Bern vs Zurich: An Honest Comparison To Help You Choose!

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Last updated on April 26, 2023 by Wandering our World

Switzerland has no shortage of charming cities to explore, filled with history and beautiful sights. Bern and Zurich are two very popular examples, and these cities might sit at the top of your list of must-see Swiss locations. However, if you only have time to visit one, which should you pick?

Well, it may not be an easy choice, as both Bern and Zurich have a lot to offer, including historic Old Town streets, interesting museums, great places to eat, and pleasant green spaces for afternoon strolls with a partner or the whole family.

That’s why below, we’ll highlight some of the key differences between Bern and Zurich, such as Zurich’s livelier nature and more exciting nightlife scene, along with Bern’s more romantic scenery and relaxing vibes.

We’ll put these two cities side-by-side, comparing a range of key factors, like their attractions, accessibility, average accommodation costs, and much more.

By the end, you’ll have a much clearer picture of what Bern and Zurich are like and which one is right for you!

CONTENTS:

  1. A Quick Overview
  2. Which Is Easier To Get To?
  3. Which Is Easier To Get Around?
  4. Which Is Best For Activities?
  5. Which Is Better For Day Trips? 
  6. Which Is Better For Nightlife? 
  7. Which Is Best For Hiking? 
  8. Which Is Best For Shopping? 
  9. Which Has The Best Food? 
  10. Which Is Better For A Family Trip?
  11. Which Is Better For Couples & Honeymoons?  
  12. Which Is Better For Backpackers? 
  13. Which Is Cheaper? 
  14. Where To Stay According To Your Budget
  15. Which Is The Better Choice? 
An infographic pitting Bern vs Zurich and showing some of the key differences that will be discovered later in the article.

A Quick Overview: Bern vs Zurich

Bern: A Quick Overview

Bern is the capital city of Switzerland, although it’s only the fifth largest city in terms of population, with around 133,000 people living there.

It’s situated in the German-speaking part of the country, in the northwest section, and it was built beside the river Aare, which winds its way through the center of the city.

The history of Bern goes back to the 12th century, and it played a key role in Switzerland’s development throughout the ages.

It was one of the first eight cantons of the Old Swiss Confederacy, and this beautiful city retains much of its medieval charm, with landmarks like its 13th century Zytglogge clock tower and 15th century Gothic cathedral.

While many European capitals are big and bustling places, like Paris and Rome, Bern has a surprisingly relaxed, almost small-town atmosphere.

It’s wonderfully well-maintained and picturesque, with plenty of greenery to balance out the centuries-old buildings, and many visitors describe Bern as a romantic and cozy place to spend a few nights.

In terms of attractions and things to do, Bern has a UNESCO-listed Old Town, with lots of monuments and pretty structures to admire.

It’s also famous for its 100+ fountains, which mostly date back to the Middle Ages and only add to the city’s romantic charms.

Switzerland. Swiss travel and landmarks .Romantic bridges and canals of Bern capital city
iStock.com/Freeartist

Zurich: A Quick Overview

Zurich is the largest city in Switzerland. It’s situated in the northern-central part of the country and is home to around 443,000 people, with more than 1.8 million in the surrounding metropolitan area.

Thanks to this, some people mistakenly assume that Zurich is the Swiss capital instead of Bern, as it’s so much bigger and busier.

People have been living on the land around Zurich or thousands of years, and the origins of the city itself go back to the days of Ancient Rome. Like Bern, Zurich played its part in Swiss history, but is best-known nowadays as the country’s financial and banking center.

But don’t let Zurich’s many banks fool you; this city is far from bland or boring.

It’s actually a very lively and increasingly popular touristic destination, with dozens of interesting museums to learn more about Switzerland and its culture, fun family attractions, and an array of trendy districts with craft bars and thumping clubs.

Zurich also has the benefit of beautiful natural surroundings. It’s located right beside the impeccably clean Lake Zurich, which stretches out across more than 34 square miles.

Outdoor adventurers can therefore find plenty to love about Zurich, with some great hiking trails and water-based activities to enjoy.

Aerial view of Zürich city center with famous Fraumünster Church and river Limmat at Lake Zurich from Grossmünster Church, Canton of Zürich, Switzerland.
iStock.com/bluejayphoto

Which Is Easier To Get To?

Both Bern and Zurich have their own international airports near to the city center.

However, it’s worth noting that Zurich’s airport is significantly larger than the airport of Bern, with way more flights and connections all over the globe.

If you’re heading to Zurich, you can book a direct flight from almost any major city in Europe, and Zurich also has direct links to parts of Africa and Asia, along with the US and Canada, making it the easiest city to get to in all of Switzerland.

In contrast, Bern’s local airport only has a few direct connections with cities in Turkey, Spain, and a couple of other countries.

Most travelers heading to Bern should instead fly directly into Zurich and then hop on a train to Bern, which will only take about an hour.

Overall, since Zurich has the biggest airport and most connections, it’s the easier place to get to.

Beautiful view of the historic city center of Zurich with famous Fraumunster Church and swans on river Limmat on a sunny day with blue sky, Canton of Zurich, Switzerland.
iStock.com/bluejayphoto

Which Is Easier To Get Around? 

After arriving in either Bern or Zurich, you’ll have to think about how you’re going to make your way around to see the sights and enjoy the various activities you’ve been planning. So, which city is easier to navigate?

Well, Bern has the benefit of being much more compact than Zurich, which makes it a highly walkable destination.

You can usually find a hotel within walking distance of the main landmarks and attractions, and if you do need to rely on public transport, Bern has a reliable bus network. You can also rent a bicycle or e-bike, which is a pleasant way to travel around Bern.

Swiss cities are known for having excellent public transit systems, and Zurich is no exception.

In fact, the buses and trains in this city are as reliable as a Swiss watch, with plenty of services and routes spanning across the entire city and beyond, taking you almost anywhere you need to go.

Overall, Bern takes the win in this category, purely due to the fact that it’s smaller and simpler to traverse on foot.

Zurich is still very easy to get around, so you shouldn’t have any worries at all – visitors might like to grab the Zurich Card for unlimited travel on trams, buses, trains, and boats.

Street view on Kramgasse with fountain and clock tower in the old town of Bern city. It is a popular shopping street and medieval city centre of Bern, Switzerland
iStock.com/RossHelen

Which Is Best For Activities?

For many travelers, the choice between Bern and Zurich will come down to which city has the best activities and attractions.

And this is one area in which the two cities have a couple of key differences; notably, Zurich has more attractions and will probably need a longer trip to fully appreciate, while Bern can mostly be seen in just a couple of days.

You’ll find museums and winding Old Town streets in both Bern and Zurich. The capital can also boast of quirky landmarks and dozens of medieval fountains, perfect for people who simply enjoy long walks through town.

Meanwhile, Zurich has a greater range of cultural landmarks, along with many nature-based activities around the lake.

Let’s take a closer look at how these two cities compare when it comes to activities and experiences.

Bern: The Activities

Most visitors to Bern will want to spend at least some time seeing the sights, and the Zytglogge is by far the best-known landmark in the city.

This fabulous old clock tower has been standing for centuries, and its 3,000 pound bell still chimes every single day, while other decorative items – including a dancing jester and rooster – mark the passing of each hour.

The Zytglogge is housed in Bern’s Old Town, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s a wonderful place to roam around, with several miles of cobblestone streets and twisting, turning alleyways to explore and hidden gems around every corner.

Look out for the many medieval fountains and decorative statues, which depict various Biblical icons and folklore characters.

There are also some terrific museums in this city to help you learn more about various subjects.

For example, the Natural History Museum is a veritable treasure trove of skeletons and ancient artifacts, while the Einstein Museum is located in the famous physicist’s former home – Einstein actually worked on his famous Theory of Relativity while residing in the Swiss capital.

If you’re looking for something a little different, you could head to the city’s ‘Bear Pit’ – bears have been a symbol of Bern for centuries, and the city has its own extensive enclosure with a small family of four bears for visitors to admire.

You can find even more animals in Bern Zoo, and spend time visiting other major landmarks, like the cathedral and Federal Palace.

The cathedral of Bern or Munster along side of Aare river in sunny day, Switzerland tourism
iStock.com/1989_s

Zurich: The Activities

While Bern is quite a historic location, Zurich blends the old and the new in equal measure.

Visitors can spend a day exploring the city’s marvelous Old Town district, for example, to take in the sights of the famous Fraumunster and Grossmunster churches, before heading over to the post-industrial Zurich-West district for hip bars and trendy cafes.

This city is also famed for its extensive museum collection. The list of museums is quite extensive and impressive, with more than 50 different locations to choose from.

The National Museum is one of the top spots to learn about Switzerland, or you could try something different, like the Money Museum, FIFA Football Museum, or even a Clock and Watch Museum.

There are some very pleasant and pretty streets to walk along in Zurich, like the iconic Limmatquai, which follows the Limmat river and passes through the heart of Old Town.

Or, you could head over to Zurich’s Botanical Gardens to take in the sights and smells of more than 8,000 different plant species from all over the globe.

Beyond the city center, you can find some fun family attractions in Zurich’s suburbs, like the Lindt Home of Chocolate experience, with the world’s biggest Lindt Chocolate Shop, in Kilchberg, to the south.

Or, you can head to Lake Zurich itself for hiking, kayaking, paddleboarding, and sunbathing on the small beaches dotted along the shore.

Overall, both cities have plenty of fun things to do, but Zurich tops the list when it comes to the quantity of attractions and activities, mixing everything from historic churches to interesting museums and outdoor adventures, with something to appeal to almost every kind of traveler.

Zurich city center, view over Old town roofs to Grossmunster cathedral, Switzerland
iStock.com/Xantana

Which Is Better For Day Trips? 

Bern and Zurich are both pleasant cities in which to spend a few days or even a full week, but you might like to plan a day trip or two during your stay, in order to see a little more of Switzerland or even visit one of the neighboring nations, like France or Germany.

Given that Bern and Zurich aren’t too far apart, it’s possible to do many of the same day trips from either city.

However, given that Bern is further to the west, it’s ideal for visiting nearby Swiss cities, like Geneva and Lausanne, both of which offer rich, cultural experiences and gorgeous lakeside landscapes.

Bern is also quite nicely-placed for adventures over the border into France. You can head north to the city of Mulhouse, for example, which has a fabulous Automobile Museum.

Or head west to cities like Besancon or Dijon – this city is known to many for its mustard, but is quite a pretty place, too, with palaces and local vineyard tours.

From Zurich, you can take your pick of various Swiss cities, from the lakeside Lucerne to the fascinating Rhine River city of Basel, which sits at the point where Swiss, German, and French borders all meet – this city is regarded as the cultural capital of Switzerland, home to the biggest museum in the country.

If you’d prefer to head over the border, Zurich is well-placed for trips north, into Germany, with a variety of small towns and the city of Freiburg im Breisgau within easy reach.

The lakeside city of Konstanz is another potential off-the-beaten-path spot to try, or you can head east into Liechtenstein, calling at the medieval capital of Vaduz.

Overall, it’s hard to see which city is best for day trips, as there are lovely places to see not far from both Bern and Zurich.

However, Zurich’s superior public transport links might make it a more convenient starting point for day trip adventures.

Scenic summer aerial panorama of the Old Town medieval architecture in Lucerne, Switzerland
iStock.com/scanrail

Which Is Better For Nightlife? 

Next, let’s talk about nightlife, and see which of these two cities has more of an active party scene.

But if you’re looking for a rapid answer, Zurich is definitely the livelier and more exciting place to be in the evenings.

As the much larger and more populated city, with quite a sizable student population, it’s only natural that Zurich has more clubs, pubs, and places to party.

It’s the nightlife capital of Switzerland, and there are lots of great places to go after sunset, especially around the ever-popular Langstrasse district.

Zurich-West, also known as Kreis 5, is another very trendy place to party in Zurich. Once filled with nothing but factories and warehouses, this area has undergone a dramatic makeover in recent years, and those same industrial spaces now house raucous parties, cute craft bars, and other awesome hangout spots.

So, how does Bern compare? Well, there is still a nightlife scene in this city, it’s just not as big or vibrant as Zurich.

There’s a small selection of venues, including Irish pubs that the locals tend to love and some fancy rooftop terraces with amazing views across the city and colorful cocktail menus.

You’ll also find some clubs that get pretty lively at the weekends in Bern, with everything from jazz to electronic music and R’n’B.

However, with more venues to choose from, and a deeper, richer scene, Zurich is definitely the winner in this category.

DJ spinning decks at a bar
iStock.com/DisobeyArt

Which Is Best For Hiking? 

As well as sightseeing and visiting the various museums in Bern and Zurich, you might like to explore the beautiful surrounding landscapes of these cities and visit some of the local hiking trails.

After all, Switzerland is one of the best hiking havens of Europe, with so many mountains and lakes to walk around and such majestic scenery to take in.

Bern may not have a big lake beside it like Zurich, but it’s still a fabulous place to hike, with mountains, hills, valleys, and even waterfalls to uncover in the surrounding region.

In fact, there are thousands of miles of hiking and trekking trails dotted across the vast Canton of Bern, like the Gantrisch Panoramic trail, which traverses the pre-Alps and enjoys magnificent views.

If you’re looking for a challenge, you can head to the Brienzer Rothorn and reach a height of 7,710 feet above sea level.

