The dream-like Solothurn – the finest Baroque city in Switzerland

Located on the Aare River in the south of the Jura Mountains approximately 30 km north of Bern, Solothurn – the capital of the eponymous canton with the population (as of December 2015) of 16,721 inhabitants – is, without any exaggerations, one of the most picturesque, colorful and atmospheric cities in all the Alps.

This is Switzerland’s finest Baroque city with its Old Town alleys, dotted with magnificent buildings, decorative fountains and towers, which all are a sheer delight to explore on leisurely strolls or admire from the atmospheric street cafés. An incredibly picturesque setting, amazing ancient architecture that creates a very special aura with the distinct feel of antiquity, solemn ornate fountains on beautiful quaint squares, paved streets, decorated with flowers and forged iron signs and streetlamps, quiet peaceful evenings when you get a chance to just sit in the garden restaurants and bars by the Aare, enjoying a delicious meal or sipping on a tasty beverage while taking in the scenic views around and admiring beautiful historic monuments, patrician buildings and old sturdy fortifications picking over the tiled rooftops and trees canopy – all this awaits you in Solothurn.

This city is a little reminiscent of Bern, has a rich culinary tradition like Basel, but is smaller, yet even more ornate and sumptuous, still retaining a pronounced French feel, while giving off a distinct Swiss- German vibe like many other German-speaking cities in Switzerland. What secrets, mysteries do hide behind its walls and what else has this picture-perfect ancient city got to offer? Let’s find out!

Interesting things about Solothurn

The city is really ancient and its name dates back to the Roman Era

Having appeared as a Roman settlement, Solothurn was probably built around AD 15-25 as a road station and bridge head on the road from Aventicum to Augusta Raurica or Vindonissa. A small vicus (from Latin) or settlement quickly developed around the castrum (castle). Actually, Solothurn is first mentioned in 219 as vico salod[uro] on the so-called Eponastein. The name may indicate either that a Celtic settlement existed on the site before or just be a testimony to the mixed Gallo-Roman culture in the north-west provinces of the Roman Empire.

In fact, there are several versions that explain the city’s name. According to the first version, the origin of the name Solothurn is associated, as a rule, with Roman influence. In 219, the centurion named Resta, whose legion was staying in the village Zalodorum, commanded to build there an altar of the goddess Epona, the patroness of the horses. His name, the date and the name of the village, carved on stone are the main evidence, where came the name Zolo-Thurn. Later, the Romans built a fortress Castrum Zolotorum, from which the city has grown, but in the canton, many believe that the canton is named after Zalos – was the name of one of the legendary leaders who lived here long before the arrival of the Romans, with some XIII century BC.

Nowadays Solothurn has got several different names

Aside from the official name, which according to the official state languages sounds as Solothurn in German, Soleure in French, Soletta in Italian and Soloturn in Romansh, Solothurn is known under the name of Saint Ursens, Wenga, and also the City of Ambassadors. The first option is related to the legend of two Roman legionaries, Ursa and Victor, beheaded in Solothurn for their Christian faith. Both legionaries for their martyrdom were ranked as saints. Cathedral of St. Ursen still towers over all the buildings of the city and wears their emblem.

As to the « the ambassador’s town», this has a very logical historic explanation. From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Catholic Solothurn was the residence of French envoys, so today many places of this capital German-speaking, by the way, canton is easy to confuse with the streets of some charming old French town. Fine examples of Baroque and Renaissance, 11 churches and chapels, fountains, towers, remains of Roman walls – all this is only a part of the riches that this city still contains

The Aare is the only river that serves passenger boats and only between the city of Biele and Solothurn

Of all the rivers in Switzerland, long cruise rides aboard a boat or a yacht along the river in the traditional meaning are available only on this strip of the Aare. Even though it is very popular among the locals and the tourists, you should never forget that the Aare is a very dangerous and fast river with many strong underwater currents and invisible from above rocks, which may turn your vessel upside down never leaving you a chance due to the very low temperature of the water and its immense pull. That’s why the relatively calm part between these two cities is accessible for rides.

