Photo: On the Oberaare Panorama Strasse near the source of the river.
The Aare is the longest river which is entirely within Switzerland. Flowing 292 km from the heights of the Berner Oberland to join the Rhine at the German border by Koblenz. Most visitors to Switzerland will be more familiar with it as the river that flows through Interlaken and Bern.
The Aare has been quite a prominent landmark for me in my life in Switzerland. I live in Solothurn where the Aare divides the city in two and provides the main focal point for nightlife. My first bike ride in Switzerland was along the Aare, and I have spent years commuting along it every day by bike. Now I have finally ridden the whole thing. Unlike the Emme I didn’t ride this in a single trip but in numerous separate stages over a few years (the 82 km long Emme is doable in a day in fairness)
It isn’t the wildest of rivers. Much of it is in controlled canals and there are numerous dams and hydroelectric power stations arresting or smoothing the flow of water (it is also lined by almost all the Swiss nuclear power plants). Literally the first thing the water does as the meltwater flows from the glacier is enter a dam at the Grimselpass. That said there are still some wilder white water sections, even quite close to the end.
This isn’t much of an Alpine route (the Alps will rarely even be visible after the first 100km). Most of the height difference from the Grimselsee (1908m) to where it joins the Rhine (312m) is lost in the first 20 km as it cascades down to Innertkirchen (626m) with the river then very gradually dropping the remaining 300m of height over 290 km. That isn’t to say it is all easy going; there are a number of points where the river snakes through a hilly landscape resulting in a number of short sharp climbs to follow alongside it.
Other than the road up the Grimsel Pass all of this would be doable year round. Though the winter is rather grim so I wouldn’t advise doing it in January. June would be my perfect month to ride the route with everything open and in bloom.
The Aare Route (signed as Route 8) would seem like the obvious choice of way to take. This provides an easy signed route to follow. It is however not always that close to the river, you won’t often be riding on the banks of the Aare so much as in the same general direction. It isn’t even the closest sign posted route to the river at times.
In typical Swiss bike network fashion you will find yourself diverted off through suburbs or forest if the path is considered too rough or is a road that can be avoided. Upstream of Wangen a.A. for example it will direct you away from a perfectly rideable path by the river to instead ride directly alongside the Autobahn.
Some of the suggested stages are very short. Solothurn – Biel is a mere 31km and basically flat. I presume this is to ensure it ends in a nicer town with enough accommodation.
Most of the river is in the densely packed Mittelland so you are rarely further than a few km from the next shop or restaurant.
Likewise much of the route is close to the train network so it is often easy to hop to a particular point or skip a section.
Apart from a small corner of Lake Biel and Biel itself the whole route is firmly (Swiss) German speaking.
Even going downstream there are a few unavoidable climbs when the landscape around the river gets too hilly. Notably the Aare gorge, Geissbach, Bern to Aarberg, and Wangen aA to Aarberg. These aren’t high alpine passes, but they can be quite steep.
Some sections are fairly remote and quiet, others are the most popular spot in the area for dog walkers so will require some more patience.
The road surface is quite rough at times, especially when trying to stay as close to the water as possible.
Thanks to the size of canton Bern the Aare only actually passes through cantons Bern, Solothurn, and Aargau.
I have written this up as source to mouth. To go with the flowing water (and because that is how I have covered most of it).
I have split this up into 5 sections roughly themed around the landscape:
- Part 1: Source and Alps.
- Part 2: Entering the Swiss Plateau and cities.
- Part 3: Along the south feet of the Jura.
- Part 4: Oberaargau.
- Part 5: Through canton Aargau.
Part 1: Source and Alps
The closest you can reasonably get to the source is the end of the Oberaare Panorama Strasse which gets you to within a few km of the Unteraargletscher. This is a fantastic ride, especially if like me you sneak on whilst it is still closed to traffic. If you are underway with a mountain bike then it would be possible to get to the Lauteraarehütte, or even to touch rubber to ice if you are really hardcore and committed to the theme.
From the Grimselsee it is an effortless downhill through some stunning and mostly wild mountain landscape to Innertkirchen where the Aare forces it’s way through the Aareschlucht (Aare gorge). The road however does not and this is the first climb.
