Find out everything you need to know about Switzerland’s cozy de-facto capital with our complete guide on moving to Bern.
Nestled in the center of Switzerland, the captivating city of Bern is a popular option for expats relocating to the country. It effortlessly combines the grandeur of a European capital with a small-town coziness that visitors and locals alike can’t help but fall in love with.
If you think Bern might be for you, then our complete guide walks you through everything you need to know about this great city. From the calmest places to enjoy a city center paddle to the best surrounding towns for commuters to settle in, it’s got you covered:
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An overview of Bern
Few cities in Switzerland are quite like Bern. Arriving in the de-facto Swiss capital, you’ll quickly realize why so many expats have made this enchanting city their home. In fact, over 30% of locals living in this German-speaking city are resident foreigners, which is slightly above the national average of 25%. So, you definitely won’t be alone if you move there.
As well as having a multi-cultural population of around 130,000 people, the city has plenty to offer new arrivals looking for a slightly livelier – yet still calm – slice of Swiss life. It is also well-located in the center of the country, about halfway between Zurich and Geneva, and within easy reach of Basel to the north. However, there are plenty of things to keep you nice and busy in the city itself.
Bernese culture and society
Although Bern is a relatively small city, the wider metropolitan area is home to around half a million residents. This gives the city a much more cosmopolitan feel than you might expect from one of its size. Indeed, Bern is home to some world-class museums, excellent bars and restaurants, and a busy schedule of events and performances to keep the locals entertained. And yet, if you walk down any Bernese street, you will still feel that small-town familiarity.
Things to do in Bern
Worried there won’t be enough to keep you entertained in Bern? Think again. The de-facto Swiss capital has plenty for all ages, from great things to do with kids to some surprising leisure activities. If museums are your thing, you’ll love the exhibitions at the Naturhistorisches Museum Bern and Museum of Communication. You also won’t want to miss a visit to the Bundeshaus (parliament building), which is one of the best things to do in Switzerland for free.
However, Bern really comes alive in the great outdoors. In summer, locals of all ages head down to the majestic River Aare, which twists through the city center. Here, you’ll find swimming pools, parkland, and plenty of options for floating down the river. You can even check the river’s temperature before leaving home. Outside the city, meanwhile, there are miles and miles of great Swiss countryside to explore. Whether you fancy hiking in summer or heading up to the pistes in the Bernese Alps, there’s something for everyone.
Entertainment and dining
Thanks to its multicultural makeup, Bern has some excellent dining options for a city of its size. There are numerous restaurants that serve traditional Swiss fare, alongside cuisine from around the world. However, as this is Switzerland, don’t expect the bars to stay open all night. That said, if you know where to go, you’ll easily have a great time out with your new friends.
There are plenty of festivals throughout the year too, many of which take place outside in that crisp Swiss air. You’ll also find English-speaking theater groups and a number of cinemas that show movies in their original version. Sports fans, meanwhile, will want to check out BSC Young Boys, the local men’s football club that has recently competed in the European Champions League. Don’t miss the action at the city’s large ice arena, either. Ice hockey team SC Bern regularly attracts some of the biggest crowds in Europe. You can read our guide to popular Swiss sports for more information.
Cost of living in Bern
Switzerland is known for its relatively high cost of living, and despite its small-town feel, Bern is unlikely to be the cheapest place you’ve ever lived. That said, it is noticeably cheaper than both Zurich and Geneva while being within easy reach of both cities. Bern also has a decent range of housing options within the city and throughout the wider metropolitan area. A decent local public transit system also makes it easy to get around wherever you are, letting you take advantage of cheaper prices out of town.
Neighborhoods in Bern
If you’re moving to the charming city of Bern, then it’s important you find the right neighborhood for you and your family. To give you a running start, here are a few of the more popular areas for expats moving to Bern.
Caught in the meandering River Aare, the Old Town of Bern is a listed UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its beautiful medieval architecture, whimsical streets, and captivating courtyards put this neighborhood on many a postcard from the Swiss capital. However, while the Old Town is popular with visitors, it’s also a great neighborhood for expats looking to set up home.
Here, you’ll find some of Bern’s best bars and cafés on your doorstep, all wrapped up in that unmistakably Swiss charm. Properties in the neighborhood are typically rentals, which may have something to do with the area’s cosmopolitan feel. Some international arrivals will likely find themselves working in the Altstadt. But even if you’re not, this picture-perfect area can be a great place to get acquainted with Bern.
South of Bern’s beautiful old town sits the popular neighborhood of Kirchenfeld. Known as the city’s museum district, this area is also home to the ever-popular Dählhölzli Zoo and plenty of riverside views as the Aare twists around the neighborhood. These attractions make this a very cultural part of the city, within easy reach of the Altstadt and the leafy parts of the city to the south.