11 is a mystical number in Solothurn

You may not have known, but Solothurn is often called “the city of 11”. Indeed, this figure has some mystical significance in its history – the canton was the eleventh one, who joined the Swiss Confederation, there are eleven churches and chapels in the city, eleven historical fountains and the same number of fortress towers, St. Ursus Cathedral has eleven altars and eleven bells, and even the staircase in front of the cathedral has a platform not as usual – having 10 steps, but 11 instead. It is no wonder that the local brewery is also called Öufi (in the Swiss dialect of German this means “Eleven”), and its products are produced under the same brand. Whatever it is, but this figure mystery really adds to the already enigmatic aura of the city.

One clock in Solothurn has 11 figures instead of traditional 12

This isn’t a joke, despite whatever you may have thought. Seemingly impossible and highly inconvenient, one clock in the city shows the so-called “Zoloturn time” and is installed on the building at Amthausplaz, 1. Why is it in use and how do the locals actually manage to navigate, is another mystery in the long list of those connected with eleven.

However, Carnival in Solothurn starts not on the 11th but on the 13 t h

Despite the total rule of number 11, Solothurn’s Fasnacht (Carnival) does not begin as elsewhere on Martin’s Day on 11.11but always on the 13 t h of January, the Hilari Day. From this day Solothurn is called «Honolulu» and the town hall «Eselsgasse». The Carnival week itself begins in the last week before the fasting. So the opening is on “Dirty Thursday”. In the morning at 5 o’clock, the start signal for the “Chesslete” is given in the cemetery square and the old town is subsequently filled with the sounds of all sorts of noise. As a tradition, a white night shirt, a white lapel cap and a red halter cloth are worn. Further highlights are the children’s parade and two other carnival parades on the following Sunday and Tuesday. The Solothurn Carnival ends with the Zapfenstreich (pince-nez). Two blocks are created here. Each block is headed by tambourines from the Tamboureverein Solothurn and accompanied by “Guggenmusiken“, where “I ma nüm” (I cannot any more) is sung and people “hop” around the city in a long train by thousands of Fasnacht participants. Afterwards, the night-time activity is finally ended with the traditional burning of the “Bööggs” on Ash Wednesday.

Solothurn is the most linguistically liberal city in Switzerland

At least in the linguistic area, despite Swiss conservatism, Solothurn is considered the most liberal region in the country. Both officially, and in fact it’s the German-speaking canton, but practically all the inhabitants here, even in the villages, are fluent in French, they also speak a little Italian, although in the neighboring German-speaking cantons this is more an exception than the rule. There is no mystery: the river Aare played a significant role – it served as the main way of communication between different tribes of the future Swiss Confederation from the ancient times. Being the land-network of roads, naturally, required the ability to negotiate with travelers. Thus, nowadays there’s practically no such problem as language barrier in Solothurn, as English, being the lingua fracas, made a nice addition to the aforementioned languages.

The outlines of Solothurn on the map resemble a running man which symbolizes its constant industrial growth and prosperity

If you look carefully at the map, the outlines of the canton of Solothurn really resemble a man in wide pants running and trying to catch something that is moving. Funny at first sight, it, actually, has a special, symbolic meaning for it. Nobody chose the territorial borders like this on purpose, but the citizens of the canton interpret these lines with humor, but not without pride: yes, Solothurn never stands still and always manages to develop and strive for more.

Solothurn is one of the country’s main producers of watches

It is always “punctual” in the best Swiss character, because it produces the world’s most accurate watches. Regarding the quality of Swiss watches, comments are superfluous, but the fact that Solothurn is one of the country’s main producers of watches, especially wrist watches, speaks for itself. Despite not having any special technologies over French, British or Germans, the whole world recognized that it was the Swiss, who succeeded in the most delicate operations with all sorts of small thin-walled cylinders, cog wheels, balance regulators and switch mechanisms. The release of world’s first wristwatches with automatic winding in 1926 at the factory in Grenchen is an excellent proof of that.

Solothurn is one of the leading industrial and economic hubs

In addition to watch production other branches of precision instrumentation are developed as well. These are different devices used in scientific laboratories. In the development of new medical technologies in almost all countries of the world, devices, produced in the canton of Solothurn, are used. Here, the world’s best prostheses of various parts of the human body are also manufactured. Such a great demand for the products of its enterprises is simply explained: everyone loves accuracy, reliability and everything new. The latter does not seem to fit perfectly with the stereotyped view of Switzerland as a conservative country. But nevertheless: in two large cities of the canton, Solothurn and Olten, there are branches of the corporation “Business Service”, where experts not only help to solve any specific issues in the field of marketing, innovation, tax policy, logistics, but train entrepreneurs from different countries with the latest methods of business. There are no large banks in the canton, but local banks turned this disadvantage both for themselves and their clients into a plus, providing the most favorable conditions for lending to small businesses and their investors and reducing tax rates if the company conducts research.

