Walking Tour: Bern's Altstadt

Start: Bahnhofplatz

Finish: Swiss Parliament

Time: 2 hours

Best Times: Anny sunny day

Worst Times: Rush hours, Monday through Friday from 8 to 9am and 5 to 6pm

Start at the city's commercial core, the

1. Bahnhofplatz

In 2007 and 2008, this square, or plaza, in front of the city's main railway station, witnessed a more thorough urban renewal (new underground parking, new pedestrian zones, new landscaping) than any other location within Bern. It's now one of the showcases of urban Switzerland.

Opening onto Bahnhofplatz is the:

2. Church of the Holy Ghost

Also called the Heiliggeistkirche, this church dates from 1729 and seems out of place in such a traffic-congested area.

From the church, head east up Spittalgasse, coming first to:

3. Bagpiper Fountain

The Pfeiferbrunnen, which depicts a bagpiper atop a column and capital, was erected around 1545, presumably by Hans Gieng. In 2007, the widely publicized cost of removing (temporarily) this statue from its pedestal, and its subsequent restoration, was 500,000F.

Directly east of the fountain, at Bärenplatz, is the:

4. Prison Gate

Called the Käfigturm, this gate dates from the 1200s. It now shelters a tiny museum devoted to the cultural and business life of the city.

Continue east along:

5. Marktgasse

This is the main street of Old Town, filled with fashionable shops and florists. Many of its buildings date from the 17th century.

The street leads into one of the principal squares of Altstadt:

6. Kornhausplatz

This square is the site of the Ogre Fountain, which is a representation of a carnival figure, with a pillar and capital erected about 1544. The Kornhaus, an old granary from the 1700s, also stands on the square; today it's a restaurant and wine cellar.

7. Café des Pyrénées 

The "nerve center" of Bern, Café des Pyrénées, Kornhausplatz (tel. 031/311-30-63), is frequented by international journalists and visitors drawn to its sidewalk terrace. This bistro cafe also attracts many expatriates. Stop in for a drink -- half a dozen types of Spanish brandy, for example -- or any of the sandwiches and pasta dishes. It's open Monday to Friday 9am to 12:30am and Saturday 8am to 5pm.

Also opening onto this square is the celebrated:

8. Clock Tower

Also called the Zytgloggeturm, the Clock Tower was the town's west gate from 1191 to 1250. Its chimes start pealing at 4 minutes before every hour. A picture postcard of this scene is the most popular souvenir of Bern.

Leaving Kornhausplatz, continue east along:

9. Kramgasse

A continuation of Marktgasse, this street contains many old houses with corner turrets and oriel windows.

Another major fountain standing on this street is the:

10. Zähringer Fountain

This fountain was a monument to the city founder, Berchtold von Zähringen. Here you can see the Bern bear, mascot of the city, along with the Zähringer coat of arms. The pillar, capital, and figure were erected in 1535 by Hans Hiltprand.

Continuing, at Kramgasse 49 you come to:

11. Albert Einstein's Home

In 1905 the famous physicist wrote his "theory of relativity" here.

The next fountain encountered on this same street is the:

12. Samson Fountain

This notable fountain is an allegory of strength, with a pillar and capital from 1527 and the figure from 1544.

Continue east along the street, which now changes its name to Gerechtigkeitsgasse. In the center of the street stands yet another famous fountain, the:

13. Justice Fountain

This fountain is an allegory of Justice, with worshiping subjects, including the pope, at her feet. The statue was erected in 1543.

Walk to the end of the street and continue across the river, crossing the Nydeggbrücke, until you reach Bern's most visited sight:

14. The Bear Pits

The Bärengraben is immediately on your right. The city of Bern is named after the bear (now its official mascot), and bears have resided in these pits since 1480.

Cross back over the bridge, and this time take the street to the left, heading west along Junkerngasse until you reach the:

15. Cathedral of St. Vincent

In Münsterplatz, the cathedral's first stone was laid in 1421, but building went on until 1573. From the tower, you'll get a panoramic view of Bern.

After leaving the cathedral, continue west along Münstergasse until you reach Theaterplatz, one of Altstadt's major squares. Continue west, following the same street, which has now changed its name to Amthausgasse. You'll then approach Bundesplatz, site of the:

16. Federal Palace

Also called the Bundeshaus (Swiss Parliament) and capped with a massive dome, it was inspired by the Italian Renaissance Cathedral in Florence. This is the seat of Swiss democracy and one of the nation's treasured symbols.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.