I’d only been in Bern for five minutes before I reached my conclusion – Switzerland has the quaintest capital city of any major country I have visited. There are some cute capitals in Europe. Luxembourg, San Marino and Andorra are all picture perfect. But there’s usually fast roads, tower blocks and urban sprawl around key cities in larger countries. Not here. And Nicole Schaffner of Bern Tourism told me it’s not going to happen.
“Bern’s Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site and has been since 1983. It’s still full of mediaeval architecture,” she explained. That status means city planners have preserved Bern’s appearance. I’m glad that they have. The city’s setting is stunning, built on leafy hills sloping down to the teal coloured River Aare, which ribbons around the Old Town. The historic centre is a hill-top peninsular, surrounded by the fast-flowing waters on three sides.
Bern hasn’t been the Swiss capital for very long. Switzerland is a complicated country and its people speak one or more of four official languages – German, French, Italian and Romansh. Tour guide Beatrice Dähler explained that Bern was picked as the seat of the parliament to avoid any accusations of bias.
“Bern became the capital in 1848. The main reason was, at that time, more than 50% of the population spoke French. The French-speaking part and the Italian-speaking part voted for Bern and that’s why it became the capital, despite the fact that Zurich had wanted the role,” she said.
The Edwardian-era parliament building, the Federal Palace, is impressive. The pillars on its facade give it the appearance of a Greek temple. A green dome rises 64m above the plaza outside. Two smaller domes on either side balance the structure.
Central Bern’s cobbled streets are lined with continuous blocks of five-storey tall sandstone buildings. The local stone has a sage-coloured tinge. At street level, the pavements run along open sided arcades. This series of archways protect shoppers from the elements. “We are famous for our arcades,” Nicole told me during lunch. “They are 6km long and run all over the city. If you want to go shopping you don’t need to take an umbrella with you if it rains. It’s also nice to walk in the shade when it is really sunny,” she added.
I found Bern to be a vibrant place and as I strolled along these arcades, musicians played classical pieces. And I even stumbled upon a woman playing an Alpine horn!
There’s plenty of colour from balcony window boxes and a sea of flags, draped from the first floors of buildings. You’ll see the red and white cross of Switzerland and a red and yellow one with a black bear motif.
In fact you’ll see a lot of bears. Bern’s name itself comes from the word ‘bear’. “A lot of restaurants are called The Bear,” Nicole told me. “We have many souvenirs in the shape of bears too, like soaps or chocolates.” Cafés in Bern sell almond flavoured, bear-shaped biscuits called Mandelbärli.
After a while, you’ll start seeing bears everywhere in Bern. As I stood on the terraces looking down to the river and weir, I thought I’d seen one on the loose! It was actually a bear sculpture next to the water’s edge.
I was keen to find out why this Swiss city appears so bear-obsessed. “The founder of the city went on a shoot,” Nicole began. I sensed that she’d told the story dozens of times. “The hunter said that the first animal that he shot would be the town’s heraldic animal and that the settlement would take the animal’s name. He returned telling people he shot a bear – although some people say this is a lie because the first animal that he shot was in fact a rabbit,” she laughed. And because of this folklore, there have been bears in Bern for centuries.
Across the river from the Old Town the crowds pack up against a railing, looking down from a hillside terrace onto an enclosure, which is home to three bears. “The Bernese won the battle of Navarre against the French,” said Nicole. “They took two bears with them and put them in front of the prison tower. It was the first bear pit. We’ve had bears ever since then, except when Napoleon left the city at the end of 18th-century and the troops took the bears with them.” There are more bears at the city zoo.
More famous than Bern’s bears is Switzerland’s timekeeping reputation and you can’t be late for Bern’s most popular free attraction. The chunky clock tower, topped off by a green, needle-like spire, has stood at the centre of town for 800 years. I’d arranged a tour with expert guide Beatrice, for a special insight into this mechanical marvel. As you stand outside the clock tower, you’ll notice crowds gathering to stare at the clock faces. There’s more than one clock. One is a regular clock, the other is an astronomical clock and displays sunrise and sunset times. When you look up, you’ll see a collection of different mechanical figures move out and put on a show. It delights onlookers.