How to get to Solothurn?

By plane:

The nearest major airport is Bern Airport (BRN / LSZB). This airport has international flights from Bern, Switzerland and is 58 km from the center of Solothurn, Switzerland.

Another major airport is EuroAirport Basel-Mulhouse-Freiburg (EAP / LFSB), which has international and domestic flights from Saint-Louis, France and is 77 km from Solothurn, Switzerland.

If you travel inside the country, there’s Grenchen Airport (ICAO: LSZG) that is an airport serving Grenchen, a municipality in the district of Lebern in the canton of Solothurn 18 km away from Solothurn.

By train:

Solothurn is served by one of the most efficient passenger rail services in the world, the Swiss Federal Rail (SBB) system. Trains run roughly each half-hour between 4AM and 1AM every day to and from Geneva, Zurich, Bern, and points in between.

The town is also directly accessible from Zurich, located about 100 km west. There is an excellent direct connection with the express train from Zurich at 04 and 30 of each hour, and one with a transfer in Olten at 58 minutes. It usually takes approximately 53 minutes to get to Solothurn from Zurich without any transfers.

By car or by bus:

 The main highway of Switzerland, broadband A1 highway, passes in its central part through Solothurn. And the most important in the country multi-level transport interchanges are also in Solothurn – through Neuchatel to Romance (French-speaking Switzerland), connecting the north and the center of the country with the south, Italian-speaking canton Ticino.

So, pick a bus excursion or tour, or go on your own, as traveling by car or by bus has always been one of the most enjoyable ways to travel, especially in Switzerland, which offers fantastic views at every turn. Going by your own car (you may rent one without any problems, if you haven’t brought yours), you may set your own time-table and make as many stops as you want, whenever and wherever you want. And believe it, there will be plenty of scenic places and cozy cafes to stop at.

By boat:

Solothurn is also connected by boat to the bilingual town of Biel/Bienn. Boats by the BSG take 2 hours 50 minutes to complete the journey between the two towns and leave two (spring/autumn) or three (summer) times a day.

How to get around?

The town is small enough to be easily explored on foot. The Old Town is north of the train station, across the river. And it’s better to start your sightseeing from there.

The train station is located conveniently in the center. Thus, you can travel by regional trains, seeing as all the lines in the city itself or in the neighboring regions run at the quarter or half of each hour. In addition to this, the neighboring villages and cities are run regularly by S-Bahn. There is a well-developed bus network, so you can easily cover the city using the public transport, or you may take a taxi, the majority of which are centered at the Central Station. You can also catch a taxi somewhere in the streets, but keep in mind that they are very pricy compared to the local busses. Or you may go for bicycles or cars, which can be rented at the central station as well.

Where to stay and grab a bite?

Hotels, inns, holiday cottages and apartments, as well as hostels and rooms rented out to tourists by locals, are to your disposal in Solothurn. It’s not difficult to find descent accommodation in this city. Take a look at H4 Hotel Solothurn, a newly built hotel directly by the river and two minutes walking distance from the main station and the old city center, which is more and more frequented by visitors and that’s why should be booked in advance, or go for more original and atmospheric places like Hotel Roter Ochsen, a charming 400-year-old house in Solothurn’s Old Town that offers free Wi-Fi, modern rooms and organic and regional produce in the breakfast, or the Hotel an der Aare Swiss Quality, which is located in the former nurses’ home of the “Altes Spital” Solothurn (the old Solothurn hospital).

Same goes for restaurants and cafes, since there’s a great many of them all over Solothurn serving various cuisines.

What you should really try here is the famous Solothurner torte (cake), which is in the cafeteria opposite the cathedral.

