Interlaken, Bern, Thun, Switzerland
Interlaken in the heart of the Alps and Bern are two of the great destinations of Switzerland. We’ll show you both places in this practical guide, part of our series on Switzerland. And for a bonus will bring you to the historic riverside city of Thun.
The town of Interlaken makes a perfect home base for exploring the beautiful mountains all around the central region of Switzerland. In this segment we will take a quick look at what Interlaken has to offer. The advantages of staying in Interlaken are the many hotels, restaurants and shops, and wonderful train and bus connections to get up to the mountain sites.
Some of the world’s most spectacular mountain scenery is waiting for you just outside of Interlaken in the heart of the Swiss Alps. Europe’s longest glacier – four famous mountain peaks: the Monk, Eiger, Jungfrau and Shilthorn – astonishingly beautiful Lauterbrunnen Valley, my favorite – Europe’s highest railroad station, delightful mountain villages of Grindelwald, Wengen and Murren – two large lakes with tour boat service – and some fascinating nearby cities. In this movie we are focusing on the town of Interlaken and also will take you to Bern but you can find those other movies about the Interlaken area as well as many movies about the rest of Switzerland in our series — be sure to look for them All of these attractions are close to the town of Interlaken which makes a perfect base from which to explore the region. Interlaken is very easy to reach by train with extensive international connections coming in and once you arrive it’s an easy walk from the East or the West train stations to most hotels such as our favored resting place at the Carlton Europe just two blocks from the East station There are about 100 hotels and guest houses in all price ranges in the city. While Interlaken is attractive with an excellent supply of hotels, shops, restaurants and a pretty park in the middle, you’re not really coming here to see the town, so be sure to spend most of your daylight hours outside the town.
The nearby surrounding peaks and valleys are your main reason for being in Interlaken so your time in town is mostly for eating and sleeping, doing a little shopping, in order to gear up for those excursions into the mountains. You don’t come to this area just to see Interlaken, but instead the town has great value as a practical tourist center with fine support services, excellent rail and boat connections, and a compactness that makes for easy walking anywhere in town. Unfortunately there are some tourists who come to Interlaken and never get up into the mountains. That would be like going to a major art museum, walking in the front door and just staying in the lobby and the gift shop and not going to see the great visual treasures, so get out of town and get up in the mountains. We’re showing you that in our other movies.
In this movie, again, we’re focusing on how to get the most out of your visit to the town while you are here. For the more adventurous you can go paragliding. That’s right even if you don’t know anything about it you can go with a pilot and enjoy a tandem paraglide ride. They’ll drive you up to the hills and then you do a little walking, hike up further up on the slope, and you jump off, and the payoff is you get to glide down and enjoy a fantastic view. Or for something less adventurous you can just rent a bicycle and go peddle around.
There’s a lot to see in the Interlaken area. The town itself is relatively flat and you can peddle through the shopping areas and up into the residential zones. As you can see the main activity in town is shopping – all sorts of souvenirs for sale, clothing, you can buy some hiking gear. It’s a great place for backpacks, for boots, hats, clothing of all kinds, walking sticks and a T-shirt that says Interlaken.
There’s not much of a pedestrian zone that’s free of automobiles here but they do have one little lane that’s for pedestrians. But the rest of town is very friendly for walking around, the sidewalks are wide and there’s always things to look at and things to do. While you have many lovely hotels to pick from there’s no question that one of them stands out above all the others. It’s the Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa, five-star, ultra-deluxe. Even if you cannot afford to spend the night here you might enjoy a meal in one of their various restaurants and you can even have a nice meal on their front terrace with a view looking up towards the Jungfrau. This great meadow is right next to the one major street of town, the Hoheweg, which is beautifully landscaped and kept in a semi-natural state with flowers and trees and the meadow along one side and grand hotels on the other.
If you’re a gambler you can play online pokies everywhere in the world and of course, there is a casino like there is in most Swiss towns and it’s an elegant place. It’s part of the Kursal complex which for 100 years has been a cultural center of the city, set in a beautiful park with fountains and flowers. Tourists have been coming to Interlaken and the area since about 1800 when it was first popularized by some romantic painters and then tourism really increased in the 1890s and early 1900s with the opening of railway service. There is a quiet residential area behind the main commercial town.
