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Basel vs. Bern: Which is best for a weekend break?

Basel and Bern both have unique draws that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors to Switzerland each year. If you only have time to visit one of these Swiss cities, it's best to know which one is ideal for you.

Basel vs. Bern: Which is best for a weekend break?
Basel-City is technically not a 'half-canton'. Photo: Pixabay

Each of the two cities in question – Basel and Bern – have a special charm and enough memorable attractions to fill two or three-day weekend breaks with excitement.

So, the choice for a weekend getaway largely depends on your personal preferences and what you’re looking for in a two or three-day break.

When choosing between Basel and Bern for a weekend , many visitors consider aspects like ease of access, general vibe, favourite attractions, and natural scenery.

To help you make an informed decision, we will outline the strengths of both cities in these areas.

Accessibility: Basel trumps Switzerland’s capital city

When it comes to ease of access, Bern, as the capital of Switzerland, is – contrary to popular belief – not necessarily better connected than Basel.

Bern (134,290 inhabitants) may sit in the second-largest canton (of the same name) by both surface area and population, and border an impressive 11 cantons, but Basel (173,064 residents) counts both Germany and France as its neighbours.

Likewise, Bern loses out when it comes to international flight connections.

While Bern is based near an airport – the Airport Bern – the airport itself is not located in the capital city, but rather a 20-minute train ride away in the municipality of Belp. Moreover, the airport is mostly used for private flights, with only Air Corsica, Helvetic Airways, Lübeck Air, SkyAlps, and Swiss Flight Services offering seasonal charter flights abroad.

If you’re visiting the EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg, however, you’ll have a much easier time scoring cheap last-minute deals from multiple European destinations with budget airlines Easyjet, RyanAir and Wizz Air.

Both cities have comprehensive public transportation systems – as all Swiss cities do, which means they’re pretty easy to explore through their respective public transport networks.

READ MORE: Basel vs Bern: Which Swiss city is the best to live in?

City vibe: Vibrant vs. cosy

Unsurprisingly, Basel, with its close proximity to both Germany and France is usually considered more multicultural than Bern – although Bern, too, has a vibrant international community of students and residents (24.4 percent compared to Basel’s 38.1 percent).

Still, the overall impression you’ll get from a weekend in these two cities is likely to be quite different.

In Basel, you’ll feel spoiled for choice (by Swiss standards), with a wide range of cultural activities, shopping districts, museums, and a lively nightlife scene. You should expect a bustling and fast-paced urban experience, although not as overwhelming and certainly still more relaxed than in larger European capitals.

READ MORE: Six things people who live in Basel take for granted

In Bern, on the other hand, you’ll more likely focus on the unique and cosy charm that accompanies its Old City (a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1983), and taking in the many Renaissance-style fountains, sandstone buildings, and six kilometres of arcades.

The relaxed atmosphere and the somewhat slower pace of life make Bern a perfect place for strolls or taking your time to pick a restaurant to try the local cuisine (make sure you try Bern’s most popular dish, the Bärner Platte, and pair it with a fresh-out-the-oven Bärner Anke Züpfe while you’re at it!)

Main attractions

In Basel you’ll find a number of internationally renowned attractions such as the Fondation Beyeler (Switzerland’s most popular art museum), the Jean-Tinguely-Museum which displays the world’s largest collection on kinetic works of the Swiss-born artist, and perhaps the most interesting of the bunch (especially if you’re bringing kids along): the Basler Papiermühle.

Located on the banks of the Rhine, the five-centuries-old Basler Papiermühle will teach you everything you need to know about the production of paper, its history, and the written word. You can even partake in interactive exhibits where you can make your own paper.

You will also not want to miss Basel’s Old City which is of medieval build with Gothic-style cathedrals and a town hall built of red sandstone.

Bern, on the other hand, is famous for its Gurtenpark – a mountain park boasting multiple features such as hiking trails, an observation tower, a playground, as well as numerous other attractions.

If you’re travelling with kids, you may also want to stop by the Tierpark where over 200 species of animals can be visited 365 days a year. While there, we also recommend checking out the BärenPark which is located at the foot of Bern’s Old City. There, you may just be able to sneak a peek at one of the enclosure’s real-life bears, which by the way have been the symbol of the city for centuries, though the origins are disputed.

Another highlight of Bern is the Rosengarten, which is located in the very heart of the city and makes the perfect getaway spot for a picnic or a stroll while taking a short break from sightseeing.

In the centre of Bern’s Old City you can also find the Zytglogge, a medieval clock tower that was built in the 13th century and originally served as a gate tower of Bern’s western fortifications.

If you’re in the mood for a museum visit, you should definitely drop by the Einstein Museum which is based within Bern’s iconic Bern Historical Museum.

Many people might not know that Albert Einstein was living in Bern when developing his theory of relativity. The exhibition dedicated to him explores both his private and professional lives as well as the fascinating world of the 1920s.

You can also grab an audio guide in various languages (German/French/English/Italian/Spanish/Japanese/Hebrew/Chinese/Russian) to enjoy your visit even more.

