Zurich or Bern: Which Swiss City to Visit?

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by Audrey Webster

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When planning a trip to Switzerland and if you’re short on time, it can be tough to decide whether Zurich or Bern is the right city for you if you don’t have time to visit both.

In both cities, you’ll get all the characteristics unique to Switzerland – snow-capped mountains, vibrant turquoise waters, and luscious green landscapes. However, there are a few key distinctions that set the two cities apart.

In general, choose Zurich if you want a larger city with lots of dining and shopping options and plenty of things to do. On the other hand, choose Bern for a quieter stay with many museums and a rich history.

They are located on opposite sides of the country, so they could also easily serve as home bases to explore the surrounding regions, as well. 


As the biggest city in Switzerland, there is no shortage of activities to fill your time. It’s busier compared to Bern, filled with plenty of restaurants, nightlife, bars, and outdoor activities. There are opportunities for day trips as well as plenty to see when setting out to explore the city on foot. Here is everything you might need to know about Zurich


Like most big cities in Europe, Zurich has a handful of options for getting around the city.

One of the best ways to explore the city is by foot. You can set out in any direction to wander through Zurich’s different neighbourhoods, both modern and historic. Swiss cities tend to be very walkable, making this a great and affordable way to spend your time.

Alternatively, you can rent a bike. Riding a bike along a lake or river is a wonderful way to spend a sunny afternoon and take in the city’s sites. Hopping on a bike is one of the best ways to see much of what Zurich has to offer in a short amount of time.

View of Zurich from Lindenhof Hill
Zurich from Lindenhof Hill

If you’re needing to cover large distances, or are simply ready to be done walking for the day, consider taking the Zurich city tram system. You can purchase a pass or pay per ride. It’s efficient and touches almost every part of the city, so you can easily get to where you’re trying to go. For visiting areas along Lake Zurich, you can take a boat that runs regularly throughout the day.

Finally, if you expect to use public transportation often throughout your stay, you might want to purchase a Zurich Card. This is an unlimited pass for public transportation.

You purchase the card one time for either 24 or 72 hours and have access to the city’s public transportation. It’s a good option if you want to see as much as possible in a short amount of time.

Zurich's main train station
Zurich’s main train station


It’s no secret that Switzerland is an expensive destination to visit.

When comparing Zurich vs Bern in terms of affordability, Zurich is slightly more expensive. After all, Zurich is the country’s financial hub.

It’s larger and busier than Bern, with a population more than double that of Bern. There are generally more restaurants and shopping as well as access to inner-city transportation and the international airport.

Because of all this, Zurich tends to be the most expensive option of the two. However, don’t let this deter you because the overall difference is negligible. Zurich remains a great home base to explore the city and the eastern half of Switzerland. 

Old town of Zurich
The old town of Zurich

Things to do in Zurich

As the country’s largest city, Zurich is always changing with the times. However, the quaint and charming old town is perhaps the most popular attraction in the city.

The Old Town is composed of narrow, cobble-stoned, and mediaeval streets located on both sides of the Limmat river. Walking through this neighbourhood is like stepping back in time to admire old architecture with carved windows and intricately-designed structures that are unique to Switzerland. You can also take an Old Town walking tour.

There are four major churches in Zurich, each with their own unique stories. Perhaps the most famous is the Grossmunster. This 16th-century cathedral stands out in the Zurich skyline. Visitors can climb to the top of the spire for sprawling views over Lake Zurich.


Not far from Grossmunster, you’ll find the Fraumunster Church. Its elegant greenish spire towers above all other buildings in Zurich. The stained glass windows here are a sight to behold. The other two main churches are Predigerkirche and St. Peter. You can walk between each location. Guided tours are available at most churches or you can explore them independently. 

The Swiss National Museum captures the history of the country and Zurich in an expertly-designed series of exhibitions for guests to enjoy. Likewise, the Kunsthaus art museum is home to an expansive collection of Swiss art, some pieces dating back several centuries.