The population of Interlaken is quite small, just about 5000 people, many of them living in traditional chalet-style houses that really make something for you to have a look at. So that’s another nice activity – take a stroll in the residential neighborhood. Up there you might find a restaurant that is geared as much to locals as to tourists such as Restaurant Tenne specializing in Italian food if you have enough of Swiss food already, quite good.
It takes about 10 or 15 minutes to walk here from most of the hotels. One of the most famous restaurants in town is the Grand Café Restaurant Schuh which is located right next to the meadow on the main street in town, and they have been in business here since 1818. They’ve got nice entertainment while you dine, you can sit outdoors on the terrace with a view of the meadow, or indoors, take your pick and they specialize in chocolates along with fine dining. My first visit to Interlaken was in 1985 and I stayed in a very inexpensive bed-and-breakfast. They still have got 41 bed-and-breakfasts listed for example in Trip Advisor, or stay in a hotel – there’s a variety ranging from one star up to five stars.
You’re looking at the large modern youth hostel. It’s got private rooms, group rooms and they rent tents, with a real popular bar in the basement open to everybody, so you can see there is a big range of choice and it’s really one of the main reasons for staying here so that you can have a decent hotel and great access to the mountains. We’re having a lovely breakfast at our Hotel Carlton which I can highly recommend. It’s located down towards the East train station which is very convenient for getting the mountain railroads up to the Jungfrau and into Lauterbrunnen Valley. Another major attraction worth seeing near Interlaken is the city of Bern, the political capital of Switzerland and it’s just one hour away by train – very convenient to walk over to the train station and soon you’ll be whisking through more scenic countryside on your way to Bern.
We’ll show you more of Interlaken town later in the program with our special 3-screen presentation. But now we are getting out of town. One of the most rewarding excursions you can take from Interlaken by train is a short journey over to the capital of the country, Bern. It’s only fifty minutes away by train, and it’s a very busy train line. You’ll find that in the morning there are as many as five trains an hour that connect directly from Interlaken over to Bern, and then the same thing coming home again later in the day.
So this is a very easy and rewarding trip. The Bern train station is right next to the Old Town so your walk through the historic zone begins the moment you arrive. They’ve done a lot of work in rebuilding and reconstructing the Bern train station to make it a very modern facility – there’s lots of shops and restaurants right in the train station, even before you set foot in the Old Town. Switzerland is famous for its excellent trains, and the train stations are an extension of that, sort of like a mini city. You can even take a shower in here in their clean restrooms.
It’s relatively safe, but you always have to look out for your valuables. And just in front there is the modern canopy for the tram station. However, you’re not going to need to ride a tram when you’re visiting Bern. Everything is very compact in the Old Town and you can easily see it on foot in a couple of hours.
What we’re going to do is, we’ll walk right down the main street which leads from here. This is a convenient place to tell you some about the city, just for a couple minutes. Bern means bear, that’s the mascot of the city, and there’s a little bear zoo at the far end of town. But really in 1405 all of the wooden buildings burned down in a huge fire, and it was decreed that the new buildings would be made of stone. And so the whole city was rebuilt in the early and middle 1400s up through 1500, basically, in a medieval style. And so therefore it has a very uniform and harmonious appearance to it, with the arcades covering the sidewalks – 4 miles of covered sidewalks.
So rain or shine, or snow, it doesn’t matter. So main thing is, we’re just going to walk around, up-and-down, you’ve got your map. We can wander, meander, we will see the famous clock tower and get a good overview for a couple of hours, and time for shopping. The main street proceeds directly from the front of the train station right through the historic center. It’s one street about ten blocks long, but it changes name several times. By the station and it’s the Spitalgasse, then it becomes the Marktgasse, then the Kramgasse, then the Gerechtigkeitsgasse.