The Aare gorge is most definitely off limits to bikes but is worth walking through if you have time. There is an entrance at each end and it doesn’t matter how much you walk back and forth, so you can simply lock up and then walk through it and back again.
Meiringen is an interesting division just for the novelty of all the Sherlock Holmes themed places.
After Meiringen the wild Aare coming out of the gorge becomes a well maintained canal and stays that way all the way to Lake Brienz. The bike route actually follows a series of very quiet small roads a kilometre away from the river on the opposite side of the valley. The main road follows directly alongside the Aare and would be ridable, but the river is out of sight behind a raised earthwork anyway.
The most interesting part on this section is the Meiringen air base and the view of the Oltschibach falls. A public road goes across the airbase (mandatory Tom Scott video). I diverted to ride across it and back just for the novelty of it all, and passed by as a jetfighter was landing – with security being 1 bloke with a fluorescent jacket. There is also the surreal sight of a runway pointing straight out of the mountain.
Reaching Lake Brienz the Aare is then essentially everywhere and nowhere. The signed bike route follows the south side of the lake, however this is often on gravel so roadies (and those adverse to a climb) will want to take the north side.
The climb up to Geissbach is possibly the nastiest on the route, but provides some fantastic views over the lake. At Giessbach the path crosses the waterfalls in what must be one of the most impressive points on the route. It is also worth dropping down to the historic hotel – if only for the better view of the waterfalls.
After Giessbach most of the path along the lake is in the forest. So views are a bit limited to little glimpses of lake and mountainside every now and again.
Nearing the end of the lake It is worth taking the very short diversion to Iseltwald. A pretty enough place which has gone viral due to a mix of striking location and a certain Korean drama.
At the end of the lake there is a short section of the Aare through Interlaken. Famously the train crosses over the river twice simply to block competition from boat traffic.
The Aare then flows into Lake Thun. riding on either side of the lake means putting up with roads due to the confined space. The Aare route follows the south shore via Spiez, something which is the better choice in the long run but does have a unpleasant start riding on what is essentially the hard shoulder of a busy main road.
Part 2: Entering the Swiss Plateau and cities
Reaching Thun the landscape ahead is suddenly much flatter with only relatively gentle hills rather than towering mountains (which are now retreating into the distance behind us).
The Aare restarts at the northernmost point of the lake. The left bank starts out in the grounds of Schloss Schadau then goes through some forgettable industrial areas, the more scenic option is the right bank which lets you take a car-free path that is shared between bikes and pedestrians from the lake to the old town.
The Aare passes through the centre of Thun and it is well worth taking a few more minutes to explore the old town and waterfront (it really won’t take long, especially with a bike).
From Thun to Bern the ride is generally very gentle along the wide and flat valley, but it can be hard to follow closely to the river. The signed Aare route often detours far away, and sections of the riverside path are explicitly closed to bikes.
Bern is the only ‘real’ city on the route (and even that is tiny by the standards of most countries). Everywhere else is even smaller and the Aare route often just passes by rather than really through them. You could probably count the traffic lights along the entire route on your fingers, and the only ones with actual traffic are in the centre of Bern.
The entrance into Bern along the Aare route is initially through some quiet suburbs, it then drops down to the Aare before entering the old town and looping past the bear pit to climb up through the old town, passing by the Bundeshaus (the parliament building), before tossing you into the busiest section of road on the entire route and then off through some more quiet suburbs on the way out of town.
After leaving the old town of Bern the Aare narrows and winds through some very tight curves in a complex path which results in it travelling 9 km to end up 500m away from where it started. The Aare route simply skips this and rejoins the river quite a way out of Bern at Hinterkappelen. Trying to follow this closely by bike is probably a bit awkward. It is however is easy to detour off the signed route and join the river a few km earlier at Halebrügg.
The section from Bern to Aarberg is one of my favourite parts of the route. After you leave Bern it quickly changes character to a rural landscape with pretty farmhouses dotted around. The Aare isn’t in a gorge, but the valley is narrow with steep sides, which looks beautiful but does mean a few steep little climbs. The dammed Wohlensee is quite pretty (but there is another nasty climb on a footpath). Even the Mühleberg nuclear power station looks quite picturesque; snuggled in a little hidden corner on the river (I like how the bike path squeezes through a tiny gap between the forest and security fence to get past it).
