Last Updated on January 17, 2024 by Michela
Central Switzerland, known as the Bernese Oberland or the Jungfrau region, is the heart of the Swiss Alps. Epic landscapes, endless adventurous activities, and every opportunity to embrace nature. But all this fun doesn’t come for cheap. Enjoy your experience in the Bernese Oberland to the fullest without worrying about your wallet. This is the best budget-friendly guide to visiting the Bernese Oberland.
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Cheap & Free Things to Do In the Bernese Oberland
Train through the Lauterbrunnen Valley
The most famous and arguably most beautiful location in the Bernese Oberland is Lauterbrunnen, a tiny alpine village in the middle of one of the most scenic valleys in the Swiss Alps.
The area has become so well-known because of its over 72 active waterfalls. The most notable is Staubacch Falls, which you can kind of see in the photos above.
I visited in August and the waterfalls were very weak. The best time to visit to see the waterfalls is early spring, when all the snow on the snow-capped mountains starts to melt and the waterfalls become more powerful than ever.
There is not much to do in the village besides walk and practice your photography, as it is one of the most beautiful scenes a lens could see!
Cable Car to Mürren
Mürren is a magnificent alpine village above Lauterbrunnen at an altitude of 5,374 feet.
The cable car and train combination that you must use to reach this remote village costs 15 CHF and the views are worth every penny.
The town is quiet and modest but the peaks surrounding it are the most impressive, gargantuan mountains you will ever see. And the crazy part is that it is like you are eye-level with them.
You truly feel the size of how small you are looking down at the valley below.
And the other magical part is seeing all the different waterfalls streaming down from the icy peaks to feed the river at the valley floor.
Visit Schloss Spiez
On the shores of Lake Thun is the laidback resort town of Spiez. I took advantage of a break while waiting between trains to explore Spiez and was struck by the beautiful castle at the lake’s edge.
Besides the town’s picturesque marina and sun-soaked boardwalk, below which swans waddle in the turquoise water, the town’s main character is Schloss Spiez.
The castle grounds are open to visitors for free, where you can walk around the courtyard and, the best part, stroll the castle park overlooking the lakeshore and the Mount Eiger peak in the distance.
There is also a sweet café on castle grounds but we decided to skip to save on snacks!
Explore the St. Beatus Caves
The St. Beatus Caves, located in Beatenberg, are one of the most unique things to do in the Bernese Alps.
You can tell just by looking from the outside!
The structure is built into the side of a mountain, hanging above Lake Thun. You have to walk across bridges and among waterfalls up to the cave entrance. The burn is worth it for the spectacular view of Lake Thun’s turquoise water!
Plus, the hike around the waterfalls is completely free and open year-round.
Exploring the caves is a paid experience, currently 19 CHF for adults and 11 CHF for children, which includes admission to the museum.
The museum by itself costs 6 CHF.
You can explore one kilometer of the cave on your own, but the rest fo the 14 kilometer cave network must be explored with a guide.
A tour through the grottos lasts about 75 minutes, meaning it is an activity that doesn’t have to take up your entire day.
There is also a quick-service restaurant if the exploring makes you hungry!
Fun fact: The St. Beatus Caves, with its waterfalls and greenery, supposedly inspired JRR Tolkien’s idea of Rivendell in The Lord of the Rings.
Swim in Lake Brienz at Iseltwald
I’m sure you’ve seen that picture-perfect post on Instagram of the most beautiful villa perched over the teal water of Lake Brienz. That would be the town of Iseltwald.
If you are staying in Interlaken, Iseltwald is just a short 20 minute bus ride away.
The town is very small and there is not much to do there besides relax on the beach and enjoy lakeside living!
You can rent paddle boats and other water equipment to make a mini beach day out of your visit.
Hike to the Geissbach Waterfalls
If your goal while visiting the Jungfrau region is to see as much as you can for free, add the Geissbach Falls to your list!
Geissbach Falls is a hidden treasure, an impressive collection of waterfalls cascading down to the shores of Lake Brienz.
To reach the falls, you can do it the hard way, which is hiking from Iseltwald, or the easy way, which is taking a bus or car directly to the falls.
Our pick was the hard way and I want to share the full story so that you don’t make the same mistake as us!
It was around 4:30 pm that we set off from Iseltwald with Geissbach Falls as our destination, both me and my boyfriend being completely inexperienced hikers. The trail from Iseltwald to the falls is 1 and a half hours long so we figured we would be fine.
The terrain was relatively easy to manage, except for nearing the falls, where the ups and downs were just killing my legs.
After completely tiring out our legs (and this wasn’t even the “intense” day of the itinerary), we finally arrived and were taken away by the size of these waterfalls. There is also a beautiful, luxury hotel right beside the waterfalls overlooking Lake Brienz.
We look around, take pictures and must decide how to get back. I was exhausted from the hike and knew I couldn’t make it another hour and a half walking back. So we go up to the street to get a bus, but the last bus has passed a half hour ago. To make things better, it was getting dark outside and we were in Switzerland, where our Italian SIM cards don’t work, so we had no phones!
We ended up walking another hour to the town of Brienz, through corn fields and along the highway, to then catch a train back to Interlaken.
There are many morals of the story here but I would say the key takeaways are: have a working phone, check the bus schedule times before, don’t try to be a hiker if you’ve never hiked before and watch the time!
Get lost on walking trails in Grindelwald
I know I just shared my own little hiking horror story, but when I see get lost on the trails of Grindelwald, I don’t literally mean lost! Stick to the hiking trails and go during the day.
Grindelwald is in a valley like Lauterbrunnen and you’ve probably seen photos of it circling Instagram for years now. The valley is much wider than that of Lauterbrunnen, so everything is more spaced apart.
