Why you should care
Because doesn’t a floating vacation sound divine?
Come summer, the Swiss — an Alpine folk famed for their organizational skills (precision watches aren’t built from slapdash craftsmanship) and their fondness for adhering to the rules — and especially the residents of the capital of Bern, let loose and take to the water en masse, bobbing, floating and laughing for miles as the Aare River’s swift currents swoop them downstream.
I’ve ripped down the Aare several times, watching kids leap off the Schönausteg Bridge near the Dählhölzli Zoo, drop into the water and then, with me and the rest of the city, race toward the heart of Bern. “It’s an amazing feeling, being in the flow of the Aare River,” says Nina Burri, an exceptionally bendy Swiss contortionist (and an America’s Got Talent finalist), model and actress. Growing up in Bern, she could walk five minutes to the Aare, then simply plunge in for loads of summertime fun.
The Aare is a Swiss river through and through. Originating from glaciers in the Bernese Alps, it’s the longest river contained entirely within the borders of Switzerland. According to Bern tour guide Ursula Arregger, the Aare’s topographical advantages motivated Duke Berchtold V in the late 12th century to found the city.
While zipping down the pristine green water, it’s easy to strike up a chat with fellow swimming sapiens drifting alongside you.
Motorized boats aren’t allowed on the Aare. “The Bernese are very careful about keeping the river clean,” Arregger says. While zipping down the pristine green water, with or without a flotation device, it’s easy to strike up a chat with fellow swimming sapiens drifting alongside you. Burri cautions that when floating without a raft or tube, you need to be a strong swimmer, able to fight the currents and to yank your bulk out at just the right spot. “Make sure you do it with an experienced friend at first,” she suggests, which makes sense, because it’s communal, repeatable and a blast — plus a great way to immerse yourself in the local scene.
Upstream, the Aare flows through the lakes of Interlaken and the town of Thun before hitting Bern. It then snakes down to the canton of Aargau (named for the river), eventually flowing into the Rhine. There, “the Aare is the bigger river,” says Steffen Schweizer, head of water ecology at KWO hydropower company. “The good old Rhine should have the name Aare,” he adds, rooting for the Swiss-contained waterway.
In Thun, day-trippers can rent rubber rafts and go for a leisurely paddle — or give themselves over to the whims of the current — for several hours, hopping out, as Burri recommends, at the Eichholz campground, a popular spot for riverside picnics. If you want to “just keep swimming” like Disney’s Dory, you can pop out by the Marzili swimming pool downtown, near the Federal Palace, home of the Swiss Parliament. Then walk back to Eichholz — or get a friend to drive you even farther upstream — and plop back in.
Whether by raft, tube or just in a swimsuit — perhaps with a cold beer in your hand (I did that, but don’t follow my bad example) — floating down the Aare River is a Swiss treat, bringing all manner of people together to splash and play in glacier-fed waters.
Go there: Aare River
- Be Safe: Not sure of your swimming abilities? At the very least, strap a life vest on, as the currents are very strong. And never float down the river alone.
- Longer Float Trips: Guiding companies in Thun can provide you with experienced river guides, rafts, helmets and pretty much anything else you might need for a longer float or a picnic by the shore.
- Showing Off: If you’re keen to do backflips or forward flips into the Aare, the Schönausteg Bridge is the perfect platform to jump off and highlight your acrobatic skills.