Most people float down the Aare River in Bern just for fun. For Evelyn Schneider-Reyes, it was her summertime commute home. “I only had like 30 seconds walking from my office to the river,” she recalls. “I had an ‘Aare Bag’, where I put all my clothes, my smartphone, wallet and shoes. I put on my bathing suit and swam home. I would leave the Aare at Lorrainebad, then I walked up the hill for 8 minutes and was already home. From my office to the Lorrainebad it usually took me about 15 minutes in the water. Lovely!”
Especially lovely was the day Schneider-Reyes saw something bobbing along on the river. Suddenly, “there was a cold beer can swimming next to me”, she says. She popped the top and enjoyed the best after-work drink ever.
The Aare River runs through Bern, Switzerland’s charming little capital city. During summer thousands of locals and visitors jump into the Aare’s milky glacial-melt waters (even during a hot day in high summer, the water is usually only about 21 C), and float down to one of the handy exits marked by red bars you can grab onto as you float by.
Locals have favorite places to get in and get out (see below). A preferred spot may depend on where they live or where they want to get a drink with friends afterwards.
Anna Baehni lives in Bern’s medieval Old Town just a short walk to the river. In summer, she slides into the river several times a week. “Bern people can be not too friendly during our daily life, but there is something about being on the Aare”, she says. “It’s a great place to shout out and say hello to people going by, your friends and even strangers”.
But you shouldn’t be too relaxed while being swept down the river, says Baehni. “It’s important to know where it’s safe to get in and out, and to know where the currents are”. The first time Baehni took the plunge she went with friends who’d done it before; they showed her how to safely go with the flow.
A safe swim also means not drowning yourself in booze before you jump in. In 2013, most of the 24 people who drowned in Swiss rivers were under the influence of alcohol or other drugs. Another safety tip: If the river is high after heavy rains, it’s best to enjoy the rush from the shore, not only because the currents will be stronger, but because logs and other flotsam might give a swimmer a bonk on the head. Bern Tourism has a list of safety rules for swimming in the river.
But under calmer conditions, sober experienced swimmers should have no problem navigating the river around Bern.
Another sweet suggestion from Baehni: An evening cruise is especially relaxing both because the water has been warmed by the sun all day and because there are fewer heads bobbing about. What a way to end the day.
So slide into the Aare River for a float-away view of Bern, Switzerland’s captivating capital city.
The Aare river water flowing through Bern began as glacial meltwater in the Alps, so summer temperatures range from about 15 to 22 C. For daily temperatures click here.
Water toy rental joy
Inflatable boats can be hired here and here. Another warm tip: Locals may outwardly sneer at your river fashion statement while inwardly being envious, so consider wearing a wetsuit for both warmth and buoyancy. In Bern you can rent a wetsuit at Dive Center Köniz or Tauchsport Käser.
Where to jump in and out
Schönausteg is a great place to jump in from a low bridge. Remember to look upstream before you jump to avoid jumping on someone floating down under the bridge.
From Eichholz to Marzili, lots of signs show where to get in and out. Bern Tourism says that this is the safest stretch of the Aare. Marzili is a popular summer hangout for the Bernese, with a large green area and a freshwater pool.
Altenbergsteg is both an entry and exit point and is popular as a bungee surfing spot. Surfers tie a long bungee cord to a tree, stretch it out down river, get on their surfboard then release the cord and surf up river.
Lorrainebad is the last exit for the Old Town route. There’s also an enclosed pool of river water. Popular with families and sunbathers.
It is worth noting that it is not possible to float all the way past the Old Town. There is a weir (dam) in the middle associated with a decommissioned hydroelectric power plant. The zone after the Dalmazibrücke is closed to swimmers.
If you plan to float from Schönausteg to Lorrainebad you will need to exit and reenter the water. It is possible to get back in before the Bear park, a good place for the “Old Town Route”, which takes swimmers past the city center and by the bear park.
There is another dam at Felsenausteg downstream from Lorrainebad. The zone beyond Lorrainebad before Felsenausteg is closed to swimmers, so you’ll need to find a safe landing point before entering that zone.
Go the distance
If a short swim of 20 or 30 minutes down the Aare doesn’t quite float your boat, you can jump into the river all the way up in the town of Thun for a 3 or 4-hour adventure. Though this is usually done by hired boat, some hearty sailors tie together a few big inner tubes and floating coolers full of (presumably non-alcoholic) refreshments for a jolly expedition.
- The river’s name is of Celtic origin, dating to at least the late Iron Age, about 500 BCE to the 1st Century.
- A tributary of the High Rhine, the Aare is the longest river that both rises and ends within Switzerland.
- More than 40 hydroelectric plants operate along the river.
By Bill Harby
Not convinced? The short video below will give you a taste of what it’s all about: