Duke Berchtold V did Bern a great favour in 1191 when he chose an easily defensible peninsula of the River Aare as the site for what became Switzerland's capital. Water is an asset to any city, but the walk beside the Aare and through the trendy waterside district of Matte - once the artisans' quarter - is one of the great pleasures of a visit. On the hill above, the city's 11 fountains have become emblematic of Bern. So too is the Clock Tower with its astronomical display and procession of mechanical figures, including bears - the other celebrated symbol of the Swiss capital. Amble through the cobbled streets of the old town with their harmonious rows of four- and five-storey houses in pale grey-green sandstone; it will become crystal-clear why this medieval jewel is a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Accommodation

The bar and restaurant terrace of Bern's only five-star hotel, the Bellevue Palace at Kochergasse 3-5 (00 41 31 320 45 45; www.bellevue-palace.ch), has a spectacular panorama, and its recent refurbishment combines the 19th-century elegance of its public rooms with more modern bedrooms. Doubles from SFr350 (£156).

There's a Parisian air about Hotel Belle Epoque (00 41 31 311 43 36; www.belle-epoque.ch) at Gerechtigkeitsgasse 18 with its imaginatively styled rooms and art nouveau decor. Doubles from SFr280 (£125).

In a quiet location within walking distance of the railway station at Belpstrasse 43 is the modern Hotel La Pergola (00 41 31 941 43 43; www.hotel-lapergola.ch), which has two electric bicycles for free use by guests. Weekend doubles from SFr150 (£70).

Culture

As Switzerland's capital, Bern enjoys a cultural life far richer than its population of 300,000 would suggest. The latest addition to the city's 27 museums is the Zentrum Paul Klee (00 41 31 359 01 01; www.zpk.org), an audacious new gallery and chamber-concert hall designed by Renzo Piano which emerges from a hillside. It holds the world's largest collection of Klee's work which is shown on a rotating basis, along with special exhibitions in a second gallery.

Around Helvetiaplatz at the southern end of Kirchenfeldbrücke is the Historical Museum of Bern; the Art Gallery (00 41 31 350 00 40; www.kunsthallebern.ch) with changing exhibitions; and the Swiss Alpine Museum (00 41 31 350 04 40; www.alpinesmuseum.ch), which provides a fascinating introduction to 21st-century environmental predicaments as well as the history, flora and fauna of the Alps. The Museum of Fine Arts (00 41 31 328 09 44; www.kunstmuseumbern.ch) at Hodlerstrasse 8-12 has paintings from Fra Angelico to Rothko. Other museums are devoted to natural history, communications, psychiatry, textiles, ancient sculpture, theatre, rifles and hunting, and even the Salvation Army, which began its work in Switzerland in 1882.

The top club for jazz is Marians Jazzroom (00 41 31 309 61 11; www.mariansjazzroom.ch), which has an intimate lounge for the concerts at 7.45pm and 10pm. Booking is recommended. For three floors combining dance floors, lounge and bar, try Liquid (00 41 31 951 98 26; www.liquid-bern.ch) at Genfergasse 10.

Eating and drinking

After admiring the revolving figures on the Clock Tower at midday, it's time for lunch, and only a few steps away is one of Bern's best: Restaurant Harmonie (00 41 31 313 11 41; www.harmonie.ch). It has been family-run since 1915 and has a delightful period feel. It serves such dishes as asparagus vol-au-vent and veal in Madeira as well as traditional fondue and rösti. Equally traditional is the Schwellenmätteli Restaurant (00 41 31 350 50 01; www.schwellenmaetteli.ch) beside the River Aare beneath the Kirchenfeldbrücke, which serves Italian dishes such as gorgonzola and mushroom risotto.

For a pre-prandial beer brewed on the premises, try the Altes Tramdepot (00 41 31 368 14 15; www.altestramdepot.ch) at the east end of Nydeggbrücke near the bear pits (which are being enlarged). With a terrace overlooking the river, it's a good place to watch the sun set over the old city and you can eat there too. Don't miss having at least a coffee and cake at the Kornhauscafé (00 41 31 327 72 72; www.kornhaus.org) at Kornhausplatz 18, located in the vast arcades of an 18th-century grain store. Below, in the even more atmospheric cellars, is a restaurant and bar.

Shopping

Even those who dislike shopping will find it a pleasure to saunter through Bern's covered arcades that separate the street from the shop fronts. The small size of the shops has largely excluded shopping chains from the centre.

On the first Saturday of the month from March to December, there is a craft market on the terrace beside the 15th-century cathedral. Mühleplatz in the Matte by the river hosts a flea market on the third Saturday of May to October.

Events

One of the most important jazz events, the 31st Bern International Jazz Festival is currently underway, and running to 27 May. It features top stars from the worlds of jazz, blues, gospel and Latin. BEA Nights (28-29 April, 4-6 May) offers a range of rock, soul, and funk and features the likes of Alan Parsons Live Project, Jethro Tull and Barclay James Harvest.

If you fancy some exercise while in Bern, you could book to take part in the 25th mini-marathon on 13 May ( www.gpbern.ch). Last year 22,000 people took part in the Bern Grand Prix through the lovely streets with groups of musicians adding to the atmosphere. The booking deadline is 22 April.

People come from all over the world to take part in the workshops of the Bern Dance Festival from 7-17 June and to give displays of their country's dance styles. The festival involves bars, restaurants, theatres and concert halls.

For more information, contact Bern Tourism (00 41 31 328 12 12; www.BernInfo.com)

The home of Relativity

The world's most famous scientist lived in many places, but it was while living in Bern between 1902 and 1909 that he had the annus mirabilis that distinguished his entire career.

In 1905 Albert Einstein formulated the Theory of Relativity, created the formula E=mc 2, furnished the first proof for the existence of the atom and laid one of the foundations for Quantum Theory. The significance of these discoveries and the often turbulent social life of the genius are brilliantly portrayed in a visually appealing exhibition at the Historical Museum of Bern. It has proved so popular, attracting over 165,000 visitors in six months, that it has been prolonged to 15 October. The exhibition has many interactive displays, and the outside Physics Park has been enthralling young and old with its working demonstrations of machines that embody the principles of Einstein's theories. An English commentary is available on iPod, though the text throughout the exhibition appears in English.

In the heart of the old town is the Einstein House where the great man lived in a second-floor flat and penned the five scientific papers on which his fame rested, one of which won him the Nobel Prize in 1921. It was here that his recently married wife, the Serbian Mileva Maric, gave birth to a son, Hans Albert, who was later to become a professor of hydraulics at Berkeley in California.

Historical Museum of Bern, Helvetiaplatz 5 (00 41 31 350 77 11; www.einstein-ausstellung.ch). Einstein House, Kramgasse 49 (00 41 31 312 00 91; www.einstein-bern.ch)

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