Panoramic trains, vintage paddle steamers, mountain-climbing rack railways – just a few of the many exciting ways to get around Bern. Read on for the region's highlights...
Bern is a triumph, in every sense. For a start, Mother Nature has done a fine job in creating the canton’s landscape: Bern is the most majestic spread of lakes, meadows, verdant foothills, icy glaciers and sky-piercing peaks. But also, humans have done an equally good job of mastering this challenging terrain. A varied and far-reaching range of transport options – from panoramic trains to vintage paddle steamers to mountain-climbing rack railways – is available to make your Bern adventure a whole lot easier. Read on for eight of the best things to do in this pretty region of Switzerland…
The glorious GoldenPass line isn’t a journey, it’s a joy. Using panoramic viewing cars (and first-class service), this ride between Montreux and Lucerne uses three trains to glide beside eight lakes and over three mountain passes, with superlative views to the Bernese Oberland’s most magnificent mountains. Stopping at the car-free resort of Gstaad, the quaint village of Zweisimmen and lake-bestriding Interlaken, it offers plenty of possibilities for hopping off to explore further, too.
The Jungfrau Railway is breathtaking – quite literally. Starting from the mountain pass of Kleine Scheidegg (itself, an impressive 2,061m above sea level), this historic rack railway – opened in 1912 – grinds further upwards. It climbs through the Jungfrau Tunnel, bored into the Eiger and Mönch mountains; you can hop off at stations mid-way to admire the mountains through purpose-built windows. But the ultimate destination is the Jungfraujoch, which, at 3,454m, is the highest railway station in Europe. The view from here is unparalleled: all around lies a world of icy summits. On particularly clear, crisp days, you can see to the Vosges – 180km away.
Beautiful deep-blue Lake Thun is hugged by mountains, lined by charming villages and busy with boats of all sorts offering diverse adventures. The nostalgic paddle steamers are great for crossing the lake in style; you can stay aboard for a relaxing cruise or disembark at the various ports, perhaps to walk the narrow alleys of Thun’s Old Town, visit Spiez’s medieval castle or enter St. Beatus Cave – a vast limestone cavern dripping with stalactites. For added adrenalin, you could explore Lake Thun by waterski, wakeboard or windsurf, or hire a kayak for a gentle paddle in the most astonishing surrounds.
Perched at a height of nearly 2,000m, the Schynige Platte offers jaw-dropping views of the Bernese Oberland peaks to one side, the sparkling lakes of Brienz and Thun on the other. And the journey to get there is just as impressive. From the valley-bottom village of Wilderswil, a narrow-gauge cogwheel train, which began operation in 1893, begins its slow, winding climb up to the plateau. The vintage red-yellow carriages have wooden benches and open sides; try to sit on the right for the best views. At the top, as well as the wonderful panorama of the Jungfrau, Schreckhorn and other peaks, there’s a pretty garden where you can stroll amid an array of Alpine flowers.
Hold on tight for Switzerland’s steepest bus ride. The post bus from Reichenbach to Griesalp climbs high into the Kander valley, reaching gradients as extreme as 28 degrees. It’s a gorgeous road-trip, a twisting and turning route within the UNESCO-listed Jungfrau-Aletsch region, with the Blüemlisalp massif looming behind. Stop off en route, to walk the Guggerwäg (Cuckoo Path), picnic by Tschingel Lake or follow the Wildwater Trail to a bubbling natural pot known as the Witch’s Cauldron. At Griesalp there are numerous hiking possibilities. There are also cosy guesthouses where you can sit out on a sunny terrace with a cold beer and a plate of alpine cheese, or even settle into a room for a night in the mountains.
Lying beneath some of the Bernese Oberland’s most formidable summits, turquoise-hued Lake Brienz is the cleanest – and one of the most dazzling – lakes in Switzerland. It is also served by one of the most handsome vessels, the belle époque paddle steamer Lötschberg, which has been beautifully restored to capture the glamour of yesteryear. But whichever of the lake’s boats you board, sailing across is a pleasure. It takes around 75 minutes to travel between Interlaken and the town of Brienz, but it’s worth jumping off en route at Giessbach, where you can view the namesake falls – a 14-stage cascade, tumbling over 500m – from the terrace of the historic Grandhotel Giessbach. To reach the hotel you can either walk or ride up on Europe’s oldest funicular.
When the skies are clear they say you can see 693 peaks from the top of the 2,350m-high Brienzer Rothorn – a view that’s been accessible to everyone since 1892, when the Brienz Rothorn Bahn first opened. Not only is this rack railway historic, it’s unique: it’s the only one in Switzerland still regularly operated by steam. The little red, wide-windowed carriages chug and puff up from Brienz, climbing through farmland, forests, alpine meadows and rocky ridges to reach the summit. You can buy a return ticket, or get a single and descend via the cable car or on foot – multiple hiking trails wend around the mountain.
You don’t have to be deep in the countryside to enjoy the delights of nature. The River Aare is the city of Bern’s watery playground, especially in summer, when locals partake of their favourite pastime, Aareböötle (boating down the Aare). Join them: hop into a dinghy with a picnic and paddle on the clear, fresh river, past sites such as the Parliament Building and the cathedral. Alternatively, you could take to the water on a standup paddleboard or an inflatable inner tube. It’s also great for swimming – popular spots include the elegant Marzili river pool, where Bern-ites have been doing lengths since the 18th century, or wading in from the little beach at Eichholz. If you’d rather look not leap, head for Bern’s aromatic Rose Garden, where there’s a wonderful view of the Aare bend.
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