Today, it’s the main street of Bern, as it has been for centuries. This road is remarkable, not only for the ancient buildings and arcades that cover both sides, but for the spectacular Renaissance fountains down the middle. Today it’s a popular shopping street with surprisingly modern shop interiors, and there’s a slight curve with a long line of Baroque façades that combine to produce one of Bern’s most impressive streetscapes.
This Kramgasse and its buildings are part of the UNESCO World Heritage site that encompasses the entire old city of Bern – a very impressive honor that UNESCO has designated all of the historic area as a World Heritage Site. This main street is about 330 meters long and lies at the very center of the old city. It’s accessible by foot, bicycle or tram or bus that run through it. Both sides of the Kramgasse are covered with those stone arcades, they call Lauben, protecting pedestrians from the weather. The arcades and sidewalk are private property and yet always open to the public and so they must be maintained by the property owners rather than the government. The human scale of this area makes it more of a piazza than a roadway.
The famous clock tower, and the arch at the end of the market street, is the oldest building in town with an astronomical clock that still works after five hundred years. Try and be at the clock four minutes before the hour to catch that whimsical parade of mechanical bears, armored knights, jester, lion and father time celebrating the moment. There are two clocks on the tower. One is a standard timepiece and the other is an astronomical clock built in the form of an astrolabe.
It represents the planets orbiting the sun. When the tower was built in 1218 it was part of the fortified gate of the medieval wall in the western portion running around Bern. As the city expanded in size, two other walls were built further out from the center, and this tower no longer was so important as a front line defense of the city.
Einstein lived on this main street for eight years while developing the General Theory of Relativity, and his house is now open as a museum. Three fountains decorate the street. The fountain in the center is the Simsonbrunnen built in 1527 and decorated with a figure of Sampson taming the lion. The Zahringerbrunnen fountain at the western end of the street is Bern’s first figure-topped fountain depicting an armored bear, Bern’s heraldic beast. At the eastern crossroads the Kreuzgassebrunnen was the model for all of the other obelisk fountains of Bern, built in 1778. The Kramgasse is one of Bern’s more upmarket shopping streets.
Among others, it features antiquaries, drugstores, bakeries, banks, jewelry shops, bookstores, art galleries, boutiques, restaurants, furniture stores, opticians stores, watch shops and wine cellars. Over the centuries the street was slowly gentrified. In 2005 this street was thoroughly renovated, and its cobblestone pavement replaced, but it still looks very old. The word Bern means bear, and this animal is the symbol and token of the city. At the end of town across the river they have their famous bear pits. In recent years the government has greatly expanded this bear habitat to make it really a pleasant place for the bears to live.
Previously it was not so nice, it was really just a bear pit, a hole in the ground lined with cement and a couple of bears living there, almost a cruel place to keep the bears. But now it’s become a vast outdoor zoo and the bears seem to be enjoying it – they’re having a great time. They created this landscaping that comes down the side of the hill right down to the river, and created several plunge pools for the bears to go swimming, and walkways so that the public can see the bears and the bears can see the people. It’s all very well planned and of course it’s all very safe.
They’re not going to jump out at you but you do get a chance to get very close to them. We happened to be here on an amazing day in which two young bear brothers had been reunited after being apart for nearly a year. For whatever reasons they had been separated off to different cities and now they were brought back together again, these two siblings, about one-year-old, frisky and having fun and remembering each other, and so happy to see each other, they had a great time tussling around wrestling and playing, getting reunited.
Wonderful to see how the powerful muscles and teeth of these beasts can be used for such gentle fun. Bears have been kept on display in the city for 500 years, most of that time in that small hole in the ground. In the 1990s they made some effort to renovate the enclosures, but it wasn’t sufficient – so this beautiful park was opened in 2009 on the steeply sloping land that comes down to the river. It really gives the bears an outdoor environment they can enjoy. It also gives the visitor good reason to walk through the entire old town of Bern, because the bears are located outside the old town across the river beyond the end of the main road, easily reached in a few minute’s walk across the bridge.
It’s only about 1 km from one end of the old town to the other, so the bears are easily reached. And then when you’re done, head back into the Old Town along a slightly different route, heading for the great cathedral. Walking along Junkerngasse with more of these delightful arcades forming a cozy environment. Junkerngasse means Nobility Lane, and according to Wikipedia, it’s the old city’s best-preserved street. It was home to some of the city’s leading families and still has some palatial mansions along it.
This building, the Erlacherhof, is the seat of government for the city of Bern and dates back to the mid-1700s. It was originally the most significant private palace in the old town. Some of these building state back to the 1400s, others are from the Renaissance and the later Baroque period. Another important building is the Gothic cathedral with the nation’s highest church tower at 328 feet, which you may climb for a bird’s eye view of the historic center. Construction of the cathedral began in 1421 in the Gothic style. It is a three-nave basilica without a transept or aisles, 85 m long and 34 m wide – it is quite huge.
The walls outside are supported by flying buttresses and the majority of the building is constructed with local sandstone, and bricks were used for the ceiling for the vaults. Called the Minster, or they say Munster, it was built by the city of Bern as a symbol of the growing power of the city-state. The interior was designed to awe the citizens as well as any foreign visitors who came by. There are several other lovely side streets that you should explore.
We walked over to the Rathaus, which has a very impressive Rathausgasse and walked along the Rathausgasse for a block, another well preserved neighborhood. Another big church of St. Peter and Paul. Immersed in these buildings that have really not changed a lot in the last centuries. The historic center of Bern is surrounded by a sharp curve in the Aare River, enclosing the space and encouraging growth in a compact arrangement of shops and homes that fit perfectly together.
Then we took a little detour on Brunnengasse. This too was a charming little street, very quiet, hardly any cars, and nice shops, a few restaurants and bars along the way, Chinese take-out, the old historic buildings and a lovely curvature to the lines of Brunnengasse, and that reconnects once again with the Rathausgasse. We can learn a lot about how to build our modern cities by studying these organic growth patterns that have evolved over the past nine hundred years. Next you’ll come across Kornhausplatz which is a large plaza that was first built about 600 years ago and it’s always been one of the main plazas of the city, a very large space.
It is called Kornhausplatz after the German word for grain, or corn, because a granary was built here in the 1700s and the plaza became a grain market. In the basement, the Kornhauskeller restaurant offers, delightful ambience and excellent food specializing in Swiss and Mediterranean cuisine. Continuing along Zeughaugasse, another busy commercial street with some modern stores, looks like a department store, some restaurants, there’s a hotel, three hotels along Zeughaugasse as we are making our way back towards the train station. We’ve been so busy sightseeing we didn’t take any time to sit down and have lunch, so now we are hungry – no we are starving – and there’s this great restaurant called Tibbits. It’s part of a small chain of restaurants in Switzerland and they’ve got a few branches in London and elsewhere, that’s all vegetarian and they’ve got this fabulous buffet.
They call it the boat and it’s loaded with all sorts of great salads and beans and tempeh and tofu that will tempt you, and juices, and the price is quite reasonable – high-quality freshly-cooked food. So this is where we had a great meal, sit down, relax, unwind, absorb the sights of Bern before departing and heading back to Interlaken. It could not be more convenient because Tibbits is located in the train station, which is right on the edge of the old town.
So, very easy for us to get to the train. We have a few minutes before catching the train to learn a little bit more about Bern. See all of these trams. They go throughout the city – there is a big network, but it’s not the big a city.
The population is only 140,000. So it is the fourth-largest city in Switzerland behind Geneva, behind Basel, behind Zürich. Of course, it’s the national capital. They have a parliament.
But Switzerland is a decentralized power. Each of the states, they call them cantons, has quite a bit of autonomy. And the parliament has less power than the states do.
And they don’t have a president, as such. It’s like the speaker of the parliament and selected and they take turns. It’s not like a big presidential, big leadership thing, strong man politics.
They don’t have that here. It’s more consensus politics, not only the state level, but at the village level. Switzerland has like the old New England town meetings, and so each village has quite a bit of authority. That’s one reason why they never joined the EU. The villages in the valleys are pretty conservative, and they’ve managed to veto any joining of the EU. The businessmen all want to be in the EU, the yuppies, the professionals – they wish they were in the EU, but they can’t get there because of this decentralized power structure.