If you are looking for an unusual rest on the banks of the river Aare, head to the SolHeure bar. Here you can just have a beer after a walk, or you can dance until you drop from fatigue. The SolHeure bar is an exclusive, secluded place on the Aare River, a wonderful island where time stops and where you can really relax. Every week during the summer, live music is played here, and an open-air bar has the widest choice of drinks for every taste. But a truly unforgettable experience will leave a barbecue on the terrace by the river.

Shopping in Solothurn

If you want to find a really cool present or souvenir, drop by Kerzenjeger at Hauptgasse 36.  This colonial goods emporium in the heart of the Old Town is a real treasure-trove of gifts. The extensive and varied range includes candles of all shapes and colors, choice varieties of tea, gourmet delicatessen specialties, high-quality spirits, decorative articles and even small items of furniture.

What is the weather like in Solothurn?

The best time to visit Solothurn is the summer season from April to October. The climate is moderate with no excessive heat, cold or humidity. But the transit through the mountain passes in the Jura is only guaranteed during the summer months. However, alternatives such as tunnels or car-train services are available.

Useful tips for those heading to Solothurn and surrounding mountains

Before you set off on your trip, you should always take a look at current weather conditions. The weather can change rapidly, especially in the mountains. This way you are well prepared in the case sudden thunderstorms with hail or snow showers should surprise you even in summer – and can react in good time. Depending on the altitude the temperature range may vary. You should definitely pack a sweater, good walking shoes, sunscreen, sunglasses, a compact umbrella and/or a light rain coat, unless you want to end up wet to the bone, frozen or sun-burnt.

Adjust your driving to the prevailing conditions. Signs on the roadway indicating icy patches should be taken seriously even in spring and autumn. Freezing water blown from lakes or rivers and foliage on the road in autumn can make the road a slippery challenge and is another possible danger not to be underestimated, especially at dusk or dawn.

What to see and do in Solothurn?

Wander around the Old Town!

It is believed that Solothurn is the most beautiful Baroque city in Switzerland. Its compact Old Town, largely built during the period from 1530 to 1792, is full of original buildings, built with a combination of German solidity and Italian elegance. Solothurn is home to 18 structures that are listed as Swiss heritage sites of national significance. Moreover, in 1980, Solothurn was awarded the Wakker Prize for the development and preservation of its architectural heritage.

The Old Town of Solothurn (Altstadt), located just 10 minutes-walk north from the railway station, is nestled behind a massive city wall. The best view that opens to this center of baroque mansions and churches is unquestionably from the embankment: ancient cathedrals are reflected in the river, and in the distance you can see picturesque Jura Mountains.

The main street – Hauptgasse – stretches through the whole Old Town and along the river, it is there, where the lion’s share of restaurants, shops and attractions, in particular the Cathedral of St. Ursa, the Clock Tower, Arsena are located. Also inside the Old Town you can see fragments of old fortifications with well-preserved towers Basel and Bienne (both XIV-XVI centuries), the castle of Froburg (Frobur), the ruins of the fortress of Sali-Chausslie and the Cistercian Abbey of St. Urban in the area of Arborg, Jesuit Church (Jesuitenkirche, 1680-1689), the Church of St. Mary and St. Peter in the Shonenwerd.

It’s better to go to the Altstadt through the East Gate (Baseltor) – this is the most beautiful entrance to the city, where Hauptgasse starts. 

Explore the neighborhood of Solothurn!

In the vicinity of Solothurn, the sights are almost as abundant as in the city itself. For example, the symbol of the whole canton – Weissenstein (1395 m) -, along which a mass of marked hiking and cycling routes is laid, is a short walk away. Even those who do not have the experience of climbing will be able to spend an excellent half-day there: every Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday to the hotel located on the mountain Kurhaus Weissenstein there are buses, thanks to which you can pass a grueling climb and enjoy luxurious views of Central Switzerland and the Alps without getting out of breath.

A local “MUST visit” is the picturesque Verenas gorge (Verenaschlucht), where the chapel and the monastery are located.

It is worth to visit the castle Waldegg, where a nice museum with interiors of the 18th century and baroque gardens opened for tourists, and, of course, the caves of Nidenloch. Finally, during a walk along the Aare River, make a stop in the village of Altreu  – famous for the largest in Switzerland colony of storks.

Go on a cruise along the Aare!