Or, for something more local and accessible, try climbing the Gurten Mountain, which looks over the city itself – this mountain is pretty well-developed, with multiple restaurants, a play area for kids, and a funicular railway if you’re too tired to walk up or down.

Zurich is also a hiker’s paradise, with numerous fun and rewarding trails to choose from. And, just like Bern and Gurten, Zurich has its own mountain that is really easy to access from the city center.

The Uetliberg Mountain rises up around 2,850 feet and enjoys awe-inspiring panoramic views – hikers can choose from a selection of walking paths that wind their way to the top.

There are also a range of long trekking trails taking in the various alpine lakes and mountain peaks just beside Zurich, like the Five Lakes Trail or Seven Peaks Trail.

Or, if you’re looking for something less strenuous, Lake Zurich itself has several looping paths that meander around the water’s edge.

Overall, both of these cities have great hiking opportunities, including local mountains and natural reserves.

There’s no real winner here, although Bern has more family-friendly hiking spots, like the Gaggerstag Boardwalk, while Zurich’s trekking trails can provide more of a challenge to seasoned outdoor enthusiasts.

cow in the field in Switzerland, pretty snow capped mountain in the background and trees in front of it
iStock.com/Yiran An

Which Is Best For Shopping? 

Many people plan to do a bit of shopping during their time in Switzerland, and you might hope to pick up some traditional Swiss souvenirs, like a new watch or some high quality chocolate. But which city is the better choice for shopaholics?

Well, Bern has quite a nice range of small boutiques and interesting markets throughout its Old Town.

You can head to streets like Marktgasse and Spitalgasse, and there are some particularly impressive beauty shops, interior design stores, and fashion houses, as well as a couple of big department stores.

As the larger city, Zurich has even more places to shop. Its Old Town is filled with souvenir stores, secret book shops, and artisanal boutiques, and the Zurich-West district is another top spot to search for bargains and great buys.

Whether you want big designer names, typical Swiss produce, or something different, you can find it all here.

Overall, both Bern and Zurich are good places to shop, but you’ll find a wider selection of stores and more options over in Zurich.

Panorama of Zurich, Switzerland
iStock.com/aletheia97

Which Has The Best Food? 

Swiss cuisine includes some delicious recipes and unique cooking methods, like the famous fondue, with its pot of melted cheese, or the raclette, which involves heating a special type of cheese and the scraping the melted parts over boiled potatoes.

Both of these traditional dishes, along with many others, can be enjoyed in Bern and Zurich, and Bern has a growing culinary scene, with a nice mixture of high-end, gourmet-grade restaurants and more traditional, cozy, family-friendly eateries.

There are also some top bakeries dotted around Bern for your morning pastries or afternoon treats.

Once again, Zurich has more options in this department, with a deeper and more diverse culinary scene.

Zurich is certainly one of the best places to enjoy traditional Swiss food in all of its many, flavorful forms, and there are even a couple of Michelin starred restaurants for those in search of a memorable and magical evening meal.

Overall, with the wider range of restaurants and richer scene, Zurich again has to be the winner in this category, but it’s still possible to eat very well in Bern.

Traditional Swiss cheese fondue with wine glasses
iStock.com/margouillatphotos

Which Is Better For A Family Trip? 

If you’re planning a trip to either Bern or Zurich with the family, it can be tricky to choose between these two cities, as both of them have an array of fun family attractions and plenty of things to keep kids of all ages entertained.

In Bern, there’s the famous Bear Pit, as well as the city’s zoo, filled with animals for kids to admire. Bern also has its own family water park, called Bernaqua, and it’s fully indoors, making it an ideal choice on rainy days.

Kids may also enjoy some of Bern’s interactive museums, parks, and gardens, as well as the Gurten Mountain with its play area and tobogganing slopes.

Over in Zurich, families will discover several family attractions, such as the Zurich Zoo, as well as an array of museums, many of which are designed to appeal to young kids.

The Technorama Science Center, for instance, has various interactive exhibits and even a couple of escape rooms for families to try.

Overall, there’s no wrong option if you’re choosing between Zurich and Bern for families.

Zurich has a lot of things to do, but many families might prefer the calmer setting of Bern, and it’s an idyllic destination for a relaxing but fun-filled family getaway.

Bear in Bear Pit in Bern, Switzerland. Bear is a symbol of Bern city
iStock.com/OlyaSolodenko

Which Is Better For Couples & Honeymoons? 

For couples, the choice between Bern and Zurich may not be an easy one.

There are advantages to visiting both of these cities, and each one can provide romantic vibes and happy experiences for couples of various ages.