Anyway, it’s been a great city for these five hundred, six hundred years now. Well, okay, it’s time to enter the station and find our train. The train station is quite large but it’s well laid out. It’s got the escalators and signage to get you around – get down to your platform on schedule and wait for the train – very frequent train service between Bern and Interlaken. It’s about three, four trains and hour, so it’s a quick trip, 50 minutes by train back to our home base at Interlaken.
It’s going to be another scenic journey on Swiss Rail. Heading back to Interlaken, we will show a little bit more of that town, coming right up. It’s our home base for visiting this part of Switzerland, and it makes a very effective place to stay. Not only near the mountains and valleys and those scenic natural vistas but also as you’ve just seen close to Bern, a lovely city to visit.
Take a look on the map at the train route from Bern back to Interlaken, an easy 50-minute train ride, and notice at the midpoint there’s another city called Thun and this is a great place to get off the train and take a walk around because it is another beautiful historic Swiss city. The map shows an easy route you can do in a one-hour stroll. From the train station to the Old Town is just a few blocks. It’ll take you through the more modern shopping part of town and there to you have a view of the Aare river that passes through the center with water so clean, yes you can swim in it. Then walk along arcade-covered sidewalks, quite nice.
Part of the city is on an island in the middle of the Aare River, which makes for lovely waterfronts with these outdoor restaurants, with a view of that covered wooden bridge so typical of Switzerland. Beyond the island on the north side of the river, you’ll come to the main part of the Old Town where the charm really kicks in, walking along this cobblestone road for pedestrians, and then it becomes split-level road. This is the main street called Obere Hauptgasse, and it is quite unique because it has two levels. You can walk along the upper level which is on the roof of the ground-floor shops, or you can walk along in the street down below.
You’ll probably see a few soldiers as you walk around because Thun has always been a military center going all the way back to the Middle Ages and still today, there’s a training base nearby. Continuing along on the main street for a few blocks, you’ll notice quite a few restaurants here as well as bars and cafés, a variety of shops. You will soon reach the main square of town the Rathausplatz, the city hall square.
With a fountain in the middle, it’s surrounded by the town hall and various guildhalls, former hospital now police station. In the summer time they’ve got outdoor concerts and other events, and street markets Wednesday and Saturday nearby on Balliz. Although the Old Town is rather small, just about 10 blocks long, you’ll find plenty of spaces to go wandering through – especially with the river running through the middle, it creates a delightful, watery landscape. There are various lanes along the waterfront, there are bridges across it. You could easily spend half a day here walking around, doing a little shopping, and sit at an outdoor table with a view of the river. And then there’s the hillside and perhaps the greatest treasure of town, the castle up on the hill, which dates back to the 12th century.
There is a historic museum inside so you could go in and take a look. The town has a distinguished history and played a significant role as gateway to the Bernese Oberland up until a century ago when Interlaken was created by the railroads. Before that time Thun was the main city of this lake region with the Lake Thun and Lake Brienz and Interlaken in-between, and the mountains beyond, with the Jungfrau and the Bernese Oberland. When done catch one of those frequent trains back to Interlaken.
These trains are famous for their comfort, reliability, you’ve got a restaurant or a snack car on board usually and nice scenery out the window. Alternatively, you could take a boat or a bus back to Interlaken, but the train is the quickest and easiest way to get there. The train route is along the scenic southern shore of Lake Thun, one of two lakes surrounding Interlaken, passing through some villages in the city of Spietz on its way. It’s just about 1/2 an hour ride from Thun to Interlaken with 37 trains running every day. We’re getting off the train at Interlaken’s East train station which is right in town. It’s about a mile walk from one end of town to the other, and that’s where we are going to take you, show the restaurants, the park, a couple of hotels and downtown.