It’s already mentioned before as the only chance you get to sail along the river, but the routes offers many more pleasant presents and surprises aside from that. River walks are available from mid-May to mid-October.You can board Siesta half-catamaran in Solothurn and on the way to Biel, a romantic boat will sail past the small island of Inzeli and the idyllic Altreu with its famous storks’ nests. You can make a stop in Büren, a charming medieval town on the List of Cultural Heritage and National Treasures of Switzerland. The historical center of the city has the form of a triangle. The most important sights are the city castle, the restored town hall with Gothic windows on the facade, the former hospital, which now serves as a museum of local history, the church, gazebos in Hauptgasse, two fountains and a powerful wooden bridge. Büren is a very hospitable city. You can go from here on an excursion to the national park “Häftli” or simply spend a few hours of leisure here or admire the Jura mountain range.

Cruise on the Aare River lasts approximately 2 hours and 50 minutes and it’s a completely unique experience.

Admire the magnificent Sankt Ursen Kathedrale – the Cathedral of St. Ursen!

This is not only the main and the most recognizable landmark of the city, but the highest cathedral of Solothurn as well, not to notice which one is simply not possible. This is the first cathedral you will see if you start from the eastern gate (Baseltor) of the city walls. The already mentioned street Hauptgasse heads to the east from here.

The cathedral was created in the 18th century. The architect of the cathedral – Gaetano Matteo Pisoni – was forced to confine himself in the exterior of the cathedral to the classical Italian style. Inside, he decided to sweep with all the magnificence of the Baroque style, so that now the cathedral of Solothurn is considered one of the best examples of late baroque in Switzerland.

Enjoy a spectacular panorama from atop the cathedral!

You should definitely set aside some time and energy to climb the tower of the cathedral, towering over the city at 62 meters. First of all, the tower is very beautiful, crowned with a gilded inscription in Latin, describing the deeds of the heavenly patron of Solothurn – Saint Ursus. Then, you’ll be rewarded for the difficult ascent with a magnificent panorama of the city and the river Aare, as well as the Jura Mountains in the north of Solothurn.

Check the time at the oldest building of the city – the beautiful and ornate Zytglogge!

The clock tower (Zytglogge) is located in Hauptgasse street, 150 meters west of the cathedral. This is the oldest building of the city, which dates back to the beginning of the 13th century. In 1467, the floor for the clock was added, and in 1545 an astronomical clock was mounted. Under the clock is a sculptural group of a rider, a skeleton (symbolizing the frailty of life), and a king, sitting in the middle of the throne in a buffoon’s cap. Every hour the death overturns the hourglass and nods to the knight, symbolizing life, as if to say “the vessel is full”. Under the clock you can see the patron saints of the city – Saint Ursa and Victor, the work of 1583. On the clockface of the astronomical clock, the day, month and time of the year are displayed. What is so unusual in this clock is that its hands are made on the contrary: the short arrow shows minutes, and the long one – hours.

Take a photo in front of the ancient Baseltor!

The Basel Gate (Baseltor) is located in Werkhofstrasse, two hundred meters to the northeast of the cathedral. This is all that remains of the city fortifications in the eastern part of the city. The construction was started in 1504 after the Swabian War, and finishedin 1535. These gates are the most beautiful of all in Solothurn.

Have the time of your life at the universally acclaimed Natural History Museum!

There are plenty of interesting and unusual museums in Solothurn, including the History Museum, the Museum of Stones, the ENTER PC Museum and Schloss  Waldegg, not to mention a collection of sentimental light fiction.  But Natural History Museum is out of competition. Children will squeal with joy and be totally engrossed in everything around, that’s why it is particularly popular with families. This is a fascinating way of viewing the region’s animal, plant and mineral life. Utterly unique are the 150 million year old fossilized turtles from the quarries of the city, the beautiful starfish from Weissenstein and of course the famous Lommiswil dinosaur tracks.

Visit the Art Museum!

The Art Museum of Solothurn (Kunstmuseum) is considered one of the most interesting in the city. Here you can see the portrait of Wilhelm Tell (the author is Ferdinand Hodler), on which he is depicted with red hair, in a white shirt and short pants. Be sure to pay homage to the “Madonna of Solothurn” (1522) by Hans Holbein Jr. – this is one of the main masterpieces within the walls of the museum. In addition, here you can see the works of Kuno Amie, Meret Oppenheim and Jean Teangley.

