Nature works on an epic scale here. Whether you’re hiking in the shadow of the fearsome north face of Eiger, carving powder on a crisp winter’s morning in Gstaad, or gawping at the misty Staubbach Falls, the Swiss Alps don’t get more in-your-face beautiful than this. Nowhere are the resorts quainter, the peaks higher, the glaciers grander. Fittingly watched over by Mönch (Monk), Jungfrau (Virgin) and Eiger (Ogre), the Bernese Oberland sends spirits soaring to heaven.
The region's cinematic looks haven't gone unnoticed. Mark Twain wrote that no opiate compared to walking here (and he should know), Arthur Conan Doyle thought Meiringen a pretty spot for a Sherlock Holmes whodunnit, while Ian Fleming brought the icy wilderness of Schilthorn to screens in 007 films. Yet try as they might, few photographers manage to do the Bernese Oberland justice. Listen for tutting tourists at postcard carousels trying – and failing – to find something to match their memories.
These are our favorite local haunts, touristy spots, and hidden gems throughout Bernese Oberland.
This is the big one. At 3454m above sea level, Jungfraujoch is Europe’s highest train station: a once-in-a-lifetime trip, with views of the deeply crevassed Aletsch Glacier and a never-ending ripple of sky-high Alpine peaks to make you gasp out loud. A little underwhelmingly for train enthusiasts, the station itself is actually located inside the mountain, in a tunnel of sorts. But (but!) the ride to reach it passes some magnificent mountain scenery, with passengers glued to the window as the tracks curl past spruce forests and eyrie-like villages, meadows sprinkled with a confetti of wildflowers, and mountains that glow pearl white in winter like a scene from a snowglobe. The higher you go, the more dramatic the journey gets, shouldering up to glinting glaciers and the legendary triple act of Eiger (3970m), Mönch (4107m) and Jungfrau (4158m). Upon completing the journey, passengers disembark to explore the snowy surrounds. We won’t lie – Jungfraujoch is no secret and it gets swamped in high season, but with some cunning planning you can give the madding crowds the slip. Stay overnight at the Mönchsjochhütte, stomp through fresh powder snow in quiet exhilaration, or take the first train to see sunrise pinken the peaks one by one, and you too will feel the magic. History of Jungfraujoch Only the Swiss had the guts more than a century ago to think you could blaze right through rock and ice and bore through the heart of Eiger to a glaciated peak 3454m high. A masterpiece of engineering in the truest sense, the railway has known few rivals since it launched on 1 August 1912, taking some 3000 workers 16 years to complete. If the journey seems audacious now, just think of how it seemed back then. Many railway pioneers had flocked to the region and proposed ways to connect the highest peaks. But it was Adolf Guyer-Zeller who came up with the masterplan for the electrically operated cog railway, factoring in several stops en route to let passengers enjoy the views. The work on the railway began in earnest in 1896 and was carried out without machinery – just shovels, pickaxes and a hell of a lot of hard graft. The construction was not without its hitches, among them the sudden death of Adolf Guyer-Zeller in 1899, and the accidental explosion of 30 tons of dynamite in 1908. But these setbacks didn’t stop Adolf’s dream from becoming a reality. What to do at Jungfraujoch Sphinx observation deck The icy wilderness of swirling glaciers and 4000m peaks that unfolds up top is beautiful beyond belief. Sidling up to the crag-perching Sphinx, one of the world’s highest astronomical observatories, Jungfraujoch’s observation deck commands grandstand views of the moraine-streaked, 23km-long tongue of the Aletsch Glacier, the longest glacier in the Alps and a Unesco World Heritage Site. The views across a sea of shimmering white peaks stretch as far as the Black Forest in Germany on cloudless days. Snow Fun Park Even when there’s dazzling sunshine at lower elevations, there is guaranteed snow up at Jungfraujoch. The Snow Fun Park ramps up the adventure. Here you can whizz across the frozen plateau on a flying fox (zip line), dash downhill on a sled or snow tube, or pound the powder with some gentle skiing or boarding (day passes available). Ice Palace Tunnels of ice polished as smooth as cut glass lead through the Ice Palace at Jungfraujoch, which offers a frosty reception at -3°C. Mountain guides wielding saws and pick-axes carved the chambers out of solid ice in the 1930s. Now they are adorned with frozen sculptures of bears, ibexes and eagles. Aletsch Glacier Jungfraujoch commands a phenomenal view of the largest glacier in the Alps: the 23km Aletsch Glacier, which blazes a trail through peaks hovering around the 4000m mark. The glacier is the showpiece of the Swiss Alps Jungfrau-Aletsch Unesco World Heritage Site. From late June to early October, Grindelwald Sports offers two-day hikes across the glacier, led by experienced mountain guides. Make it happen When to go Going early, going late or going out of season is the trick to avoiding the crush at Jungfraujoch. It’s well worth getting one of the first or last trains to see the peak when it’s a shade more peaceful. Staying the night at Mönchsjochhütte lets you experience Jungfraujoch when the crowds have subsided. Good weather is essential for the journey; check the website for current conditions. Don’t forget to take warm clothing, sunglasses and sunscreen, as there’s snow and glare up here all year. The journey to Jungfraujoch The recent arrival of the tri-cable Eiger