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Visitors to Switzerland will inevitably look at the most popular and largest cities. Bern and Basel are two of the most popular choices. In both cities, you’ll find historical buildings as well as shops, hotels, museums, and restaurants. Green spaces and recreation options are also abundant in Bern and Basel. When comparing Bern and Basel, you are left with many questions. Would either Bern or Basel be worth the trip? Is one city better than the other?
Here we look at the differences between Bern and Basel, so you can decide which one you’d like to visit during your next visit to Switzerland if you have time for just one.
Overview: Bern vs. Basel
The key differences are as follows:
|Population: approx. 130,000||Population: approx. 170,000|
|Switzerland’s fifth-most populous city||Switzerland’s third-most populous city|
|Elevation: 540 m||Elevation: 245 m|
|Area: 51.6 km²||Area: 23.91 km²|
|Highlights: Switzerland’s Federal City, |
Historic old town
|Highlights: Considered cultural capital of Switzerland, |
|River: Aare||River: Rhine|
|Location: Slightly west of Central Switzerland||Location: Northwest Switzerland, near France and Germany|
Cities: Bern vs. Basel
Switzerland’s de facto capital is Bern. This city near the Aare River is not the official capital as one might think. Unlike most countries, Switzerland does not have an official capital. Nevertheless, Bern is the seat of the Swiss Federal Government. So you’ll find a lot of government workers here – including members of the Swiss Federal Council. In Bern, the Federal Palace is home to the Swiss Federal Council, an executive council of seven members of the Swiss federal government.
Bern is not only Switzerland’s de facto capital. UNESCO has designated its old town as a world heritage site. The old town is full of colorful figures, crafted pillars, and medieval fountains. As a matter of fact, Bern has over 100 fountains. These medieval works of art were once important meeting spots for locals, and they remain an integral part of Bern’s character.
The city of Basel, located close to France and Germany and with excellent weather all year round, is known for its vibrant lifestyle and contrasting cultural traditions. Old and new are juxtaposed throughout Basel’s cosmopolitan landscape. It is located on the Rhine River.
Basel is also known as Switzerland’s cultural capital. It has more than 40 museums, including the Kunstmuseum, the Fondation Beyeler, and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Additionally, it hosts Art Basel, an international art fair that attracts thousands of artists, art collectors, and art enthusiasts from Europe, the US, and Asia.
Basel is not just a cultural city. The city is also home to some world-renowned institutions, such as the University of Basel, the Bank of International Settlements, and FC Basel. A number of the world’s top pharma companies are based in Basel, including Roche, Novartis, the Lonza Group, and Actelion.
During the months of February and March, Basel hosts its annual Carnival festival. It is the country’s largest carnival, which was inscribed in UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage in 2017. Starting with the Morgestraich, it lasts exactly 72 hours. Locals call it the three most beautiful days (die drey scheenschte Dääg).
Additionally, Basel is ranked as the tenth most livable city in the world, according to Mercer.
Places to Visit: Bern vs. Basel
Places to Visit in Bern
- Old City of Bern – Old City refers to the medieval city of Bern, Switzerland, which is surrounded by the river Aare on three sides. Several historic buildings dating from the 12th to 15th centuries can be found here. As a result of the number and well-preserved buildings from the medieval ages, the site was honored as a UNESCO Cultural World Heritage site back in 1983.
- Zytglogge – In Bern’s Old City, the Zytglogge is a prominent medieval clock tower. One of the most recognizable symbols of the city, the clock dates back from 1218 to 1220. Every full hour, the clock rings, and some characters emerge. You can find it right at the entrance of the old town. It is absolutely fascinating to watch, especially for history buffs and those who are fascinated by its age.
- Federal Palace – The Swiss Federal Assembly and Swiss Federal Council occupy the Federal Palace in Bern. Various government departments, as well as a library, are also housed in its two wings (eastern and western wings).
- Rosengarten – Bern’s Rose Garden is a beautiful park perched on a hill overlooking the entire historic center. It is just 5 minutes away from Bear Park. If you are lucky, you can see it when the roses are in bloom. It is a beautifully maintained and well-kept garden. There are benches and walking paths, as well as a great assortment of roses.
- Einstein Museum – It might seem random at first glance, but the Albert Einstein Museum remains an interesting place in Bern. Albert Einstein, one of the world’s most brilliant physicists, lived in Bern at the time when his theory of relativity changed the world. Within the Historical Museum of Bern, approximately 1,000m² of exhibition space focuses on both his life and work, as well as the era when he lived.
- Historic Museum of Bern – Over half a million objects from various cultures worldwide are housed in the Bern Historic Museum, the second-largest historical museum in Switzerland. After two years of construction, the building was opened on Helvetiaplatz back in 1894. André Lambert designed the castle museum, which was influenced by various historic castles. After 80 years, it was expanded to include Kubus, a more modern-looking building, to accommodate more exhibition halls. The museum has many exhibits, including Bern and its history, art and silver, and even Asian history (India, Tibet, China, Japan).