If you’re a lover of chocolate, pay a visit to the Lindt chocolate museum. Here you’ll learn about Lindt chocolate as well as the history of Swiss chocolate. Make sure to keep an eye out for the famous chocolate fountain that greets museum visitors. You can pre-purchase tickets here.

St Peter's Church in Zurich
St Peter’s Church in Zurich

Where to Stay in Zurich

Motel One Zürich – Mid-range visitors to Zurich are sure to love this centrally-located 3-star hotel. There are a myriad of chic rooms on offer, they are pet-friendly and there is even a cool lounge bar on site.

Sorell Hotel St. Peter – If you’re after some luxury while visiting this Swiss city, then this plush hotel is an excellent choice. They boast a number of luxe rooms and plenty of other amenities, it is also very centrally located close to everything this Swiss city has to offer.

HITrental Stauffacher Apartments – For those after their own holiday home in Zurich are sure to enjoy this aparthotel. They have a number of flats with various features to suit all kinds of group sizes and they’re all fully furnished with everything you may need.

Zurich Youth Hostel – If you’re travelling solo or on a tight budget, this youth hostel is a great option for you. They offer both dorm beds and private rooms available, self-catering facilities and great common areas available.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Zurich hotels!

Beautiful Zurich
Beautiful Zurich


Like Zurich, Bern is home to an Old City. The river Aare surrounds the city on three sides and you can find buildings dating all the way back to the 12th century. Despite being the capital city of Switzerland, Bern is only the fifth-largest in the country.

Due to it being the capital, you can expect to find a variety of museums and historical sites throughout the city. Here is everything you need to know about visiting Bern. 


Lucky for visitors, Bern is centrally located with extensive public transportation to make arriving and getting around the city easy.

Bern is a main stop for trains travelling throughout Europe and Switzerland, so you’ll have no trouble finding ample trains each day that arrive and depart from Bern.

There is also a large airport, great for those arriving from further away. Due to their close proximity, you could even fly into Zurich, should the flight price be more affordable, then take a less than two-hour train ride to Bern. You can view schedules here.

During your stay in Bern, getting around by foot is welcome. It’s a relatively small city whose city centre is easily explored by foot. Most accommodations and restaurants are located near the most popular attractions. An afternoon spent walking is a great way to take in everything the city has to offer. You might also stumble upon some hidden gems!

Bern cityscape
Bern, Switzerland

Should you be travelling further distances in Bern, or simply tired of being on your feet all day, the city offers a reliable and extensive public transportation system. There are several options for buses or streetcars to help you efficiently navigate the city.

Tickets must be purchased at ticket vending machines located at bus stops or train stations. You can also download the SBB-App to purchase tickets here. Keep in mind that tickets are not sold on the buses or trams, so take this into consideration when planning your Bern itinerary.

Finally, like Zurich, Bern welcomes its visitors to explore the city on a bike. You can take a tour with a guide or bike through Bern in the self-guided tour.

You can choose from several different kinds of bikes as well, ranging from e-bikes to road cycles. Biking is a wonderful way to see much of Bern in a limited amount of time. 


Bern is generally more affordable than Zurich, simply because it’s a small and less-trafficked city. However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that Bern is cheap compared to other European cities.

Switzerland is notoriously spendy for the average traveller, but don’t worry, there are ways you can cut down on the price while still making marvellous memories in Switzerland. 

The city is full of hostels where private rooms can be rented for a more affordable price than the average hotel. If you walk as much as possible and visit a local grocery store to cook for some meals, you can easily navigate Bern on a budget.

Exploring Bern's Streets
Exploring Bern’s Streets

Things to do in Bern

Bern is filled with activities to fill your day.

Perhaps one of the most popular sites to explore is the Zytglogge. The name translates to “time bell” and every hour the clock tower chimes. Visit the clock tower at the hour mark to hear the 3,000-pound bronze bell chime, and see the parading bears and laughing jester, gold rooster, and bearded Chronos pop out of the tower and move.

Those interested in seeing the inner workings of the clock are welcome to do so if they’re willing to climb the 130 steps to reach the top. From the top, you’ll get a lovely view of Bern’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Old Town. You can also organise a guided tour here.

Zytglogge clock tower
Zytglogge clock tower

Take an afternoon stroll through Bern’s Old Town (or join a walking tour) to admire the old architecture and cafes. As you walk, keep an eye out for some of Bern’s many quirky fountains.

The first one to stand out might be the frightening Kindlifrisserbrunnen, otherwise known as the “children-gobbler fountain.” There are several pieces of local lore that attempt to explain the history behind the fountain, but you can decide what you believe.

Throughout the rest of the city, you can find over 100 intricately designed fountains that served as places to meet, sell goods, and relax in Bern’s earliest years. Eleven of the fountains are topped with allegorical statues, telling biblical and mythological stories. 

Bern is a great jumping-off point to explore the surrounding natural area. However, if you want an awe-inspiring panoramic view without travelling out of the city, head over to the car-free Gurten.

Hop on Tram 9 from Bern station to reach the bottom of the Gurtenbahn funicular and you’ll ride to the top of the mountain with a local public transportation ticket. At the top, you’ll find hiking trails, views of the snow-capped surrounding Alps, and excellent views of the city and river. 

Upon arrival in Bern, you might have noticed a towering gothic spire crawling into the sky, far above the rest of Bern’s skyline. To the locals, this cathedral is known as the Munster and it’s Bern’s most eye-catching church.

The spire itself is 100 feet tall and you can climb to the top for some of the best inner-city views that Bern has to offer. Construction of the church began in 1421, but it took nearly 400 years before it reached full completion. 

Two museums should be on your list when you visit Bern: the Natural History Museum and the Einstein Museum. At the Natural History Museum, you’ll encounter a huge array of skeletons and dioramas that capture the natural history of the region.

Be sure to check out the Wunderkammer, or the “cabinet of curiosities”, to find thousands of weird and quirky creatures. The Einstein Museum is located in the former home of the famous scientist.

Albert Einstein lived in Bern for two years in the early 1900s. Here is where he developed his Theory of Relativity. The home has been refurbished and preserved to showcase an important slice of history. 

Bern Cathedral
Bern Cathedral

Where to Stay in Bern

Hotel Landhaus – This cosy hotel is an excellent choice for those looking for a mid-range option in Bern. They have a number of clean and comfortable rooms available, a great location for exploring the city and are also pet-friendly for those who are travelling with a dog. Click here to see their availability

The Bristol – This swish hotel is an excellent choice for those who are looking for a luxury option in the Swiss capital. They have countless plush rooms on offer, a hip lounge bar to enjoy, a location perfect for exploring all Bern has to offer and plenty of other amenities.

da Maurizio Suites – If you’re after your own space while staying in Bern, these suites are a great option. Offering both one- and two-bedroom apartment options, they come fully furnished and equipped with everything you may need. They’re also well located for exploring the highlights of the city.

Bern Backpackers – This backpacker’s hostel is a great choice if you’re travelling solo or on a budget while in Switzerland. They have good common areas to foster a nice social atmosphere and offer both private rooms and dorms of various sizes.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Bern hotels!

Swiss Parliament
Swiss Parliament

Bern or Zurich: Which is Better to Visit?

Both Bern and Zurich offer their visitors a wealth of things to add to their itineraries. When comparing Bern vs Zurich, there are a few key factors to take into consideration.

If you are looking for easy access to a lot of shopping and dining, consider making Zurich your home base as it’s the largest city in Switzerland.

Otherwise, if you want a slightly quieter place to stay, somewhere full of museums and history, Bern is your best bet.

While both Bern and Zurich have a lot to offer visitors, they both offer different things that can appeal to different kinds of visitors.

Are you trying to decide which Swiss city to visit? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Audrey Webster is a writer for The World Was Here First. She is an Oregon native who has visited countries across the globe and currently spends her weekends exploring the Pacific Northwest and surrounding states. Her approach to traveling combines exploring famous tourist sites and wandering off the beaten path to discover new destinations.

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