Not sure whether to choose Bern or Zurich as a base location for your stay in Switzerland? This article will give you some good insights into the differences between the two and which might be better for you to stay in.
Bern is Switzerland’s political capital while Zurich is its financial capital (bank city). Bern is much smaller with a population of around 140K vs 400K for Zurich. Bern has a very convenient location right in the geographic center of Switzerland and easy access to the Alps and the country’s most popular Alpine locations. Zurich, on the other hand, has more city life, better shopping and access to other cities, and is on the beautiful Lake Zurich.
While many visitors in Switzerland prefer to choose an Alpine location, Bern and Zurich are both beautiful cities worth a visit. Which of the two you choose as your base depends much on your personal plans for your Swiss trip.
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Bern or Zurich: what travelers say
- Zurich is the financial hub of Switzerland, has a very nice old town, a beautiful lakefront area, and by far the country’s most vibrant nightlife. Bern is much quiet, particularly in the winter.
- Zurich is much larger than Bern with more shops, restaurants and bars, museums, has a more international and multicultural vibe, with a more hectic pace and flashy lifestyle. Many travelers choose Zurich because of its lakeside location.
- From Zurich, it’s easy to travel to many places in Europe easily (international airport, train, buses, etc). It’s also a good base for visiting Basel and the Rhein Falls waterfalls.
- Bern is more typically Swiss, more provincial and slow-going. Some travelers prefer Bern’s old town for its special medieval architecture – it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site – and amazing river views. Bern’s old town is beautiful and offers a great experience when strolling around.
- Some travelers feel a one-night stay is enough to tour Bern’s quaint old town and few sights.
- Bern has a couple of good museums including the Paul Klee museum outside the center. Zurich, meanwhile, has the world-class Kunsthaus art museum and the Swiss National history museum
- Both Zurich and Bern have their own charm. Both old towns have impressive historical buildings as old as the 13th century and old cobblestone lanes.
- Bern is geographically in the middle of Switzerland and is one hour away by train from the most popular Alps locations, with frequent trains to Lucerne and to the Bernese Highlands – Interlaken, Lauterbrunnen, or Gimmelwald (40-60 minute trips).
- Travelers who choose Bern as their base appreciate not only its charm but also the quick and easy access to the Alps and to other Swiss cities such as Zurich and Basel.
- For travelers, Bern is slightly more affordable than Zurich for lodging and dining, although Switzerland in general is quite expensive.
- The Bernese accent is distinct and much slower from the Zurich one. In Zurich, Swiss-German, German, and English are mostly spoken, while Bern mostly speaks Swiss-German and a little bit of French.
- Zurich has the best shopping options in Switzerland including a huge number of upscale stores along the Bahnhofstrasse and in the old town. It’s a great city for window shopping and also for dining out in the countless restaurants.
- In Zurich, you can easily take a ferry to other towns, rent a boat, or go swimming (summer)
- Though Bern’s sights are not as world-class as Zurich’s, it has a great cathedral tower with fantastic city views, the beautiful Rose Garden, and the imposing Parliament building. The city is beautifully lit at night.
Bern or Zurich: access & transportation
Zurich and Bern are only about an hour apart by train. You can easily stay in either city and do a day trip to the other. From Bern, due to the city’s central location in the country, it’s also very easy to make a day trip to Geneva (about 2 hours).
It takes 1 hour 20 minutes to get from the well-connected Zurich international airport to Bern, with trains leaving every half hour.
Zurich has direct trains to Lugano (on the way to Milano, Italy), Locarno, Munich, and Paris. It has also local S-Bahn trains to tourist regions in nearby Germany.
In Switzerland in general, you can easily travel everywhere by train or car and get anywhere in a few hours max. The Swiss public transit system takes you anywhere with scenic rides – the Swiss Pass is a good option for saving money on transport.
Bern or Zurich: vibe & people
Zurich is the biggest and most fast-paced city in Switzerland, with many new industrial zones popping up all the time.
The city is easy and nice to wander around and navigate. It’s attractive and clean (like all Swiss cities). It has picturesque old cobblestoned streets and beautiful lakeside views. Although extremely expensive, the famed Bahnhofstrasse avenue is an exciting place to stroll, shop, or window shop, with many luxury boutiques and jewelers as well as international fashion names.
Travelers often find the people in Zurich a bit cold and distant, as they seem caught up in the “rat race” and tend to stick to their relatively closed work and social groups.
Bern is often seen as an overlooked city. Many travelers consider it a beautiful city due to its old town and fast-flowing river and gorge.
Though some travelers feel a day visit is enough to see Bern, adding a round-trip to the Bernese Overland can justify at least a one-night stay. Bern is typically dead on Sundays, with most places closed.
Bern is more relaxed and easy-going compared to Zurich, with a quiet and serene atmosphere. It’s easier to meet people in Bern than in Zurich. The outdoors around Bern are also generally less crowded than around Zurich – although it only takes a 40-minute train trip to escape from Zurich to less-crowded outdoor areas.
Although not like Zurich, Bern also offers a nice shopping experience in the stores (quite pricey) under the old arcades that run along the streets. These covered pathways are great for visiting in rainy weather.
The Paul Klee Museum and the Federal Palace are two of the city’s main sights. Visitors also enjoy the Bern Museum of Fine Arts (in the old center) with its Anker paintings.
