Tower in Bern

Berna, Torre Dell’orologio
CC BY-SA 3.0 / Maksym Kozlenko

The Käfigturm is a Baroque tower in Bern, Switzerland. It is part of the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site of the Old City of Bern and is recognized as a Cultural Property of National Significance. The original tower was constructed as a gatehouse during Bern’s second expansion in 1256 but was demolished and completely rebuilt in 1640.

History of the Käfigturm

The first tower on the site of the current Käfigturm was built in 1256 during Bern’s second expansion. Bern had extended westward along the Aare peninsula since the construction of the Zytglogge tower and the initial city walls. In 1255, a second set of walls began construction, necessitating a new gatehouse. The new tower, similar to the Zytglogge, was a hollow square with a partially open back and a small flat platform at the top.

Following Bern’s third city expansion in 1345, the tower served as a second line of defense. In 1405, a fire destroyed much of Bern, prompting the relocation of the town’s prison from the Zytglogge to the Käfigturm, then known as the “nüwe kefyen.” This name was shortened to “kebie,” eventually leading to the name Käfigturm (literally “cage” or “jail tower”). By 1433, the tower also functioned as a watch and signal tower. Modifications over the years included the addition of niches, merlons, and a hip roof.

In 1638, a commission was appointed to replace the dilapidated Mannenkefi tower. The old tower was demolished in 1640, and the town council approved new plans in 1641. Construction began in 1642 under Antoni Graber, following the death of co-chief builder Joseph Plepp. By 1644, most of the interior work was finished.

During the planning phase, it was determined that the new Käfigturm would not be large enough to consolidate several prisons around Bern. In 1641, the town council acquired a nearby house, which was rebuilt as part of the prison by Antoni Graber. By 1644, the interior work on the house was completed by Niclaus Bovet.

In the winter of 1690-91, modifications included the addition of clock faces on the front and back of the tower. The bell currently in the tower was added in 1643, sourced from war booty near Vesoul during the Thirty Years’ War. Automatic bell-ringing mechanisms were installed in 1691-92.

The tower underwent minimal changes over the centuries. The attached house was renovated and expanded between 1794 and 1805. The west facade was renovated in 1903 and 1933, and the east facade in 1906. To alleviate traffic congestion, a second walkway was added in 1886, and a large gate was built through the ground floor cell block in 1902-03. The tower transitioned to an archive for state records after prisoners were relocated in 1897.

In 1976, a total renovation was approved, transforming the tower into an information and exhibition center, which opened in 1980. It later served as a commercial library and exhibition space before becoming a meeting place for the Polit-Forum of the Confederation.

Tower Site

The tower is a square structure with 9.8 m (32 ft) sides. The portal through the tower is 5 m (16 ft) wide, and the base is 2.5 m (8.2 ft) thick. The roof is 23.2 m (76 ft) above the street, and the pennant at the top reaches 49 m (161 ft). Most of the tower is built from sandstone and features five early Baroque towers. The central tower is larger but matches the design of the four smaller towers, each with rectangular windows, a copper-plated pointed roof, and a pennant. The clockworks are housed in the attic floor of the tower.

On the east side, a three-sided stair house, added in 1903, connects the tower to a neighboring building. The adjacent building, originally a prison, was renovated in 1805-06, with a portal added in 1903.

The Käfigturm appears in our Complete Guide to Visiting Bern!

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Visiting Käfigturm

Address: Käfigturm, Marktgasse, Bern, Switzerland
Duration: 20 minutes

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