Ten essential facts about Bern

September 14, 2011, 10 Comments

The New York Times recently had a great little article about 36 hours in Bern, with 12 things to see and do in the Swiss capital.

It included some of my favourite places: Confiserie Tschirren and Adriano’s café, the covered arcades and Bear Garden, and of course the view from the Rosengarten (pictured above). Rather strangely the beautiful cathedral didn’t get a look in, possibly because they spent two of their 36 hours cycling out of the city to a farm. Not a normal thing to do on a city break, but then again Bern is no normal city.

I realised today that Bern has now been my home for 2000 days, or 48,000 hours, give or take a few. In celebration of that fact, I’d planned to write something about my favourite spots; trouble is not only have I already written about some (such as the fabulous Gelateria di Berna), but then the New York Times beat me to it and chose lots of the same things. Easy to do, given how small Bern is. So instead, here are a few fascinating facts about the city where I live.

  • Bern was founded in 1191 by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen. He is supposed to have said that the new city would be named after the first animal to be found on a hunting expedition in the woods. Luckily it was a bear (Bär in German, plural Bären, or Baeren) and not a rat.
  • Just over 130,00 people live in Bern, making it Switzerland’s fourth-largest city. Foreigners make up 23.2% of the population, with the two largest groups being Germans (6206) and Italians (4136). I am one of only 301 British residents, but there are 1738 diplomats, including 457 diplomatic children, if such creatures exist.
  • Bern’s official title is Bundesstadt, or Federal City, rather than Hauptstadt, or capital city. Switzerland technically has no capital but since 1848 Bern has been the seat of the Federal Parliament and government so is the de facto capital.
  • The street signs in the Old Town are different colours – green, white, yellow and burgundy. This is a hangover from when Napoleon conquered the city in 1798. His troops were largely illiterate so the coloured signs were used to help them find their quarters.
  • At 101 metres, the cathedral spire is the tallest in Switzerland. The Gothic lacework top (currently being restored) was added to the medieval tower in 1889-93. It’s 222 steps to the top viewpoint and on the way you pass Switzerland’s biggest bell, weighing 10,000 kg.
  • Bern’s two gifts to the sweet-toothed world are Toblerone and Ovomaltine. The triangular chocolate was invented by Theodor Tobler in 1908 and every piece is still made in Bern. Ovomaltine (known as Ovaltine in Britain) was created in 1904 by Dr Albert Wander, who mixed malt, egg, milk and cocoa.
  • German is the main language (81% of the population) followed by Italian (3.9%) and French (3.6%). The Bernese dialect is famous in the rest of Switzerland for being rather slow. It sounds almost as if someone is taking a leisurely stroll through the woods while humming a merry tune. Almost.
  • All of the Old Town is a Unesco heritage site, making tourism big business. 400,776 visitors came in 2010, just over half of them Swiss. Of the foreign guests, the five most common nationalities were German, American, British, French and Italian.
  • On 4 July 1954, Bern hosted the World Cup final. West Germany’s 3-2 victory over the favourites, Hungary, is known as Das Wunder von Bern (Miracle of Bern). The host stadium at Wankdorf was demolished in 2001 but the clock outside still shows the final score.
  • At an altitude of 542 metres above sea level, Bern is the third highest European capital city (even if it isn’t actually a ‘capital’). That’s still a long way short of Andorra la Vella (1023m) and Madrid (667m).

10 Comments on "Ten essential facts about Bern"

  1. SwissGuy Thursday September 15th, 2011 at 02:34 PM · Reply

    Two tidbits:

    – The population of 130’000 only includes the municipality of Bern. The actual city also includes other, politically separate municipalities (Koeniz, Ittigen, Bolligen, Ostermundigen, Muri-Guemligen, etc.), so the real population of Bern is more like 350’000(ish).

    – As far as I know, the top of the cathedral was in fact added in the late 19th century, but following the original medieval plans. The rest of the cathedral was originally built within a timespan of 100 years (1421 to 1521) but the top was not finished.

  2. Patrick Friday September 16th, 2011 at 04:28 AM · Reply

    An interesting fact about Ovomaltine/Ovaltine is that the “original” Swiss Ovomaltine is less sweet than the Ovaltine sold e.g. in Britain, as the recipes are different (no refined sugar in Ovomaltine).

  3. Korhomme (@Korhomme) Friday February 24th, 2012 at 09:57 AM · Reply

    If you plot the colours of the street signs on a map, you’ll see that the old town was quite literally quartered. And the street signs in the Matte are black.If you go up the Munster, the chap who does the tickets at the first platform lives in a flat there — he says that the noise of the bells isn’t that bad. Originally, the job was to be a firewatchman at night. And look for the inscription on the north side — “Machts na”.

  4. Daniela_Leeds Saturday August 3rd, 2013 at 07:29 PM · Reply

    Haha, love your description of the Baernduetsch 🙂 For those who don’t know what Bernese dialect sounds like, this is a famous example:

    It sounds exactly like Bernese German but is dominantly nonsense 🙂

    • martin Friday August 9th, 2013 at 12:07 AM · Reply


      this is NOT “dominantly nonsense”. Franz Hohler tells an understandable and re-narratable story. But he uses a lot of self-invented terms and words in his story. And one of his many language artistics are that even though these words are unknown, you can clearly understand what he means. So this story is far away from nonsense, but fictional of yours.

  5. Sabrina Forbes Hamilton Friday January 31st, 2014 at 10:24 PM · Reply

    Hello Diccon

    I found your video quite informative as well as entertaining.

    I am from The Turks & Caicos Islands (British Territory).

    I own and operate vacation rental properties in the Turks and Caicos and have many guests that originate from Switzerland mostly German. I am planning a visit to Switzerland and feel that Bern would be a great place to focus some of my marketing efforts. Although I do have a dear brother in banking who lives in Geneva.

    I would love to hear back from you on any thoughts or suggestions you may have for good advertising strategies there in Bern and would love to meet you during my travel there.

    Thank you again for your video I enjoyed it very much!


  6. emama Wednesday November 20th, 2019 at 05:00 AM · Reply

    that is good facts

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