Hotel Schweizerhof Bern
Bern seen through the Japanese cherry trees in the city’s Rose Garden

Hotel Schweizerhof is putting Switzerland’s Bern on the map

23 Jan 2024|By Richard Brown

No one ever goes to Bern. One hotel is hoping to change that

I only know one other person who’s been to Bern. And he wasn’t meant to go. If you lose your passport while you’re in Switzerland, or any other country for that matter, you go online and fill out a form. If you’re legit, and maybe even if you’re not, the government will issue a one-way emergency passport. You’ll have to collect it from the local British Embassy. In Switzerland, the British Embassy is in Bern. You don’t need to lose your passport to go to Bern. But no one seems to know that. Because no one ever seems to go.

Bern is not the capital of Switzerland, even though people say that it is. Switzerland has no capital. Bern is the capital of the Canton of Bern and is home to the Federal Palace, which is where Switzerland’s national parliament meets. Hence the confusion.

Hotel Schweizerhof Bern
Hotel Schweizerhof in Bern’s central Bahnhofplatz

Below the dome of the Federal Palace is a statue of Nicholas of Flüe, Switzerland’s patron saint. Flüe was a hermit and a celibate who kept his nose clean by not getting involved in other people’s business. Switzerland’s perfect patron saint, in other words. The entrance to the palace is guarded by two bronze bears. You’ll see a lot of bears in Bern. They are carved into woodwork, printed on taxis, and rendered into cuddly toys to be sold alongside bars of milk chocolate and multi-functioning penknives.

A bear gives its name to the local newspaper and appears in Bern’s coat of arms. Perhaps it is because bears are so inherent to the city’s sense of identity – Bern takes its name from the animal, after all – that the grim concrete bear pits at the end of the Nydegg Bridge don’t incite the sort of controversy they almost certainly would anywhere else.

Bern's Old City, which is ringed by the River Aare
Bern’s Old City, which is ringed by the River Aare

The bears no longer live in the smallest pit. That’s now a gift shop. Since 2009, the bears have had the run of a section of riverbank next to the icy-blue Aare. The river snakes the perimeter of Bern’s Old Town, providing a natural ring-fence to urban sprawl and tin-pot modern architecture. Bern is one of the world’s most beautiful cities. I’ve not checked where it ranks in Monocle magazine’s Most Liveable Cities index, but I imagine it’s up there. The bear enclosure is nice enough, with trees and caves and part of the river in which the bears can fish and swim. But it’s hardly Yellowstone.

Hospitality is a game of dice. It is a punt that left Swiss investment firms increasingly exposed after 2004. Incoming regulation re-graded hotels as higher-risk ventures. Interest on loans jumped from four per cent to as much as 11 per cent. The Qataris are less risk-averse than the Swiss. They have a lot more money. Between 2008 and 2017 they snapped up three of Switzerland’s big-league hotels – the Royal Savoy in Lausanne, the Bürgenstock Resort in Lucerne, and Hotel Schweizerhof in Bern.

Hotel Schweizerhof Bern
Guests at Jack’s Brasserie have included Roger Federer, Liz Taylor, Grace Kelly, Ursula Andress, Sophia Loren and David Niven

Hotel Schweizerhof isn’t so much a hotel as a 70-year-old brasserie with 99 bedrooms attached. Jack’s, said brasserie, is named after the restaurant’s longest-serving and most famous owner, Jack Gauer, whose family ran the Schweizerhof from 1939 until a few years before the Qataris arrived.

It is a charming Art Nouveau coffee house with white tablecloths and mirrored glass and wood panelling and leather banquettes. It still hangs broadsheet newspapers from wooden newspaper sticks, even though no one seems to read newspapers anymore. Jack’s is famous for its wiener schnitzel, which is bigger than the plates on which they are served. Elizabeth Taylor and Grace Kelly dined here, as did Roger Federer. The restaurant is a time warp to the Belle Époque, which would have made it pastiche even when it first opened. Albert Einstein figured out that space and time could be pushed and pulled while living down the street. Perhaps he visited Jack’s. Maybe Jack’s was his Archimedes’ bathtub.

Hotel Schweizerhof Bern
Bedrooms at Hotel Schweizerhof were designed by London’s MKV Design studio

The 99 bedrooms – going by the one we saw at least – are a mix of herringbone floors, solid woods, black tiles, grey marble and fantastic water pressure. The public spaces, including the Lobby Lounge Bar, around which the hotel is set, are a mix of modern design and restored antique furniture. There are old-world portraits and Paul Klee prints.

You can’t fly directly to Bern. Which must be the main reason no one seems to go. If you take a train from Zurich (one hour) or Geneva (two hours), the train will leave and arrive exactly when it said it would. It’ll pull up in the Bahnhofplatz, which is in the centre of Bern, directly opposite Hotel Schweizerhof. If you give reception the heads up, they’ll send staff to meet you on the platform. Bern is a very civilised place.

From approx. £380 per night, schweizerhofbern.com

Read more: The best short-haul destinations for guaranteed spring sun