We took a bus to the area of Unterer Lauchbühl, which led to many different nature paths, including one that took us to an abandoned cable car site (one of the first cable cars ever attempted to be built in the area).
The town of Grindelwald itself was very commercial and full of tourists, which is why I encourage you to plan a hiking itinerary that, for one, is cheaper than anything else to do there, and two to really enjoy the area.
If you have time, you should see the lake Bachalpsee, which is one of the prettiest for its reflections of the mountains.
Pro Tip: If you have more time, travel between the Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen valleys by the Kleine Scheidegg, a famous mountain pass of the Swiss Alps.
Take the train up to Wengen
On the other side of Mürren, also high above the Lauterbrunnen Valley, is the alpine town of Wengen.
You can take a train directly up to Wengen, which makes it more convenient to reach than Mürren.
From the station, stroll the wide main street of town, where you’ll find cozy restaurants and boutique hotels.
You’ll also find the Männlichen cable car that takes you to a scenic hiking path called the Royal Walk looking over the entire Jungfrau region.
One of the prettiest things viewpoints over the valley that you can reach directly from the town center is at the Reformed Church (Evangelisch reformierte Kirche Wengen), from which is right about where I took the photo above.
If you had to pick Wengen or Mürren for your itinerary, I suggest Mürren. I enjoyed the views more, being so up-close to the peaks. Wengen also has amazing views. It just felt a little more commercial to me. Mürren is very quiet, but authentic.
You can easily do both towns within a couple of hours, so if you can do both, I suggest you do both.
Step Back in Time in Interlaken’s Old Town Unterseen
Interlaken may be known for its adventurous activities like paragliding and the beautiful natural areas that surround it, but the town itself is worth exploring.
The main street, Bahnhofstrasse, is very commercial, while the rest of the town is calm and quiet. The prettiest areas is the old town, Unterseen, a short walk from the city center across the Aare River.
Some of the highlights are the Tourist Museum, the Stadtkeller theater and the Stadthausplatz square where you can see the characteristic church tower.
One thing the area isn’t lacking is beautiful milky blue water. Explore the Aare River and stop by Bistro Pistache for a sweet snack.
Top Tips for Visiting the Bernese Oberland on a Budget
Besides general tips for visiting Switzerland on a budget, these are my Bernese Oberland-specific tips!
Stay in Interlaken to Take Advantage of the Guest Pass
On my trip to the Bernese Oberland, Interlaken was my home base. Perfectly situated in between Lake Breinz and Lake Thun, the Lauterbrunnen Valley and the most famous peaks of the Central Swiss Alps, Interlaken was the ideal location for exploring the area.
And it came with another plus. Staying at a hotel or hostel in Interlaken, you will receive a guest card that allows you free use of the public transportation.
There is a radius of how far the public transportation goes that is included in the free guest card, but it helped us get to Iseltwald and the St. Beatus Caves, for example.
Pro Tip: If you can, travel in the off-season and mid-week to Interlaken for the lowest accommodation prices. The area is busy during summer and is popular for winter sports, so this means the best time to visit is usually in March, April, October and November.
Prioritize Must-Do Experiences
While many of the cool experiences in the Bernese Oberland are not free or cheap, that doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice them for your budget.
The best thing to do is write a list of the all the experiences you would like to do. Then list their prices and see how you can make them fit in your budget. Then you can decide to invest in however many you can truly afford.
Buy a Train Pass for One Day (Here’s the trick!)
One of the ways I saved money visiting the Bernese Oberland was through strategic itinerary planning. We were there for three days and visited things around Interlaken the first and third day.
The second day we got a Swiss travel card day pass for 50 francs, which allows anyone in Switzerland unlimited access to public transportation including trains.
So we designed the second day of our itinerary to be more intense, going around the various valleys by train, but we had it all included under one ticket.
Check out the kinds of Swiss train cards available.
Stay in a Hostel
While Switzerland is one of the most expensive places to visit in Europe, it also has the reputation of being budget backpacker destination.
There are lots of students that travel in this area specifically because of the wide variety of adventurous activities offered. And where there are student travelers, there are hostels.
Hostels in a place like Interlaken won’t be as cheap as hostels in a place like Rome, but they are definitely a more budget-friendly alternative to staying in a hotel.
One of the ones I saw that was always popular and social is Interlaken Youth Hostel, close to the train station and in a very modern building. Another, even more budget-friendly, option that is in the center of town is Funny Farm Backpackers.
Good to know: If you’re a woman traveling solo, just be sure to read up on my hostel safety tips!
Eat Meals at the Local Migros
Food in Switzerland is ex-pen-sive. Just a Big Mac meal at McDonalds is over 20 francs (as of right now, about $22).
But my boyfriend and I figured out the trick! The Swiss grocery store chain Migros also has its own restaurant, kind of like IKEA, with affordable, hearty meals.
This was one of the biggest ways we saved on meals. You can still have a bit of that restaurant experience if you don’t want to go full picnic without wasting money.
Pro Tip: Another way to typically save money is get a hotel with breakfast included! Of course, you will have to evaluate the costs between hotels if it makes sense among what is available.
One of the original reasons I started my blog was that I was a student with no money who dreamed of seeing the world and experience new cultures. And that is why I love to write budget-friendly guides to some of the most beautiful places in the world!
Because travel, and the knowledge and understanding that you gain from interacting with new cultures and new places, shouldn’t be a luxury.
The Bernese Oberland is an expensive area in Europe to visit. I didn’t do many of the main activities like going to the Top of Europe at Jungfrau, the Harder Kulm in Interlaken or the Piz Gloria at Schilthorn and others because they would each cost hundreds of francs.
What activity are you adding to your Swiss Alps itinerary?
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I hope this guide has allowed you to find new experiences that won’t break the bank to add to your Bernese Oberland itinerary!