Looking at a map it seems the direct riverside path from should be rideable, but there are clear ‘no bike’ signs along some parts (like the Stausee Niederried) so some steep climbs are required again.
At Aarburg comes the choice of staying with the main body of water on the engineered canal to Lake Biel, or following what remains of the Alte Aare. Either way the centre of Aarburg with the handsome little old town reached by crossing a covered wooden bridge is worth a quick detour.
This area was once a big swamp (it is still called the Grosse Moos). Engineering works have prevented the once regular flooding and turned it into a major agricultural area.
From Aarberg the Hagneck-Kanal funnels most of the water towards Lake Biel. The next 8 km are spent riding alongside the canal through flat farmland – fine enough but very forgettable. The most interesting part of this section is the Jura mountains taking centre stage, a position they will hold the rest of the way.
The canal enters Lake Biel by way of another hydroelectric dam. This is one of the more exotic parts of the Aare with terraced vineyards and the start of the French speaking region on the northern shore.
The most direct route is straight along the south shore to Nidau. This is a bit mixed: at times there are some wonderful views and a few points with access to the lake, but it is often back behind private housing.
The other option is to head in the opposite direction and go around the rest of the lake. This is about 3 times as long, but offers the novelty of briefly crossing the language border into the French speaking part of Switzerland, and seeing some very pretty vineyard surrounded villages like Erlach and Ligerz along the way.
There are 3 ways to cover the north side: climbing up to follow the Rebenweg through the vineyards, going along the main road after Ligerz, or following the little lakefront path (often narrow and will be slow when passing pedestrians). Of these I would recommend the Rebenweg for the best views.
Biel/Bienne itself isn’t on the Aare route, but it does have one of the nicest old towns in Switzerland which is worth a quick diversion if you have time. It is also the only truly bilingual place in the country.
The Aare leaves Lake Biel in the form of the Nidau-Büren-Kanal. This is 12 km of flat and easy riding until it rejoins the Alte Aare just before Büren aA and returns to being a normal river again.
This way follows what is left of the original sprawling route of the Aare, rejoining the new canal (and sort of crossing it) just before Büren aA.
The remains of the old route of the Aare are harder to follow. Only a trickle flows now and most of the direct path is single trail. Stage 3 of cycling route 44 goes in the same direction, but only the last few km are actually along the Alte Aare – the rest is a mix of fairly dull towns, fields, and industry.
The main settlement on this section is Lyss which is a very strong contender for the title of ‘most forgettable Swiss town’, but it does at least have a Kambly factory store which offers the chance to stock up on large volumes of discount biscuits (and might have returned to offering endless free samples again post-COVID).
Part 3: Along the south feet of the Jura
The two parts of the river join up where it takes a hard turn to the east
At the point where the canal and Alte Aare rejoin is the Häftli. An island covered in farms which has two unique facts: it is shaped surprisingly like the Lindt Bunny when seen on a map, and it was the first internment camp for prisoners in WW2. Nobody else seems to have noticed the former, and all that remains of the latter is a single small building and an almost hidden memorial.
Büren an der Aare is well worth a quick stop to look around the old town and top up on water from the fountain. It is a lovely little town built in the style of Bern and with a beautiful covered wooden bridge. It would be significantly lovelier if it wasn’t such a main thoroughfare for traffic. Crossing the bridge is usually a pain, especially because oncoming traffic is as likely to drive against a bike as to wait.
After Büren the river takes a more natural form again. The signed route stays on the left bank, but you can basically follow directly along the riverside most of the way to Solothurn on either side of the river. This is a lovely stretch with the river gently snaking through farmland, made even better than it is car-free (or very low traffic) all the way.
About half-way between Büren and Solothurn is Altreu. A little village with a small ferry that can take pedestrians and cyclists across the river, and a whole lot of storks. Many of the houses have multiple stork nests on the roofs, and there is a little visitor centre with stork related information. Visit in Spring or early Summer to see the birds nesting – though they do hang around all year.
Solothurn is the next town on the river. Once again it is well worth taking a few minutes to explore the old town. The Standesamt is probably the narrowest bit of path on the route and often blocked by wedding parties.
