Zurich vs. Bern: Which One Is Better to Visit?

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In Switzerland, tourists are inevitably interested in the largest and most popular cities. Zurich and Bern are two of the most popular choices. 

You’ll find historical landmarks, as well as shops, hotels, museums, and restaurants in both Zurich and Bern. You’ll also find green spaces and recreation options in both cities. One is considered the country’s financial capital, while the other is its federal capital. When comparing Zurich and Bern, there are many questions. Which is better, Zurich or Bern? Is one a better city than the other? 

Here we look at the differences between Zurich and Bern, 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: Zurich vs. Bern

The key differences are as follows:

ZurichBern
Population: approx. 415,000Population: approx. 130,000
Switzerland’s most populous citySwitzerland’s fifth-most populous city
Elevation: 408 mElevation: 540 m
Area: 87.88 km²Area: 51.6 km²
Highlights: Switzerland’s Financial Capital,
Switzerland’s Transport Hub
Highlights: Switzerland’s Federal City,
Historic old town
River: LimmatRiver: Aare
Lake: ZurichNo Lake
Location: North-Central SwitzerlandLocation: Slightly west of Central Switzerland

Cities: Zurich vs. Bern

Zurich

Image of Grossmünster Church in Zurich by anncapictures from Pixabay
  • Zürich is the biggest city in Switzerland, so it’s naturally bigger and busier than Bern. Compared to Bern, Zurich has more restaurants, nightclubs, and bars.
  • Zurich has a beautiful old town with lots of restaurants and shops. It’s also nice to walk by the Limmat River and Lake Zurich.
  • There are also some beautiful churches in Zurich – Grossmünster, Fraumünster, St. Peter, and Predigerkirche.
  • Shopping is much better in Zurich. Swiss souvenirs abound in Bern, but Bahnhofstrasse in Zurich has more shops.
  • Zurich is not the main tourist attraction in Switzerland. It is normally a starting point for most visitors who want to go to the Jungfrau or Engadine regions.
  • Zurich is logistically easier to get to from abroad by plane as it is closer to the Zurich Airport and by train due to the Zurich Train Station. To get to Bern, you would normally need to fly in via Zurich first. There is a small airport in Bern though.
  • You can visit lots of cool towns nearby Zurich for a day trip – Arbon, Stein am Rhein, Aarburg, Lenzburg, Rheinfelden, and Laufenburg.

Here’s a short video from MySwitzerland regarding Zurich

For more comprehensive posts regarding Zurich and attractions near it, read more here:

Bern

Image of Bern by TeeFarm from Pixabay
  • Bern is the fourth-largest city in Switzerland after Zurich, Geneva, and Basel. It is located west of central Switzerland and 20 kilometers north of the Bernese Alps.
  • Bern, being the federal city of Switzerland, is a smaller and more laidback city compared to Zurich. Bern has fewer restaurants, nightclubs, and bars compared to Zurich.
  • In addition to hosting the federal government, Bern is also the home of the international postal, telegraph, railway, and copyright unions. 
  • Bern has a beautiful old town founded in the 12th century. Its 15-century arcades and 16th-century fountains add to the medieval town’s charm. As the beautiful old city of Bern managed to retain its original character, it has been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage List. 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.
  • Bern is surrounded by the River Aare with crystal-clear turquoise waters.
  • Notable buildings and landmarks in Bern include the Zytglogge, the Parliament Building, the Cathedral, the Historic Museum, the Bear Pit, and the Zoo.
  • Overlooking Bern is Gurten Park. Jegensdorf Castle is also nearby.
  • It takes 70 to 90 minutes to reach Bern from Zurich Airport.
  • That being said, it is closer to popular destinations such as Wengen, Interlaken, Grindelwald, and Mürren.

Places to Visit: Zurich vs. Bern

Places to Visit in Zurich

Image by Jörg Vieli from Pixabay
  • Grossmünster Church – The Grossmünster Church (Great Minister) is a beautiful church in a central location.  The Church was built between 1100 and 1250. The end of the 15th century saw the towers added. Located along the Limmat River, the Grossmünster Church is only 950 meters or 12 minutes by foot from the train station. Zurich’s most famous landmark is a Romanesque-style church with slender and striking towers. The Grossmünster Church is known as the cradle of the Zwingli Reformation; Zwingli himself took over the house in 1519. 
  • Polybahn funicular – The Polybahn funicular has been running since January 1889. It brings visitors from Zurich Central to the Polyterasse. It is still a cool thing to do to go up from the city center to the vantage point 41 meters higher. To avoid crowds, come in early in the morning or late in the afternoon. It gets busy during lunchtime.
  • Uetliberg – Üetliberg is one of the four popular viewpoints near Zurich. You can also hike 400 meters up from Triemli or Albisgüetli instead of taking the train. But if you want the more comfortable option, it is accessible in 27 minutes with the S10 Train from Zurich Train Station. It is a steep standard adhesion railway, traveling with a 7.9% gradient. It is an easy walk to the peak from the train station. Üetliberg offers great views of Zurich city, the Glarus Alps, and Central Switzerland. If you want to eat, there’s a restaurant on the mountain called Uto Kulm. 
  • Landesmuseum Zurich (Swiss National Museum) is the most-visited museum in all of Switzerland. It is located next to the Zurich Train Station (Zürich Hauptbahnhof in German). Opened in 1898, the museum has had exhibitions from prehistoric times until the present. Landesmuseum contains over 820,000 objects. It has the largest collection of all cultural history and handicrafts in the country. The permanent exhibitions cover prehistory and early history. The museum has weapons, art, jewelry, clothing, and everyday objects from various eras. It also has temporary exhibitions, sometimes with subjects appealing to children as well. 
  • Fraumünster is the smallest of the 34 Evangelical Reformed churches in the city. Even so, it is very beautiful. There used to be an abbey on its grounds. The abbey was dissolved in the face of reformation. In 1898, the abbey was eradicated to give way (eventually) to what we now know as the Fraumünster Church. Fraumünster also contains the works of world-famous Marc Chagall and Augusto Giacometti. The installation of the windows by Giacometti was done in September 1945. The delay was due to the Second World War. It is the last of Giacometti’s over 20 glass paintings. This masterpiece is 9 meters high and twice as large as Chagall’s Christ Window. In 1970, Marc Chagall added the five-part choir windows of the church, as well as the rose window in the south transept.
  • Kunsthaus Zurich is a fine-art museum in Zurich. There are works by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh, Claude Monet, and Andy Warhol in the museum. Other renowned artists from various times and styles also contributed to it. In October 2021, a new section designed by David Chipperfield opened, effectively doubling the public space previously available. 