You can also visit the house at Kramgasse, where the physicist lived with his family in the early 1900s.

Natural scenery

Both Basel and Bern have scenic and usable (for swimmers) rivers flowing through them, the Rhine in Basel and the Aare in Bern.

In fact, swimming in the cities rivers counts among the Swiss’ most beloved summer sports.

If you you’re in Basel and really want to swim like a native, you will need to bag yourself a waterproof ‘Wickelfisch’ swim bag, which is perfect for those who would rather not leave their clothes unattended.

Not surprisingly, the peculiar-looking bag is also a very popular souvenir.

But before you get ready for a jump, Basel’s cantonal police advises that only good to very good swimmers go into the Rhine as the water can be dangerous for inexperienced swimmers for whom a dip in the Gemsberg-Brunnen fountain may prove a better fit.

If you do happen to be a strong swimmer though, you can let the current take you down the river. Simply hop in between the Wettsteinbrücke and Johanniterbrücke and let the water do its thing.

Meanwhile, swimmers in Bern’s waterworks are often spotted sporting an Marzilian Aarebag featuring Bern’s signature bear print. The bag can be taken for a swim while keeping your belongings perfectly dry.

The majority of swimmers meet up at the Marzilibad or Lorrainebad and walk upstream by the river, either from Marzili towards Schönausteg, or from Lorrainebad towards Altenbergsteg – before jumping in the river and drifting downstream.

Whether you are off to swim in the Rhine or Aare, remember that swimming in Switzerland’s rivers is usually only recommended for experienced swimmers.

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What makes Switzerland’s Alpine pasture season worthy of global recognition?

Switzerland's Alpine pasture season has been included in UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. But what makes it so special?

What makes Switzerland’s Alpine pasture season worthy of global recognition?

Why are Swiss Alpine pastures in the news?

On Wednesday, UNESCO announced it had inscribed 45 elements on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity during its annual session held in Kasane (Republic of Botswana).

The list comprises cultural “practices and expressions [that] help demonstrate the diversity of this heritage and raise awareness about its importance.” 

Among this year’s new elements were two Swiss entries, one of which is the country’s popular Alpine pasture season.

What is Switzerland’s Alpine pasture season?

As an exemplary tradition of the Swiss mountain areas, the Alpine pasture season combines traditional skills, customs and rituals related to Alpine farming in Switzerland.

The Alpine pasture season takes place from around May to October in Switzerland when various cattle, sheep and goats are relocated to high-altitude pastures (between 600 metres and 2900 metres) to graze on fresh forage and herbs that thrive in the summer months.

The Alpine farmers, or Alpacists, then look after the livestock and their surroundings, produce different dairy products, and even invite visitors to observe the animals and farming practices.

“The practice contributes to the preservation of natural landscapes and creates economic and social ties between the local populations and the Alpine farmers. It has given rise to the knowledge and skills needed to maintain the sites, as well as to a variety of social and religious practices such as rituals, prayers and blessings, traditional clothing, livestock competitions and local festivities,” UNESCO writes.

Some of these practices also include “traditional clothing, livestock competitions and local festivals” like the Alpine cattle ascent (inalpe) and the Alpine cattle descent (désalpe) where – depending on the region – the most beautiful cow of the herd is crowned.

Festivals to celebrate the herd animals heading to their summer pastures play a vital role for farmers and locals as they highlight craft practices that are otherwise rarely observed in Switzerland.

“The knowledge, skills, and customs of the Alpine pasture season, including farming and cheesemaking, are often transmitted informally, within families and their seasonal employees or among members of Alpine societies and cooperatives. They are also transmitted through regional training centres, cultural events and tourism,” UNESCO says.

READ MORE: Why are cows so important in Switzerland?

UNESCO also recognises Swiss irrigation technology

Switzerland’s cattle weren’t the only ones to join UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity this year.

Its centuries-old irrigation technology from Bern and Lucerne also made the cut.

The multinational agricultural technology was proposed for inclusion on the UNESCO list by Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Switzerland and Germany, zentralplus reported.

According to UNESCO, traditional irrigation involves temporarily digging small ditches and channels to distribute water from as springs, rivers, streams, and glaciers to meadows.

This sustainable form of water supply, which serves to cultivate dry areas, also has a positive effect on biodiversity.

In Switzerland, this technology is celebrated with various social gatherings and other festivities to mark the start and ending of the water season.

UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity also includes six other Swiss entries.

These include the Craftsmanship of mechanical watchmaking and art mechanics (2020), the Holy Week processions in Mendrisio (2019), Alpinism (2019), the Avalanche risk management (2018), Art of dry stone walling, knowledge and techniques (2018), the Basel Carnival (2017), and the Winegrowers’ Festival in Vevey (2016).

Since 2020, the craft techniques and customary practices of cathedral workshops, or Bauhütten, in Europe, know-how, transmission, development of knowledge and innovation – which include Switzerland – also joined UNESCO’s Register of Good Safeguarding Practices and falls within the agency’s Intangible Cultural Heritage.

READ MORE: The 13 world heritage sites in Switzerland you need to see