In Bern, Switzerland, hidden bargains and worthwhile treats await. That's a formula even Einstein would approve of!
What's your idea of a great bargain or splurge in Switzerland? Maybe chocolate from a hidden store followed up with a custom Swiss watch? Or a hike through the Alps before rounding out the day with some chic apres-ski? All good ideas, but Switzerland is a country that beckons you to dig deeper, look beyond the stereotypes, and explore the unexpected.
This is especially true of Bern, home to the seat of the Swiss government. It's smaller and less flashy than other Swiss cities and is often underrated by many as a result. But not by me! Bern has had a special place in my heart from my very first trip - and I was eager to discover it once more from a new perspective and with a new budget.
Save: Hosteling International Bern (for sleep AND eats!)
If you've been following this blog for a while, you'll know that an obsession and passion for a certain jam burns in my heart. The plum jam I had at Hosteling International Bern in the summer of 2001 remains absolutely vivid in my mind, a perfect travel taste that I have forever loved. I knew when we went to Switzerland in 2016 that I HAD to return to Hosteling International. While it may be futile, I had to continue with my jam quest, 15 years after the fact.
Every quest deserves a happy ending and I'm THRILLED to report that they are STILL serving the same jam as they did in 2001! But surprise! It's wild sour cherry jam, not plum. So I was on a misguided search for over a decade. That could happen on any great quest, right?
So what was it like devouring a breakfast of rustic homemade bread, butter, cherry jam, hot chocolate, orange juice, and yogurt? Oddly satisfying - and not just because it's one of the better hostel breakfasts out there. I felt at peace, like I was honoring 21 year old me, concluding my 'grown up' European tour the same way I concluded my very first backpacking trip. It was a wonderful, full circle travel moment.
I must be careful not to let breakfast outshine dinner. Hostel guests can opt in to dinner services for a modest fee and in my opinion it's the best bargain in the city. A broth style soup, bread, a huge plate of salad (including greens, marinated veggies, chickpea salad, couscous salad, and more), a choice of vegetarian or meat based main course with sides (I had stuffed tomatoes, Ryan had a traditional sausage dish) and fruit for dessert. All for under 18 Swiss Francs each! We barely made it through half of what was on our tray and it stood out as one of the best value meals we had on our trip. Humble home cooking with generous portions always win.
As with the jam, the hostel accommodations were just as I remembered them. This particular HI has a slightly institutional environment. It's not in a converted historic building or charming seaside home like some hostels we've stayed in. But while it doesn't have oodles of charm, it did check all our boxes. It was quiet, clean, secure, in a great location, and relatively comfortable. Our private room featured a bunk bed, a small desk, a generous closet with hangers and shelves, and a sink. We had to go a few steps down the hall for the toilets and showers.
If you're not convinced to try hosteling based on cherry jam alone, I should point out that any basic hotel in Bern that shares these same descriptors (clean, comfortable, basic) costs at least 4 times as much a private hostel room, while a more luxurious property could cost 10 times as much. Now's the time to bunk with HI!
Splurge: The Einstein Museum Cafe
It's not often I begin a paragraph with a disclaimer but here I must. The Einstein Cafe (and adjacent museum) are NOT splurges by the standard of regular prices in Bern. And, compared to some travel indulgences we've enjoyed around the world, they're not a splurge at all! But this visit WAS a splurge for us in the context of an otherwise very budget friendly trip and, if you're not used to the prices in Switzerland, your visit might feel a bit splurge-y as well.
But splurge you should! We sure did, and our visit was the better for it. (And can be just take a moment to acknowledge that Switzerland's cafe scene never gets the credit it deserves?) We indulged in apple cake (there were two on the menu - I unabashedly asked for the less expensive of the two) and an extravagant cappuccino for me and a large black coffee for Ryan. It all felt very Einstein-like, getting cheap cake and expensive coffee and pondering the ways of the world as only a young patent clerk or blogger can. The cafe's motto is "Relatively The Best" and that's definitely an understatement.
Steal: Europe's Best Gelato
The absolute BEST thing to do in Bern - nay, in all of Europe - is to join the locals in jumping into the river and letting the current carry you (safely) downstream. (Seriously, this IS a thing!) Alas, during our visit it was just a bit too cold to participate. No one was swimming! So we did the next best thing - go for gelato and indulge in a little people watching by the river paths.
Bern has an upper and lower town, happily connected by a user-friendly funicular (which is FREE for hostel and hotel guests as these tourist oriented properties issue complimentary transit passes during your stay. Read more here!) The hostel, as well as the outdoor pool and recreation complex beside the river's jumping off point are all in the city's understated and underrated lower town. I'm glad the cool temperatures didn't dampen our lower town exploration plans as we found the best gelato in Bern - nay, in all of Europe!
I'm not messing around when I say it that Gelateria di Berna served up the best gelato we had in all of Europe. Did I mention that we ate gelato twice a day in Rome? Yep, we know our ice cream! So what makes Gelateria di Berna so irresistible? I think it's a combination of the pure, true-to-source flavors and a strong effort to present balanced flavor profiles, mixing sweet, savory, and even bitter and spicy notes. I had a scoop each of grapefruit pepper, strawberry balsamic, and apricot-lemon-thyme. Amazing! (Ryan was less adventurous with his usual chocolate, vanilla, pistachio combo.)
Why I'll go back to Bern again and again.
Sure, it's got all the chocolate and cheese a girl can dream of but Bern is one of my most beloved cities for other reasons. Like humble, heartwarming treats such as cherry jam and clean bedrooms anyone can afford. Or dreams of river swims and feasts of gelato. And a lazy afternoon with spent with Einstein and apple cake. I think it's the perfect city to balance splurges and savings, which isn't easy to say for much of Switzerland, and it's my favourite stop to anchor any European trip.
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Our visit to Bern was facilitated in part by the local tourism board and HI Switzerland and we thank them for their support.