Places to Visit in Bern

Image of the Zytglogge by Christophe Schindler from Pixabay
  • 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 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 to 1218 to 1220. You can find it right at the entrance of the old town. Every full hour, the clock rings, and some characters emerge. 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 – Did you know that 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.  So while it might seem random at first glance, but the Albert Einstein Museum remains an interesting place to visit in Bern.
  • 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. The museum has many exhibits, including Bern and its history, art and silver, and even Asian history (India, Tibet, China, Japan).  The building was opened on Helvetiaplatz back in 1894 after two years of construction. The museum looks like a castle; André Lambert designed it this way after studying several castles. After 80 years, it was expanded to include Kubus, a more modern-looking building, to accommodate more exhibition halls.
  • Gurten – Gurten Park, located at 858 meters, offers spectacular views of the Bernese and Jura Alps. Take the tram and funicular (18 minutes to Gurten Kulm) to get there faster than on foot. Among the park’s amenities are playgrounds for kids, walking paths for everyone, and restaurants. If it’s a sunny weekend, expect to see a lot of people. You’d be better off going during the week. Walking and cycling here are also possible all year round.

Hotels: Zurich vs. Bern

Image from Thermalbad & Spa Zurich

In terms of hotels, Zurich has more options than Bern. However, I don’t think this should be the deciding factor. Although Zurich has more options, Bern doesn’t lack hotel options for any budget.

Hotels in Zurich

  • Baur au Lac (5-star) – This gorgeous hotel in the heart of Zurich has fantastic views of Lake Zurich and the Alps. It has two renowned restaurants, a fitness center, luxurious rooms, and excellent service.
  • Dolder Grand Hotel (5-star) – This fantastic hotel is located on the Zürichberg hill overlooking Zurich. Located next to a Cog Railway Station, Dolder Grand has 2 outstanding restaurants, an exclusive spa, fitness facilities, and superior service.
  • B2 Boutique Hotel (4-star) – One of the cool things about this hotel is its public thermal bath and spa, which features different swimming pools, a wellness area, and a steam bath, right in the heart of Zurich. In addition to that, it’s located in an old brewery.
  • Hotel Schweizerhof Zurich (4-star) – A short walk from Zurich’s main train station, this hotel is a great choice for people who want something stylish and convenient. Schweizerhof Zurich has noise-proof rooms, a great location, and free access to Holmes Place Fitness & Spa next door.
  • Motel One Zurich (3-star) – I’d highly recommend Motel One to anyone looking for something more inexpensive. Having stayed at Motel One Basel, I am 100% sure that the Motel One hotel in Zurich is just as nice, clean, and affordable. Plus, it’s incredibly close to the train station, Grossmünster, and the heart of the city.

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.

Summary: Zurich vs. Bern

View of Bern from Gurten by TouringSwitzerland.com

Zurich and Bern are both great places to visit, but which one you choose is up to you. They both have plenty to do, places to see, and restaurants to dine at. There are rivers, lakes, historical old towns, churches, and parks in both Zurich and Bern. So what would my recommendation be?

Bern is a must-see when you’re visiting Switzerland for the first time.

Bern has more historical significance than Zurich, not only because it’s the federal city and has a UNESCO World Heritage Old City. Zurich also has its old town, but it doesn’t retain the old world charm as much as Bern. Furthermore, Bern is nearer much of the Jungfrau Region’s beautiful mountains (as a reference, you can also see Mountains Close to Interlaken Worth Visiting).

To whom would I recommend Zurich? Zurich is a great city for families with young children because they can visit the Zurich Zoo and nearby Technorama. Then, they can visit the city after visiting either one or both of those attractions Both are fantastic options for families with young children.

Zurich is a better city to stay in compared to Bern if you are touring Switzerland by train, will catch an international flight from Zurich International airport, and/or prefer a more lively, bustling city.

It’s better to stay in Zurich instead of Bern if you’re traveling by train, catching a flight, and/or prefer a more vibrant, buzzing city. If you like shopping and nightlife, you should go to Zurich. People who love partying and shopping have more choices in Zurich. Zurich is also closer to Graubünden (think the Engadine region) if you want to explore that area more than or instead of the Jungfrau Region.

If you can move around quickly, you can theoretically do both in one day. The trip between Zurich and Bern takes an hour. Start really early in one city and head over to the other one after lunch. It’s not ideal but it’s doable. That way, you get to see both Zurich and Bern. After doing so, you can decide which city you want to explore more another day. In any case, have fun in two of Switzerland’s biggest and most important cities.

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