- Gurten – Gurten Park, located 858 meters above sea level and offering stunning views of the Bernese and Jura Alps, is definitely worth a visit. On foot, it takes about an hour to reach it, but taking the tram and funicular (18 minutes to Gurten Kulm) is faster. Walking and cycling are possible all year round. Park amenities include playgrounds for kids, walking paths for people of all ages, and restaurants. If it’s a sunny weekend, expect to be quite busy. It would be better to visit Gurten on a weekday.
Places to Visit in Basel
- Basel Zoo – Switzerland’s oldest zoo (or Zolli as locals call it) is located in Basel. It is a nice, somewhat compact, zoo in Basel, Switzerland. Basel Zoo contains 7,554 animals from 543 different species. The Zoo attracts more than a million visitors each year in spite of its relatively modest size. It is the perfect family getaway in Basel.
- Art Basel – It may only happen for a few days per year, but Art Basel is still a must-visit for art lovers. The show brings together the international world of art with most of the leading art galleries displaying thousands of artists’ works.
- Fondation Beyeler – Switzerland’s most visited art museum, Fondation Beyeler was founded by Swiss collectors and philanthropists Ernst and Hildy Beyeler. Basel-born art collector Ernst Beyeler created the foundation with his wife to showcase the private collection he accumulated over his career, valued at US$1.85 billion at his death. Located in Reihen, it is a 25-minute tram ride from the city center of Basel, Switzerland.
- Basel Minster – In the heart of Basel’s old town, you can find this beautiful terracotta-colored medieval cathedral. Climb the tower for a spectacular view of the city and the Rhine River.
- Rhine River – The Rhine River is also excellent for swimming if the weather allows. In order to make the swim even easier, some swimmers bring along floating bags. Ferryboats cross the Rhine in four different locations. If you would like to travel further, you can take a lock cruise to Rheinfelden, a local town close by.
- Jean Tinguely Museum – The Museum Tinguely is an art museum in Basel, Switzerland that exhibits the works of Swiss painter and sculptor Jean Tinguely. Designed by Ticinese architect Mario Botta, the museum was opened in 1996 in Solitudepark by the Rhine. The museum displays sculptures, letter drawings, documents, exhibition posters, catalogs, and photographs. Visitors can view the exhibits to gain a comprehensive view of all phases of Jean Tinguely’s career.
- Basel Carnival – Basel Carnival (or Basler Fasnacht) is the largest carnival in Switzerland. It takes place annually from February to March. Since 2017, it has been listed as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO. A 72-hour period begins with the Morgestraich.
Hotels: Bern vs. Basel
Hotels in Bern
- Hotel Schweizerhof Bern & Spa (5-star) – A well-established hotel, Schweizerhof Bern & Spa offers luxurious, sleek rooms with elegant decor. This well-known and highly-rated hotel enjoys a great location in the heart of Bern.
- Hotel Savoy Bern (4-star) – This elegant hotel is located in the old town of Bern. It is just a few steps away from the train station as well as the famed arcade streets.
- Kreuz Bern Modern City Hotel (3-star) – With its ideal location in the heart of Bern, Kreuz Bern Modern City Hotel is just 5 minutes from the train station. Modern rooms, a restaurant, fitness facilities, and an infrared cabin are available at the hotel. The hotel is also reasonably priced.
- Hostel 77 Bern (Hostel) – Located near Gurten, this charming hostel is easy to reach from Bern’s Main Train Station with public transport. This affordable accommodation offers male, female, and mixed dorm beds and lockers. They also offer free breakfast and free public transportation tickets.
Hotels in Basel
- Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois (5-star hotel) – Grand Hotel Les Trois Rois is one of Europe’s oldest city hotels. Ideally located within the Old Town of Basel, the hotel offers fantastic views of the Rhine. This elegant hotel has excellent service, an exquisite dining experience, and well-appointed amenities.
- Hotel Märthof Basel (4-star hotel) – Hotel Märthof Basel, located in the heart of Basel near Marktplatz, is one of the best hotels in town. Featuring beautiful rooms, a 24-hour front desk, a business center, a spa center, and a terrace, you won’t regret booking here.
- GAIA Hotel (4-star hotel) – GAIA Hotel is a family-run hotel located right across from Basel Main Train Station, only a 10-minute walk from the historic city center.
- Motel One (3-star hotel) – Right at Barfüsser Platz, Motel One Basel is a contemporary hotel with fashionable interiors and unbeatable prices.
Bern or Basel are both great places to visit, but the one you choose depends on you. Neither of them lacks things to do, places to see, or restaurants to dine in. Each town has a river, historical old towns, churches, and green spaces. So what would my recommendations be?
If you are visiting Switzerland for the first time, I highly recommend visiting Bern first. In addition to its status as a federal city and its UNESCO World Heritage Old City, I believe that it has more historical significance than Basel. Furthermore, it’s near much of the Jungfrau Region’s beautiful mountains (see Mountains Close to Interlaken Worth Visiting). It’s easy to reach from both Lucerne and Zurich.
To whom would I recommend Basel? Basel is a great city for families with young children because they can visit Basel Zoo and the city at the same time. Basel Zoo makes a great family getaway. I would also suggest going to Basel first if you love art or happen to be here right when the Basel Carnival takes place.
I hope I’ve been able to provide a brief overview of the differences between Bern and Basel to help you decide which city you want to visit next time you’re in Switzerland.
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