Switzerland · Travel

Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum – Where Buildings Speak

Heritage houses, Alpine music, rural handicrafts, agricultural tools, yesteryear farmhouses, kitchens, hay lofts, cellars and more.  If this piques your interest, Ballenberg is the place for you.  Located just about 20 minutes from Brienz town centre, Ballenberg is the only open-air museum in Switzerland.  Incidentally, it is also the largest museum in the country, spread over an area of 66 hectares and is a perfect place to visit if you want to soak in the essence of Swiss rural life.  With over 100 historic buildings and counting, it is a place where Swiss culture comes to life with not only its exhibits but also  special displays, guided workshops, performances and more. 

A view of Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum
A view of Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum
A heritage house at the Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum

Buildings: Preserved, Restored and Transported

The key highlight of the Ballenberg museum are its buildings, about 110 of them that have been meticulously moved here while retaining their original structure and features. These houses, which were on the verge of demolition as a result of the construction boom that the country witnessed starting from the 1960s, showcase different regional building styles of Switzerland.

A heritage house at the Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum

The buildings document distinct architectural features and provide insights into the building styles, materials, climate and economic considerations of each region.  While wood was the main material of construction in the alpine region, stone was used in the Ticino and western regions of Switzerland.  It is interesting to note that during those times stone was a symbol of power and aristocracy which explains why government buildings were crafted in stone. 

Yesteryear buildings at the Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum

Wood was considered a material for the poor and buildings often housed people and animals together and thus were divided into the house portion, granary and barn.  So, in the museum you can find houses from regions across the country including the Jura, Central Midlands, Bernese Midlands, Valais, Bernese Oberland and Alpine among others and the same are distributed across 13 distinct zones within the museum.

Apart from the main architectural details, it is a revelation to note that during those days’ little things like decorated door latches, painted window shutters and artistic door jambs were symbols of wealth and indicated economic prosperity. 

Inside Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum
Inside Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum

Engaging Display Inside the Houses

It is interesting to note that each of the houses is filled with artefacts that give visitors an insight into the tangible and intangible culture of rustic Swiss life.  While some of the buildings house traditional Swiss dresses, festive costumes and musical instruments others showcase agricultural and vocational tools. 

Inside Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum

Hat making, basket making, silk production and carpentry were common professions during those days.  Furniture, kitchen equipment as well as cowsheds, pig sties and barns depict family and social life during the days of the yore.  There is also information on the kinds of native animals that were reared apart from cows and this includes Swiss White Alpine sheep, Tessin Grey Goat, Valais Blackneck goats and Appenzell goat amongst others.  They were reared for their milk, meat, wool etc. 

Traditional Swiss crafts inside Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum

Activities aplenty

Apart from the houses and its displays, visitors can attend several live sessions that keep happening in the museum.  These include bread making, crocheting, wood carving, sawing, cheesemaking, shingle making and the like.  Visitors can also view experts hand weave on traditional looms and also buy handmade Swiss souvenirs like table runners, cushion covers, napkins etc.   The annual theme this year is sports and games in Switzerland where visitors including children are encouraged to know about traditional games like bowling and other street games that were played in the countryside, at village festivals and on leisurely Sundays. 

A musical performance inside Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum
Souvenirs inside Ballenberg, Swiss Open-Air Museum

The museum is open from April to October each year and it is recommended to book your tickets online in advance.  Further, it is good to check the daily schedule of events on their website including the venue and timings so that you can make most of your visit.

The museum is about 100 km from Zurich and is easily reachable by road, bus or train.

Another version of this article was published in The New Indian Express.

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