrians only. Its main street is Kramgasse, filled with luxury shops and 17th- and 18th-century houses.
South of the Aare You can reach this sprawling district by crossing the Kirchenfeldbrücke. The neighborhood has four major museums: Swiss Alpine Museum, Bern Historical Museum, Natural History Museum, and Museum of Communication.
On Foot -- This is the only practical means of exploring Altstadt and its many attractions. You can see what there is to see here in about 2 1/2 hours.
Don't overlook the possibility of walks in Greater Bern, including Bern's own mountain, Gurten, a popular day-trip destination reached in 25 minutes by tram no. 9 and rack railway. Once here, you'll find walks in many directions and can enjoy a panorama over the Alps. There's also a children's playground.
Walks in and around Bern include 250km (155 miles) of marked rambling paths. One of the most scenic runs along the banks of the Aare through the English gardens, the Dählhölzli Zoological Gardens, Elfenau Park, and the Bremgarten woods.
For jogging and running, the best spots are the Aare River Run (Dalmaziquai), stretching 4km (2 1/4 miles), or the Aare River Run -- Bear Pits, which is 5km (3 miles) long.
By Bus & Tram -- The public transportation system, the Bernmobil, is a reliable, 77km (48-mile) network of buses and trams. Before you board, purchase a ticket from one of the automatic machines (you'll find one at each stop) because conductors don't sell tickets. If you're caught traveling without one, you'll be fined 80F ($66/£34) in addition to the fare for the ride. A short-range ride (within six stations) costs 1.90F ($1.55/80p); a normal ticket, valid for 60 minutes one-way, goes for 3.60F ($2.95/£1.55).
To save time and money, you might purchase a Bern Card which, among other benefits, entitles you to unlimited travel on the city's bus and tram lines. Just get the ticket stamped at the automatic machine before beginning your first trip. Tickets are available at Rail City, Tourist Center, The Bear Pits Center, and in some hotels and museums.
By Taxi -- You can catch a taxi at the public cab ranks, or call a dispatcher. Nova Taxi is at tel. 031/331-33-13, Bären Taxi at tel. 031/371-11-11. The basic rate is 6.80F ($5.60/£2.90), plus 3.40F ($2.80/£1.45) per kilometer.
By Car -- Seeing Bern by car is very impractical due to traffic congestion in Old Town, its confusing layout of one-way streets, and a lack of on-street parking. If you have a car, it's best to park in a public garage and explore the city on foot; its miles of arcades were designed to protect pedestrians from rain, snow, and traffic.
If you want to rent a car to explore the environs, arrangements can be made at Europecar, Laupenstrasse 22 (tel. 031/381-75-55), Hertz, Kasinoplatz at Kochergasse 1 (tel. 031/318-21-60), or Avis, Wabernstrasse 41 (tel. 031/378-15-15).
By Bicycle -- Altstadt is compressed into such a small area that it's better to cover the historic district on foot rather than on a bike (bicycles aren't allowed on many pedestrian-only streets, anyway). However, in greater Bern and its environs, there are 399km (248 miles) of cycling paths. These are marked on a special cycling map available at the tourist center . The narrow yellow lanes throughout the road network are reserved for bikers. The point of departure for most official routes is Bundesplatz in Parliament Square. Special red signs will guide you through a wide variety of landscapes. Bikes can be checked out free at the Zeughausgasse (tel. 079/277-28-57).