The Old Town of Biel/Bienne. Photo: Markus Buehler-Rasom/Swiss Tourism
Pop quiz. When you think of Biel, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Crime hotspot? Bad weather? Transit train station? Or simply… where’s Biel?
If you have any impressions of Biel at all, then they might be negative, because it seems to have a bad reputation. But spend a bit of time there and it’s difficult to see why – especially once the fog clears for the summer. Here are a few reasons to give it a chance.
1. Brush up on your language skills
Sitting right on the French-German language border (the so-called Röstigraben), Biel/Bienne is Switzerland’s largest bilingual city. When you go into a shop, you never know which language the cashier will speak. All street signs and menus are in both languages, and the city even has a bilingual newspaper, the Biel-Bienne.
It’s a bit more German orientated – 60-40, according to the local administration – but most locals understand at least the basics in both languages. Biel’s bilingualism provides comfort to visitors who speak only one of the two while giving those who want to improve their weaker language the chance to practise.
With Moutier having opted to leave canton Bern, some are now looking to Biel/Bienne to fly the flag for the francophone community in the predominantly German-speaking canton, so the city’s political future as a beacon of bilingualism seems bright.
2. Get back to nature
In many countries, Lake Biel/Bienne would be a tourist highlight. Not in Switzerland, thanks to its proximity to the Alps. Nevertheless, it’s worth a visit in its own right, with many good spots for swimming and barbecues within walking distance from the city centre. The lake’s more remote corners are best accessed on a bicycle and you can ride all the way around in just a couple of hours.
The Jura mountains look down on the lake, offering multiple hiking trails with views of the entire region and the Alps on a clear day. The mountains’ lower slopes are dominated by wine terraces, providing pit stops which are both easy on the eye and the taste buds.
Perhaps most impressive of all is the Taubenlochschlucht, a narrow gorge on the city’s outskirts lined with spectacular waterfalls and rock formations.
3. Escape the tourists
Lake Biel/Bienne. Photo: Jan Geerk/Swiss Tourism
Biel/Bienne doesn’t attract the same number of visitors as the Alps or Switzerland’s bigger cities; however, it offers many similar opportunities for boat trips, hiking and outdoor dining. If watersports float your boat, there are plenty on offer, from paddle boarding and kayaking to sailing and windsurfing.
Like other parts of Switzerland, the nicest spots around the lake can be busy on a warm day. But the summer economy isn’t specifically designed to cater for tourists. These are local people, enjoying the summer with their friends and family. Biel/Bienne offers a slice of authenticity which is harder to find in Lucerne or Interlaken.
4. Enjoy some live music
For a small city, Biel/Bienne has a remarkable number of festivals. The Braderie (June 30th-July 2nd) takes over the city centre for three days in June, offering a range of open air bars and concerts. In July, Pod Ring provides an eclectic mix of music from around the world, as well as other types of entertainment such as magic shows and theatre.
First Friday breathes some life into the Old Town at the beginning of every month, with late night shopping, live music and plenty of outdoor food stalls and bars. The city also hosts the region’s largest Swiss National Day (August 1st) firework display, and a plethora of other events can be found in the villages along Lake Biel/Bienne’s shores throughout the summer.
5. Discover the city’s spirit
A popular lakeside spot. Photo: Jean-Daniel Echenard
Perhaps it isn’t easily perceptible on a day trip, but spend a bit of time in Biel/Bienne and you will realize it has an open-mindedness and tolerance which is not easy to come by. The city is a melting pot of cultures, with around 30 percent of the population being foreign citizens, unusual for a city of just over 50,000 inhabitants. It also has an alternative streak, most obviously on display in the old city’s quirky shops and at the local “autonomous youth centre”, la Coupole, as well as at young people’s favourite lakeside hangout, the Hundematteli.
This is not the Switzerland of the postcards and it’s a bit rough around the edges for some people’s tastes. But give it a chance and it might just challenge your preconceptions in some wonderful ways.