Delight in a lot of interesting weaponry and other things at the Old Arsenalone of the largest weapons collections in Europe!

It’s going to be a real treat for males of all ages, but females will surely find the exhibitions highly interesting and impressive. The building of the Old Arsenal (Altes Zeughaus) reminds of those glorious days, when Solothurn was a well-known center for the deployment of hired soldiers, who fought, as a rule, against the French kings. All four floors of a massive building are now open to tourists to delight in a lot of interesting things, in particular, more than 400 weapons. For example, on the first floor in a row, powerful guns of different eras were lined up, and the second floor contains an excellent collection of muskets and rifles. Another floor above is an exhibition of armor, and the last, 4th floor – is all kinds of military suits of different armies and eras.

Admire incredible inner decoration at Jesuitenkirche (Jesuit Church)!

The temple is located just west of the cathedral along the Hauptgasse. The unattractive facade of this church hides the interior with a baroque decoration and stucco molding. In fact, all the “marble” here is fake – it’s just a tree and a plaster cast. Nonetheless, it’s unbelievable intricate and airy in its beauty.

The church was built by the decision of the Jesuit Henry Mayer in 1680-1689. The main facade is crowned by a statue of Johann Peter Frölicher from a local limestone. Inside the main altar, executed in 1704, and the painting “The Assumption of Our Lady” by Franz Karl Stauder catch the eye at first glance and draw your utmost attention.

Take a look at all 11 fountains of Solothurn!

Several really worthy of your attention and time fountains belong to the mystical number of 11 fountains of the city. Here you can see the fountain of St. Ursus (Sankt Ursen-Brunnen), created in 1545 (located on the Mareplatz square). On the Corinthian column in the center of the fountain there is a statue of Saint Urs in a Roman military garment with a banner, shield and sword. Also in Solothurn you can see the oldest Samson fountain (Samson Brunnen), which served as a model for similar fountains in other cities (1548), the Mauritius fountain at  the Ridholzplatz, the St. George fountain at Korplatz square (1547) and others : some more beautiful, some less intricate and some quite funny in an unexpected way.

For example, the Fountain of Justice is located slightly west of the clock tower. Gerechtigkeitsbrunnen was executed in 1561. It’s not known for certain, if it was meant as a joke, but, the sculpture group indeed causes a grin: Justice in the form of a strong woman with a blindfold, holding a sword in the air (in the right hand the sword, in the left, the weighed-scales), and the four most important figures of Europe of that time sit at her feet: Holy Roman Empire, in white and red clothes, at the right foot of Justice, then, counter-clockwise: Roman Pope, Turkish sultan and, surprisingly, Mayor of Solothurn.

Spend some quality time before Christmas!

This culturally rich city has a special charm during the Christmas season. The exhibition of the Solothurn «Ambassador crib», an ensemble of charming crib figures, is a delight to the eye and soul – and the idyllic «Chlausemärt» (St. Nicholas Christmas market) on the downtown cemetery space is yet another great attraction.

Here, on the oldest square of the city, around 70 beautifully decorated stalls sell beautiful Christmas gifts. Culinary delights are also well taken care of, whether with a cup of warming mulled wine or delicious grilled dishes. Contrary to this one, Solothurn «Weihnachtsmäret» (Christmas market) takes place on the outskirts of the city, but it’s not difficult to get there at any time.

Take part in other various events and celebrations!

All year in Solothurn there are many important events and festivals, in fact as almost everywhere in the country, but the most popular are the Days of Cinema, which are traditionally held in January. Next, in February-March there is Chessletethe carnival of Solothurn, when the townspeople in white clothes and torches are noisy and cheerfully escorting the winter, burning a scarecrow, participating in balls-masquerades.

In April 20 breweries celebrate Swiss beer culture during the Biertage (Beer days) which are held in the city, when local brewers invite everyone to try a freshly brewed drink.

In May, Solothurn hosts two major events: Bike Days and Literary Days – a forum of contemporary authors. Other popular city events are Solothurn Classics open air opera concerts in July, a sports walking holiday on the first Sunday of September and the Art Supermarket art market in November-January. At this time in Solothurn, you can see (and if you want – and purchase) more than 5 thousand works by young artists and recognized painters.

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