Bern was founded in 1191 on a steep-sided peninsula in a crook of the fast-flowing River Aare. Although it is German-speaking, it is only around 30km east of Switzerland's invisible language border, beyond which French is the principal language. This tiny city of 130,000 people is the home of the federal government. Its main attraction is its almost perfectly preserved 16th-century old town, still the commercial heart of the city to this day.
Transport links to Bern from elsewhere in the country are excellent: trains run direct every half hour from both Zurich airport (journey time is 1hr 15mins) and Geneva airport (1hr 50mins). The fare on either route is Sfr49 (£21.75). From Basel airport, take bus 50 to the main station, from where trains speed on to Bern in less than an hour for Sfr39.80 (£17.70). Alternatively, Bern has a tiny airport of its own, to which Darwin Airlines (00 41 800 177 177; www.darwin-airline.ch) has recently begun operating flights direct from London City.
Bern's tourist office (00 41 31 328 12 12; www.BernInfo.com) is in the main railway station, open all week 9am-8.30pm (June to September), and the rest of the year 9am-6.30pm Monday to Saturday and 10am-5pm on Sunday. Bern city centre is small and attractive enough to make walking the best way to get around, but there is also a comprehensive network of buses and trams. The BernCard gives free public transport, admission to a host of museums and other benefits; it costs from Sfr17 (£7.55) for 24 hours.
In the heart of the old town is the Hotel Belle Epoque, Gerechtigkeitsgasse 18 (00 41 31 311 43 36; www.belle-epoque.ch), a four-star hotel kitted out in authentic Art Nouveau style with spacious rooms; doubles from Sfr280 (£124) including breakfast. In a similar vein is the Innere Enge, Engestrasse 54 (00 41 31 309 61 11; www.zghotels.ch), a fine old building on the edge of the city - five minutes by bus from the centre - which hosted Napoleon's Josephine in 1810. Breakfast is served in the octagonal Park Pavilion, but is excluded from the double-room rate, which starts at Sfr260 (£115).
Kreuz, Zeughausgasse 41 (00 41 31 329 95 95; www.hotelkreuz-bern.ch), is a mid-range hotel that benefits from an excellent location in the old town; rates start from Sfr170 (£75) including breakfast. In a similarly good location is the historic Landhaus, Altenbergstrasse 4 (00 41 31 331 41 66; www.landhausbern.ch). Some rooms have floor-to-ceiling windows. En-suite doubles cost around Sfr140 (£62).
It's hard to think of a more beautiful and relaxing capital. This is the most immediately charming of all Swiss cities: its quiet, cobbled lanes, lined with arcaded buildings, have changed barely at all in the last 500 years, but for the adornment of shop signs and the odd tram rattling past. The hills all around, and the steep banks of the River Aare, are still liberally wooded. Views, both of the old town and the nearby Alps, are breathtaking.
Despite its political status, Bern retains a small town's easy approach to life. The attraction is its ambience; traffic is kept out of the old town, and you could spend days just wandering the streets, café-hopping and window-shopping. The western half of the old town, around Marktgasse and Spitalgasse is bustling with commerce; the older, eastern streets are gentler and slower-paced. This perfectly preserved medieval street plan prompted UNESCO to award Bern World Heritage status.
The main station's tourist office organises an excellent guided stroll through the beautiful old town. It runs daily, June to September, at 2.30pm from the office, and lasts for an hour and a half, for Sfr15 (£6.60).
Towering above Bern's old town is the spire of the late-Gothic Münster - at 100m, the highest in Switzerland. Bern was an early convert to the Reformation, and although most of the church treasures were destroyed around 1528, some notable pieces survived - principally the extravagant sculptural depiction of the Last Judgement that adorns the main portal of the cathedral. This is one of the only remaining unified examples of late-Gothic sculpture in Europe, and shows in graphic detail the saved on the left, beatifically smiling, and the damned on the right, naked and howling in torment.
Two of Bern's most famous sons are 20th-century icons - and both have special celebrations planned this year. Albert Einstein lived in Bern as a young man, from 1902 to 1909. In 1905 he came up with his Special Theory of Relativity and E=mc 2. This year the city is holding a series of centenary celebrations. Einstein's home at Kramgasse 49 is now a museum, open daily from 10am-7pm (00 41 31 312 00 91; www.einstein-bern.ch). Admission is Sfr6 (£2.60). The Historical Museum of Bern, Helvetiaplatz 5 (00 41 31 350 77 11; www.einstein-expo.ch) is staging a show called "Meeting Einstein - Experiencing Physics", from 16 June to next Easter. Admission is Sfr24 (£10.40).
The city's other iconic figure is the artist Paul Klee, who was born near Bern in 1879, and spent a good portion of his life in the city. Currently going up in an eastern suburb is the Paul Klee Centre, a stunning new museum (00 41 31 359 01 01; www.zpk.org) designed in three distinctive wave-like forms by the architect Renzo Piano to house more than 4000 Klee works. After its inauguration on 20 June, the museum will be open 10am-5pm daily (to 9pm on Thursdays). Admission is Sfr14 (£6.10).