Beatrice guided me through the complicated sequence. “In the middle we have Chronos, the god of time,” Beatrice enthused. “He’s holding an hourglass and a sceptre. Above him we have a red jester with the two bells and beneath him are seven bears. They are the city guardians. On the right side there is a golden lion and to the left side is a golden rooster. Three-and-a-half minutes before the hour the rooster crows and lifts his wings. Then, one minute passes and after that the jester strikes the hour. He does it too early. That’s because he is a jester. The bears then turn around. If it is 4 o’clock they turn around four times. Afterwards, the rooster crows a second time. A golden man then strikes the full hour and Chronos is seen counting. You see him open and close his mouth. At the very end the rooster crows again. This happens day and night – as long as somebody has wound it up!” said Beatrice. The best time to view the sequence is 10, 11 or 12 o’clock.
I was treated to a look inside the clock tower to view the intricate mediaeval mechanism. You can only enter the tower if you have pre-booked a guided tour with Beatrice or one of her colleagues, which you can do that through Bern Tourism. As we climbed to the top floor, the stairs became narrower at each level.
We then entered a room filled with ‘Heath Robinson’ style pulleys, levers, cogs and dials. The mechanism was large. As the minute hand edged nearer to the hour Beatrice grabbed a baton and, almost like an orchestra conductor, pointed to different parts of the mechanism, offering a description of what was about to happen seconds before each part whirred into life. She directed me to the bellows in the far corner of the room. At the right moment, a weight fell on a lever that squeezed air out of the bellows to make the rooster crow.
It was one of the most incredible and technically complicated sequences I’ve ever witnessed and I was stunned to learn that it was devised 500 years ago. As a final treat, Beatrice opened the clock tower shutters to reveal the incredible view over the city’s red tiled roofs, the river bend and the Alps in the distance.
I was told that I should feel relaxed after a few days in Bern. In a country that has a reputation for being a bit ’up-tight’, the Bernese are proud of their chilled approach to life. “You immediately slow down because the city is famous for that,” said Nicole. “Swiss people make fun of the Bernese. They take their time for the good things in life. Bern is more relaxed than Geneva or Zürich.”
As Bern is the Swiss capital, there are embassies and parliamentarians here, so you’d expect a high standard of dining options and stylish bars. The Hotel Allegro offers both. Their rooftop restaurants treat diners to incredible views across the river and Old Town. In the summer the top floor is transformed into a pop-up bar where you can enjoy a drink at sunset and admire the twinkling city lights. The hotel is also home to a casino, the biggest in Switzerland. I enjoyed my stay at the Allegro. It is just five minutes walk from the centre of town on the opposite side of the Kornhausbrücke Bridge, with its high arches that span the river and valley below.
The Viktoria quarter is on the hotel side of the river. Here you’ll find a hip district of bars including one in a converted fire station. There’s a stylish craft brewer too, called Barbiere.
Cross the bridge back into town and, if you’ve got good directions, you’ll find the most incredible restaurant. You enter the Kornhauskeller by walking down a staircase from street level. At the bottom of the steps is a vast underground dining space where tables are laid out under the 20-foot high, vaulted ceiling. The upper space is decorated with friezes and the wood panelled walls and leather sofas give the restaurant a stately feel, like a banqueting hall. It’s hidden location, below street level, makes it feel excitingly secret. “Kornhauskeller means granary,” Nicole told me. “It used to be a place where they stored food and also wine. A famous painter decorated the walls in the 18th century and the artwork displays different dresses and traditional clothes of Switzerland.” The restaurant is popular with locals.
Bern isn’t as expensive as many other Swiss towns and you can find good, affordable food around the Länggassstrasse. This district, ten minutes walk from town, appears quite well heeled for a student district. If you’re in Bern at the weekend, the farmer’s market is a must. Its stalls line the Old Town’s streets. You can get great cheeses, meats, olives, breads and wines cheaply.
Bernese residents, whether rich or poor, spend their summertime in and around the river. I followed families carrying beer coolers and rubber rings down to the water’s edge. There’s a small funicular railway that carries you up and down on a two-minute ride along the steep hill from the parliament building, to a large outdoor swimming pool complex in parkland next to the River Aare. The water park was packed and I could see why – a digital display announced the temperature was 20°C.
I stood on the riverbank for ten minutes and, in that time, literally hundreds of people swept past me, carried on the conveyor belt-like current. Some of them were swimming alone, some floated past in groups, laughing and chatting.
