Bern Switzerland Recommendations

Bern Switzerland Recommendations

Bern rooftops and the Alps in the distance from the roof of Bern’s main station (from my Bern flickr photos – click on any of the photos to enlarge).

We traveled to Bern often when we lived in Switzerland and recently visited to attend a conference. Here are some recommendations.

Bern is Switzerland’s capitol and is less than an hour from Zurich by train. The train is a great way to travel: it’s faster than driving and you can see exactly how Switzerland’s “taktfahrplan” system works (it’s a timed transfer system where all trains arrive in stations a few minutes before the hour – then passengers transfer between trains – then the trains all leave a few minutes after the hour). Here’s some information on transport in Zurich and Switzerland from my website.

 Bern Cathederal and center city (shot near the Barengraben).

The Zurich – Bern route is especially interesting because to make the one-hour “takt” work, the SBB had to build a high speed section of track on the route. Now the non-stop trains take about 57 minutes – the high speed section was designed exactly to fit the one-hour takt. If you take the train, look around: there is a non-stop train every half hour and several local trains – and they are almost all full. The Swiss rail system is a great example of how creating an integrated network of high quality public transportation can get people out of their cars. But, back to Bern.

 Kornhaus Bridge in Bern (note the tram on the bridge and the Alps faintly in the background).

Bern’s main train station is in the center of town. Like most Swiss rail stations Bern’s is very busy. It’s filled with stores (which, due to a special law, are open late and on Sundays – in contrast to most stores in Switzerland). From the main concourse you have two choices: go towards the city center or towards the parking garage.

Surprise! First, go in the direction of the parking garage. A set of elevators will take you past the parking floors to the fourth floor: the elevators open onto a huge park called the Grosse Schanze in front Bern University’s main building. This photo shows elevator building, cafe and university building (unobstructed view). In the other direction is a view over the city and if it’s clear you’ll be able to see the Alps in the distance (see top photo). There is a restaurant here which is pretty good, it’s actually a cafeteria for the SBB workers, but Swiss cafeterias can be quite good.


The historic center of Bern is a UNESCO world heritage site. Much of it was built during the middle ages and it’s filled with brightly painted fountains and cobblestone streets. The most noticeable feature are the arcades: there are continuous arcades on many of the central streets. The first level of these buildings is filled with stores, restaurants and cafes. There is a farmers market on Saturday in front of the Swiss Parliament and extending down some of the adjacent streets. The photo is behind the scenes at the market: coffee to go. The center of Bern is a wonderful place to wander around.

One of the highlights in Bern is the Zentrum Paul Klee. Klee grew up in Bern, became a teacher at the famous Bauhaus school in Germany, and then moved back to Bern. A large collection of Klee paintings was donated to the city on the condition that they build a museum for it. The Zentrum Paul Klee museum, designed by Renzo Piano, is a beautiful building with an undulating grass covered roof. The site overlooks the city and is easily reached by the #12 bus from the main train station (the museum is at the end of the line and so the buses say “Zentrum Paul Klee” on the front). The museum can be crowded so plan accordingly.

Also note that if you are coming on the train to Bern you can buy a combination ticket for the round-trip train ride, the local bus and the museum from your originating train station. Just ask for a “RailAway” ticket for the Zentrum Paul Klee. Also note that RailAway (English) has lots of great rail ticket combination offers. These not only save you money, but also reduce the hassle of figuring out how to buy tickets and use local public transport systems (although using public transport is not difficult in Switzerland).

You can also walk to the museum, the city has recently created several “trails” through Bern connected with Paul Klee. The trails also take you to other Bern sights and have signs describing the connection with Klee. The sign at the right has a drawing Klee made when he was growing up showing the same perspective of the city as you can see.

We have three restaurant recommendations, although there are plenty of great places to eat in Bern. The first is the Altes Tram Depot, a modern microbrewery built into, well, an old tram depot. It’s directly adjacent to the Barengraben: an open-air cage for bears (Bern’s city symbol is the bear, you’ll see bear images a lot in Bern). Right in front of the tram depot is the old bear pit, just looking at it makes you feel sorry for the bears kept there; but on the side is the newly completed bear area: a large expanse on the banks of the Aare River with its own river water. It’s a huge improvement and another popular tourist site.

 New Barengraben in Bern.