Right across the street from the train station is the Coop. it’s a huge food store, and you’ll see it’s a supermarket, it’s a cafe, it’s a restaurant, it’s a bars, indoors and outdoors, and it’s really a wonderful place to stock up on reasonably-priced foods. If you do not want to go to an expensive restaurant you can get by here very nicely. Interlaken is proud of the large green park they have right in the middle of town along the main street, the Hoheweg, and you have a great view of the mountains beyond.
There’s fountains, benches, playground areas. Most of all, it’s a place to stroll and relax, just take it easy and get away from the city for a while. There is also a pedestrian path along the river that’s quite nice, but it’s a little further away in a bit hard to find. This park is right in front of you in the middle of town. The lush green meadow called the Hohematte is a peaceful spot and yet you’re going to find some joggers and skateboarders, paraglider’s coming down.
For those interested in longer, nature walks, you can stroll along the shores of the two lakes, Lake Thun or Lake Brienz. You could walk out one way and then take a bus or a boat back into town. Right across the street is very nice row of restaurants – there’s outdoor bars, casual standout places you can relax with friends, sit down for a meal. The prices here are reasonable or if you’d like something more extravagant and extremely wonderful, consider the Victoria Jungfrau Grand Hotel and Spa. This is the grande dame of Interlaken in one of the top hotels in Switzerland.
Of course you don’t have to spend the night at this wonderful hotel to enjoy the facilities. Come on in, go to the bar maybe, have a drink, have a meal or just take a stroll through their wonderful lobby. This five-star deluxe hotel has a history going back 150 years when it first opened in 1856 as a pensione. The main structure we see now that’s designed in the Belle Epoch style opened in 1899.
You can even play tennis indoors. Of course there are many other hotel choices as we’ve shown you. Trip Advisor lists 40 hotels and you could probably find another 40 if you looked around, along with those smaller bed-and-breakfasts. Then if you want to have a little fun throwing some money around, go on into the casino. Typical of most swiss cities, they have a casino. It’s not like a big Las Vegas casino by any means.
They are smaller and more casual, mostly the electronic slot machine types, but they’ve also got some table games. And then there’s the town itself. The little downtown of Interlaken is only about 6 blocks by 6 blocks so it’s really quite easy to walk through and see most of it in a short time. Maybe one or two evenings is all you’ll need to have a look because, remember, you’re going to ask be busy up in the mountains and visiting all of those sights outside the city. But when you come back to town it’s good to know that there is a nice little downtown area as you see here. It’s a more modern city than many Swiss towns.
It grew up with the railroads. It doesn’t have a great long historic ancestry behind it. The architecture is normal rather than traditional for the most part, but it’s a very functional and pleasant place – half a dozen Thai restaurants, Italian, Indian, Chinese, French, you name it, and Swiss. You’ll find that it’s got nice urban buzz, a sense of vitality about it with all of the shops and restaurants packed in closely together, easy walking on the sidewalks.
It’s a fun place to hang around. Alternatively, you might find a smaller hotel up in Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen and some of the other nearby towns we’re showing you in our other series on Switzerland, but Interlaken is right in the center, easy to get to from other parts of the country and easy to get out of there once you’re done, with the big supply of hotels. For example, Hotel Du Nord, another place that we stayed in our visits in Interlaken, conveniently located between the East station and the Hohematta. And of course they serve a lovely breakfast, for our final meal in our visit to interlaken.
Be sure to watch our other movies about Interlaken, where we take you up into the mountains. But as you’ve seen in today’s program Interlaken offers more than just a place to sleep and eat. There are those surrounding towns and the fine city itself. We have a big series of movies about Switzerland taking you to most of the great places. We will bring you to Lucerne and up to Mount Titlis, Mount Rigi, over to Interlaken, up to the Jungfrau.
We will see the Shilthorn, Lauterbrunnen Valley, Trummelbach Falls, Grindelwald, Bern, then on to Zermatt, the Matterhorn, yes we will have a look at the Gornergrat, up the Sunnegga, do some hiking, show you the village then on down to Lugano and Locarno in the southern part of Switzerland, the Ticino we also take you to the great city of Zürich. Look for them in our Swiss collection.