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Bear Park and Bear Pits of Bern

Bärenpark and Bärengraben

Bears in Bern Bear Park

ABOVE: Bears take a nap in the city's Bear Park. INSET BELOW: Bear mascots are featured in statues and other symbols throughout the city.

"The Bear's Den, near the Nydeck Bridge, is at the east end of Berne. Here are kept some specimens of bears at the public expense, according to ancient usage; and very unwieldy and uncouth specimens they are."

Robert Allbut
The Tourist's Handbook to Switzerland

Bear statue in BernBears have enjoyed--or suffered--a long and largely one-sided relationship with Switzerland's capital of Bern. According to one legend, Berthold V of Z�hringen named the Bern after the first animal killed during a hunt when the city was founded in 1191. (If the story is true, the Duke must have decided to honor the victim's entire species, since "B�ren" is the German plural form of "bear.") The 1923 edition of Muirhead's Switzerland explains:

Whatever be the real connection of the words 'bear' and 'Bern,' the figure of a bear occurs in the oldest known city seal (1224), and living bears have been kept in Berne at the town's expense since 1513 (except for a brief interval when the French removed them to Paris in 1798).

Frommer's Switzerland describes the city's bears as "beloved, pampered, and fed by both residents and visitors." Everything is relative, of course, but when we first visited the historic Bern Bern Pits in 1975, we couldn't help thinking that the Bärengraben had more in common with Alcatraz than with the animals' natural habitat.

We're happy to report that shame, international pressure, and animal-protection laws finally brought the city authorities to their senses. In 2009, a spacious Bärenpark or "BearPark" replaced the old pits.

 The park of 6000 square meters (or about 65,000 square feet) is along the River Aare, where the bears can enjoy a grassy hillside and views of the rushing water below. (If the bears are feeling nostalgic, they can wander to the old Bear Pit, which was built in 1857 and made slightly more bear-friendly in the 1990s.)

When to visit: The park is open daily from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Admission is free.

For more information about the Bärenpark Bern, including photos and videos, visit the official Web site (German only).

BELOW: The old and gloomy Bern Bear Pits, prior to the opening of the city's new BearPark in 2009.

Bern Bear Pits

Also see:
Bern and Environs: Articles Index

Top photo © iStockphoto/Andrea Baumgartner.
Inset photo © iStockphoto/Becky Jo Tobin.