Express gondola, linking Grindelwald to Eiger Glacier station in 15 minutes, has seriously slashed journey times to Europe’s highest station. The gondola swings so close to Eiger’s ferocious north face that it feels as though you’ll slam into it. Trains from Interlaken Ost follow two different routes to Jungfraujoch: one via Lauterbrunnen, Wengen and Kleine Scheidegg (2¼ hours), the other via Grindelwald with the Eiger Express (1½ hours). From late May to October, the first train from Interlaken to Jungfraujoch departs at 6.35am, and the latest train leaving Jungfrau is 5.47pm. Seats can be reserved for a nominal extra charge. Where to stay & eat The crowds fade and the mountains rear up around you in all their frozen wonder when you hike through the snow to Mönchsjochhütte, 2.2km east of Jungfraujoch (around 45 minutes on foot). Perched at a giddy 3650m above sea level and open from mid-March to mid-October, this is Switzerland’s highest serviced mountain hut and a firm favourite among hardcore rock climbers, glacier hikers and ski tourers, not to mention mere mortals just up here for the view. The deal is simple: you’ll sleep in a basic dorm, wash in meltwater and eat hearty mountain meals. The clatter of karabiners (climbing hooks) can be heard at ungodly hours (light sleepers will want earplugs) and breakfast is served from 2am to 7.30am, which is just as well because you really wouldn’t want to miss this sunrise… Money saving passes Get yourself a Jungfrau Travel Pass for speedy access to the mountains via a brilliant network of trains, funiculars and cable cars. Available for three to eight days, the pass offers unlimited travel on mountain railways in the region, plus discounts on tickets to Jungfraujoch. From mid-April to late November, the three- to eight-day Top of Europe Pass covers the whole shebang: unlimited transport within the region and as many journeys as you like to Jungfraujoch and back. Kids pay just a fraction of the adult price.
For far-reaching views to the 4000m giants, take the eight-minute funicular ride to 1322m Harder Kulm. Many hiking paths begin here, and the vertigo-free can enjoy the panorama from the Zweiseensteg (Two Lake Bridge) jutting out above the valley. The wildlife park near the valley station is home to Alpine critters, including marmots and ibex.
Gazing over the mighty Reichenbach Falls, where the cataract plunges 250m to the ground with a deafening roar, you can see how Arthur Conan Doyle thought them perfect for dispatching his burdensome hero, Sherlock Holmes. In 1891, in The Final Problem, Conan Doyle acted like one of his own villains and pushed both Holmes and Dr Moriarty over the precipice here. To reach the falls, take the funicular from Willigen, south of the Aare River, to the top.
The formerly top-secret bunkers at Faulensee were built to house troops defending Thun, Spiez and the Lötschberg railway. During summer, they’re open to the public once a month. Cleverly disguised as farmhouses, the entrances to the bunkers are guarded by cannons and connected by underground tunnels in which you’ll find offices, laboratories, kitchens and cramped sleeping quarters. Tours last 1½ to two hours and you’ll need warm clothing and sturdy shoes. To ask about English explanations, call or email ahead.
Rising between the Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen Valleys, 2230m Männlichen has sensational views deep into the glaciated heart of the region. These are best appreciated on hikes that begin at the cable-car station, including the 1½-hour Panoramaweg to Kleine Scheidegg and the kid-focused Lieselotte Trail to Holenstein. When the flakes fall in winter, the mountain has plenty of cruisy skiing below the peaks of Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau and a thrillingly bumpy, bendy toboggan run.
It’s a pleasure to wander Thun’s attractive riverfront Old Town, where plazas and lanes are punctuated by 15th- and 16th-century townhouses. A stroll takes in the 300-year-old Untere Schleusenbrücke, a covered wooden bridge that is a mass of pink and purple flowers in summer. Nearby is the split-level, flag-bedecked Obere Hauptgasse, with its arcades concealing boutiques and galleries. At the street’s northern tip is cobblestone Rathausplatz, centred on a fountain and framed by arcaded buildings.
These beautiful botanical gardens spread along the shores of Lake Thun, with sublime views to the snowcapped Jungfrau range on clear days. The grounds bristle with tulips and crocuses in spring, rhododendrons in summer and golden beech trees in autumn. In the park you'll find the mid-19th-century, candyfloss-pink Schloss Schadau (now a restaurant), 1250-year-old Kirche Scherzlingen, and the early-19th-century Thun Panorama, one of the world’s oldest panoramic paintings.
The Hasli Valley is laced with 300km of signposted walking trails. A huge hit is this 170m-long, 100m-high suspension bridge, Europe’s longest and highest. To reach the bridge from Meiringen, take a train to Innertkirchen, then a bus to Nessental, Triftbahn. Here a cable car takes you up to 1022m, from where it’s a 1½- to two-hour walk to the bridge (1870m).
It doesn't get more Swiss than the alpenhorn, that fabulous-looking instrument often played by bearded Alpine men with ruddy cheeks and a good set of lungs at summer folk festivals. Call ahead and you can visit the workshop of master alpenhorn maker Heinz Tschiemer. A genuine alpenhorn, which takes around 60 days to make, will set you back around Sfr3500, but smaller instruments are also available for purchase. From Interlaken West, take bus 106 to Haberkern (18 minutes).