 

The Altes Tram Depot restaurant has traditional Swiss and “beer hall” food not to mention excellent beer. We have eaten here many times and it’s always been good. Last time I had their wild (venison) shown in the photo, and our friends had Zurich geschnitzels (veal in cream sauce), Munich Weisswurst and spatzele – everything was tasty and high quality. It’s a busy restaurant but service is quite good although it can get loud (after all it’s a beer hall!). They have a wonderful terrace/ beer garden overlooking the Aare and historic center, it’s a great place to have a beer and enjoy the view. (It’s also on the #12 bus line to the Paul Klee Zentrum – bus stop: Barengraben).

On our last trip we had dinner in a wonderful restaurant called Brasserie Bollwerk (2015 – unfortunately gone!). It overlooks the railway viaduct that leads into the Bern main station, so there’s lots of trains going by (especially just before the hour and just after the hour, have you been paying attention?). They also have a nice terrace for outdoor dining, although it’s on a busy corner so there is lots of automobile traffic. The restaurant is a member of Slow Food Switzerland and so much of the food is local and organic – they are also non-smoking! They have drawings from a local artist, the photo shows a set of postcards to help explain the local Bern dialect of German.

We started with a calamari and fennel dish (shown in the photo), then the special of the evening, a wonderful roast lamb (perfectly cooked) with potatoes and vegetables. Dessert was a really find chocolate mousse. They also had a wonderful Côtes du Roussillon wine that went perfectly with the food. The staff at Brasserie Bollwerk were friendly and efficient. They are open for lunch and dinner during the week.

Note that across the street in the ground floor of the rail station is the SBB Heritage Foundation library (SBB Historic Foundation – German). This is not a museum, but the historic archives of the Swiss National Railway. They often have small exhibits in the lobby area. They are only open certain hours, and you need to ring the bell to visit.

We had lunch at another great restaurant called Moléson. One of my favourite foods is tarte flambée, the Alsacian pizza-like dish. I like the traditional version with creme frasche, muenster cheese, bacon and onions; Moléson’s tarte flambée had a couple more ingredients, but was very tasty. The service could not have been better – they even let us substitute the traditional tarte flambée for the one on the daily special menu (a chicken-curry based model, maybe ala Wolfgang Puck’s spicy chicken pizza, but, to me a bit of a travesty …). We had a wonderful salad to start and coffee was served just right. The restaurant in the back looked excellent too (we ate in the front cafe). They also try to use local ingredients and organic food.

Scoul Switzerland Recommendations

Scoul Switzerland Recommendations

We returned to Scoul, one of our favorite places in Switzerland, for our ski holiday this year. The weather was great and the snow was fine. Scoul is about four hours from Zurich by railway. This post lists some of the reasons we love Scoul.

First, of course, is the Rhaetische Bahn; Scoul is the terminal station (shown in the photo above) at the southeastern end of the Engadine Valley (St Moritz is at the other end of the valley). The Rhaetische Bahn is a narrow gauge railway that serves the canton of Grabunden. It operates the famous Bernina Express and Glacier Express. This is a special year because the Bernina line is 100 years old. Anyway, the Rhaetische Bahn is exactly as you imagine a Swiss railroad: small red trains traveling through a magnificent landscape. If the weather had not been so good we would have taken a few joyrides over the Bernina Pass, but that will need to wait for this summer.

The skiing in Scoul is very good. Switzerland is spoiled for all the wonderful places to ski and Scoul, which would be on the top of the list in any other country, is not as popular as the more famous resorts. But, of course that has the positive side that it’s a little less crowded and a little less expensive. The lifts are also a bit outdated (they have several Tee bars and old chairlifts in addition to the brand new gondola and a couple new chairlifts).

Another great reason to go to Scoul is the mineral bath. They have a relatively modern bath complex right in the middle of the town. My favourite part of the bath is the outdoor section with a view of the mountain peaks in the not so far distance (see the photo on their website). You can visit the bath for three hours (bring your own towel) or do something called the Roman-Irish bath, which is a two-and-a-half hour experience of going from sauna to massage to steam bath to different temperature mineral pools, followed by a half-hour rest. We’ve done both and they are highly recommended. You need to book the Roman-Irish bath in advance, see their website.

Scoul is a tourist destination and there are many places to eat and sleep. The old town down the hill from the main street, has wonderful historic architecture and traditional guest houses. The main street has several historic and modern hotels with all the comforts you would expect in Switzerland.

We have stayed at the Hotel Traube, an historic hotel, the Hotel Curuna, a very nice hotel with a very good breakfast, and Chasa Sofia, a four-room bed and breakfast that is out of this world. All three are located right in the centre of Scoul, within five-minute walk of the bath.

Finally there’s lots of great food in Scoul. We visited a wonderful cafe on our trip in February: Mund Art. It’s a great place for cake and coffee or a drink anytime (try the local beer: Biera Engiadinaisa). The people are wonderfully nice and friendly, the owner gave us a tasting of his homemade chili pepper syrup.

