Words: Alastair James; pictures: Accor, Bern Welcome, and Alastair James
Vitality, sustainability, and community. These are ideas that embody everything great about the Swissôtel Kursaal Bern. But they can also be said for the city of Bern.
Switzerland's third-largest city (home to around 400,000) this hidden gem of a location is a detox for the mind, body, and soul. Away from the bustling chaos of the London or New York metropolis, things in Bern take a much slower and more relaxed approach.
Photo: Bern Welcome
Down its cobbled streets lined with fairytale-esque buildings pedestrians, cyclists, cars, and trams move in perfect synchronicity. It's hard to imagine such a coexistence somewhere like London where everyone is in each other's way.
And despite the city being easily walkable from end to end, there is no sense of being crowded in. Again, hard to imagine in London! All of this has been captured in microcosm at the Kursaal, a few minutes walk from the city centre across the river Aare.
Arriving at the hotel I immediately notice the sharp, modern, and simple aesthetic. Rather than make bold, over-the-top statements the four-star hotel's redesign (completed in March 2021 when the Kursaal reopened under the Swissôtel brand) favours simple but intelligently designed furniture.
It also places an emphasis on recycling and sustainability. Everything from the front desk to the decorations is made from natural materials sourced locally. Pride has been taken in the hotel's craftmanship.
I'm greeted by friendly staff, my guide for the weekend, Tamara, and the hotel's general manager, Karin who promises me, "you will be thrilled".
Reception at the Kursaal (Photo: Accor)
Heading up to my room - a comfortable and uncluttered Swiss Advantage room featuring a king-size bed, sofa bed, and plenty of space to relax and (hypothetically) work - I'm again impressed by the sleek design of the furniture, which in addition to being impressive is also comfortable.
A Kursaal Advantage room (Photo: Alastair James)
Being on the fourth floor, the balcony offers the most stunning views of the Bernese Alps. Breathtaking is a word.
In the bathroom, copper and gold features stand out against the frosted green walls and the rainfall shower promises a reviving lift for later. Black glass, only transparent from the inside of the shower, creates the divide between the shower and bedroom.
A Swiss Advantage bathroom (Photo: Alastair James)
The bathroom is stocked with Pürovel toiletries which are blessed with local Swiss essences and oils farmed from Alpine soil and are 100 percent natural. Swissôtel is also hoping to move completely to recyclable packing for its products within the next year.
Clary Sage, Peppermint, Lavender, and Honey restore, refresh, soothe and stimulate feelings of peace and tranquility while awakening the soul. Leaving the shower later having tried the products I do feel reviatalised.
Craftsmanship and attention to detail become further evident with the ergonomic design of the stand holding the complimentary tea, coffee and crockery. Everything has a place, it's easy to access, and is extremely clear for the cleaning staff what needs replacing.
The minibar is included in the room price rather than being relegated to a potentially uncomfortable discussion at the end of someone's stay. This is true Swiss hospitality.
The Kursaal offers 171 rooms with dynamic prices. The difference between a Classic room and the next step up (the Premier) is around 20-30 Swiss francs, and is worth it for the extra space. Although a basic room is a modest and comfortable set up being on the inside of the hotel offers little in the way of natural sunlight and no view whatsoever.
However, they have everything you need for a one or two-night stay and are ideally suited for someone on business or just using the room as a place to sleep for a night.
After the Premier and Advantage rooms come the Vitality suites, of which there are two at the Kursaal. These come with everything from the Advantage rooms but with a much larger space for working and also an in-room exercise centre with which you could just about do a full workout.
A Kursaal Vitality suite room (Photo: Accor)
It's an impressive setup, with a TV to provide examples of exercises. You'll probably get more out of the fully equipped gym downstairs that's open 365 days a year 24/7, but for someone who may not feel comfortable in the gym, it's the perfect alternative.
The Vitality suite's exercise facility (Photo: Alastair James)
Swissôtel doesn't want its hotels to be identical to one another. Each takes influence from its surroundings with the Kursaal celebrating Bern's history in the design of the themed circles.
Based on the 18th-century silhouette cutouts commonly used as decoration in Switzerland the hotel's modern interpretations also tell a story of Bern featuring the bear (after which the city is named) the city's iconic fountains, Swiss cheese, and the snail, which represents the pace of life in the city.
The connection the hotel has to the local area is everywhere from the materials used in the furniture, and the designs to the food.
After arriving and dumping my bags I head down for a lunch with the other journalists in the group. We get to know one another over a collection of local meats, cheeses, and bread. Everything is locally grown and farmed and alive with flavour.
Lunch (Photo: Alastair James)
The cucumber gazpacho makes for a cool and refreshing appetiser soon followed by the fresh salad of melon, strawberries, and feta. That in turn leads to a plate of local bruschetta.
Later, at dinner at the hotel's Restaurant Giardino we are treated to a truly delectable meal.
For starters, we have the on-salt baked celeriac leaf salad, with a walnut oil vinaigrette, walnuts, and green apple. This is shortly followed by the chicken leg roulade with mushrooms, grilled Caesar-style lettuce, and mashed potatoes with lovage.
The "Happy Tschigg" chicken roulade (Photo: Alastair James)
Karin explains the chicken is referred to as "Happy Tschigg" which quite simply means "happy chicken", presumably meaning free-range. It was divine!
After a short round of cheese, dessert is served. A lukewarm Swiss Felchlin chocolate tartlet with sour cream ice cream.