Some travelers love Bern and choose to stay there for several nights with many day-trips to places like Kleine Scheidegg (Berner Oberland) or Interlaken. Others get bored quickly after a few hours and prefer staying at another location – often either Zurich or an Alpine town.
Bern or Zurich: sights & culture
In Zurich, the picturesque old town with its narrow pre-medieval streets on both sides of the Limmat River is a major attraction. The attractive riverfront promenade (Limmatquai) runs from the train station past the picturesque 17th-century town hall. The old cobblestoned Augustinergasse lane is lined with old merchant houses with carved windows.
The Grossmünster 16th-century Romanesque-style protestant cathedral is a major sight, with twin towers offering panoramic views over the lake and the Alps. The elegant 9th-century Fraumünster Church has a copper-covered spire and modern tinted glass windows by Marc Chagall.
Zurich has world-class museums such as the Kunsthaus art museum, with its impressive Swiss art collections spanning several centuries, and the Swiss National Museum (Landesmuseum, Swiss history) housed in a sumptuous 19th-century building.
The city has a very large number of restaurants and stores. The lakeside area offers ferry rides and boat rentals. Visitors can take the paddle steamer ferry to the Rapperswil town and visit the castle and rose gardens.
You can take a little train up the Utlieberg small mountain for great views over the city, lake, and snowcapped mountains, as well as great hiking options. You can explore the Belvoir and Rietberg parks, or visit the Zurich Zoo via a nice and short tram ride from the center.
Bern’s old town as a whole has a unique medieval Baroque architecture. The 15th-century cathedral and the old Clock Tower, Einstein’s house and museum, the Klee Museum, the Alpine Museum, the cultural history museum, and the interesting Swiss Parliament (with tours), are all nice attractions.
You can also wander around Bern’s famous fountains with their painted figures, window-shop under the old arcades, or have lunch at one of the many good restaurants
On the opposite side of the river from the old town, visitors often walking up to the Rose Garden, a picturesque garden with a playground and a great city view. The Bear Pit brown bear park alongside the gushing river is also a major attraction.
Bern or Zurich: food & nightlife
In Zurich, the Niederdof district in the heart of the old town, an easy walk from the Zurich train station, is a very popular nightlife area with medieval streets, pedestrian alleyways and squares, posh shops, fine-dining restaurants, and trendy pubs.
The area has countless indoor and outdoor restaurants and is typically very animated evenings and weekends. From the popular Niederdorfstrasse avenue, you can walk down to the lake and along the river, and enjoy the city lights at night.
Langstrasse is another main area in Zurich for late-night bars and nightclubs (best avoided at very late night hours though).
In Bern, the nightlife is relatively limited. Within walking distance from the train station are a few places for having dinner or a drink. The Markthalle, a large covered marketplace, has a few nice restaurants and bars in it. Around the corner, Mr. Pickwick Bar is a nice pub for a beer or cocktail.
There are also a few more bars along Aarbergergasse right outside of the station and the supermarket. Further down the street toward the Clock Tower is the Kornhauskellar restaurant and its very pleasant bar.
Bern or Zurich: lodging
In Bern, the Unique Hotel Innere Enge is often recommended.
The Goldener Shlusel is a basic 2-star hotel with a good location near the Clock Tower, with a nice Italian restaurant right across the square.
For a more upscale option, travelers highly recommend the Belle Epoque boutique hotel.
In Zurich, visitors typically choose to stay near the Bahnhofstrasse or in the old town such as around Zähringerstrasse or Weinbergstrasse.
Travelers highly recommend the Baur Au Lac Hotel, often considered to have some of the best service, bedding, and bathrooms.
Gasthof Hirschen in Regensdorf is also a frequent suggestion, though further from the center with some walking and a 17-minute transit ride required.
Best Western Plus Hotel Zürcherhof is near the train station and within walking distance of places of interest. It offers pleasant rooms, nice and friendly staff, and excellent breakfasts.
Romantik Hotel Florhof is often recommended, an older and smaller property, nicely renovated and located about 4 blocks from the Old Town (for a quieter stay). The hotel is relatively expensive but offers good value.
Bern or Zurich: day trips
From Bern, you can take the 35-minute train ride to the fortified town of Murten, and to the picturesque city of Fribourg. As mentioned, you can also reach the Bernese Highlands in around an hour for fantastic views and hiking trails, e.g. Interlaken, Grindelwald, or Lauterbrunnen.
Other day trips from Bern include a visit to the Roman ruins in Avenches, a trip to the Chillon Castle, or to the pretty town of Thun with its nice castle.
Of course, you can also take a trip to Lucerne for a lake cruise, a hike up Mount Titlis or Rigi, or a cog-wheel/gondola train ride.
From Zurich, you can also catch a scenic train ride to Interlaken (about 50 min) and continue into the mountains and to Wengen, Murren, or Grindewald.
As mentioned, from Zurich it’s easy to access the Rhine falls, or Rapperswil to visit the castle and Rose Gardens. Other trips include a visit to beautiful and untouristed Walensee, also an hour train ride. You can also take the train through the St Gotthard tunnel to Lugano for amazing views.
Around the city, you can take a short train ride up the Uetliberg and Dolder hills for fabulous views over the area.
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