Staying on the right bank of the Aare takes you to the Emmespitze, the point where the Emme flows into the Aare. There is a chance to see beavers here, but mostly what you get is a good view of the next point of interest – the Atisholzareal. This is a former cellulose factory which stood vacant for a number of years but is being brought back to life as a public space for art and food.
The Aare route follows the right bank alongside a golf course and then turns away from the river to ride alongside the Autobahn. If it isn’t a weekend (or doesn’t seem busy) I would suggest sticking to the riverside path which is MUCH nicer.
Wangen an der Aare has a nice little old town and a wooden bridge (which again is sadly open to general traffic).
Part 4: Oberaargau
After Wangen the Aare swings south and snakes through some fairly hilly terrain. The Aare Route jumps back and forth across the river, presumably trying to balance quieter roads and gentler gradients.
The midpoint of the Aare is just upstream of the power station at Bannwil.
Aarwangen is notable for the Schloss which sits next to the river, and it is home to the Langatun distillery one of the main producers of Swiss whisky (yes that is a thing).
At the little village of Wolfwil the Aare Route again turns away from the river and spends the next 9km bumbling around through fields and forest before rejoining the river again at Boningen. There isn’t any practical way to follow within sight of the river along here (the opposite bank has a path which is closer but is still out of sight and is next to a busy road) but taking the road would save some effort and it isn’t too busy.
Aarburg has one of the most impressive and distinctive castles in Switzerland – and I would argue on the Aare route. The castle itself isn’t open to visitors, but you do get a good view of it from the river bridge.
Olten is the favourite punching bag of Switzerland. It does have a nice wooden bridge (possibly the nicest on the route because it is closed to traffic) and a statue dedicated to the memory of a local cat. It is also very practical as one of the major train stations in Switzerland with connections going off in every direction (even as far as Hamburg).
After Olten the section through to Aarau is very forgettable. Not horrible, just rather bland. About the only points of interest I am aware of are the chonky castle/church and bloody great big nuclear power plant at Niedergösgen.
Part 5: Through canton Aargau
The third and final canton on the route, Aargau, is the river canton with their flag showing the three rivers (Aare, Ruess, Limmat) which flow into the canton.
Only a few hundred metres into the canton is the capital city Aarau which has a lovely old town and is once again well worth a little diversion to explore for a few minutes.
From Aarau to Brugg the ride is almost entirely flat and on car-free paths which stay close to the river. There are also a number of castles alongside or within sight of the path (one of the few points of interest in the canton are the number of castles). Notably Schloss Hapsburg – the original seat of the Hapsburg dynasty which would rise from (what is now) rural Switzerland to dominate Europe.
Brugg has a decent old town, and the view of the gorge is one of the most unique sights along the Aare. A 5 minute diversion from the Aare are the remains of a Roman Amphitheater at Windisch which are not extensive but are open to be explored freely.
Past Brugg the Reuss (from Lucerne) and Limmat (from Zurich) enter the Aare about a kilometre apart from each other. There isn’t really much to see of the Limmat and the most interesting sight is the bunker which defends the confluence of the Aare and Ruess.
After the confluences of the rivers the river flows north through a gap in the Jura. There are a few last little climbs but mostly it is fairly gentle riding. The river bulges out at the dammed Klungnauer Stausee is the last memorable sight. This seems to be a rather popular spot for birdwatchers so watch out for people with expensive cameras suddenly stepping out from behind bushes.
The actual end of the Aare is a bit disappointing. It just slips unceremoniously under a boring bridge into an unremarkable corner of the Rhine. The only way to take a proper look is to take the steps down under the bridge.
The nearest settlement (and station) is Koblenz, a place so bland you could forget what it looks like whilst standing in the middle of it. The name comes from the Celtic for confluence, like the more famous Koblenz in Germany near Cologne. From there you can get a train back to Baden with the possibility of changing onward travel towards Brugg and Aarau.
Otherwise it isn’t far down the Rhine to Basel (about 60km) and from there only a week or two more of riding until the Rhine flows into the sea… Both sides have a bike path and there are some attractive towns which straddle the border like Laufenburg, Bad Säckingen with its wooden bridge, and Rheinfelden (the Swiss side at least). Plus the novelty of endless concrete bunkers on the Swiss banks keeping an eye on the Germans. The final Swiss nuclear power plant, Leibstadt, is just around the first bend if you want to complete the set.