Bern is the more traditionally romantic location, thanks to its many gardens, parks, green spaces, and charming vibes.

It’s a really cozy and quaint place to spend some time with a loved one, with a great range of things to do; you can meander along the streets of Old Town, seeking out the many fountains and statues, or visit gardens and museums

In Zurich, the atmosphere isn’t always as romantic, but there’s much more for couples to do.

There’s literally dozens of museums to check out, as well as spas, historic Old Town streets, walking tours, culinary tours, boat rides on Lake Zurich, huge churches, a chocolate museum, and so on.

Overall, there’s no clear winner here. However, Bern will appeal to couples who are seeking romance and relaxation in a scenic setting, while Zurich has more to offer for active couples or those who enjoy exciting nightlife.

Facades of the old town of Bern, capital of Switzerland, with Swiss alps peaks in the background glowing reddish during an  autumn sunset.
iStock.com/simarts

Which Is Better For Backpackers? 

Backpackers and budget-conscious travelers in general need to be cautious when planning trips around Switzerland.

This country is famed for being one of the more expensive parts of Europe, and its big cities, including Bern and Zurich, can be pretty pricey to explore.

With that said, it’s still possible to have a backpacking trip to Bern. There are a couple of hostels aimed specifically at backpackers in the city center, allowing you to simply walk around and visit the various landmarks.

Most of these hostels have their own on-site dining facilities, too, giving you another way to save money.

Zurich also has a number of hostels, and it’s a cheaper city overall. It’s still expensive compared to other urban areas across Europe, but backpackers should find it easier to plan a budget-friendly trip here.

Plus, Zurich has the benefit of better public transport, and it’s right beside Lake Zurich, making it ideal for backpackers who love hiking and general exploration.

Overall, Zurich has to take the win in this category, thanks to its slightly lower costs for things like food, accommodation, and public transport.

Man photographing cityscape of old town at beautiful sunset. Zurich, Switzerland.
iStock.com/chalabala

Which Is Cheaper? 

As stated above, it’s important to note that Switzerland isn’t usually a cheap travel destination, and its large cities can have quite high prices for things like hotels, restaurant meals, and even simple souvenirs.

With that said, there is still a difference in average costs between Bern and Zurich, and it’s Zurich that emerges as the cheaper city.

You’ll find everything from food to hotels to be cheaper in Zurich, and the big city has a wider range of eateries and accommodation options, making it easier to stick within your budget.

The one advantage with Bern is that it’s smaller, so you can get around mostly or entirely on foot and won’t need to worry about public transport costs.

Picturesque houses of a medieval city with colorful shutters, Zurich, Switzerland
iStock.com/Rostislavv

Where To Stay According To Your Budget

Bern

Budget: Just five minutes walk to the Old Town and steps from the famous bear pit, Hotel Landhaus is a great family-friendly hotel in a superb location. See photos and rates!

Luxury: The five-star Bellevue Palace is a gorgeous hotel set in a fantastic location. And with previous guests that include Queen Elizabeth, Nelson Mandela and Bruce Springsteen, you’ll be in esteemed company when staying here. See photos and rates!

Zurich

Budget: Close to the lake amid a very friendly atmosphere is the family-run Aparthotel Familie Hugenschmidt. The location is fantastic, and the rates affordable. See photos and rates!

Luxury: The elegant, five-star La Réserve Eden au Lac Zurich is set right on Lake Zurich so you’ll wake up to wonderful views every morning. With renowned celebrity service and world-class dining, this is easily one of the best hotels in the country. See photos and rates!

view on Fraumunster Church and Church of St. Peter at night, Zurich, Switzerland
iStock.com/zhuzhu

Bern vs Zurich: Which Is The Better Choice?

So, if you have to pick between Bern and Zurich for your next Swiss adventure, which city should you choose?

Well, either option should provide you with a very happy trip, as both of these cities are beautiful, with a multitude of landmarks to visit, natural spaces to explore, fabulous food to sample, and other activities to enjoy.

However, if we look at each of the categories listed throughout our guide, it’s clear that Zurich is the overall winner.

It has easier access, better nightlife, a stronger culinary scene, superior shopping experiences, and cheaper prices, making it an appealing option to more or less every kind of traveler, from backpackers to couples.

At the same time, Bern is still worth considering. It’s a terrific family vacation destination, thanks to its cozy feel and fun attractions, and there’s a whole lot of history here, making Bern the perfect choice for those who want to lose themselves among cobbled, medieval streets.

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  • Wandering our World

    Hi and welcome to Wandering our World! This article was written by one of the Wandering our World team - a team of travel enthusiasts who live around the globe.