Bernese people have always congregate around water. Beatrice took me on a tour of the ornate fountains, which stand in the middle of the city’s streets. The water from the fountains is perfectly safe to drink and you do see locals filling up bottles. These water features are ornately decorated.
“We have eleven historic fountains. Each one has a statue on top and they were made around 1540,” she told me. The statue of an ogre consuming a child, head first, gets the most attention. “It is the only one that we’re really uncertain about,” Beatrice told me. “One interpretation is that it is just a carnival figure. Another suggestion is that it’s to warn children. Because there was no bridge in the past, mothers told their children that the river could ‘take them’ if they didn’t behave.”
Next to another fountain and trough you’ll find a stone pulpit faced with rows of seats. That is Bern’s version of Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park.
You might expect life to be serious in the city from which Switzerland is governed, but Bernese people have a sense of humour. Beatrice pointed out some five-franc coins on the pavement. As I bent down, a jet of water squirted me from the first floor of an adjacent building. Apparently all tourists fall for it!
Over the years, new discoveries made in Bern have changed lives all over the world. And I wasn’t thinking of the locals who came up with the formula for Toblerone or Lindt chocolate. Bern’s biggest claim to fame is that the German-born scientist Einstein made his groundbreaking discoveries when he was living in the city. “It was here that he revealed his famous theory of relativity,” Nicole told me. “You’re still able to see his former apartment. It’s called the Einstein House,” she added. It’s now a museum where you can see a film about his life. There’s also period furniture from when he used to live there, including the original desk from the patent office where he worked.
Einstein’s work changed the way we understand light and time. And it has made a real impact on technology that we now take for granted. For example, without his theory, GPS, which uses satellites, would be unable to offer real-time tracking.
The Einstein Museum houses a large collection of the scientist’s personal documents and photographs so you can get a complete overview of his life. It’s impressive and there’s an iconic image of Einstein projected along the walls and ceiling of the circular staircase as you enter the exhibition.
During my tour, I learned that Einstein wasn’t the studious, work-obsessed character I had expected. He was passionate about music and enjoyed socialising. I had assumed that Einstein was a bit of an antisocial geek but when you see photographs of the young scientist without the hallmark crazy unkempt hair he appears quite normal and unremarkable.
The Swiss Alpine Museum is just across the road and is also worth a visit. It’s not all ‘cowbells and edelweiss’ either! It’s really thought provoking and tackles some of the challenges affecting mountain communities. A section on climate change imagines how Alpine life will be in the middle of this century, when many ski resorts might be without snow.
If you stay overnight in Bern you are given a card that allows you to use all public transportation within the city for free. You can also use it to get to the airport. The Bern Ticket also gives you a free pass to the funicular railways – tourist attractions in their own right. One of these trains climbs the Gutern Mountain, the highest spot around the town. You can reach the base station in one of Bern’s affluent suburbs by taking a 15-minute tram ride from the central station.
Ten minutes later, your funicular railway car will glide up through woods and then meadows to the 858m summit of the mountain. At the top, if the weather is clear, you’ll enjoy a fantastic view of the Alps and if you really want the best possible vantage point, there’s what looks like a wooden lighthouse – an 80ft viewing tower to climb. There are restaurants, bars and a kids’ playground at the top.
Nearer town, I climbed another steep hill to take in the scenery and sweet smells at sunset. Bern’s Rose Garden is home to over 200 rose varieties. It’s quite a hike up there but it’s worth it and you can dine in a restaurant overlooking the river bend below.
I stayed at Bern’s Hotel Allegro. It is a stylish, spacious hotel with comfortable rooms. The heart of the hotel is its three-floor atrium with glass lifts. Outside, it has landscaped gardens, which provide a great place to unwind and have a drink. It’s like a small, urban water park with sculptures and bridges over ponds filled with koi carp.
Bern was a fantastic discovery – an attractive city with interesting museums. But it’s also a relaxed place, which was surprising since clockwatching plays such a part in local life. I saw one sight that summed up the mood of the city – a swimmer wafting past in the fast flowing river, reading from a waterproofed Kindle! You can’t get more chilled than that!
You can take a 90-minute direct flight to Bern from London City Airport but it’s cheaper taking a plane to Zurich and catching the train for the 75-minute journey to the Swiss capital.