I also caught sight of one of the hotel's burgers and had I been staying one more night I would have definitely tried one because they look good!
The sense of community isn't just between the hotel and Bern; it's also within the hotel too.
Over dinner, Karin explains the hotel's culture. She treats staff as family and encourages them to do the same with guests. Her philosophy is simple: treat others as you would like to be treated.
She presents herself and Swissôtel as modern and forward-thinking. Community is important. Karin knows she doesn't have all the answers and that it's important to include younger members of staff. It was actually quite inspiring.
Nothing else about the trip made me feel like I'd fallen asleep and woken up in a literal oasis as waking up to the stunning sight of the Alps. The snow-topped peaks glisten in the morning sunshine set against the dazzling clear blue sky. There are worse ways to start a day.
The Alps as seen from the Kursaal (Photo: Alastair James)
It helped I hadn't closed my curtains after dinner (possibly as a result of a healthy intake of wine - again locally produced) but I had no regrets. I, for one, felt like I had managed to leave all my cares behind and was drawing in a sense of vitality.
After a modest and typical hotel breakfast (nothing wrong with what's not broken) we ventured out to local Saturday markets starting in Bundesplatz, finding bits for our lunch.
Stopping by Jumi cheese, Fina, a local cheesemonger walks us through some of the 40 kinds of cheese on offer at the stall. The Schlossberger has aged for 18 months giving it a rich mature flavour. Aarewasser, named after the river, is more easy-going, creamy, and rich.
In contrast, the Belper Knolle has an intense and peppery taste and is great as a topping on salads or pasta dishes.
Some of the cheeses available from Jumi (Photo: Alastair James)
Like the Kursaal the gin brewers at Matte Brennerei, where we set up shop for our assembled lunch after a quick walkthrough of some of the locally produced gins, takes pride in working with other Swiss suppliers and businesses and also supplying others themselves.
The business which started out in 2016 is one of many microbreweries in the city. In the beginning, 70 percent of its business was in the local area and gastronomy but is now around 30 percent with most of the business remaining in Switzerland.
It's yet another example of Swiss people buying Swiss businesses and helping local communities rather than boasting about being a big international exporter. The brand is also exploring recyclable packing, again feeding into a Swiss mentality of what can be done better and more consciously.
The botanicals used by Matte Brennerei in their gins (Photo: Alastair James)
The vitality of Bern is everywhere. Colours seem richer such as the Aare's cool and inviting turquoise waters to the lack of cars. Save for a few most people seemed to walk everywhere (as we did) Comfortable shoes are a must when visiting Bern.
On our first day, we headed out on a walking tour of the city, including the UNESCO-designated world heritage site of the old city.
The first stop is the Zytglogge, an old watch tower featuring an impressive sundial and an even more impressive glockenspiel. A tour of the inside shows us the inner workings of the tower, which miraculously has avoided any modernisation and remains completely analogue.
The Zytglogge (Photo: Alastair James)
What seems even more fantastical is the mechanical contraption that operates the glockenspiel with its assortment of clogs, cables, ropes, bars, and pulleys that date back to the 15th Century. It is truly a testament to mankind’s occasional brilliance.
As we meander through the streets and arcades we see people out enjoying their Friday afternoons with drinks stretching into the early evening as people. Cafes and bars spill out onto streets while people flock to public gardens for a glass of wine or Aperol Spritz.
There is a life and spirit to Bern that is warm, welcoming, and relaxing.
And there are many other sites to explore around the city as well. Enjoy the Bärengraben or 'Bear park' where you can observe several of the animals the city is named after while enjoying some delicious from Gelateria Eiswerkstatt, which again uses local ingredients.
The Zentrum Paul Klee is just a short bus ride outside the main city and provides welcome relief on a warm day as well as a peaceful way to wind down for the afternoon. The current 'Kids Curate Klee' exhibit is the product of a pioneering project with local school children to exhibit some of Klee's work. It explores themes such as mosaics, colour, and life through a series of collections organised by children.
Wanting to capture as much of the vitality from the trip as we can most of our group headed down to the river Aare on our final day to enjoy a cool and refreshing dip. All weekend long we had seen people drifting along and now we had a chance to experience it for ourselves.
Bern and the river Aare (Photo: Alastair James)
There is little else that will wake you up as much as the Aare can, even at 18 degrees. As shocking as it can be to the senses upon the first impact the cool water restores the soul and quite literally awakens the soul.
When I arrived at the Kursaal, Karin promised me I would be thrilled. And thrilled I was. Everything about the hotel seems effortless. Where many would take the opportunity to scream and shout about how amazing they are, the Kursaal, and Swissôtel more broadly perhaps, has no interest in doing so instead on letting the charming service, well-thought-out design, layout, and location do all the talking.
There's something to be said for the quiet assurance that the hotel knows what it does well. It's also nice to see a hotel, part of a big chain and a big brand, take such care over its connections to the community in which it is located.
Being one with Bern is clearly key and lies at the heart of everything at the Kursaal.
Bern (Photo Bern Welcome)
My stay felt less like a press trip and more like a retreat at an oasis in some far-off land. If Bern is something of a "hidden gem" then the Kursaal is its own treasure within that.
The hotel's bar is due to be renovated and a rooftop social space is due to open shortly if not by the time this has been published meaning there is already more to see. I just hope I'm invited back.
Check out rooms here.
The Attitude July/August issue is out now.