We had a wonderful dinner at the Hotel Traube restaurant (they also have Biera Engiadinaisa). Their wine list is superb, they probably have 50 different wines from the Canton of Grabunden; we had an excellent Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) from Annatina Pelizzatti. We all had variations of venison (Wild), either steak (shown in the photo upper left) or stew with spätzle, one of my favourite wintertime mountain village dishes.

Finally, no trip to Scoul would be complete for us without a visit to the Pizzeria Giovanni adjacent to the Hotel Curuna. They have a wood-fired oven, use local organic ingredients where possible and have a wide variety of dishes beyond pizza, but the pizza is great. Service was a little scattered on our visit but the food was fine.

We can’t wait until our next visit to Scoul!

City Models and Miniatures

City Models and Miniatures

Wien Museum model of Vienna in about 1900 from my flickr photos.

Here’s a great post from the Web Urbanist on 22 miniature cities … different physical and virtual models of cities (I learned about it from Planetizen). I especially loved the film by Sam O’Hara “The Sandpit” at the end of the article.

Here are some more examples of physical models for the list:

  • San Francisco – when I studied at the UC Berkeley City and Regional Planning Department Professor Bosselmann had a laboratory with a miniature San Francisco; it was used to model how new buildings fit into the visual environment;
  • San Francisco – there is an old model of the city that used to be in the Powell Street BART station … but I have not seen it in a while.
  • Zürich – the planning department has a large model of Zürich today (German) cut into sections mounted on wheels so you can move the sections (they are on tracks) and then walk through a cross section to find yourself in the middle of any neighbourhood;
  • Zürich – the Zurich city archives museum has a nice model of Zürich around the year 1800, the museum is a delightful place for history buffs and is located on a wonderful square in the old city (try the Neumarkt Restaurant across the street for a nice lunch or dinner).
  • Munich – the Munich city museum has a model of the city in 1570 and a nice brochure (available in English) about city development (Munich as Planned). The model (shown in photo) is a copy of another model that is in the Bavarian National Museum. The Munich city museum is well worth a visit (have lunch at the Vitualmarkt – one of the greatest urban spaces in the world! – in good weather, try Der Pschorr at night and if the weather is bad).
  • Vienna – the Wien Museum (the city history museum) has two models at about the same scale (one on the second floor and one on the third) showing the city in about 1800 and in about 1900 (overview shown above and detail shown at the right). The Wien Museum is well worth a visit, here’s a link to my Wien Museum flickr photos set.

Moving Sidewalks: Back to the Future?

There’s a great article on the history of moving sidewalks in New Scientist Magazine (thanks to Planetizen).

I think moving sidewalks, or some other type of continuous transport system, would be a great feeder system for regional (US: commuter) rail systems. This would enable the stations to be located a bit further apart in urban areas than in a ‘normal’ subway system – reducing operating costs and making service on the regional system more attractive (fewer stations = faster). Regional rail systems build with this model could follow the Zürich S-Bahn model, many lines operating through a central section that branch to different suburbs when they leave the center.

An interesting compliment to the moving sidewalk/continuous transport system would be combining it with attractive urban design, in other words give the people traveling on the system something interesting to look at while traveling. I recently had the idea of creating such a system in Abu Dhabi as part of their new Metro project. In this case the continuous system could travel through a traditional Arab linear market street setting. The market street would be protected from the weather in traditional ways, thus reducing energy use. The project would combine ‘new’ urban development with the transport system. More on this idea later.

Hallwylerhof restaurant Zurich

Hallwylerhof restaurant Zurich

I recently had dinner with friends in Zurich at a restaurant called Hallwylerhof. It was updated Swiss food, very nicely prepared and served. The workers were also very friendly and nice. However, the decor caught my eye.

As many of you know I collect photos of WC signs (website coming soon – I hope). I think that it’s one of the few places people can be creative these days … some people at least.

The Hallwylerhof restaurant had a very whimsical design where many items were painted in a sort of primitive style on the walls, for example three framed old postcards from the Swiss mountains with a simple drawing in the middle of them that looked like a postcard.

Given the quality and whimsical-ness of these paintings I knew I was in for a treat when I went downstairs to the WC (no comments please!). And, sure enough, some of the best WC signs I have collected … my flickr Hallwylerhof photos and all my flickr WC sign photos.

Hallwylerhof Restaurant and Bar: Hallwylerstrasse 43, 8004 Zurich, www.hallwylerhof.ch

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