FIVE FOR FOOD AND DRINK
Altes Tramdepot at Grosser Muristalden 6 (00 41 31 368 14 15; www.altestramdepot.ch) marks the eastern end of the city centre and is both a microbrewery and a restaurant. Its three house brews are extremely drinkable. The food is solid Bernese, Viennese and Bavarian fare, heavy on game, sausages and rich desserts.
Blauer Engel at Seidenweg 9b (00 41 31 302 32 33) is a cosy, alternative-minded restaurant/café featuring objets trouvés, gilt mirrors, candles and a crowd of young, arty regulars creating a seductive atmosphere.
Tibits at Bahnhofplatz 10 (00 41 31 312 91 11; www.tibits.ch), back in the centre, is great for a snack. Its mouth-watering array of soups, salads, juices and sandwiches are all made from fresh, local ingredients.
The Kornhauskeller at Kornhausplatz 18a (00 41 31 327 72 72; www.kornhauskeller.ch) occupies the vaulted cellars beneath the former city granary - a stunning, formal setting for Mediterranean-style cuisine with live cocktail jazz.
The Lorenzini, Hotelgasse 10 (00 41 31 318 50 67; www.lorenzini.ch), is nearby and attracts high-flying young professionals to its linked series of cool café/bars; upstairs is one of Bern's best Italian restaurants, serving classic Tuscan cuisine for upwards of Sfr70 (£31) a head.
SWISS TEASE: REGIONAL HIGHLIGHTS
Bern is set in the heart of Switzerland, with a welter of attractive sites all around. A short train ride west, perched in the Jura hills above the lakeside city of Neuchâtel, is the modest town of La Chaux-de-Fonds.
This quiet place was once the hub of the Swiss watchmaking industry in the 18th and 19th centuries. Few historic buildings survive: the town was burned to the ground in 1794, and rebuilt on a grid system.
Set back from the centre is the award-winning Musée International d'Horlogerie, with hundreds of items on display that trace the art of keeping time.
La Chaux-de-Fonds' most famous son is the architect Le Corbusier, who was born in the town in 1887. Several of his early buildings are still visitable here, including the elegant Mediterranean-style Villa Schwob, also known as Villa Turque, built in 1917.
Musée International d'Horlogerie, Rue des Musées 29 (00 41 32 967 68 61; www.mih.ch). Open 10am-6pm daily except Monday; Sfr8 (£3.50). Villa Turque, 167 Rue du Doubs (00 41 32 912 31 23). Open first & last Saturday of each month 11am-4pm, or by appointment. Free.
South of Bern lies the grand Alpine heart of Switzerland, a massively impressive region of classic Swiss scenery - high peaks, sheer valleys and cool lakes. Barely 20 minutes south of Bern by train is the picturesque town of Thun (pronounced toon), set on the Thunersee lake.
The River Aare flows north out of the lake, dividing Thun. On the right bank, the low-lying old town is renowned for the arcading of its main street, Hauptgasse; steps lead up from the street to the fairytale turreted castle of 1190, which looms above. A short walk east is the waterfront Kunstmuseum, which stages exhibitions of modern art. In the lakeside Schadau Park, an odd cylindrical building houses the Wocher Panorama, a giant painting running around the interior wall depicting the daily life of Thun circa 1810.
Thunersee is one of Switzerland's more beautiful Alpine lakes and boats run frequently all down the lake, a great way to get a flavour of this rugged mountain environment. Views from the water of the pyramidal Niesen (2,362m) and flat-topped Stockhorn (2,190m) - which both rise just beside the lake - as well as the snow-capped Alpine giants further south, are stunning.
Kunstmuseum Thun, Hofstettenstrasse 14 (00 41 33 225 84 20; www.kunstmuseumthun.ch). Open 10am-5pm daily (Wednesday until 9pm); Sfr8 (£3.50). Wocher Panorama, Schadau Park (00 41 33 223 2462). Open 10am-5pm daily except Monday, admission free.
At the southern end of the Thunersee, and easily reached by train from Bern and Lucerne, Interlaken is the gateway to the high Alps. The focal point of the Bernese Oberland region, it's a busy little place and is famed for its superb views towards the triple-peaked massif of the Jungfrau (4,158m), the Mönch (4,099m) and the Eiger (3,970m), perfectly framed between two hills to the south of town.
Interlaken stands at the hub of a scenic network of mountain trains, cable-cars and funiculars. One of the best climbs is from nearby Wilderswil up to the eyrie of Schynige Platte, at 2,000m. From the top station, the Panoramaweg footpath follows a two-hour circuit of the summit ridge, including, at the halfway point, an unforgettable panoramic view taking in the full sweep of lakes and mountains.
South of Interlaken lies the Lauterbrunnen Valley, the world's deepest U-shaped valley. It is utterly spectacular, with bluffs on either side rising 1,000m sheer, doused by 72 waterfalls. Trains from Lauterbrunnen clank up the cliffside to the Alpine resort of Wengen, and on up to the highest train station in Europe, Jungfraujoch, while cable-cars climb the opposite side to Mürren up to the equally impressive Schilthorn (2,970m).Reuse content