Despite its proximity to the center, Kirchenfeld is popular with families due to its residential vibe. That said, all this family-friendly culture doesn’t come cheap, and the luxurious old villas in the neighborhood are pretty pricey when compared to the rest of the city. However, if you’re looking for somewhere a little quieter in the heart of Bern, then Kirchenfeld is a great place to start your search.
Another popular option for international arrivals in Bern is the district of Breitenrain-Lorraine. Stretching north from the Altstadt, this handful of neighborhoods is a surprisingly mixed bag. With leafy residential streets and wide boulevards lined with shops, you’ll definitely be within easy access to everything you need. You’ll even find the city’s famous Wankdorf Stadium in this area, which is home to the local Young Boys football team.
Although this area is a little further out, you’ll be able to travel around the city without much fuss thanks to good local public transport. Generally speaking, you’ll get more bang for your Franc the further you go from the center. However, you’ll still find a decent range throughout the district, meaning you can choose the right option for you while still being within easy reach of everything Bern has to offer.
Bern and the surrounding areas
For some expats, the quieter towns in the foothills surrounding Bern are simply too idyllic to ignore. In fact, these places are becoming increasingly popular among those looking to stretch their wings outside the city. Here are some of the most popular locations to consider.
Muri bei Bern
Travel southwards out of Bern and you’ll soon come across the quiet riverside town of Muri bei Bern. Although it is a separate town, Muri can feel more like a suburb of Bern at times, with strong connections between the two places. Indeed, the center of Bern is just twelve minutes away by train, which means that you can be soaking up those laid-back city vibes quicker than you might think.
Muri bei Bern is a great option for families, offering plenty of outdoor activities including the ever-popular swimming pool complex on the banks of the River Aare. There are also a number of international schools in the area, including the British School of Bern among others. And then, of course, there’s the stellar Swiss countryside all around.
A little further out of the city sits the quaint, historical town of Burgdorf. This is the largest town in the Emmental; a typically beautiful Swiss valley that is home, of course, to the world-famous cheese of the same name. However, even if cheese isn’t your thing, there are still plenty of reasons to settle in Burgdorf. Firstly, the quieter pace of life and easy access to all that sumptuous Swiss countryside makes it popular with families looking for more spacious villas.
Of course, you’ll find much more of that close-knit, small-town buzz in Burgdorf. However, if you’re missing the excitement or need to commute into the city, then Bern is just a fifteen-minute train ride away. It is also easy to access the rest of the Central Plateau from Burgdorf, including destinations such as Lucerne and Basel. Prices here are typically lower than in Bern, so you can get more for your money. That said, you will still have to pay a lot for somewhere in Burgdorf’s historic center.
How to find a home in Bern
When househunting around Bern, the best place to start is online. And you’ll probably want to start the process as soon as possible. Be aware that you’ll need to have an address in the city before registering with the local municipality. To get you started, here are a few handy websites:
As you might expect, Bern isn’t the cheapest place in the world to find accommodation. For this reason, most newcomers choose to rent somewhere at first before getting a better idea of the city. If you’re arriving with a family, you might also want to enlist the help of a local realtor. Alternatively, if you’re moving alone, then there are plenty of flat-sharing options to explore in the city. You can begin by searching local Facebook groups or checking out WGZimmer and Craigslist. As ever, when using these sites, be aware of scams and always take precautions before handing over any money.
10 surprising facts about Bern
If you’re thinking about moving to this beautiful city, here are some surprising facts about Bern:
- Bern is not the Swiss capital: Technically, Switzerland has no capital city. However, since 1848, Bern has been home to the Swiss Federal Parliament and is the de-facto capital. It’s officially known as the Bundesstadt or Federal City.
- It’s over 800 years old: Bern was founded way back in 1191 by Duke Berchtold V of Zähringen.
- The city is named after a bear: Legend dictates that the Duke decided to name his new city after the first animal he came across during a hunting expedition in the woods. That poor creature was a local bear (Bär).
- Bears still live in Bern: You’ll find the city’s most famous residents at the recently-renovated Bärenpark, one of the best things to do in Bern.
- It has color-coordinated street signs: In Bern old town, street signs appear in four different colors: white, green, yellow, and burgundy. This is a throwback to Napoleonic times when the colors were used to help illiterate French troops find their way.
- The whole city center is UNESCO-listed: Tourism is a big business in the postcard-perfect old town, which is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
- Bern reaches for the heavens: The aptly-named Bern Cathedral is actually the tallest in Switzerland, reaching an impressive 101 meters.
- The home of Toblerone: Back in 1908, local Theodor Tobler introduced Toblerone to the world. The delicious chocolate is still made in the city today.
- Bern hosted a World Cup final: In 1954, the Wankdorf Stadium saw West Germany stun pre-tournament favorites Hungary in a hotly-contested match. The Germans run out 3-2 winners.
- A great place to swim: The city is home to several swimming pools as well as the River Aare, a popular place for bathers when summer hits.