Switzerland’s Controversial Bear Pit in Bern

My boys and I are all for odd attractions that get the attention of your average international visitor. If a few people are against it I am even more intrigued. When I started planning our trip to Bern, Switzerland this past October I knew we would have to check out the bear pits.

The mighty bear is the symbol of Switzerland’s capital city. Its image can be found on flags, candy boxes, and the sides of buildings. The current pit opened in 1857, but bears have been part of Bern’s culture since as far back as 1191, or so they say.

The Bärengraben, or bear pit, located at the edge of the old city of Bern and next to the river Aar, has since been turned into the BärenPark, or bear park, and is a disconnect part of the Dählhölzli Zoo.

The bears still have access to their old home in the bear pit
Part of the old bear pit now has bear sculptures to hug and lead you into the gift shop

Controversy surrounded the bear pit for years. The condition of the animals was not ideal. Then Switzerland, deciding they cherished its bears, poured a couple million dollars into creating a space that is more like a modern-day zoo exhibit.

I can see why animal activists protested the pits. There wasn’t much room to roam and kids could chuck peanuts at the bears all day long. There was no protection for the animals or way for them to escape when us humans started to annoy them a little too much.

The new space is quite nice. It includes a hill the bears can climb, a large swimming pool and tunnels that allow them to escape the crowds.

Was my family impressed? Not really.

Dek was more interested in the rocks leading down to the river. He wanted to jump on them. I was having none of that.

He did give the bears a glance, but like some attractions we go to, I was more excited about his possible excitement than he was in the actual space. Maybe it was just the day, the jet lag or perhaps he really just doesn’t like bears. We are more of a tiger family after all.

Controversy and lack of toddler interest aside, I did enjoy seeing these beautiful symbols of the city. I am very happy that they have a much bigger home now with a little stimulation to keep them entertained, other than the thousands of tourists passing by their habitat each year.

The scenery was my favorite part of the excursion. The walk we took through old town was gorgeous, if not a bit bumpy in the stroller with all the cobblestones. Our walk down a steep incline to the river to get up close and personal helped me burn off all those cookies I’d been eating. I decided I may need a few more cookies on the hike back up.

Although it doesn’t need to be tops on your list, if you do happen to be in Bern , Switzerland make time to visit the bears. Even if you aren’t a big bear fan, the journey there is well worth it. Plus you should know what all the fuss is about.

The view above the bear park is well worth the visit

Know Before You Go

  • BärenPark, Grosser Muristalden 6, 3006 Bern
  • Getting there- Catch the number 12 bus towards Paul Klee Centre. It will drop you at the Bear Park in about 6 minutes from Bern’s main station. Check the website for directions by car.
  • Hours- the walk around the park is open 24 hours a day. Keepers are available daily from 8am to 5pm
  • Strollers? There is a ramp that can go down to the bottom of the bear park, but it’s a steep climb back up. You will definitely get your work out for the day. The easier, more direct path down to the river is filled with steps.
  • Food? Gift shop, restaurant and convenience store are available on sight for a trinket or snack during your visit.

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16 thoughts on “Switzerland’s Controversial Bear Pit in Bern”

  1. jan

    Loved your objective view of the bear enclosure. I had not heard of this before. So good that the habitat and conditions are better for the bears now. Great “Know before you Go” section full of handy info. Jan

  2. Jackie Smith

    A most interesting post, I, too, had not heard of this before.

  3. remy traveller

    I’ll be in Switzerland early next year and my fave animal is the mighty bear so I will be checking this place out, I am hoping my kids will find it more interesting otherwise I am in trouble after building it up so much!

  4. Muza-chan

    Love the bears too…

  5. Julia

    Cesky Krumlov in the Czech Republic has a bear pit (like the older one, not the new one you mention), and it is such a bummer. The animals shouldn’t be below people, without protection, because the people WILL toss things in there and try to get a reaction. It reminds me of a trip I took to South Africa many years ago, where one woman I was with would deliberately rile up the animals in order to get good photos – well, she got them. A leopard baring its teeth, as well as a cheetah that was, to all accounts, tame (it had been raised among people). She tussled with the cheetah like it was a dog, which then made the cheetah want to play (it roamed freely among people at our preserve) – but that meant the cheetah came out of nowhere and jumped on top of me. As a 14-year-old, it was plenty scary to have a full-grown cheetah knock you over, so it taught me a lesson about respecting animals!

    1. © Keryn Means/ walkingon travels

      Oh my gosh Julia! That would have traumatized me for sure. We are trying very hard to teach our boys to be respectful of animals. No banging on the glass at aquariums. No screaming at the zoo animals. If the movie Finding Nemo taught us nothing else at least it taught us that fish have to “find a happy place” when kids go crazy on the tank 🙂

  6. Jordan

    haha…more of a tiger family, eh? It is always sad to see these creatures kind of depressed in their enclosure. We have polar bears at our local zoo, and they are definitely depressed, just swimming back and forth in a small pool all day.

    We’re more of an elephant family, ourselves!

  7. InsideJourneys

    Interesting review, Keryn. I can see why Dek was not impressed.

  8. Cam @ Traveling Canucks

    Is that bear swimming in the water?!
    We didn’t get to Bern on our recent Swiss trip. It looks like a fun little city though 😉

    1. © Keryn Means/ walkingon travels

      Yup. Swimming in their own section of the river. And it wasn’t exactly sweltering that day either, but I guess if you have that much fur you need to take a dip now and then.

  9. Julie McNamee

    Thanks for posting this thoughtful article, Keryn. In my mind animals shouldn’t be kept in any sort of restricted circumstances, but this is certainly a better of living than they had previously. Very interesting.

  10. Miret

    Nice to read you enjoyed Bern! Greetings from Zurich 🙂

  11. Nancie

    I had no idea Bern had a bear pit. It is nice to see that the city has made it more “bearable” (pardon the pun!). I’m not sure this is something I’d be all that interested in visiting. The scenery does look pleasant, though.

  12. Sonja

    So glad to read this, cuz we didn’t go to the bear pits when we were in Bern last December – we figured the bears would be hibernating!

    1. © Keryn Means/ walkingon travels

      Thanks Sonja! I’ll have loads more about Bern going up next week. Will definitely be checking out your page.

  13. Alyson

    That’s better! I went there on a school trip from the UK 30 years ago, it was just the original pit then. So glad they’ve improved things.

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